Testing a Father's Faith

Perhaps no Old Testament story is more controversial than the sacrifice of Isaac (for biblical text, see page 14). A listener must ask the question: What kind of God would order a father to kill his only child? The question gets to the heart of the story. To seek an answer requires a close scrutiny of the text.

Isaac is the promised child, the next step toward the emergence of Israel as God’s people. First promised when Abraham and Sarah were already too old to have children, he arrived only after years of waiting—to the delight and surprise of his parents.

But that joyful gift is now in jeopardy. The God who promised this son unexpectedly calls for his death. No one did anything to bring this on; it seems a blatant case of divine perversity. Has God forgotten how crucial this child is to God’s own plans and to the future of God’s people? More immediately, has God forgotten what this child means to his parents?

Answers start emerging with a careful unpacking of the text. Notice first what Abraham is told to "take." Rather than a single word, God uses four overlapping terms: your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love. The order in the Hebrew is slightly different. It reads: your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac. Look at the progression; see how the words advance in intimacy. Just "your son" is enough to warm Abraham’s heart. But God goes on: "your only son." Yes, the child who removed the sting of barrenness from this old and faithful couple; the child who gives meaning to all that came before, and hope for all that will follow. Hope, not just for the couple; for God as well.

There’s more: "whom you love." This is the first use of the verb "to love" in the Bible; it will turn up 217 more times. Its object can be anything from God to a good meal. The sense of the Hebrew is captured in the English "delight." And what better word to describe how the aged couple felt about this long-awaited, sometimes doubted, amazing child—whose very name means "laughter" and whose presence is their delight.

Then the clincher: "Isaac." For us, a name is just a name. For ancient Semites, your name is who you are; to know your name implies familiarity, even intimacy. To speak your name is to acknowledge your true and authentic self, with all its properties and potentials. By saying "Isaac," God utters all that this young boy is, and all that he might become.

Until now, Abraham is clueless, glowing in this divine acknowledgment of his son. In a moment, numbness will replace that glow as he learns what God wants him to do with this four-times-honored child. But there is more to be mined from the multiple words.

The point of those designations is to make clear that God knows, acknowledges, and appreciates the bond between Isaac and Abraham, perhaps even that God shares in this bond. We know how Abraham and Sarah had to wait for the promise of a child to be fulfilled—did God have to wait as well? The child came when the child was supposed to come, and neither his parents nor God seemed able to advance his arrival. When he did come, all that God wanted and hoped for, God’s plans for the future, began to take wing. God may be calling Isaac "your son," but somewhere in the divine heart it echoes "my." The words—slow, repetitive, building in intimacy and delight—are hard for God to say because only God knows where they are leading.

Then why say them? Why initiate this wrenching event? The storyteller addresses that question in the opening words of the narrative: "After these things God tested Abraham." "After these things" is the biblical way of clearing the deck and announcing that something new is coming. The key word is "tested." It sounds so superior, so haughty and insensitive. Why would God do that? To see how far Abraham can be pushed? To pull a divine version of "Who do you love best"? Because this God is fickle and arbitrary?

But wait a minute. Look at where this word appears—right in the beginning of the story, presumably before we know what will happen. What we really need to ask are: Why a test? And why now?

The test, for God, is not a choice. It is a necessity. Verse 12 verifies this by having God say, once the sacrifice is aborted, "Now I know. . . ." "Now," not before; and "I know." In Hebrew, the verb "to know" is not intellectual or abstract; it is experiential, so experiential that it’s used for sexual intercourse, as in Genesis 4:1, "Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain."

God needs experiential evidence that Abraham is the man of faith that God thinks he is. He seems to be, but every so often he has wavered, taking matters into his own hands rather than trusting in God’s protection and care. With Isaac born and growing up, the path is clear for the promise to progress. But is Abraham the best choice for guiding and directing it? God still isn’t sure.

To get this definitive evidence of Abraham’s faithfulness, God must propose an action that could demolish Abraham’s faith. What will it be? The answer—a horrifying answer also for God—is the killing of Isaac. More is at stake here than a father taking his son’s life. Could Abraham so trust God’s promise of a great nation that he would destroy the very means by which the promise was to be fulfilled? That’s what God did not know and needed to find out.

The burden is not just on Abraham. For God to call for such a precarious action means taking a serious divine risk. This God has already failed twice—in the Garden of Eden and in the events leading to the Flood. Now God again risks failure by making this heart-wrenching request. And like most such requests, the one who speaks it then falls silent, intent on what it will evoke.

Amazingly, Abraham complies without objection (the same Abraham who, in Genesis 18, haggled with God over how many righteous people could save Sodom). To let this silent compliance sink in, the storyteller draws out the narrative, listing each detail of Abraham’s preparation. Then, with the journey over in a blink, the details again trickle out, one after another. At each pause, we look for Abraham to come to his senses and stop. He doesn’t. He just advances in excruciating silence.

