Monday, August 10, 2009

Abraham's Test

During my research and study on the topic of God testing our faith I stumbled upon an interesting concept that completely turns the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac completely upside down and inside out. In Karen Armstrong's In the Beginning: A New Interpretation on Genesis, Armstrong reinterprets this symbolic book by wrestling with the symbols that it contains instead of reading them literally. Genesis was never meant to be read literally since "the text points beyond itself to a reality which cannot adequately be expressed in words and concepts." (Armstrong, p.5) So what can we learn from a book of symbols, what lessons are there that may teach us about God and ourselves?

[Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, Laurent de LaHire, 1650]

Genesis Ch. 22 starts off with God testing his servant, Abraham, who tells no one of this test and even Isaac is left in the dark when he asks about the lamb for the burnt offering. Abraham places his son on top of the altar, takes out his knife to kill his son when he is suddenly stopped by the Divine. The Lord provides a ram for sacrifice instead and blesses Abraham after passing the test of faith showing that he feared God. The original story is viewed as a test of Abraham's faithfulness to God and reinterpreted by Christians as a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ. But what about poor Isaac?

It is not until after Isaac and Ishmael bury their father that the writers of Genesis actually let Isaac speak again. Who's faith was actually tested on Mount Moriah, Abraham's or Isaac's? Even though Genesis references Isaac as Abraham's only son he still had Ishmael (whom the Lord also blessed). If God had let Abraham actually sacrifice Isaac, which ironically would have been a much stronger foreshadowing of God offering his only Son than the the original story, Abraham would still have descendants through Ishmael. Even though Abraham would have lost a son, Isaac would have lost his life. Furthermore, in Ch. 21 God promised Abraham that it is through Isaac's descendants that he will be blessed. The early Christian church responded through the writer of Hebrews that Abraham had faith that God would resurrect Isaac if he had been sacrificed (Hebrews 11:17-19). So if anyone's faith was being tested on that day, I believe it was Isaac's!

Armstrong brings up the fact that Isaac doesn't say a word after the events on Mount Moriah and in the very next chapter we learn of Sarah's death. Did Isaac run off after almost being sacrificed? (There are some Jewish traditions in the Midrash that speculate that Isaac did indeed run off to see his brother after the events on Mount Moriah, unfortunately I can not find them.) Abraham returning home to inform Sarah that God wanted him to sacrifice her baby boy would have been a tremendous shock to any mother, especially if Isaac did not return home with his father (Genesis 22:19). Of course this is all speculation, but we don't learn about Isaac's whereabouts until the end of chapter 24 where he was living near Beer-lahai-roi (Hagar's Well) and later settles in the Negeb (south of Judah). Where was Isaac during his parents' deaths? We can only speculate, but the point is that he moved away sometime after the disturbing event on Mount Moriah and later moved back before the introduction of Rebecca. Armstrong also points out that God is also referenced as "The Fear of Isaac" (Genesis 31:42,53). Most people would say this is a holy fear of God instead of an outright terror, but I agree with Armstrong that even though Isaac had survived Mount Moriah that he might have been scarred for life because of the event.

Ms. Armstrong concludes the chapter on Isaac by readdressing and reinterpreting God's test on Abraham's and Isaac's faith.
"Perhaps God wanted Abraham to argue with him on Mount Moriah, as he had argued for the people of Sodom. Or perhaps, seeing the consequences inflicted by his "test" upon Isaac, God came to realize that too relentless a faith can lead to fanaticism and to a lack of humanity that has permanent and damaging effects upon others." (Armstrong, Pg. 73)
Maybe God's true test on Abraham was not a matter of following his directions blindly but to test his humanity. (Or maybe Abraham was testing God's morality by forcing him to stop the sacrifice, click here) Maybe God wanted to know if Abraham still had a conscious and would stand up against injustice as he did for the people of Sodom. Abraham was bold enough to defend innocent strangers in a sinful city from God's wrath, so why not strike at the heart by having him sacrifice his son? Abraham is then torn between his two loves: his love for God, and his love for his son. Maybe Abraham thought that if he did not follow God's command he would take away any promise of descendants, maybe he believed that since God gave him Ishmael and Isaac then God would grant him another son as long as he was faithful. But at what price? Would you blindly follow the command of God even if it meant compromising your humanity to do an unjust act as killing another human being?

Maybe the lesson is that we should never forget our humanity nor lose compassion for our fellow man even if we are commanded to do so, for this blind faith may lead us down the heartless path of fanaticism. I don't believe in a God who would sadistically test mankind to sacrifice their own children, but the one I do believe in is the loving and compassionate God who is found throughout all faiths, buried beneath imagery, symbols, and anthropomorphic attributes. The true compassionate God of Abraham is the God who stopped the knife.


Don said...

Very interesting thoughts. I have debated acquiring some of Armstrong's works. Looks like an author I can agree with.

Eruesso said...

She's a bit dry at times but a great launching point into a study between the three monotheistic faiths. My favorite so far is her book on fundamentalists, The Battle for God. Although, I have been interested in picking up her new book, The Bible: A Biography.

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