The Binding of Isaac: Two Interpretations

In 1843, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard published his most famous work, Fear and Trembling.  Virtually anyone who has taken Western Philosophy 101 has heard of, if not read, the book.  I first read it as a college sophomore.  It is a difficult book.

Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard begins with four different depictions of the same story, the very story we read from Genesis this morning, the story we call “The Binding of Isaac.”  Four times, Kierkegaard takes us through Abraham’s excruciating journey to Mt. Moriah.  Four times he imagines Abraham tenderly kissing Sarah goodbye.  Four times he describes Abraham holding the hand of his trusting little boy, guiding Isaac up the mountain.  And four times he depicts a father raising the knife over his son.

Kierkegaard examines the Abraham and Isaac story every which way, trying to make sense of it.  We get that, I think.  Even at a one hundred seventy year distance from Kierkegaard, we recoil at this story and ask the questions: What kind of God would command such a thing?  What kind of father would obey?

The author Tobias Wolff shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”[i]  In it, a pulpit preacher tells the tale of a drawbridge operator who brings his precocious, only, young son to work.  In a distracted moment, the little boy escapes his father and sneaks into the gear room of the drawbridge.  Just then, the warning bell rings.  A tall ship is coming!  If the operator ignores the warning, the ship will crash into the bridge, killing hundreds.  If he opens the drawbridge to save the ship, his tender son, the light of his life, committed to his care, will be crushed in the gears.

Everything in the preacher’s pious tale builds to an expected conclusion.  The drawbridge operator will do the noble thing.  He’ll flip the switch, saving hundreds but killing his son.  But Wolff’s story takes an unexpected turn.  One character who hears the tale of the drawbridge, Frances, interrupts in rebellion.  “No!” she says, “That’s it.  That’s my quota of holiness for the year…How do people think up stuff like this anyway?  It’s an awful story…I don’t care if the Almighty put a gun in my ear.  I’d never do that, not in a million years.”

And we’re with Frances!  My impulse, as the priest who is supposed to offer a definitive interpretation of Scripture, is to lie to you, to offer with feigned confidence a clear understanding of both the God in this passage who asks too much of Abraham and the man in this passage who is actually willing to butcher his son.  But I have no such confident words.  As a Christian I, like you, can scarcely conceive of the God I know asking my children of me.  And as a father, I can say with great confidence that were God to ask, I would fail.  I can fathom no circumstance in which I would take the trusting hand of my son and raise a knife above him.

The author Tobias Wolff tackles shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”

The author Tobias Wolff shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”

The best I can do is walk with you through this story, offering you two different interpretations.  Both can claim authority, but they admittedly conflict.  I believe they nevertheless both are true, and the interpretation to which I cleave in any given moment depends upon whether or not my children are within sight.

The first interpretation, starkly put, is that sometimes fidelity to God and the things of God requires everything of us.  Years before today’s Genesis passage, God awakened Abraham in the night and commanded Abraham to leave his family, his home, and his land in order to fulfill God’s purpose for the world.  We can scarcely conceive of what this meant in the ancient world.  There were no interstate highways, airlines, or high speed trains by which one could return home.  There was no social media—or even mail service—through which to stay in contact.  To leave one’s home in the ancient world was to sacrifice one’s history.  For the sake of God’s purpose, God asked Abraham to give up, in faith, Abraham’s past, and Abraham obeyed. Now, years later, in Genesis 22, with the command to sacrifice Isaac God is asking Abraham to give up, in faith, his future.  Abraham is to trust God, even when Abraham can’t fathom God’s reasons for this request or the way God might eventually make it right.[ii]  God does not carry through with the command.  He stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, but the story is constructed to teach us that there is something necessary to faith about Abraham’s willingness to give up even his own future for the sake of God.  There is something necessary in Abraham’s commitment to God before his commitment to all other things, even those dearest to him.  It is, after all, a commitment God extends to us, by giving up Jesus himself on the cross for love of us.[iii]

It is to this stark reality—a reality we most often choose, in our comfort, to ignore—that Jesus himself points when he says just before today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

The Gospel requires that we stand for grace and for love, and when others in our world—even those dearest to us—stand against grace and love, we must be willing to cut the tethers of those relationships, to sacrifice them.

