Assessment 2: Abraham’s Life Before Yahweh – Making Sense of the Genesis 22 Pericope in Light of the Larger Story
a. Describe Where Genesis 22 Fits Into the Narrative as a Whole.
Genesis 12 to 25 provides a lengthy portrait of an Ancient Near Eastern man, Abraham, and his encounters with God. God shows favour to Abram and promises to make him into a great nation. In faith and obedience Abram, by the instruction of God, moves to “the mountain east of Bethel.” After staying in Egypt for some time, where he became wealthy, God affirms the covenant that he will have many descendants for they “will be too many to count” (15:5). In Genesis 17 God promises Abram that he will be his God as well as his descendants God. Thus a first pointer, considering the narrative as a whole from the time God calls Abram (12) to the concluding moments of Sarah’s death (23) and several familial relations (24, 25), the Genesis 22 pericope concerning Abraham’s obedience is the “climax” of the story. The narrative builds up from God making a covenant with Abram (15), fills in the story with several narratives (Abraham’s pleading with God, his interactions with Lot, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah etc.), and concludes Abraham’s performance in a dramatic test that God had in store for him (22:19). This story of Abraham’s obedience is also hard to “fit” into the overall narrative. The central narrative has Abraham encountering God on many occasions where God speaks to him (12:1), sends angels (22:11, 15), and makes a covenant with him (12, 17). If this is so and if Abraham was so lucky to receive such revelation, then why does the author choose to end his performance in the context of a test? Surely having paged through the narrative it is quite apparent that Abraham has great faith in God, which we also find is clear after the test itself. One could argue that Genesis 22 sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the larger story.
b. Reflect on Genesis 22 and Identify what it Means in Light of the Larger Story.
As shown above, the story sticks out of the larger narrative as a test, yet is consistent with the larger story of faith. Faith is what leads Abraham leave his home Ur (12: 4), to trust God’s covenant with him, to bargain with God over those in Sodom and Gomorrah (17), to institute circumcision (17) and to have a child in his (and Sarah’s) old age (21). For the Christian to draw this a little bit closer to home he may note that one’s own life of faith begins when they themselves are willing to leave their own “Ur,” and follow God’s will for his life. Here the giving up of one’s old life also has roots in Jesus of Nazareth’s own radical teachings. One also sees such reverence for Abraham’s faith in our other New Testament authors (Hebrews 11, Galatians 3, Romans 3, Matthew 3, Luke 3, John 8). However, putting it back in the Genesis context, faith and obedience to God’s divine command is what ties the Genesis 12 to 25 narratives together.
Moreover, God delivers a dramatic command for him to sacrifice Isaac and this must be done in much ceremony (on a mountain, with rope, a knife, an altar, and wood). It surely is the ultimate test, but one that is quite clearly unprecedented in Abraham’s life especially since Isaac was the promised child (Gen. 21:12) through whom a mighty nation would arise. In this test Abraham, knife and all, is pushed till the end until God intervenes telling him not to kill Isaac and provided him with a sacrificial ram in his place. This consider it is quite safe to say that moral questions manifest throughout Genesis 12 to 25. Beyond Isaac’s near sacrifice, the incestuous activities of Lot’s daughters (19:32), the attempted rape in Sodom (19:9-11), Abraham’s going to war with Kedorlaomer and the kings (14: 17), and the total destruction of cities (19:23) are but a few questionable narratives. However, in light of the larger story the near sacrifice of Isaac is most poignant, a fact that ties in with it being the surprising climax and finale of the Abrahamic story. It leaves the reader trying to reconcile a God of love with a God who commands human sacrifice. With Abraham, God makes a divine commitment and promises to bless him and his descendants. It is no wonder that the divine command to sacrifice Isaac proves to be such a shock to the system of the reader.
a. Summary of Ellen Davis’ Vulnerability, the Condition of the Covenant.
Old Testament scholar and theologian Ellen Davis notes the moral difficulty that the Genesis 22 narrative’s “divine brutality” poses to readers (p. 1). Through it, however, she wishes to allow the voices behind the Abraham, God, and Isaac characters to speak (p. 1). Regardless of reader opinion, Davis believes that the concept of story is powerful and that God uses it to teach us about him (p. 1), a fact, she believes, is quite prevalent in this narrative.
