Getting Involved With God…
Is a book by Ellen F. Davis, one of the most insightful Old Testament scholars, teachers and friends I know when it comes to sorting out the obvious questions in stories like this one in Genesis chapter 22, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac, perhaps the most terrifying story in the Bible. Abraham is asked to offer “your only son whom you love (2)” as a korban olah, “that which goes up in smoke,” which in English is “holocaust.” The typical translation as “burnt offering” does not do justice to the horror of what is being asked.
Davis wants us to see the Old Testament not primarily as a moral rule book or set of prophecies of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; nor as simply morally and spiritually primitive and fully superseded by the New Testament. Rather, Davis zeroes in on what is truly at stake in this story and those which precede and follow it: God’s desire to enter into a binding relationship, a covenant, with all of humankind. God wants to bless all creation through God’s most precious creatures, man and woman, created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27). That is, our temptation to overly focus on Abraham and Isaac in this story is to overlook the main character of the entire book of Genesis, the “book of beginnings,” which is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.
Which God, it turns out, as far as Genesis is concerned, is anything but “omni”: omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Rather, Genesis presents us with a vulnerable God: “The Binding of Isaac shows us a God who is vulnerable, terribly and terrifyingly so, in the context of covenant relationship. … if we properly understand the dynamics of covenant relationship, then we are confronted with a God who is vulnerable. For, as both Testaments maintain, the covenant with God is fundamentally an unbreakable bond of love (hesed). And ordinary experience teaches that love and vulnerability are inextricably linked; we are most vulnerable to emotional pain when the well-being and the faithfulness of those we love are at stake. And as we have seen, the Bible shows that the faithfulness of even the best of God’s covenant partners is always up for grabs. So, it follows that God’s vulnerability in love is an essential element of covenant relationship.” (p. 62)
This story is remembered by all three monotheistic Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Somehow this story ought to be one of many founding narratives that binds our three traditions together with the One God who begins it all.
After several failures to establish a binding covenant relationship in the Garden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel episodes, God decides to work with one man and his wife, Abram and Sarai, later to be called Abraham and Sarah. God promises them a place to live, bountiful descendants to populate God’s creation with those who know and love the Lord, and to become a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth. God wants a relationship based on faith, trust and love. Through them, we are to become his proxies on Earth treating others as he would want them to be treated.
Verse 12 tells us that Abraham passes the test: “Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me.” In her article on Bible Odyssey, Davis points this out as the core religious virtue, “fear of God.” “To fear God is to live in humble recognition of the incalculable difference between God and humans. This is the first time we see anyone (allegedly) practicing that virtue, so the divine statement here leaves the morally alert reader with two questions”:
How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child? The story is often said to be about obedience, but Davis notes what we all know, that blind obedience to a tyrannical demand is no virtue as the modern Holocaust and numerous human tragedies remind us. Verse one points us in the right direction beginning, “After these things….” Abraham has already exercised questionable, unvirtuous behavior in giving his wife over to the harems of two kings out of concern for his own life, demonstrating a lack of trust that God would get him through this journey to the promises and covenant made. God’s plan to bring blessings and good on all the peoples of the Earth depends on this one man. More than obedience is at stake here, but rather mutual trust: the point here is whether or not Abraham is willing to relinquish his son whom he loves, and upon whom rests the blessing, the covenant and happiness of God, Abraham and all the peoples of the Earth. Abraham’s fear of the Lord is a condition of complete vulnerability before God, just as God’s willingness to risk the end of this strategy with Abraham exposes his vulnerability as well. God does not know how God will react to his demand. It’s a test.
How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son Isaac? First, this is a real test. Again, God has no idea how Abraham will respond. Only by demanding everything can he know that he can trust Abraham the rest of the way. Secondly, God demands everything of Abraham to remind him and to remind us, the readers, that God, not Abraham, not us, is in control of this covenant relationship. A relationship that demands balance. In chapter 18 Abraham boldly challenges the Lord’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, and skillfully argues to save the righteous people in those towns. God listens to Abraham and names him a prophet on the power of his intercessory prayer. In the worldview of Genesis, writes Davis, genuine relationship with God demands a balance between boldness and submission. “In Gen 18, we see Abraham’s unstinting compassion for humans; in Gen 22, we see his unstinting devotion to God. Psychologically speaking, it may be nearly impossible to hold those two in perfect balance, but theologically speaking, both are necessary for those, both Jews and Christians, who struggle to live in covenantal relationship with God. Thus, with this most important ancestor, the Bible begins to show what it is to serve ‘prophetically’ in covenantal context: negotiating dual commitments to humanity and to God, from moment to moment discerning when to challenge God on behalf of weak and sinful humanity and when to submit in “fear” to the sometimes inscrutable divine demand.” [The Bible Odyssey]
Boldness and Submission. Submission is the root meaning of Islam, a tradition that also preserves this story, but chooses not to identify which son, Isaac or Ishmael his older brother, is led up the mountain. In the text, verse 8, it says, “The two of them walked together.” Father and son. In a sense both of them are victims, and both are survivors. In a greater sense God walks with them as well. All three are vulnerable to the risks involved. All three come through the test bound together in a deeper sense than before. Is it possible that this most terrifying of all stories means to bind us all together, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Jainist and all the peoples of the Earth to finally, with one another, reap the blessings of the promise that begins Abraham’s journey in the first place? This story is meant to demonstrate to one and all what is at stake when we choose to get involved with God. The story ends, “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: 'In the mount where the LORD is seen.' When we honestly and trustfully walk together, the Lord will be seen in us and through us. All of us.