< June 29, 2008 >

Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14

 

"Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him." This protest from heaven halts Abraham in the horrific act of slaughtering his own son.

The repeated call of Abraham's name, "Abraham, Abraham!" when the father raises his knife indicates the urgency of this divine command. It is not God's intention that Isaac, the child of laughter and of delight for two elderly parents, should be killed or harmed in any way.

This narrative has been understood as a rejection of child sacrifice, which was apparently practiced at some points in Israelite history (Jdg. 11:29-40; Jer. 19:5-6; Mic. 6:7). Every first-born that "opens the womb," whether human or animal, was to be set apart for the LORD (Exod. 13:1-2; cf., Exod. 22:29). The replacement of Isaac with a ram in Genesis 22 corresponds with a provision for the redemption of first-born sons, apparently with the sacrifice of a sheep (Exod. 13:13). In another tradition, first-born humans are to be redeemed simply by the payment of five shekels of silver (Num. 18:15-16).

Abraham's naming of the mountain of averted child sacrifice as "The LORD will provide" (Gen. 22:14) expresses his gratitude for the ram caught in the thicket that he sacrifices in place of his son. Earlier, when Abraham assures Isaac, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:8), his words allow for the terrible possibility that God has provided his son as the sacrificial lamb. But the affirmation that "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided" (Gen. 22:14) following the substitution of the ram adds weight to the passage's statement against child sacrifice.  

A different and powerful perspective emerges when the Hebrew verb "provide" (yir'eh) in these verses is translated as "see." On the mountain that Abraham calls "The LORD sees" (Gen. 22:14), God appears as a responsive witness to a child's vulnerability and distress. "On a mount the LORD is seen" (Gen. 22:14), not to enjoy the "sweet odor" of a burnt offering (cf., Gen. 8:21), but to prevent violence against a bound child.

Genesis 22 is more than a simple polemic against child sacrifice. There is a tension in that the God who intervenes to prevent Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is the same God who earlier has commanded this sacrifice: "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" (Gen. 22:2).

Similarly, at the conclusion of the passage God affirms Abraham's willingness to sacrifice the son who had been the focus of so many divine promises previously in Genesis. Abraham appears to be rewarded for his unquestioning obedience. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sand of the sea because he did not withhold the only son destined to produce them (Gen. 22:16-18).

Abraham is known as the father of faith within the three "Abrahamic" world religions. His willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command is one of the foundations of this reputation. In an age threatened by religious extremism and violence in the name of God, however, Abraham's unquestioning obedience to God provides a dangerous model.

Genesis 22 softens God's disturbing order that Abraham sacrifice Isaac by presenting it as a test. But what kind of test was this, and did Abraham pass or fail? Did God expect Abraham to obey whole-heartedly, repressing all paternal feelings toward the son who addresses this "father of a multitude" trustingly as "my father" (Gen. 22:7)? Did God hope that Abraham would ignore all ethical considerations to murder an innocent child and destroy the image of God that he embodied (Gen. 9:5-6)? Was this the true worship required of the father of faith?

Or was God curious to see if Abraham would resist his order to sacrifice the son of promise? Abraham had interceded and bargained with God to spare the wicked city of Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). But where are Abraham's words of protest and intercession on behalf of his own son? Where is his exercise of moral agency?

Is it possible that God was disappointed in Abraham's unquestioning obedience? God's last-minute intervention suggests that Abraham's response was inadequate. Abraham may have deserved credit for his motivation and his devotion, but his behavior called for swift correction in order to spare the child.

While Abraham's case represents an extreme, it is not unique. In today's world we are also called to discernment and accountability, as the well-being of children continues to be sacrificed. Neglect, violence, sexual abuse, poor education, homelessness, and hunger are among the many threats faced by children in our communities in the United States and across the globe. Child labor and prostitution, diseases including HIV, rising food prices, and natural disasters related to global warming are further examples.

The challenges to children today are so enormous that addressing them will take the commitment of all three Abrahamic faiths, in cooperation with other people of good will. Just as the first-born Israelites were redeemed by the payment of five shekels of silver, children today will be spared only by a shift of budgetary priorities and the investment of adequate financial resources. The precarious situation of children in today's world is a test for our faith, for our understanding of who God is and what God desires of us.

The good news in Genesis 22 is that God does not require the slaughter of Abraham's beloved son. God desires the child to live as a blessing and a hope for the future. As Christians our daily decisions and our political commitments need to be made in light of God's attentiveness to the child and of his command "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him."

Genesis 22 remains a provocative point of entry for grappling with the radical demands of faith. It leaves many things unresolved. Whatever else may be said about this challenging narrative, it provides a testimony that whenever violence against a child is halted and whenever the needs and well-being of children receive attention, God is seen in that place.