Post Author: Bill Pratt
The story, in Genesis 22, of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac has always been perplexing to readers. However, this story takes on special significance to Christians, for it foreshadows the sacrifice of God’s Son for mankind.
David Baggett and Jerry Walls, in Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, bring this significance to light. Before doing so, they chide readers of this text who fail to take into account the theological context of the story:
Kierkegaard is famous for taking the passage as paradigmatic of the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” according to which obedience to God trumps morality itself. He no doubt has pushed many readers to personalize the narrative of the binding of Isaac and ask themselves what they would personally do if they thought God commanded something like this.
But of course the story thus construed has been shorn of nearly all its unique theological and historical significance. The quest to derive universal principles from a story like this is at cross-purposes with the particularistic, gradualist, and narrative-driven character of many portions of scripture, particularly in the Old Testament.
How should one approach the interpretation of Genesis 22?
One who wishes to read [it] with a genuine openness to [its] wisdom and revelatory nature would be well advised not to so recklessly and spuriously traverse the hermeneutical gap. Genesis clearly states that God was testing Abraham, so that the reader knows in advance that it is not really the will of God for Abraham to do this. Abraham, of course, does not know it, and so the point of the test is to see the extent of Abraham’s obedience.
For the reader, the dramatic tension is not the content of the command, but whether Abraham will fully trust God, and what God will do to stop it. Including Abraham’s story in the history of revelation was a much more powerful way to show that God does not, in fact, want child sacrifice than just to say so.
So how does Jesus figure into the Christian understanding of Genesis 22?
Christian readers, however, have always seen in this story a profound fore-shadowing of another scenario in which the Father actually allowed his Son to be sacrificed. Rather than being spared by a ram caught in the thickets, the Son was himself the lamb of God who died to take away the sin of the world. And he went to his death not as a helpless child, but as a perfect man who willingly offered his full obedience to his Father in a fallen world bent on killing him.
While the story of Jesus is even more surprising than the story of Isaac, perhaps in another sense it is not. Is the face of Jesus surprising when omnibenevolence takes human form? It is worth emphasizing here that the book of Hebrews, which reflects at length on the sacrifice of Christ, describes him as one “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The sacrifice of Christ was not a sacrifice into oblivion, but a sacrifice with the prospect of resurrection and exaltation as its final outcome. In view of this, perhaps it is not surprising that the author of Hebrews explains that Abraham obeyed God when called to sacrifice Isaac because he reasoned that God can raise the dead, and must have been planning to do so if he were to fulfill his promises through Isaac, as he had promised. God’s ultimate ability to rectify things as shown in the resurrection provides ways to square even difficult commands with his perfect love and goodness that are simply out of reach if death is the last word.