Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Take Your Son, Your Only Son: The Binding of Isaac and the Unbinding of God

by Sebastian Faust

“And he said, ‘If you will, take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.’”

God said to Abraham, “If you will, take your son.”
And Abraham answered, “I have two sons.”
So then God said, “Your only son.”
But Abraham replied, “This one is the only son of his mother, and that one is the only son of his mother.”
So God said, “Whom you love.”
To which, Abraham argued, “Can there be any division between love and compassion?”
God said, “Isaac!”

Such is the haunting passage from Rashi’s commentary on the troubling story of the Binding of Isaac, where the text of Genesis 22 is expanded into a dialogue between God and Abraham. Many have entered this text and come out the other side carrying only the wisdom that Abraham was a giant of faith (see the author of Hebrews); others have wrestled with the story and have come away wounded (see, for example, Kierkegaard’s telling and retellings in Fear and Trembling). For God, as we conceive our gods, must surely be a monster (if we were allowed to think such things) for devising the trial envisioned here.

It’s a horrific test that God lays upon Abraham: take your son, whom you love, and offer him to me. The terror and the cruelty cannot be side-stepped by appealing to the fact that God intervened at the last moment to stay the father’s hand. The resolution does not erase the prologue and the end does not justify the means; it is no mercy to save a family that you have previously put through torture and purposely placed in jeopardy. And the problem is only compounded when we read God here as an omniscient deity from whom nothing is hidden, not even the future.

For if we read the story and imagine God as we so often do, a god who holds the future in his hand and who sees all things unfolding before they are even begun, we have a problem. We have a god who has nothing to learn from a test that, in his infinite wisdom, he has chosen to devise. And instead, we’re left with a god who will demand the truly ultimate sacrifice and watch as the human heart breaks in its obedience, only to step in at the very last moment and say, “Oh, that? No, it wasn’t really what I wanted. Me? Child sacrifice? Pffft! I was just having a bit of a go at you. But I got you, right? I really had you going! You should have seen the look on your face!”
No, an omniscient, immutable god in this story only makes things worse.

Genesis 22 demands to be read with a different notion of God – a god who puts Abraham to the test precisely because he needs to discover something he didn’t previously know. What he doesn’t know, and what he needs to assure himself of, is whether Abraham will be loyal as a partner in the venture that God has undertaken with him. And there are many reasons for him to fear that Abraham may not be up to the task. God’s previous experiences with humanity certainly hadn’t turned out as he’d hoped they would; in fact, the whole venture had been rather dismal. From the grasping for the fruit of knowledge to the fratricide of Abel, from the swaggering boasts of Lamech to the failure of the Flood (where God’s attempt to start over didn’t end as he’d anticipated; when he realizes that the human heart will always contain evil, he promises never to send the floods again). And then the Tower of Babel where, though God instructed humanity to scatter over the earth, they refused, choosing instead to cluster together and increase their power.

The story that unfolds prior to Abraham’s call has been nothing but a series of surprising disappointments for God; again and again, he tries to work with humanity, and in return, they have seized the power at hand and worked in strident opposition to the creation God intended. And now God asks himself, “Will this venture be any different at all?” The only way to know, to really, truly know, is to test Abraham’s allegiance and see just what he’s made of.

But there’s more to it even than that. God isn’t fearful simply because of the failures of the past; he has concerns about the character of Abraham himself. Yes, Abraham believed God’s promise, and God accounted it as righteousness, but there has been faltering as well. Twice, he has endangered the promise of progeny by passing Sarah off as his sister so that others could take her for a wife. And when the promise seemed slow in coming, he responded by taking Sarah’s handmaid and fathered a child by her. When God assured him that the son was still coming, Abraham tried to talk him into just using Ishmael instead, since it was easier to trust in the child he could see than to wait for a child yet to come.

And then Isaac does come, the son that will mean so much to him, not only because he is the promise of God, but because the blessing of progeny was so very highly prized. And God is concerned, uncertain about the venture and about Abraham’s steadfastness. He is risking much; he has risked much in each encounter with the humanity he created, and has seen failure or rejection at every turn. He worries, “Now that I have given him Isaac, will he no longer pursue the vocation of blessing?” And to discover the answer, God must devise a test that will put his mind at ease. He will finally know.

Only by putting Abraham through the test, only when he raises the blade above his bound son, does God learn the truth. Only then are God’s fears allayed. Abraham is willing to do it; he’s willing to sacrifice the son in whom he has so much vested. And only then does God say, “Now I know that you are willing to follow me all the way.”

God creates the test because God needs the test. And that is insight into how vulnerable the position is into which God is placing himself. God makes himself vulnerable to us because he continues to pursue us. The god we see here is one who continues ever to pursue, ever seeking to dwell among us despite the risks it entails for him. But, the god we see here also shows himself hesitant, in need of assurance about Abraham. And that is a thought that must give us pause.

We step into a jarring and frightening tale and we meet a jarring and frightening god. Even if we acknowledge that God felt it a great risk to reach out yet again in pursuit of restoring creation, it still seems unequal to the horror he inflicts upon Abraham (and upon Isaac; after this, God is twice-referred to as “the Terror of Isaac”). And even if we don’t read into the text an omniscient god, he is nevertheless wiser than the wisest of humans. Surely he sees the damage that such a test could do to a loving father and innocent son.

But what is to be done with a text like this? What is to be done with a god like this? If the god who designed this test were omniscient and unable to change, there would be nothing one could do. We would accept that God is sometimes cruel, and either side with him in spite of it, or turn our backs on him entirely. But if the text demands to be read with a god who is learning, both of Abraham’s loyalty as well as how to bring restoration to his creation gone wrong, then we have other options. We can see our own struggle with fear and unknowing, and can recognize the unjust demands we have made on others in our lives. And if we see an evolving god, then we see a god who can be forgiven… especially when that god has come to be known as patient and gracious and forgiving toward us.

As terrifying as his actions were, the God I find here has entered in to the world he created in order to see his hopes for peace and blessing realized, and he hasn’t turned his back. Or else, when he has, he has always returned again. The God shown here has entered into relationship with us, and those are messy and complicated things. He has chosen to learn alongside us the cooperative dance, the give and take, the extending of love, and of trust, and of forgiveness. The God I see has come alongside us and we are fumbling our way together into a relationship worth pursuing. And he has learned much since then, and I have learned a little, and we share together the cooperative task of setting creation right, partners in the work of blessing the world.

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed professor Robert Alter for a new series we are hosting on the podcast, where we are exploring the Bible one book at a time with various writers and scholars. When we came to the story of the Binding of Isaac, Professor Alter shared the quote with which we began from a commentary by Rashi; since that time, Genesis 22 hasn’t quite let go of me. If you haven’t listened to the interview with Dr. Alter, you can do so here. 

Sebastian Faust is an ante-orthodox thinker and writer, self-styled canary in the coal mine of pop culture. He paints with light, builds castles in the air, and lives a life rather ordinary in Nashville, Tennessee. He holds the position of Dauphin at On Pop Theology. You can’t follow Sebastian on Twitter because he doesn’t understand technology, but he appreciates hand-written notes sent by post or well-mannered carrier pigeon. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology. If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

Image #1: Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio 
Image #2: Isaac's Sacrifice 
Image #3: Binding of Issac by Evgenia Kononova 
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