Zelophehad’s Daughters

Abraham and God: A Case Study in the Complexities of Relationships with the Divine

Posted by Kiskilili

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.

16 Responses to “Abraham and God: A Case Study in the Complexities of Relationships with the Divine”

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    (I realize the Documentary Hypothesis might be used to explain some of the discrepancies in theological outlook and characterization of the deity between Genesis 18 and Genesis 22, but for the purposes of this post I’m taking a more holistic, literary view of the Bible.)

  2. 2.

    Fascinating post, Kiskilili! I really like your conclusion that God might be in fact open to dialog rather than simply commanding and waiting for us to obey. I’ve always enjoyed stories like the one in Helaman 11, where Nephi asks God to use a famine to chasten the people instead of a war, and God agrees, or like the story of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27 where they ask Moses if their father’s inheritance might pass to them since they have no brothers, and Moses takes it to God, and God agrees. I like the idea of a persuadable God–it makes him seem more like us, more approachable.

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    Paul comments on Abraham’s thinking in Hebrews 11:17-19. Abraham was exercising faith, believing that God could raise Isaac up, even from the dead.

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    Thanks for this post. As I was reading, I thought of the difference between Abraham’s relationship with the cities and with his son. Like you pointed out, the first-born son is the Lord’s, so he probably thought about it like we may think about tithing. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
    But, I don’t really know much about Abraham’s relationship with Sodom and Gomorrah. Wasn’t he a resident? Was he the prophet?
    But, as Ziff pointed out, it is more appealing to think about God as someone we can negotiate with. I’m not sure that it’s ever worked for me personally, though.

  5. 5.

    Nicely articulated Kiskilili.

    (And I appreciate your clarifiaction in comment #1 — helps me understand and enjoy the post as you intended it).

  6. 6.

    What a great post, and on one of my favorite topics too!

    “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”?

    Yes yes yes. I remember learning, many years ago in Sunday School, even before we’d been presented with any stories about Abraham at all, that Abraham was the one who argued with God. His arguing with God (over Sodom and Gomorrah) was presented as his primary identifying feature, as if his choice to refrain from arguing with God later on, over the fate of his son, is somehow less noteworthy. This bothered me for a long time.

    Recently, though, I came across an article by Lippmann Bodoff called “The Real Test of the Akedah”. It’s written from the Jewish perspective, and is long, and gets a bit jargon-heavy at times, but it does does an impressive job of reconciling Abraham’s negotiating with God for the sake of S&G and his failure to negotiate for the sake of Isaac. Bodoff’s idea is that Abraham never intended to slaughter Isaac, because that would be Wrong; instead, he was testing God to make sure God would stop him and say “Just kidding!” before Abraham actually struck his son.

    There are several versions online, none of them really nicely formatted, but here’s the cleanest version I could find. Here are a few excerpts:

    On the one hand, God was testing Abraham to see if he would remain loyal to God’s revealed moral law even if ordered to abandon it. We know this because an earlier text expressly says that God wanted Abraham always to do what is “just and right” and to teach his children to follow this Divine path (Gen. 18:19). On the other hand, Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, and was terribly concerned at the fact that God had commanded him to do so. Abraham was testing the Almighty, as it were, as to what kind of covenant and religion he, Abraham, was being asked to join. Was it one that required man to follow heavenly voices to any length, even to immorality?

    The text…does not show Abraham leaping from receipt of God’s command to his execution of it. Indeed, Abraham never agrees to accept it and perform it. Instead, the text describes Abraham going through a series of separate steps: first he gets up, then he dresses his animals, then he gets his retinue in order, then he gets the rope, and the wood, and then he sets off, and then he sees Mount Moriah, and then he gets off the animal, and then he instructs his retinue to wait, and then he and Isaac walk (vayelkhu), but don’t run, toward Moriah, and then there is a conversation, and then the various distinct preparations of the altar, and then he stretches out his arm, and then, finally, he takes the knife.

    …I believe that a close reading of the text permits a midrashic interpretation along the following lines: God was testing Abraham to see if he would remain faithful to His revealed moral law even when Divinely commanded to violate it, in order fully and finally to expunge the belief and practice of child sacrifice, or any murder, (ostensibly) in God’s name or for God’s benefit. Abraham never intended to kill Isaac but was determined to stall, with faith in God’s morality and a determination to uphold it. God was waiting for Abraham to say, “I won’t do it,” and Abraham was waiting for God to say, “Stop, don’t do it, I didn’t mean it.”

