When Abraham Ordained The God Of Israel
The near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is one of the most enchanting stories in Western literature. A deceptively simple tale, it captivates children yet tests the wits of scholars, philosophers and theologians. Its author, whom we call the Elohist, or E, after his habit of referring to the God of Israel as Elohim (Lord), was a ninth-century B.C.E. literary artist whose works include such other delicacies as the story of Jacob and Esau and the story of Joseph.
Genesis 22 is art, yet its context is the Pentateuch and its origin a religious nation struggling to become. It is that most prickly of objects to the contemporary critic: openly moralistic and political, yet humbling in its intelligence. But first the story:
…God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. He cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He 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 me.”
And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ [Gn 22:1–14 NRSV]
The God of Israel was more than the Creator; he was a political leader — the incumbent ruler of a notoriously legalistic nation, the paramount judge of a society in which worship, sacrifice, and the law were one.
The story places God in an extreme position against common-sense morality, and yet Abraham obeys without question. This not only demonstrates God’s transcendent wisdom as Israel’s supreme ethical authority, it is meant also to engender the people’s trust in his exercise of power regardless of how puzzling, or shocking, his decisions might seem in human social contexts. The God of Genesis 22 defies a nearly universal consensus: decent people do not kill their children. This forces Abraham to decide between two possibilities: either spiritual rectitude transcends human, social experience, or God is a monster.
This collision between the irrational and the rational, between God and human society, is interesting philosophically; but the author, a ninth-century B.C.E. Jew, would have been far more concerned with the establishment of God’s political authority over Israel and its ratification through Abraham’s unconditional participation in a quest that he cannot understand.
You know me
Consider the second verse, “your only son whom you love.” This underscores Abraham’s humanity for the purpose of good storytelling: he is a father who loves his child and anyone can picture him. The narrator continually brings up that human relationship to draw us into the story; but, by having Elohim say it, he makes the theological point that God appreciates fully what he is demanding of Abraham, with the wider implication that he knows his people individually. The accounts of God’s dealings with Abraham, Sarah and Hagar elsewhere in Genesis reinforce this impression of familiarity, so we know that the God of Genesis 22 is the same one with whom Abraham, hence Israel, has been dealing all along. This extraordinary demand does not signal a change in God, or in Abraham’s relationship to him, so it does not necessarily indicate a problem.
Next, notice that God expects Abraham to seek the place where he is to perform this extraordinary rite. This suggests that God is willing to let Abraham fail. This is a hard test because it is such a fair one; there are no miracles behind the scenes. Abraham is a Bronze-age literary hero: in pain and in dread, against his instincts, he finds his own way to Mount Moriah, where a dreadful encounter waits for him.
Only later does Abraham learn of God’s compassion: as he is about to kill Isaac, the angel of the Lord stops him and substitutes a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place. This shows us that, while God expects such reverence from his people that they do not hesitate to offer their only sons if asked, he does not actually demand such sacrifice. He requires obedience, not infanticide.
The ram symbolizes the author’s belief that God will always provide means whereby his people might venerate him. But it is significant for another reason as well: Canaanite worship, at the time of the story’s writing, included infant sacrifice. The author makes the point that, under certain circumstances, the ram and the child may be considered equal.
The reader, of course, knows from the outset that God intends to spare Isaac; the ram is for Abraham’s and Israel’s benefit. It is a gift through which Abraham can actualize his obedience while keeping his son alive, and it is an emblem of worship by which Israel is assured that a substitute object, offered with the dispositions exemplified by Abraham, will be accepted as a complete sacrifice. This demonstrates mankind’s responsibility to participate in religious practice. It is Abraham, not God, who makes the ram equal the boy with his disposition of absolute surrender.
Next, there is the matter of the three days’ journey to Moriah during which Abraham deliberately seeks his fate. The phrase ‘on the third day’ was a common figure of speech among Old Testament writers indicating divine rescue from catastrophe. We may imagine Abraham and Isaac traveling together for an indeterminate length of time. We may imagine Abraham engaged in a period of active searching, resulting, on the third day, in his surrender to a divine process.
We may say that through this process Abraham would be seeking communion to enable God to participate in the sacrifice: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place far away.” Read, ‘When Abraham recognized the presence of God for which he had been searching, he knew that it would be possible to obey his command.’ God must participate. Abraham must come into direct contact with him. Otherwise, the event could not have been a sacrifice; it would have been an attempted murder. The journey is included, first so that any reader might put himself in Abraham’s place, and second to show Abraham transcending his natural human resistance to sacrificing his son through direct communion with God.
The story places natural processes in a state of tension with spiritual ones. We see it in the author’s use of active, finite verbs: Abraham rose early, saddled his ass, cut the wood, rose, and went to the place; he lifted up his eyes, and took the wood, and laid it on his son; and Abraham built an altar, and laid the wood upon it, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar; then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. Genesis 22 is a story very much about commitment to action.
As a symbolic act, climbing the mountain recapitulates the physical symmetry of the holocaust. Mountains are often associated with God in the Old Testament; it’s no accident that in Exodus, Moses comes face to face with God on Mount Sinai, or that the Tower of Babel offends God by affording mankind a God’s-eye-view of creation; the tower is an emblem of false equality between God and mankind: an artificial mountain, so to speak. There are certainly enough references throughout the Old Testament to height as a definitive quality of God to make climbing Mount Moriah a loaded symbol.
