Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 12-22

Abraham’s story begins at Chapter 12. (At first, his name is Abram.) “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen 12:1-3). Thus the story of a promised land, and a chosen people, begins with Abraham’s story.

Various stories about Abraham and his family are told in chapters 12-19 (I’ve mentioned a few in previous postings). One of the most famous of these stories is the Lord’s continuing promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child – a promise they find harder and harder to believe as they get older. In the meantime, Abraham has a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. This child is named Ishmael. Sarah is unhappy not to have a child of her own. In chapters 17-18, the promise to Sarah is reiterated. Now they laugh out loud, because Abraham is now 100 years old, and Sarah 90, and “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen 18:11). But then Sarah does in fact have a child: Isaac (Gen 21:1-3).

The most famous story about Abraham is the story of how his faith was tested (Gen 22). After all of this time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him (fulfilled in the birth of Isaac), then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. In the Bible’s account of the story, we cannot see into Abraham’s emotional state. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, meditates at length on this story, and tells the story in various ways, trying to see into Abraham’s internal reaction to what he has been asked to do. What is he thinking as he walks up the mountain? Is he quietly assured that, although he was asked to do this terrible thing, yet he will not have to? Is he quietly trusting – or inwardly distraught? It is impossible to tell from the Bible version of the story. We are given no clues.

I very much appreciate Kierkegaard's meditations on this story and what it implies about the meaning of faith. How can we be sure we have correctly discerned God's will? Could God sometimes ask us to do something that goes beyond the bounds of what we generally regard as "ethical"? Do faith and ethics always correspond -- or not? Is it better to live ethically, or to be what Kierkegaard calls a "knight of faith"? Or would God never actually ask us to do something that goes against the ethical? These are hugely important questions.

At the last minute, it turns out that Abraham does not have to sacrifice Isaac after all. (Faith and the ethical come back together.) The Lord is very pleased with Abraham. Since Isaac is allowed to live, the rest of the promise now has a chance to be fulfilled. Isaac grows up, marries Rebekah, and has children. One of his children, Jacob, has 12 sons who are then regarded as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

So the story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of a particular couple, guided to a new land to settle and begin a line of descendants who are regarded as a special people, chosen by God. Abraham is admired for his faith: for living close to God, for being attentive to how God guides him, and what God asks of him. But God’s blessings are not limited just to Abraham’s family: “in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

As I continue reading the Bible, I will continue to meditate on the recurring themes of a promised land, a chosen people, living in relationship to God, and the meaning of faith.


  1. Hi CS, I came across this midrash on Abraham/Sarah/Isaac when I was at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre - it's taken me a while to get hold of it again! I'm enjoying your writing, thanks. Alice M.

    Genesis 22: a midrash. Marion McNaughton

    And with heavy heart Abraham went to his wife Sarah and said, God has told me to take our son Isaac, whom we love, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.

    And Sarah said, A shrewd move. This God is no fool. This is her way of testing you. What did you say to her? And Abraham replied, I said nothing. I want God to know I will obey Him without question. I will do as He commands.

    And Sarah threw up her hands in despair and said, Abraham you are a bone-headed fool. What kind of a God do you think you are dealing with? What kind of a God would want you to kill your own son to prove how religious you are? Don’t be so stupid! She’s trying to teach you something: that you must challenge even the highest authority on questions of right and wrong. Argue with her, wrestle with her! But Sarah’s words smacked to Abraham of blasphemy, and he went into the mountains with his son Isaac.

    And Sarah said to God, Sister, you are playing with fire. He is too stupid to understand what you are up to. He won’t listen to me and he won’t challenge you; if you don’t stop him he will kill our precious son. Is that what you want? And God said, Sarah, they have a long journey to the mountains; I’m hoping one of them will see sense. And Sarah said, Like father, like son. You’ll have to send an angel.

    And it came to pass as Sarah foretold, and the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham the first time and told him not to kill his son. And Abraham sacrificed a ram as a burnt offering. And the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham a second time and told him his offspring would be as numerous as stars in the heavens and would possess the gates of their enemies.

    And the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham a third time and said, Because you were ready to kill your own son in the name of your God you will be known as a great patriarch and millions will follow your example. And they will believe that He is indeed a jealous and a demanding God, and they will willingly sacrifice their sons in His name and to His glory. And there will be bloodshed and slaughter in all the corners of the earth.

    And Abraham returned to his wife Sarah and said, God is well pleased with me for I am to be a mighty patriarch. And Sarah said nothing. But she took the garments of Abraham and Isaac that were stained with the blood of the ram, and she carried them to the river to be washed. And the river ran red with the blood of generations to come, and Sarah wept bitterly.

    And God came to Sarah at the water’s edge and said, My sister Sarah, do not weep. You were right, it will take time. Meanwhile hold firm to what you know of me and speak it boldly. I am as you know me to be. Many generations will pass and a new understanding will come to the children of Abraham, but before then I shall be misheard and misrepresented except by a few. You must keep my truth alive.

    And Sarah dried her eyes and said, As if I didn’t have enough to do.

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing this! As I've been reading the Bible, I must say I've been tempted to "re-write" passages like this, telling the story from the perspective of the women! I'm glad to see that others have in fact tried this!