The Binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19) by Ellen F. Davis

Genesis establishes many of the basic themes for understanding the rest of the Bible. Therefore, the harrowing story of how Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac on Mount Moriah is more important and more troubling than if it appeared later in the Bible or if its chief human protagonist were anyone other than the prototypical ancestor Abraham. The key term for understanding the story appears in verse 12: “Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me” (author’s translation). Many biblical passages identify “fear of God” as the core religious virtue, “the best part of wisdom” (Prov 1:7). To fear God is to live in humble recognition of the incalculable difference between God and humans. This is the first time we see anyone (allegedly) practicing that virtue, so the divine statement here leaves the morally alert reader with two questions:

How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child?

The story is often said to be about total obedience, but we know that there is no virtue in unquestioning obedience to a tyrannical demand. However, the opening words of the story suggest a different understanding: “After these things, God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1). God’s plans for bringing good to the inhabitants of the world depend on Abraham (Gen 12:3). However, certain things have happened that give God reason to doubt Abraham, making it necessary to test him, to see if Abraham can bear the weight of that immense trust. Twice Abraham has let his wife Sarah go into the harem of a foreign king (Gen 12 and Gen 20); he did it to protect himself, evidently not trusting God to see them through their dangerous sojourns among foreigners. So what is at stake is not obedience merely but total mutual trust. The point of the test is to see whether Abraham trusts God even to the point of relinquishing the child on whom the blessing, the covenant, and his own happiness depend. Abraham’s fear of God is a condition of complete vulnerability before God, “costing not less than everything” (T. S. Eliot); that is the human condition on which the covenant rests.

How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son?

There are two grounds only on which God can be exonerated from the charge of sadism or tyranny here. First, this is a real test; God does not know in advance how Abraham will respond. Only by demanding everything from Abraham can God learn whether he indeed places his commitment to God before everything else. The book of Genesis as a whole does not support the common theological notion that God knows everything before it happens, every human response before it is offered. Thus, when Abraham passes the test, God’s own relief is palpable: “Now I know ...” (Gen 22:12).

Second, God demands everything from Abraham because Abraham must recognize that he is not in control of the covenant relationship. This story provides a necessary balance for the very different picture in Gen 18, where Abraham aggressively challenges God’s judgment (literally!) on Sodom. On that occasion, God listened to Abraham’s bold, even presumptuous question: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25) and God listened to his intercession for the (hypothetical) innocent people in the city; shortly thereafter, God calls Abraham a  “prophet,” specifically with respect to the power of his intercessory prayer (Gen 20:7). In the worldview of Genesis, genuine relationship with God entails balance between boldness and submission. In Gen 18, we see Abraham’s unstinting compassion for humans; in Gen 22, we see his unstinting devotion to God. Psychologically speaking, it may be nearly impossible to hold those two in perfect balance, but theologically speaking, both are necessary for those, both Jews and Christians, who struggle to live in covenantal relationship with God. Thus with this most important ancestor, the Bible begins to show what it is to serve “prophetically” in covenantal context: negotiating dual commitments to humanity and to God, from moment to moment discerning when to challenge God on behalf of weak and sinful humanity and when to submit in “fear” to the sometimes inscrutable divine demand.

Ellen F. Davis, "Binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19)", n.p. [cited 20 Aug 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/binding-and-sacrifice-of-isaac

Contributors

Ellen F. Davis

Ellen F. Davis
Professor, Duke Divinity School

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School. Her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their responses to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. Her most recent book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.

 

Genesis 22 is foundational for understanding the biblical virtue of “fearing God”—that is, trusting God totally, within the context of covenantal relationship.

Did you know…?

  • Gen 22:1-19 is popularly known by Christians as “the Sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews as “the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.” The latter term is more accurate, since Isaac was released before the sacrifice was accomplished.
  • Abraham is the first person in the Bible to be identified as a “prophet” (Gen 20:7)—and it is God who so identifies him.
  • There is no biblical Hebrew word that is equivalent to the modern term “religion”; “fear of the Lord/of God” is the equivalent biblical term.
  • Abraham is the first person in the Bible to be identified as “one-who-fears God”—that is, as a “religious” person.
  • The Qur’an gives a similar account of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son (Qur’an 37:100-107), although it does not specifically name which son is involved—a matter that was much debated by early Islamic scholars. Later tradition has widely identified the son in question as Ishmael.
  • This story has been the basis for much Christian reflection on the crucifixion of Jesus and also for Jewish theological reflection on martyrdom, especially in the period of the Crusades and, more recently, following the Shoah/Holocaust.
  • Rembrandt is one of the greatest interpreters of Gen 22, in the media of painting and copper engraving. He returned to the story multiple times through his lifetime and through it reflected on his own love for his children and his suffering over their early deaths.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Prov 1:7

7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Gen 22:1

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

Gen 12:3

3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Gen 12

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 20

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar
1From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alie ... View more

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 22:12

12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from m ... View more

Gen 18

A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked ... View more

Gen 18:25

25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Ju ... View more

Gen 20:7

7Now then, return the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely di ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

Hebrew term for the binding of Isaac

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Gen 22:1-19

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

Gen 20:7

7Now then, return the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely di ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

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