Commentators on the Hebrew Bible have sometimes remarked on the book’s general lack of interiority, or the narrowness of the windows into the emotional dimensions of its characters’ behavior (especially compared to modern literature). Events are frequently conveyed with a laconic straightforwardness whose tone can be frustratingly difficult to decipher. And nowhere is this stylistic feature more stark, almost breathtaking in its eerie impassivity, than in the account of the Binding of Isaac:
“[God] 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” (Genesis 22:2-3, New Revised Standard Version).
Between these two skeletal verses–God said, so Abraham rose–stretches an enormous unacknowledged chasm in which we as readers can only awkwardly attempt to conjure up the incomprehensible pathos of the situation, aided by that single haunting phrase almost gratuitously inserted into God’s speech: “Isaac, whom you love.” With an inscrutability that might almost be construed as nonchalance, Abraham speechlessly and mechanically executes the command God has issued. What goes through his head as he lays hold on the knife intended for his son’s throat is anyone’s guess; the text provides us with only a silhouette of that chilling episode.
When we think of Abraham, this may be the image that springs most readily to mind, the figure gathering wood for the harrowing journey to Mount Moriah, the man who demonstrated unflinching loyalty to God in the face of one of the most enigmatic and grotesque requests God has ever issued, who subordinated his own interests to God’s will without even so much as asking why (the question that likely sticks in our own throats when we read his story). Abraham is the man who was absolutely silent in the face of God’s shocking demand, responding not with words but with action alone. And it’s Abraham’s sacrifice that has become paradigmatic for the level of devotion to which we’re all asked to aspire, in spite of the fact that Abraham himself did not even carry that sacrifice out. But perhaps, in some ways, this is beside the point: by demonstrating his willingness, Abraham sacrificed the claim his love had over Isaac in the face of God’s greater claim to the child, even if he did not literally slit his son’s throat. Because he would have.
In light of this perplexing story, the Abraham we encounter just a few chapters earlier is all the more striking. When God confides to Abraham his destructive intentions toward Sodom and Gomorrah, rather than acceding speechlessly to the divine will, Abraham displays an unexpected–some might say almost sacrilegious–volubility: in his deferential way, he talks God down, successfully bargaining with him not just once, but six times in a row. When Abraham raises the knife against Isaac, it is God’s angel who convinces him to stop. But, conversely, when God raises the knife against Sodom and Gomorrah, it is Abraham who convinces him, if not to stop, then at least to reconsider the circumstances under which the sacrifice of these twin “dens of iniquity” might be appropriate.
One almost cannot help but wonder: why did the Abraham who was willing to negotiate over the fate of two cities mired in appalling sin fail to negotiate with God over the fate of his own innocent son, “whom he loved”? It seems that when it came to Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham had no qualms about the appropriateness of the request, no pangs of conscience holding him back. In our modern discourse Abraham’s story is not infrequently held up as the ultimate test case of the potential tension between integrity and obedience, but although it may have been difficult to carry out, the text gives no indication that the sacrifice of Isaac posed any questions of conscience for Abraham. After all, the firstborn son rightly belongs to the LORD (see Exodus 13:12, Numbers 18:15, etc.).
Because the contours of his integrity are somewhat foreign to us, Abraham may not provide us with direct information on how one appropriately responds in the event that personal conscience conflicts with divine command. But this is a man whose repertoire of interactions with God is varied and complex. Rather than concluding that God places an absolute premium on obedience, perhaps what we should be concluding from Abraham’s experience is that God is open to suggestion–that, far from requiring us to suppress our personal convictions about what is just or acceptable by silently acquiescing to the divine will, God ultimately feels some accountability to those convictions. Whatever else he may be, Abraham’s God is a being who is willing to enter into a dialogue with human conscience.
- 10 July 2008