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Genesis 22:119comment (0)

April 10, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: Genesis 22:119

Exploring Devotion
Genesis 22:1–19

This Sunday, we discuss one of the Bible’s difficult passages. Some readers may find the resolution to the story no more than partially satisfactory: God does not really want Abraham to kill his son and stops the sacrifice at the last minute. But why, readers may wonder, would God want the kind of devotion that would cause a man to slaughter his own child in the first place? If we find that idea repugnant, shouldn’t the God of justice find it all the more so? These are licit questions to bring to the text, and they show that this passage is better wrestled with over time than used as an object lesson. In what follows, the author of this lesson provides commentary designed to spur discussions and to help Sunday School classes grapple with the difficulties that the story presents.

The story’s beginning echoes Genesis 12:1. God sends Abraham on another journey to another place that God "will show" him, and another series of phrases of increasing intensity enhance the enormity of what God is demanding. There God tells Abram and Sarai to leave all they have ever known: 1) country, 2) family and 3) home. Here God tells Abraham to kill all he and Sarah have ever wanted: 1) their son, 2) their only son, 3) whom they love, 4) Isaac. There God tells the happy ending at the beginning: God will bless Abram and Sarai. Here although the story ends with a blessing, until the angel intervenes, there is no expectation that things will turn out well. There hope is present from the beginning; here hope is withheld until the end.

Some notes of interest: Abraham’s reply to God, "Here I am," is typical of one of God’s devoted servants (see Gen. 22:11; 31:11; 46:2; Ex. 3:4; 1 Sam. 3:4–10); it will be echoed ironically in Genesis 22:7. We do not know the location of "the land of Moriah," but later tradition will associate it with the site of the temple in Jerusalem (see 2 Chron. 3:1).

The text emphasizes the long walk to the place of sacrifice (3–4, 6, 8). It is unusual for the narrator of the Abraham cycle to dwell on details as he does here. As with the accounts of Jesus’ Passion, the effect is to retard the pace of the narrative and so to increase readers’ pathos. Nearly every detail adds to the anguish: rising early, saddling the donkey, taking along the two servants. Note that Abraham lays the wood for the sacrifice on Isaac’s back in a macabre parody of the coming sacrifice (he will lay Isaac on the wood in v. 9). Even Isaac’s innocent question heightens readers’ distress by showing the young boy’s trust in his father. "God Himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son," is dramatic irony. God indeed provides an animal victim (a ram in v. 13), but the narrator is clear that Abraham is unaware this will happen.

The meticulous narrative resumes: Abraham builds the altar, carefully lays the wood upon it, binds the boy Isaac and lays him on the altar. At this point, the action slows even more: "Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son." Just before the angel speaks, we have the image of a man poised over his child with a knife held to the boy’s exposed throat.

Verses 12 and 16 indicate that had the angel not intervened, Abraham would have carried through with the offering of Isaac. God promises Abraham innumerable offspring because of his obedience (compare with Gen. 13:16).

Abraham’s unquestioning compliance is contrasted with his chutzpah in Genesis 18:16–33. There he was willing to challenge the God of justice to act justly and in a famous instance of bargaining with the Divine, convinced God to agree to spare the entire city of Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous inhabitants. Why not here as well? The presence in the text of two starkly different types of devotion invites readers to examine the nature of their own piety. Furthermore consider that the devotion of Genesis 22:1–19 is anomalous in Scripture; what we see in Genesis 18:16–33 is far more common. The story of the binding of Isaac is not Scripture’s final word on what faithful devotion to God looks like.

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