November 16, 2006

Genesis 22-24: Sacrificial son

Today's reading is Genesis 22-24 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the death and burial of Sarah, the servant's quest to find a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac, and Isaac's marriage.

It is the first section, the so-called sacrifice of Isaac, that I wish to focus on today. (Gen. 22:1-19) While I realize that this topic may be overdone, I feel that Daily Breadcrumbs needs to at least touch on this seminal moment in Jewish and Christian history.

For those who don't know the story, I shall relate it very briefly:
God calls to Abraham, telling him to take his son Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. So Abraham, Isaac, and two young men of the household go to the mountain. Abraham and Isaac continue on alone, with wood, fire, and a knife, but no animal to sacrifice. Isaac asks the inevitable question, "where's the sacrificial animal?" To which Abraham replies, "God will provide a lamb." They arrive, build an altar, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. But, just as Abraham is about to strike the killing blow, an angel descends and tells Abraham not to do it. They see a ram, and sacrifice that instead. Meanwhile, God blesses Abraham for his unswerving loyalty. Abraham then returns to Beersheba.

So that's the story. The questions of whether God actually intended Isaac to be sacrificed, whether Abraham was actually so fanatical that he would sacrifice his own child, and what type of God requires human sacrifice at all, all these questions have been dealt with so extensively in other writings that it is hardly worth it for me to travel the same beaten track.

Instead, I would like to offer another road of interpretation. Though the text does not state Isaac age at the sacrifice, Jewish tradition (ie: Talmudic scholars) teach that Isaac was 37 years old. In other words, Isaac was a fully-grown man and doubtless capable of resisting his aging father, had he wanted to. Looking at the sacrifice from this perspective brings in all sorts of other questions worth pursuing.

The most notable feature of this interpretation is that Isaac both understood and accepted the fate in store for him. As a grown man, he was certainly able to understand Abraham's intentions when he brought out the rope, or whatever material was used to bind Isaac. He would have seen the lack of sacrificial animals, and drawn the logical conclusion. When Abraham began to tie him, he would have needed to stay still long enough for his father, already quite old, to bind him. He could have run, fought, or struggled, but he didn't.

The sacrifice thus becomes not only a test of Abraham, but an even greater test of Isaac, that of self-sacrifice. In a sense, this is a foreshadowing of Christ's self-sacrifice. We can only imagine the thoughts in Isaac's mind as he lay on the altar, bound and immobile, watching his father bring down a knife towards his throat. Perhaps he felt despair, perhaps anger. Perhaps he accepted his fate as necessary. We will never know.

We will also never know Isaac's relationship with his father, after the abortive sacrifice. We learn in Gen. 22:19 that Abraham returned to the young men who accompanied him, and they travelled together to Beersheba. However, the text does not say that Isaac was with him. In fact, the next we hear of Isaac is two chapters later, towards the end of Gen. 24, when Isaac is coming out of Lahairoi, in the south country, and he takes Rebekah as his wife. (Gen. 24:62-67) At this point, Isaac is forty years old. (Gen. 25:20) He presumably was not living with his father, and perhaps had not spoken to Abraham in all the time since the sacrifice. It certainly would make sense that being nearly sacrificed by your father would put some stress on the father-son relationship. In fact, the next time we hear of Abraham and Isaac together is at Abraham's burial, when Abraham was 175 years old, and Isaac 75 years old. (Gen. 25:8) (Recall: Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac was born. – Gen. 21:5)

Returning for a moment to Abraham, what does he actually receive from this ultimate test of loyalty? This is God's blessing to Abraham: "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and they seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice." (Gen. 22:17-18, KJV)

Wait a minute. Hasn't Abraham been given very similar blessings before? Recall Gen. 13:16, 15:5, and 16:10 (which is similar, though said to Sarah). Abraham has already been told by God that his seed will be uncountable and that they shall possess the land where Abraham lived. What new thing is he gaining from this ultimate act of loyalty? The only thing I see in this passage is, "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed," which is vague enough to mean practically anything.

So, in the end, the near-sacrifice of Isaac managed to apparently estrange son from father without gaining much tangible benefit in return. If I were Isaac, I'd be angry, too.

Of course, we don't know that Isaac was a grown man during the sacrifice. We don't know his age at all. But the possibility that he is, in fact, an adult during the episode adds an entirely new dimension to our interpretation.


heather said...

his being a fully-grown adult male would put a whole different perspective on Kierkegaard's narration of it in Fear and Trembling...i'm not hugely fond of Kierkegaard, so this makes me remotely pleased.

Andrew said...

...this seminal moment in Jewish and Christian history.

*ahem* Let's not forget that *other* monotheistic faith...

Julie said...

Andrew: Indeed. I was leaving that out because they don't use the Bible, and I'm not sure what the Koran says about the incident.

Anonymous said...

The Qur'an says that it was the near-sacrifice of Ishmael.

Anonymous said...

The ending of the story was changed by later editors anyway. Before about the 6th century Isaac was killed; all the later stories about Isaac are basically just paper-thin copies of the stories about either Jacob or Abraham (including the "...Abimelech...wife...sister" story).