In our self-indulgent and self-referential culture, this interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is incredibly important.  It begs the questions of us: What are we willing to sacrifice in our lives in order to be faithful to God?  What are we willing to give up in favor of furthering grace in the world?

“In our self-indulgent and self-referential culture, this interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is incredibly important.  It begs the questions of us: What are we willing to sacrifice in our lives in order to be faithful to God?  What are we willing to give up in favor of furthering grace in the world?”

For instance, would we risk our social circles in order to stand up for God’s love?  Would we risk a job?  Would we take up our stakes and move cities to further grace?  Would we give up relationships with family members if those family members stood against love?  Is our fidelity to God first in our lives?

I’m tempted to end there, with those questions.  They are worth a week’s pondering to be sure.  But I’ll only pause, because the rough binding of Isaac, of Abraham’s innocent little boy—the fear and the fever of it—keeps haunting me.  Without denying the truth of the first interpretation of this story, I also desperately need another.

There is an ancient, alternative rabbinic interpretation of the Binding of Isaac that says Abraham fails the test of his faith.[iv]  Abraham’s very zeal to follow God makes him delusional, and with a clouded imagination Abraham misunderstands God’s command.  In this interpretation, it is not Abraham whose horror grows as Abraham travels up the mountain with Isaac, but God’s.  And when God realizes that fevered Abraham is truly about to slay the child of God’s promise, God cries out “Stop!” and stays Abraham’s hand.

The ancient rabbis then say, beautifully, that God created the ram caught in the thicket at the very dawn of creation and left it there through all time, waiting for Abraham to see in the periphery of his vision, waiting to be Isaac’s salvation.  This is another way of saying that God always and forever provides an alternative path to our human tendency to destroy, writ large and writ small, that which is most precious.

Caravaggio's Binding of Isaac.  God always provides the ram.

Caravaggio’s Binding of Isaac. God always provides the ram.

And that interpretation is also incredibly important.  How often do we raise the knife—with words, with actions, with slights, with guns and bombs, with our economic and political choices—and bring it down full force, ending that which is most tender and vulnerable in our world, and in so doing equally marring that which is most tender and vulnerable in our souls.  The zealous decision to raise the knife in our lives is always a failure of our imaginations.[v]  It reveals just how misguided and deluded we can be.

But God always provides the ram.  There is always, just in the periphery of our vision, if we only have the will and the eyes to see, an alternative to our destructiveness.  The knife need never come down, if we will but listen to the voice of love ringing in our ears.  “Stop!” says God to us, “Do not bring down your hand in violence.  Sacrifice the ram of pride instead.”[vi]

If we will listen to that voice, if we will look for the ram, we will lower the knife and walk back down that mountain with the child hand-in-hand.  Our fever will subside.  Our lives and the lives of those dearest to us will be preserved.  And our fidelity to the God of love will be complete.  Amen.

 

[i] Wolff, Tobias, “The Night in Question,” from The Night in Question.

[ii] See Fleming Rutledge, “The Strange World of Abraham,” in The Bible and the New York Times, pp. 98-103.

[iii] The most common Christian interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is that it prefigures God the Father’s willing sacrifice of Jesus.

[iv] See Isaac Kalimi, “’Go, I beg you, take your beloved son and slay him’: The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,” at http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Doc12/kalimi.pdf.

[v] Franz Kakfa was likely the first person to utter this phrase in reference to war, saying, “War is a monstrous failure of imagination.”

[vi] This allusion comes from World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Binding of Isaac: Two Interpretations

  1. I loved this sermon so much. My question about this story since I have been an adult with sons of my own has always been, “How was Abraham so sure it was God telling him to sacrifice his son?” I find it quite difficult to discern God’s voice from other voice–usually ones that tell me what I want on some level to hear. So I was delighted to learn of the Rabbinical interpretation. You should probably know too that I was raised Presbyterian, am a preacher’s kid, have been confirmed both Presbyterian and Episcopalian, was ordained a Presbyterian elder after my Episcopalian confirmation because we lived in such a conservative diocese I could not cope (my older son, then 2, was not welcome at the altar), but am now very happy at Christ Church–though I will always ask lots of questions! My dad always reminds me of a quote I like very much–an unthinking faith is a strange gift to offer the creator of the human mind (possibly paraphrased wrong)! Thanks for making me and my unruly boys welcome for such beautiful worship.

    Nancy Warren

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