This blog has been following the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark since the new year. Previous posts can be found in my archives.
GENESIS 22 (from the Schocken Bible)
Now after these events it was
that God tested Avraham
and said to him:
Here I am.
Pray take your son,
your only one,
whom you love,
and go-you-forth to the land of Morriya / Seeing
and offer him up there as an offering-up
upon one of the mountains
that I will tell you of.
Avraham started early in the morning,
he saddled his donkey
and took his two serving lads with him and Yitzhak his son
he split wood for the offering-up
and arose and went to the place that God has told him of.
On the third day Avraham lifted his eyes
and saw the place from afar.
Avraham said to his lads:
You stay here with the donkey,
I and the lad wish to go yonder,
we wish to bow down then return to you.
Avraham took the wood for the offering-up,
he placed them on Yitzhak his son,
in his hand he took the fire and the knife.
Then the two of them went together.
Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, he said:
Here I am, my son.
Here are the fire and the wood,
but where is the lamb for the offering-up?
God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering-up, my son.
So the two of them went together.
They came to the place that God had told him of;
there Avraham built the slaughter-site
and arranged the wood
and bound his son Yitzhak
and placed him on the slaughter-site atop the wood.
And Avraham stretched out his hand
he took the knife to slay his son,
but YHWH’s messenger called to him from heaven
Here I am.
Do not stretch out your hand against the lad,
do not do anything to him.
For now know that you are in awe of God-
You have no withheld your son, your only son from me.
Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw:
there, a ram caught behind in the thicket by its horns!
he took the ram
and offered it as an offering-up in place of his son.
Avraham called the name of that place: YHWH Sees.
As the saying is today: on the mount of the Lord, it is seen.
And YHWH’s messenger called to Avraham a second time out of heaven
By myself I swear
– YHWH’s utterance
indeed, because you have done this thing, have not withheld your son, your only one,
indeed I will bless you, bless you,
I will make your seed many, yes, many
like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore of the sea;
your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies,
all the nations of the earth shall enjoy blessing through your seed,
in consequence of your hearkening to my voice.
Avraham returned to his lads,
they arose ad went together to Be’er Sheva.
And Avraham stayed in Be’er Sheva.
Every time I re-read this, I think that I’ve found an interpretation that makes it less savage, and every time I’m wrong: it remains a savage, astonishing, image of what it means to trust God. In some ways commentary can only damage such a masterpiece, but perhaps some remarks may point to its power.
The audience knows that Avraham can argue with God and that God not only allows him but also listens. Here there is simply command and submission. God leaves no room for protest; Avraham must either obey or disobey. That gives the dialogue its bleak intensity.
The author relies on the audience remembering the history of God’s partnership with Avraham, especially the way in which Avraham and Sara are granted an almost miraculous son, who takes the place of Araham’s son by Hagar. When therefore YHWH refers to Yitzhak as the “only one”, he reminds Avraham that this child is his gift. The audience supposes that Avraham must think that God is about to destroy their partnership, to tear down all they have built up together, to revoke the covenant.
Moreover, as the audience follows the story, it remembers that this is a story and that all the characters including God have been invented by the storyteller; and it wonders what sort of experiences have led to storyteller to imagine such a God and such a hero. For the brutality of God is not disguised: he mentions the love of Avraham for his son – the first use of this word in the Bible- as he orders his sacrifice.The audience also knows that within the story, Avraham only has his own trust that this God is “real” rather than a figment of his imagination. Indeed, all that has happened in his story might have happened anyway, without God, but for a man to sacrifice his own son, that’s either proof of the “reality” of God or of murderous human madness.
And what of Isaac? The storyteller does not let us think of him as a mere victim, the two of them “go together” and Isaac asks the question which shows he’s not daft but knows what’s going on. His willingness to accept his fate, means that the characters are locked into an appalling, meaningless, act of killing which will make the name of God stink in the nostrils of all decent people forever and forever. In fact, even when the killing is cancelled, the audience may feel that a God who uses such “tests” on his human partners is in no way worthy of faith or worship; and that the human who has held to faith in this God is to be pitied or scorned rather than admired.