Notice that after he has climbed the mountain, Abraham builds an altar to further elevate Isaac, thereby offering him specifically to God. Keep in mind that the fire and smoke would rise even farther. The mountain, the altar, and the fire and smoke reflect upon each other: they all ascend toward Heaven.
What would the holocaust offering have implied to readers in the ninth century B.C.E., a time when Abraham and Isaac would already have become ancient myths? Let’s look at other accounts. In Genesis 8, (tenth century BC, written before Gn 22) Noah performs a holocaust. His motivation would appear to be thanksgiving, although God’s response suggests a more propitiatory emphasis:
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’ [Gn 8:20, 21, NRSV. Notice that Noah has affected God with his sacrifice.]
In Leviticus 1, (sixth century BC, written after Gn 22) we find that a whole burnt offering is meant specifically for atonement:
“If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you.” [God to Moses: Lv 1:3,4, NRSV.]
Both the Genesis 8 and Leviticus 1 holocausts serve a religious end. By denying a purpose, such as propitiation or atonement, the author reveals Abraham’s predicament: God would appear to be canceling his promise without reason. He is demanding a gift not only of Abraham’s son, but also — and more importantly — of the nation of Israel to come, and he is not offering anything in return, not even an explanation.
That is the heart of Abraham’s conflict: whether God is rational or not is irrelevant; but if he breaks his promises, Israel is in trouble. A capricious, unreliable God might be worse than none. Abraham triumphs by not requiring God to be rationally comprehensible, only trustworthy.
The story’s lack of any teleological purpose to motivate or compensate Abraham emphasizes the fact that his trust in Elohim is absolute, and indeed divinely inspired. ‘On the third day’ God participates, answering Abraham’s petition. On the third day God grants to Abraham the state of communion that he had sought, that he requires to complete his mission, that he cannot get from any human source.
He is ordered to kill his son, incinerate his remains, and then, nothing. How are we to interpret this? The key becomes visible when ‘why’ is preceded by ‘what.’ What is Abraham doing? The answer is no more complicated than this: he is performing a spontaneous rite of consecration. By killing Isaac, he is giving his only son, and by extension the nation of Israel, to Elohim, the one to whom they always have, do now, and always will, belong. Thus does Abraham ordain and invest the God of Israel.
Genesis 22, like any ancient story, is a familiar thing, now much bruised by excessive handling. Little is known about the original author, but one fact is certain: he was no Christian. Does this mean that his story is too old, or too ‘Jewish,’ to be significant to Christians today?
The short answer is no: it is a deeply spiritual story dealing with essential human yearnings. Christians can find much in common with Abraham so long as they understand his offering as the manifestation of a primary commitment: to accept God without prejudice rooted in social experience.
It is true that Christian sacrifice today is a far less corporeal process than the holocaust accounts of the Pentateuch; but it’s true also that sacrifice is unique for the ways it manifests religious commitment. Genesis 22 illustrates an extreme case, but Christian history is rich with its own stories of martyrdom and sacrifice. Later Christian movements such as monasticism and asceticism, and practices such as charity and penance, are all direct descendants of Jewish sacrifice.
The sacrifice of Christ could not have taken place anywhere in the world but Palestine, in the midst of a people who for millennia understood law and sacrifice as the quintessence of worship. It is no accident that the Synoptic Gospels place the Lord’s supper within the palpably sacrificial, and eminently Jewish, context of a Passover meal.
The Letter to the Hebrews goes so far as to construct an analogy between the death of Christ and Jewish temple worship, calling Jesus the eternal high priest atoning for our sins in the ultimate Holy of Holies, the kingdom of Heaven. John echoes the compliment paid to Abraham in Genesis 22, “you have not withheld your…only son from me,” in reference to the New Testament God the Father who sacrificed his son to redeem the people he loves:
God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever should believe in him shall not die, but have eternal life.
The crucifixion of Christ frames self-giving as a divine virtue. Abraham teaches us that it is a state of being so transcendent that God and mankind come into direct contact. As with Abraham’s sacrifice, unless Christ is the son of God — unless God is present and active — the crucifixion becomes the mere execution of a convict, and the victim’s cooperation tantamount to suicide. Christ’s disposition of self-giving love, and God’s direct participation, make the crucifixion a sacrifice, just as they made Abraham’s offering a sacrifice. Abraham is Christ’s antecedent. A historic and literary and spiritual continuum connects them.
Why should so many Christians find Abraham’s story so compelling? Does it express something radically true about our roles in nature, in society, and in spirit? Consider this account in John:
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” [Jn 13:5–8, NRSV]
By showing the Son of God virtually naked on his knees before Peter, the author made it clear that self-giving is a divine disposition. This moment is not surprising: Jewish sacrifice had become increasingly professionalized and de-corporealized by this time — except for one last, exquisitely-beautiful movement, one final crescendo of bloody self-giving in which the God of Israel offers himself, wholly, to the nation he created.
The washing in John reflects upon the crucifixion. The death of Christ cannot be taken seriously as anything less than a dynamic continuum of giving and accepting between God and mankind, that illustrates our dependency upon sacrifice as a spiritual reality. Today, its less corporeal forms might be fashionable — charity and penance and service — but no Judeo-Christian system of worship makes sense without it.
We return to Abraham as we must: he is a man willing to sacrifice his only son for God. The crucifixion perfects the circle, showing us a God sacrificing his only son, and in a very real sense, himself, for mankind, whom he created and whom he adores.
Who but the God of Israel would do such an exquisitely beautiful, irrational thing?