The test

Genesis 22:1-14 is the Hebrew Bible lectionary passage this week. It is a tough text, and (of course) what I’ve chosen to preach on this Sunday. Since I’m in way over my head, I need your help. What do you read in this passage? What does it make you think/feel? If you are from a faith tradition that places this passage in your holy book (since I’m hoping that my non-Jewish/-Christian friends will also feel free to contribute), how does your tradition interpret/handle it? What does it say to your faith (or lack thereof)?

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12 responses to “The test

  1. This is a story that always throws me, if I try and read it literally. The concept that the Holy One would demand a parent to sacrifice their child is, from my place and time, unfathomable. Then I remember that we human beings have often believed that our gods have desired sacrifice – living sacrifice – and, many times, human sacrifice.

    I wonder if this story was to say, “Human sacrifice? Not for me. I may push you to the edge, but I won’t demand that.”

    When I think of the way that Abraham’s relationship with Isaac is described leading up to this passage, I get the sense that Dad was pretty obsessed with his son. I wonder if I can read this story as a challenge to obsession with something or someone, in my life?

    I wonder what it says about trust – both Isaac’s trust of Abraham, and Abraham’s trust of God. While I trust that God will push me into some difficult and strange places, I’m not sure I would trust a God that called me to kill my child. (Maybe we need to do some thinking about the ‘gods’ in our lives that do: militarism, consumerism, etc.)

    I’ve reflected on this passage a number of times, and I continue to struggle with it. Thanks for the invitation to join in the struggle, Jennifer.

    Christ’s peace – r

    • Thank you, Richard. I like your “I may push you to the edge, but I won’t demand that” line. Interesting thoughts.

      I always wonder about “Take your son, your only son…” We know that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son — he isn’t even the first son. What does it mean that the firstborn seems to have been forgotten and/or disowned?

      And what happens post-binding? I’m thinking the walk back down the mountain had to be pretty awkward.

  2. A few observations:

    1. God tells Abraham to take his son–his only son, the son he loves (v. 2)–to be sacrificed. Actually, though, Isaac ISN’T his only son. Surely God didn’t forget about Ishmael…

    2. When Abraham speaks to his servants, he tells them that “we will return” (v. 5). It looks as though Abraham is assuming that something is going to happen that will allow Isaac to come back with him. There is an inherent trust in Abraham’s obedience to Yahweh before they even ascend to Jehovah Jireh.

    3. However, after the dirty deed, Abraham apparently returns to his servants alone. Isaac disappears from the narrative. Kind of weird. It’s not hard to imagine that Abraham’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s sadistic test might cause some kind of tension in his relationship with his son. Sometimes we focus so much on praising Abraham’s faithfulness that we neglect to consider that sometimes blind trust can have negative consequences.

    I wish I still had some of my sources from my Religion and Violence class last semester at SEMO. We spent several days picking apart the aqedah, and I remember feeling my eyes and heart being opened. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much of what we learned–it was back in January or February.

    • Thanks, Joshua. You’ll see above that I have the same question about “only son.”

      Something else I’ve wondered: does Abraham pass or fail the test? We aren’t told. My faith tradition has assumed that the test was of faith and that he “passed.” Others have wondered if this instead God wondered whether Abraham would stick up for his own son like he does for Sodom (chap. 18). One of those times where it seems it should have been important enough to include a FEW more details!

  3. An interesting thought:

    “What Abraham is called to do in Genesis 22 is, from a biblical point of view, monstrous. He trudges up Moriah to prepare human flesh for God’s consumption, although the laws of ancient Judaism explicitly prohibit treating people as food, committing murder, approaching human blood, or engaging in infanticide. If sacrifice perpetuates the community’s life, how is it compatible with murdering that community’s future?” –Bruce Chilton, “Abraham’s Curse,” pg. 11

  4. Also, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has some interesting things to say about the aqedah, as well.

  5. Nick Davis

    The themes that stand out to me are:
    * trust
    * faith
    * testing

    Trust asks us to go with God farther than we think we can. Abraham has a lot to lose – being a father of a son and nation. Faith is action that we trust God – maybe even when we don’t believe. Testing is the sweaty, no fun, work out of faith.

  6. Jennifer, thanks for your question. If you find this a difficult passage to preach on an ordinary Sunday, think how my colleagues and i must feel on Rosh Hashanah! 🙂
    For now, a few things I always recommend people think about:

    – Gen. 22:1 begins, “after these things…” After what things, exactly? (Hint: take a look at Gen. 21 – also a R.H. Torah portion, very much involved with the story — How are Isaac and Ishmael alike? different? how is each treated by their father? their mother? what is their relationship? what/who might each character stand for in the present day?

    – Notice how old Sarah is when Isaac is born. Is this just any ordinary kid? how might that affect Abraham’s willingness to “roll the dice” so to speak?

    – How old was Isaac when these events took place? What makes you say so? How might the story’s meaning change depending on Isaac’s developmental level?

    – God’s direction to Abraham is rather wordy: “Take your son, your only son, who you love, Isaac…” Wouldn’t it have been enough to say “Take Isaac!” (Hint: look at “Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1 by Louis Ginzberg, a rich source of rabbinic legends about the text, a/k/a midrash)

    – For a modern take on the story, see Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s poem about the real hero of this story.

    Much success, you can call me if you’re still stuck! Thanks, J

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