The storyteller gives his audience two pointers to the meaning of his story:
1. The use of words related to “seeing”. These have been used throughout the Avraham / Sara story to indicate the way in which human beings perceive each other and God; and the way God perceives and has compassion on human beings. Here the place of sacrifice is called “Seeing” which is a kind of promise to Avraham who has been able to “see” God, that this event will bring a new revelation of God’s goodness. After a journey, Avraham the “sees” the place from a distance. He has to reckon that if the place is real the sacrifice may also be, but he remains obedient. When Isaac shows he has “seen” the absence of a sacrificial lamb, Avraham replies that “God will himself-see-to- the lamb for sacrifice.” meaning that where human eyes can only see desolation, they may still look to a God who sees and has compassion on them. Finally, Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees the ram for the sacrifice. God’s foresight has met its match in the eyes of Avraham which see beyond the immediate evidence.
2. The use of “address and response” in the narrative.This describes the approach of a person to another and the other’s willingness to be present to them. Both partners are open to the other and to the history which will be made by their partnership. This is true of Avraham and YHWH, as it is of Avraham and Yitzhak. Even in the pain of obedience Avraham may trust that his only child is safe with God; and Yitzhak may trust that he is safe with his father. The third occasion of address and response is when God’s messenger stops Avraham from killing his son with a double use of his name and he replies as always, “Here I am.” He is where God has asked him to be, and this culminating dialogue proves that his previous openness to God has not been misplaced: he is in the presence of one who gives life, not one who takes it. This device of dialogue suggests that “what is happening” is not separate from “to whom it’s happening”, that persons determine events rather than vice versa. God commands because it is Avraham, who obeys because it is God. Avraham tells the truth to his son because it is Yitzhak, who accepts it because it is Avraham. I’m reminded of Michel de Montaigne, writing of his great friendship with Etienne de la Boetie, “If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by saying, “Because it was him; because it was me.”
Avraham’s trust in God is vindicated by the outcome, in which God commits himself utterly to Avraham, Isaac and their future generations. God’s vulnerability in his plan to bless his creatures is partnered by the unconditional trust of Avraham. Still as Wellington said of Waterloo, it’s a damned close-run thing. Luther characteristically expresses this dimension of the story when he comments, “If God had blinked, Yitzhak would have died,” and he continues “In the teeth of life we seem to die; but God says No: in the teeth of death we live. If he butchers us, he makes us alive.” Indeed Luther compares the obedience of Avraham to that of Jesus on the cross.
God speaks as the one who counts the number of the stars, that is, as the one who is beyond the universe. This story speaks of the agonising trust required of those who imagine such a presence. Of course it deals well with the experience of Israel in defeat and exile, but unlike some scholars I don’t think the story comes from that time. I think it is older and would have been known to the exiles in their desolation.
Oh dear, that’s too many words already. I’ll leave Mark’s Gospel untouched today.
This is an excellent commentary. Though I will continue to be troubled by this chapter of Genesis (as with most other chapters of Genesis), you have provided a truthful way to read it from within the context of biblical revelation, especially in the context of Abraham’s evolving relationship with God. There is poetry in your handling of this chapter. You have treated this as a “masterpiece” narrative, and that’s exactly what it is. But if all the characters, including God, have been “invented by the storyteller” – and I do agree with this statement – how does it lead to trust? But I think you hint at the answer we must each strive for ourselves: “This story speaks of the agonising trust required of those who imagine such a presence.” That pretty much sums up everything, doesn’t it? Not just about this story, but pretty much the entire Bible! Very suggestive statement, and I like it. Thank you for this.
Reblogged this on Orthodox Portland (Maine) and commented:
I’m taking a break from my daily Lenten reflections. Today’s reading of Genesis 22:1-18 is the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of his son, Isaac. Instead of my own thoughts, I’m re-posting the blog that my friend Mike Mair posted on this passage a month ago. He uses a different translation of the Bible than what I use, but he has some excellent thoughts on this crucial story from Genesis.