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    beautifully written.

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    That’s a cool view on those two episodes Miriam.

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    I wish you were the Sunday School teacher in my Ward, K.

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    Wouldn’t that be great, E? I could promulgate all sorts of pernicious heresies. ;)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Miriam–that’s an interesting midrash on the story! What a clever idea to read Abraham’s silence not as acquiescence but as a private sort of refusal; that’s not a reading I’ve encountered, and his silence is certainly striking. One of the things that’s so difficult about the text is that God commands something and then withdraws his command. If he’s commanding Abraham to do something he doesn’t actually want him to do, what sort of a God do we have? Does he manipulate people, or change his mind? But if God does find the deed acceptable, why not allow Abraham to go through with it? I personally favor the reading that underlying the story is the ideological acceptability of human sacrifice, that far from putting a stop to it God is giving it a stamp of ethical approval of sorts, even if he’s not actually requiring it. (The firstborn son can be redeemed, unlike the firstborn male animal.) But there are just no easy answers in this text.

    Jessawhy, it’s a good question about the difference between Abraham’s relationship to the cities and to Isaac–his nephew Lot lived in the region of Sodom and Gomorrah, so he certainly had some connection. I’m not sure whether it’s worked for me to negotiate with God either, but when it comes to issues about which I feel passionately, I certainly intend to try!

    Howard, thanks for pointing to the gloss the author of Hebrews gives this story. It’s another fascinating idea, although if Abraham had faith God could resurrect Isaac, and God actually could, why not go through with the sacrifice and then resurrect him? God stopped Abraham short of really having to prove his faith. Again, there are no easy answers when it comes to Genesis 22.

    And thanks SingleSpeed, Geoff, and Ziff for reading and commenting. Usually I like a sort of history-of-religion-and-textual-transmission approach to the Hebrew Bible, but I’m in an oddly devotional mood.

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    I’ve decided that part of the appeal of the OT for me comes from those rare bits of pathos. At first the stories all seem so foreign. These are people who publicly stone wrongdoers and are no strangers to human sacrifice. But then we get that rare glimpse, and precisely because it is rare and unexpected, it packs a punch. The narrative could have said “Take Isaac and go to Moriah…”, but the inclusion of those other phrases makes it almost heartbreaking. And the image of Joseph hiding things in his brothers’ baggage causes me to feel a strong sense of kinship. The Old Testament is endlessly fascinating.

  12. 12.

    Yeah, the stories of the OT are at once so alien, so intriguing, and yet so familiar in their portrayal of human idiosyncracies. It’s the most surprising, and I think the most beautiful, book of scripture.

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    Beautifully written, Kiskilli! The original post and comments are very thought provoking.

  14. 14.

    Thanks, Ima.

  15. 15.

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Kiskilili. It’s made me wonder why the Abraham/Isaac story has come to play such a central role in our theological discourse, while the Abraham bargaining with God narrative gets so little airtime. Is this something we’ve picked up from the broader religious culture? You know how there are like ten Bible stories that everyone knows, that appear in picture books and so forth? I’ve noticed that ours are pretty much the same as the ones that other Christians use a lot: Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, etc. I don’t know if Abraham/Isaac appears much in picture books, but it does seem to be one of the biblical stories that’s well-known in the culture.

    I was about to say that perhaps another reason that this story shows up less often is that there isn’t anything comparable in the BoM, whereas we have a kind of Abraham/Isaac parallel with Nephi and Laban. But then I remembered one of the later Nephi’s, in the book of Helaman, convincing the Lord to institute a famine to end the war, and then later to end the famine. Not quite the same thing as talking God out of destroying a city, but still interesting, especially in the element of God being genuinely responsive to human requests and concerns.

    Anyway, I really like the notion of a God who, as you say, is willing to enter into dialogue with human conscience. And I like how prayer in that story appears to involve a genuine relationship between two beings, with real back-and-forth conversation, as opposed to a sort of brainwashing exercise aimed solely at instilling submission and obedience. Even though God obviously has a wider perspective and doesn’t see things the way we do, I like the idea that our perceptions and convictions of conscience and ideas and so forth, limited though they might be, nonetheless matter to him.

  16. 16.

    Kiskilli, can you come teach my Gospel Doctrine class? Fabulous stuff!

    I like the Koran’s version of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son (Surah 37:100-09). Instead of Isaac, it’s Ishmael, and he’s fully aware of what’s happening.

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