Davis notes that obedience to divine command is a core theme (p. 2). Abraham and God are in an “intimate” relationship and one that, through mystery, demonstrates much vulnerability (p. 1). It is evidently quite the paradox that the Christian conception of God can be so almighty yet so vulnerable. Davis subsequently pays close attention to Abraham’s statement “here I am,” a response he makes to God’s calling. “Henneni” is the Hebrew word, a word that Davis believes is a sign of Abraham’s vulnerability towards God (p. 2).
However, she accepts that many question God since the story is some morally challenging (p. 2). As Davis rightly asks, “what god could command sacrificing one’s son?” (p. 3) Moreover, this divine command is a result of a God who is “hurt beyond imagining,” since he has so often been let down by mankind. God hurts because he is vulnerable at heart (p. 3) and his trust and love has been sorely violated by the creatures he created and so loves. Therefore, God requires a “demonstration” of trust through a faithful subject, Abraham. Thus, argues Davis, the test is not a sadistic command, but a plea from a wounded God (p. 4) as if God needs to have faith in Abraham, just as Abraham needs faith in God (p. 4). God also instructs this act because of doubt (p. 4). This is because God has doubts about Abraham, particularly because Abraham did not trust God with his wife Sarah as he feared Sarah’s beauty would have him killed. However, through Abraham’s obedience God’s shattered faith has been restored in his creation (p. 5). This, claims Davis, is what “covenant” means. Namely, that God is bound to the world and emotionally invested in it (p. 5). God is so invested that he reaches to a single man, Abraham, to restore his faith though the dramatic act of a test.
However, Davis notes that out of all three characters in this narrative Isaac is the most vulnerable (p. 6). This has symbolic value. For example, Isaac stands in for, and takes the identity of, the “thousand faces” of suffering children in the world today. Further, God, like Abraham, is an anguished parent. God’s children, like Isaac, await God’s deliverance because man is born into situations and societies not of his choosing and is therefore bound by suffering (p. 8). However, this is the “raw material” that can produce holiness in life, says Davis. Unfortunate events such as loneliness, isolation and aging can produce humility when contemplating the suffering of Jesus who stands in as powerful evidence for divine intervention in human hisory.
b. A Personal Response to the Genesis 22 Pericope.
I believe that the Genesis 22 narrative demonstrates how far God can push one to go. Asking to sacrifice one’s own son is an extreme instruction which opens up a bucket load questions. Considering Abraham’s text what are the limits that God can push his other human creatures to? For example, was such an event a once off instruction? Does God only intend for Abraham to live off of the pages as an example of obedience and faith? I believe that debate is quite pertinent to these questions.
The moral question is also relevant. How can a God who Christians view as the greatest conceivable being, which entails the pinnacle of moral perfection, ask for a human being to perform such a heinous act? I believe that Davis rightly, and interestingly, rationalizes this through that only a “wounded” and “hurting” God could command such a thing. In other words, God is so attached to his creatures that he condescended to the single figure of Abraham and asks him to undergo an ultimate test. God clearly knows that Abraham loves his son, Isaac, which makes Isaac a prime player in the drama. And through commanding this, and watching how it all unfolds, God can gauge the faithfulness of Abraham.
A further point worth noting is that there are many faces of God within scripture. This is because God provides, and uses, stories to reveal himself. These stories are powerful since they are relatable to human beings. For instance, in one story God is sovereign over creation since he created it (Gen. 1:1), likewise he is omniscient. However, in another story God seems to lack a fuller understanding, as in the episode of Genesis 22 where God seems unsure of how the episode concerning sacrificing Isaac will resolve. Likewise God has to descend from heaven to see the tower of Babel where he remarks “Behold,” as if he is surprised [side note: my lecture did correctly bring to attention that this was not the only interpretation of the word “behold” in the Babel narrative. However, it remains for the most compelling interpretation of the story]. So what we have in scripture are many faces of God, with each one relatable to his human creatures. Thus, in Genesis 22 God relates to us in the sense that he desires our faith and obedience. God wishes to come into relationship with his human creatures and trust them, as it seems he did with Abraham.
Finally, according to biblical theology, like Isaac, we all await deliverance. This is because humanity is bound to a finite, fallen world. Intuitively, one could argue, is that we know this. We know that we live in a world where bad things happen and that we are able to conceive of a better world in which pain and suffering no longer exist. This is why Davis lauds the sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross, an avenue through which joy enters the world. A proper contemplation of the cross of Jesus being bound to wood, like Isaac was bound by his father Abraham, is reason to celebrate.