Most people think the dramatic climax of this story is Abraham raising the knife over the stunned Isaac and God—through a faintly disguised voice of an "angel"—shouting for him to stop. But the storyteller sees it differently. As scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, through a carefully crafted structure the story presents the climax earlier, in a moment of poignant exchange between the burdened father and the bewildered son.

Central to the story are the three dialogues, tied together by a pattern of structural similarities and centered on a call. Think of the text as arranged in three columns. In the first (v. 1-2), God calls, Abraham answers, and God speaks. In the second (v. 7-8), Isaac calls, Abraham answers, and Isaac speaks. In the third (v. 11-12), an "angel" calls, Abraham answers, and the "angel" speaks. But wait. The three-stage pattern is broken in the second dialogue when Abraham speaks again. This tips us off that the storyteller is signaling the high point of the story. And what does Abraham say? "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."

"God will provide"—this is Abraham’s statement of faith, his answer to the test. More than that he doesn’t know—his son, in fact, may be the "lamb" that God provides. But whatever is ultimately sacrificed on the altar, Abraham is willing to leave it in the hands of a God he has come to trust. So he tells Isaac (and all those down the centuries who have puzzled over this story), "God will provide."

Words, though, are not enough. Without follow-up actions, Abraham’s profession of faith would ring hollow, unable to muster concrete expression. Then that inability would be the answer to the test, a devastating answer because God would suffer yet a third divine failure.

But Abraham does what God has told him. Again, the narrative slows as Abraham makes the final preparations. The focus is all on him; even Isaac has no words, no actions, caught up in his father’s compliance. We watch—God watches—as Abraham proceeds, even making sure that the wood is stacked properly.

Once the knife is in Abraham’s hand, God’s shout freezes his movement with a double call of his name. He stops and answers, then hears the words of divine reprieve. Isaac is spared. And the reason he’s spared is the key to the entire story: "for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

We can almost hear the relief in God’s voice: "now I know." Until then, God did not know—that was the reason for the test. Once the faith in Abraham’s heart was expressed in words and actions, God knew. And once God knew, the test was over.

What God knew, what God had experienced, is that Abraham "fears" God.

The term falls hard on modern ears—fearsome Gods should be avoided or placated. The Hebrew word is richer, embracing "awe" and "wonder," but even that falls short of this complex and puzzling biblical term. Ultimately, to fear God is to be faithful in conviction and action to who God is and who we are before God. It is acceptance, reliance, trust. It is also awe and reverence toward the God who is totally Other, whose capabilities we cannot fathom and whose inscrutability might take the form of asking a father to kill his son.

To explain why God is now convinced of Abraham’s faithfulness, the storyteller returns to words spoken at the beginning. Then they were words of horror for Abraham and sorrow for God. Now they are words of relief for Abraham and joy for God: "your son, your only son." But the high point is Abraham’s actions. Those determined, deliberate, inexorable steps acknowledge that this child is God’s son as well, affirming the bond that unites the three. God sums it all up: "you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

So the story has a happy ending. God’s choice of Abraham is confirmed, never to be questioned again; Abraham’s faithfulness to the promise does not cost him the ultimate price, the life of his son. But the ending leaves one glaring loose thread: Isaac. Although he is the center around which the story revolves, he plays only a minor role in its telling. More than that, except for his one question to his father, he plays a passive role—rather than act, he is acted upon.

The most obvious example of Isaac’s passivity is the absence of any struggle or objection once his fate is clear. As the story draws to a climax, Isaac is presented as just one in a series of rather mundane tasks that Abraham performs: build an altar, arrange the wood, tie up Isaac, heft him onto the altar (v. 9). Some think Isaac doesn’t object because he’s too young. The text doesn’t say how old he is, but it does say that he’s old enough to carry a load of wood and to ask an appropriate question.

What we have in this story is the first hint of something that will become apparent as the subsequent chapters of Genesis unfold: Isaac, though an essential link in the chain, is a minor character whose presence mostly serves to ground the actions of others. Having served his purpose in the sacrifice story, he disappears. The text confirms this: "So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba" (v. 15). What about Isaac? Did he join them but get no mention? Was he left behind, perhaps still bound in ropes? Did he run the other way the first chance he got? The text does not say. We are left to decide for ourselves,

Central or peripheral, active or passive, Isaac is still the bearer of the promise. The collection of stories in which he is the main character takes up just one chapter (26). But it includes the essence of the promise: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous" (26:24). Among that numerous offspring will be Jacob, the Bible’s first loveable scoundrel.

This article is the second in an ongoing series.

Anthony Prete

Anthony Prete is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He has exercised his ministry to bring new insight to the biblical text by conducting workshops at FGC Gatherings, teaching courses at Pendle Hill, and providing classes for individual meetings.