The story of the birth of Isaac brings a key aspect of the Abraham narrative to a climax.
The promised son is, finally, born. Interestingly, only Sarah speaks in response (21:6-7). She is mentioned by name six times, and sketched in terms of joy and delight. No miracle language is used, though God is the one who is, finally, given credit for what has happened (21:1-2). But God acts in dependence on Sarah (see 16:2, “by her”). Sarah testifies to her faith in the God who has made this birth possible in spite of seemingly impossible odds (21:6-7).
Remarkably, after Isaac is weaned (21:8), he disappears from the narrative until the troubling text in 22:1-14 (19). This classic text constitutes a climactic point in the story. How it is to be understood is a long-debated issue.
This story centers on God’s “test” of Abraham (22:1), though neither God nor Abraham use that word. Importantly, God’s command to Abraham in 22:2 was intended to test his faithfulness, not to kill (sacrifice) Isaac. Indeed, the purpose of the test was so that God may know whether Abraham “fears God” (22:12). This story is especially poignant in that Abraham has just “lost” his son Ishmael (21:8-21). Now Isaac is said to be the “only son” (22:2) left, and his life is put in danger by God’s own command. These two stories may be said to be mirrors of each other, focusing on the potential loss of both sons, and God’s provisions for both.
Both God’s command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering and Abraham’s silent response seem cruel and defeating, especially in view of God’s promise to Abraham regarding children (Genesis 15:1-6). Abraham’s faith is especially evident in 22:7-8 (see also 22:5), wherein Abraham conveys his confidence in God by his response to Isaac’s question. Isaac’s trusting response shows he believes his father’s trust is well placed. The provision of a ram for the sacrifice (God’s intention from the beginning, though not explicit) and God’s overriding of the original command in 22:2 with another command in 22:12, confirms Abraham’s trust. God responds with a reiteration of the promises (22:15-19).
While this text has long occasioned theological and pastoral problems for readers, anxieties have intensified more recently because of the attention given to the abuse of children. What kind of God would command the sacrifice of a child? This God promises a son, fulfills that promise, and then takes it back. Can this God be trusted?
Moreover, what kind of faith does father Abraham have? A blind faith? No questions are asked and no objections raised. In fact, Abraham shows no emotion whatsoever, though retellings often portray an Abraham in agony. Earlier (Genesis 18), Abraham could raise sharp questions with God about the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah (also his questions in 15:2, 8), but he is strangely passive when it comes to his own child. The narrator assures readers that Abraham loves his son (22:2). Yet, Abraham apparently thinks nothing of putting him through the abuse.
It may be that the narrator intends that the reader, having learned from Abraham in Genesis 18 how to question God, is the one to ask the questions on this occasion. If so, the narrator has been immensely successful! Initially, one might suggest that Genesis 22:8 (and 22:5) is a delayed clue to Abraham’s silence on this occasion: Abraham obeyed because he trusted that God would provide a way through this moment that would not entail giving up on the promise. Yet, one must still think of child abuse given what Isaac had to go through!
Interpreters can sometimes get into a kind of quantitative game, unfortunately: does Abraham love God more than he loves his son (see “love” in 22:2)? But this story should not be reduced to measuring the amount of love Abraham has for one or the other. For a genuine sacrifice, Abraham’s love for Isaac and for God must be comparably great.
Even if child abuse was not in the mind of the narrator, what modern readers hear is not irrelevant. Indeed, the language of the text itself contributes to such an understanding, for God asks and then twice commends Abraham for not withholding his only son “from me” (22:2, 12, 16). Is the child simply a pawn in the hands of an issue between God and Abraham?
The only character said to learn anything from the test is God. The climactic 22:12 states this clearly: “Now I know.” The issue here is not what God teaches Abraham, but what God learns about Abraham. If God knew absolutely how Abraham would respond to the test, then God was just playing games (and there would be less abusive ways to do that).
At issue is a future toward which God is moving regarding “all the families of the earth” (12:3). This global purpose is why God needs to know about Abraham: is Abraham the faithful one who will carry that purpose along? Or, must God look for someone who would be more faithful? The faithfulness of Abraham is not an option for God and for God’s purposes in the world.
The text to this point, however, makes one wonder why Abraham is the one who is commanded to undergo the test. Isaac, the child of promise, has been born. The promised line has been assured of continuity into the next generation; so why test Abraham?
Could not Abraham now just pass out of the picture, as he does for all practical purposes? But it is not enough for the sake of the promise that Isaac be born. Other promises remain to be fulfilled. God waits upon Abraham before getting on with other dimensions of the promised future. Having seen Abraham’s faithfulness, God “swears” by the divine self for the first time in the narrative with respect to those promises (22:16).
Why the stress on God’s providing (22:14), if this is a test of Abraham? It would appear that God is deemed worthy of praise because God has passed the test; God has responded to Abraham’s trust and kept the divine commitment to Abraham.
After discerning Abraham’s faithfulness, God stopped him before the ram was spotted (22:12-13). So, the provision of the ram was not necessary to save Isaac (“instead of” does not have a “substitutionary” sense). The ram, then, was sacrificed because of the way in which Abraham states the trust in 22:8. Abraham has faith that God will provide an animal for the offering instead of his son, and so that’s what God provides.
God of promise,You stayed the hand of Abraham and fulfilled the promise you made to him, that he would father a great nation. Keep your promises to us, that we become inheritors of eternal life. Amen.
The God of Abraham praise ELW 831 A lamb goes uncomplaining forth ELW 340
Listen to the lambs, William Dawson