Explaining Tough Stuff in the Bible: Genesis 22

If anyone tried to do what Abraham did today, we would obviously call him a religious nutcase.  Nor do we have to stretch our imaginations to look for people who think that God has asked them to kill someone.  We see it on the news quite frequently.  So what are we to do with such a difficult passage?

A few weeks ago we had the very famous Genesis 22 reading of God testing Abraham.  It came immediately after the feast of the Sacred Heart, which prompted me to starting thinking about the connection between the two.  Ultimately, I believe, the point of the legend of Abraham for us and for Israel’s readers was not that Abraham was the perfect example of faith, but rather than Abraham was a primitive example of the rocky path of salvation history.  Nor does this downplay Abraham at all.  Within his context, knowing nothing other than common religious practice around him, he thought he knew what God wanted.  And he got it wrong.  Yet we, as did Israel for many centuries, can still learn much from the example of Abraham.

It seems to me, with passages like this one, we have to make certain interpretive decisions.  Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son has always been held up as a paradigm of faith.  However, if we take the notion of salvation history seriously, it seems to me that we need to be pretty careful here.  It seems there are at least two ways to read some of these difficult passages in the Old Testament.  First, we can read them as God slowly revealing himself to his people in the same way that a child slowly grows in his understanding of, say, mathematics.  The Old Testament is God teaching his people addition, subtraction, division, etc.  I have often heard the OT described this way to me.  With Jesus, we have the calculus, but God had to reveal himself to his people slowly, and so he taught them slowly, starting with easy stuff and moving towards the full revelation.

Now I definitely agree that this is true:  in the Old Testament God slowly revealed himself over time until finally he fully revealed himself in Christ.  However, it seems to me that the incompleteness of the OT is not entirely on God’s part; the reality of contextual reception also comes into play.  Israel often received God’s revelation of himself imperfectly, just as we often do.  God intends one thing, and we think we hear something else.  What still makes the OT inspired literature?  The fact that, despite the incomplete revelation and the imperfect reception, God was able to slowly prepare his people for the full revelation of his Son.

In light of this, I can’t help but read Genesis 22 as an example of imperfect reception that God used to make a further point about himself.  Is Abraham a paramount example of faith in this story?  Well, maybe more a paramount example of zeal.  The difference is that faith is a kind of knowledge requiring trust in the accurate self-revelation of the other.  Faith knows something about God.  Zeal says something about us.  In this case, Abraham gets God wrong.  God does not ask people to kill their kids to prove their love.  Now we know that, in the light of the full context of revelation.  Abraham, coming before the Ten Commandments and living in a culture of child sacrifice, did not.  And so he erred in the reception of God’s self-communication.

The question of the point of the story then shifts direction.  Is the point that Abraham had great faith that we should all imitate?  Or is the point that the kind of sacrifice that God wants is not of our children but of our heart, our will?  I think the latter is the main point of this story, which is what connects it for me to the Feast of the Sacred Heart.  Abraham, imperfectly understanding what God was asking of him, became the occasion for further revelation on God’s part, which is precisely how salvation history works.  What did God actually ask Abraham to do?  I don’t know.  I do feel pretty confident that he didn’t ask him to kill his son.  And I’m also pretty sure that the redactors of Genesis did not include this legend of Abraham in order to show that sometimes God asks us to do things that we know are wrong and we need to prove our love by doing them.  Rather, they included the legend of Abraham and Isaac to remind Israel in their own context that God hates child sacrifice (a regular temptation for Israel even up until the Exile).  The sacrifice God requires is of the human heart.

The legend of Abraham is a first faltering, imperfect, incomplete step.  I can’t accept with Kierkegaard that it represents some kind of perfect example of faith beyond morality.  I think the answer is simpler:  Abraham, with his very rudimentary and primitive understanding of this new god, interpreted in his prayer God’s request in relation to the religions around him, and thought he was supposed to offer child sacrifice.  God used this mistake to further reveal himself.  And the revelation is a profound one that threads its way all the way through the Old Testament:  God desires obedience not sacrifice, mercy not dead animals, circumcision of the heart not the foreskin.

