Troubling Texts: The binding of Isaac


(I published a version of this post a few months ago on Women in Theology, but I addressed it in my Troubling Texts class and thought it was worth updating and re-hashing in light of my current interpretive efforts.)

As we dive into another week of looking at specific troubling texts, I want to reframe our understanding of the Binding of Isaac, and offer an alternative interpretation. 


What if we’re making the wrong assumption about the “testing” happening in the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-18)? Traditionally we read this story to be about God’s call for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son. Different modes have been used to try to make sense of this: Maybe Isaac knew God would provide a different sacrifice; maybe it’s a (disturbing) lesson in priorities; maybe the authors - from their position writing at a later date and knowing the outcome - created or read into this story the extent of God’s involvement in order to convey themes of obedience and faithfulness to a people that was prone to wander. 


But as I’ve struggled with this text, and come up against these interpretations I’m forced to acknowledge that they don’t fully honor the story I believe the Bible to be telling: A story about a God who is creating order out of chaos, ushering divine, inclusive love into the world through a call for right treatment of creation, in order to bring about renewal and redemption in the world. 


To be sure there are other stories scripture is telling — a need for obedience being one — that the Binding of Isaac text might more closely align with. But when confronted by a story that doesn’t seem to pass muster when related to God’s love and care for creation, I feel compelled to investigate! And this is exactly why it may be helpful to view the Binding of Isaac from a different perspective. 


Re-examining our traditional interpretation


I agree that the traditional interpretations of this story, which hang on righteousness and obedience, need to be wrestled with as well. But what if the “testing” isn’t about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but is about his willingness to engage with God about what Abraham knows to be right? What if Abraham’s response isn’t the one God is looking for? What if Abraham is taking faithfulness to an ungodly conclusion?


The heroines and heroes of the Bible are frequently tested - it’s a literary tool just like the plots in our favorite epic adventure tales: ordinary people are called into overwhelming circumstances which they manage to conquer through reliance on a divine power.


Holy dissent


Perhaps no tale comes to mind to better illustrate this point than the story of Job.  His character is cast as being righteous and good (Job 1:1). When calamity befalls him and he is tested, he continues to put his faith in God - but he doesn’t take it lying down. In fact, his push-back leads to a dramatic revelation of God’s character and power (Job 38-41). God is seen reminding Job of who God is, but not as rebuking Job for having complaints and questions in the first place. The authors put Job and God in dialogue, and without Job’s half of the conversation, we might not have had the opportunity to witness divine revelation. 


Moses’ story has a similar effect. He pushes back against God’s call to lead the Israelites, and in the course of the back-and-forth, God reveals the core of God’s essence: God is I AM, being itself (Ex 3:14). 


So at the very least God can definitely handle push back, and we could even make the argument that God encourages or rewards a healthy dialogue. A well-reasoned back-and-forth is exactly NOT what happens in the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s clear from different parts of the story - and absolutely expected! - that Abraham doesn’t WANT to do what’s been asked, but he isn’t fighting back. It’s not because he’s afraid to fight back: he has argued with God in other instances, like when he questioned whether or not he and Sarah will have a child, or when he advocated on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33).


More faithful? 


Maybe God is expecting Abraham to continue in this vein, in which case we can only speculate about the outcome. Maybe God had another point to teach that would have been illustrated through a discussion with Abraham, maybe God was actually encouraging Abraham’s love and devotion to Isaac. Of course, these are all hypotheticals gleaned from reading between the lines. What we do know is that - regardless of if there was another, more ideal way this story could have played out - in the end God praises Abraham’s faithfulness.


Yes, God commends Abraham for not withholding Isaac, but could God have been surprised at Abraham’s compliance? Could this have gone another - more faithful - way? As it is, Abraham complies with God’s literal request, and prepares to sacrifice Isaac. Reading this story from an alternative perspective filtered through our themes of order, love, justice, and renewal, we can see how God make senses of humanity’s mess. God reveals a nature that brings order from chaos by providing a different sacrifice. 


Order from chaos


As we’ve discussed in previous posts, God’s tendency to make order out of chaos becomes a theme in the Bible. When Israel is wandering in the desert, grumbling, God sends them guidance (Ex 13:21) and provisions of food (Ex 16). When things start to spiral a little too far out of control, God calls judges, prophets, and ultimately kings. When the Israelites are eventually exiled to captivity, God finds a way to draw order even into such desperate circumstances through characters like Daniel who remain faithful, or the remnant of Israel that helps Nehemiah rebuild the city of Jerusalem. 


And in the binding of Isaac story, when Abraham is ready to take his faithfulness to disastrous ends, God steps in to calm the chaos and provide another sacrifice.


In fact, at just about every turn, God is creating order out of chaos. It’s a recurring theme in the Biblical narrative and - as I’ve argued in previous posts - an overarching theme throughout all of creation.


Read with this theme in mind, I think we can take Abraham’s “testing” as a call to engage with God in discerning dialogue when things don’t make sense or we feel too much is asked of us. But whether or not we behave this way, God continues to weave God’s spirit through our stories, leaving open the possibility for divine redemption - no matter what results our decisions lead to.