Typologically, Jesus reveals to us, in the Sacred Heart, the proper attitude towards God.  It is not that God the Father, like Abraham, was also willing to kill his son.  Rather, the lesson that Abraham learned comes to completion in Christ.  In the Garden, Christ fully surrendered his will and his heart to his Father and chose to take upon himself the suffering of Israel and of the world.  That is very different than God sending his son to be killed.

Therefore Abraham is not an example to us of perfect faith.  He is our father in faith because, as the first to be called by God, he made within his own context, many of the same mistakes that we make.  He showed great zeal, but also got it wrong.  We do the same all the time, which is why we need the community of interpretation that we call the Catholic Church, to fully understand the true sacrifice of Romans 12:1-2.  That, I think, is why the legend of Abraham is in our Bibles.

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6 Responses to Explaining Tough Stuff in the Bible: Genesis 22

  1. willbearak says:

    Interesing review of Abraham, without knowing or telling the real story of Abraham, his early years as Hitite sheepherder, then leaving the farming valleys of euphrates and running thru Cananite country untill being accepted by King Melick of Hebron, and then his excile under Egyptians and loss of his kin Lott, who escaped to Dead Sea area, followed by reunification in Hebron, with Lott and finally settling down and establishing himself and ontourage under auspice of King Melick. Todays young folks and religious all want to know where and when did the Hebrew God come into existence and questions like why did Bible stop after Apostolic period? Why hasn’t Bible continued into 21st Century, Where is revelation today? Are actions and messages in old testament stories, history and/or revelations and why do we accept some as literal and others as only history. How do you believe in old law and new law and why does Christianity (especially Roman Catholicism) put so much credence on God talk of old testament and in some cases so little action and attention to Jesus’s works and sayings. A big question is why hasn’t Roman Catholic Church put into action the teachings, doctrines, and constitutions of Vatican II. About 3/4 of Vatican II is currently being ignored, especially by American church.
    However and whatever the subject of Abrahamic foundation of Jewsish, Christian and Islam is probably number one theological subject in todays religious circles.

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Nicely clarifies some of the story. Another take on it can be found at; http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/the-story-of-abraham-hope-for-the-rest-of-us/ and one of the comments seem to lead to; http://blog.adw.org/2010/06/on-the-feast-of-the-john-the-baptist-a-strange-and-wonderful-though-long-delayed-answer/
    I find both this site, and the other one at the above listed adresses, to be exciting and informative in different ways.

  3. This story continues to fascinate and befuddle humanity millenia after it was first told. One of the reasons we continue to ponder this tale is that it, along with much of the Hebrew Scripture, taps into some profound truths about us. What if the story is not about God, Abraham or Isaac but about us? Abraham followed what he thought was a divine command to do something we think is revolting and so against our natural impulse to protect our young. The enormity of what Abraham thought hje was asked to do is seen in the fact that that he was blesssed with offspring only after a long barreness. But, maybe the real point of the story involves testing whetther a message we think is from God truly is. The test is for us to make of what we percieve, perhaps wrongly, as something God is asking of us. In this case, to demand that a fathful servant like Abraham to sacrifice the one thing most dear to him, the life of another, is finally percieved by Abraham to be not a divine demand; at least not from the God of Abraham. We, too, must look carefully behind the premises of things we think we are being called to do by God.

    • I agree. Just as Abraham interpreted in accord with his own historical context, we are also not exempt from the same danger. Hence the need to be cautious towards overly personal interpretation and the need to be willing to subject our discernment to a spiritual director and to the Church. Abraham took a brave but halting first step in the right direction.

  4. Patrick says:

    You use the phrase “the legend of Abraham” three times. I would appreciate it if you would discuss what you mean by the word legend.

    • Patrick,

      I take the stories of the patriarchs from Genesis 12-50 to basically fall under the genre of what we would today call “legend.” Naturally, that is a bit anachronistic, since the original “authors” of what was probably an oral tradition for a long time didn’t think in terms of “history” “legend” “myth” in the same way we do. But they are basically stories of great heroes with dubious historical veracity but nonetheless deemed to contain an inspired message from God for Israel. That’s what I mean by “legend.”

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