The sacrifice of Isaac, part 4

This is fourth and final post wrestling with the disturbing story in Genesis 22, in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham obeys, with God intervening only at the very last second.  As noted in part 3, Abraham is lauded as an example of faith, despite his sometimes less than admirable behavior.  It’s enough to make me wonder: do I really understand what faith is?

Reformation theologians spoke of three dimensions of faith: notitia, assensus, and fiducia, or roughly, knowledge, conviction, and trust.  Abraham had to intellectually understand the content of God’s promise and be convinced that the promise was true.  But then he had to place his fate in God’s hands, in an act of personal trust.

This threefold distinction calls into question some of what we call faith in our daily lives.  When in difficult situations we tell ourselves (or others) to “hang in there” and have faith, there’s an element of trust involved: “God is good.  He’ll come through.”  But there’s often a fine line between what might look like faith and wishful thinking.

It’s not that God won’t do what we ask.  The real question is whether we will continue to trust God even if he doesn’t.  In faithful obedience, we trust God to the extent that we let go of the need to control the outcome.

Such is the journey of Abraham’s developing faith.  Leave home, Abraham; I promise to make you the father of a great nation.  Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and they will spring from your own aged loins.  Don’t keep trying to take matters into your own hands.  Trust me.  God showed himself to be faithful to his covenant promises, and Abraham responded in kind.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t get too comfortable with that story, as if it were only there to give us warm reassurance that God has our best interests at heart.  Genesis 22 won’t let us get too cozy with any self-serving notions of faith.

That point has been most strikingly made by Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian who is considered by many to be the father of existentialism.  Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (written under a pseudonym that translates to “Silent John”) struggles for over 100 pages with the remarkable nature of Abraham’s faith.

How is it, Kierkegaard asks, that preachers can go on speaking so blithely about Abraham’s faith when we know that he fully intended to murder his son?  From a law and ethics standpoint, Abraham’s behavior is unconscionable.  What is it about faith that takes us beyond mere ethics?

There are stories in which the protagonist must make a heroic sacrifice for the greater good.  Kierkegaard argues that such heroism is within the reach of any human being who has enough courage, and we will admire them for it.

But faith–Abraham’s faith in particular–goes a step beyond.  He is obedient not to some universal moral law, but to the particular command of a covenant God who has asked him to do something patently absurd.  Only in faith can Abraham fully let go of his beloved son and at the same time fully believe that he will get him back.

It’s impossible to do justice to Kierkegaard’s argument in so short a space (well, OK, I’m not sure I could do justice to it even in a much longer space).  But the faith that he admires is not simply a matter of having the courage to do what we already know is right.  It should be at least that, but that’s not the lesson of Genesis 22.  Faith will sometimes mean trusting God enough to take a leap into the absurd, being obedient in ways that can’t be fully explained.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, God is not a sadistic god who delights in child sacrifice.  Neither is he a capricious god; his demand of Abraham is part of a larger story of growing faith and the birth of a nation.

But the story refuses to be completely domesticated or explained away.  The fact remains that Abraham is a model of faith because he obeys a command that he doesn’t understand even though it will cost him the one thing he loves most.  As Kierkegaard suggests, Abraham might gladly have given his own life in Isaac’s stead, and would have gone down in history as a great example of noble self-sacrifice.

But not of faith.

Genesis 22 will not allow us to reduce Christian obedience to courageous and dogged adherence to a set of ethical principles.  Yes, we are called to obey God by doing what we know is right.  But we may also be called to do what we don’t understand.

That’s where it gets scary.  We don’t like giving up our sense of predictability and control.  Is it possible that we’ll misunderstand what God has commanded?  Yes.  It is possible that some may do heinous things in the name of obedience to God?  Yes.  But let’s face it: these things happen anyway, and the solution is not to bury the text because we don’t like its implications.

Let me offer an amendment, however, to Kierkegaard.  I appreciate the way he fleshes out the existential loneliness of Abraham’s position.  The end result, however, is a highly individualistic understanding of faith that seems to leave little room for any real notion of a community of faith.

Genesis 22 can’t be absolutized into an understanding of faith that is only about individuals and their solitary moments of radical obedience.  We occupy a different place in the story, in which God has given his Holy Spirit as a gift for the creation of his church.  Faith, therefore, is to be both developed and exercised in a community of discernment and wisdom, obedience and trust.

There will still be tension.  Some may believe that God is calling them to some radical and inexplicable act of obedience, and the community’s response will be born more out of anxiety than faith.  So be it.  Hopefully, in between such critical moments, the constant core of life together will be the cultivation of a deep and abiding trust in a God who makes and keeps promises.

In so doing, we are the children of Abraham.

2 thoughts on “The sacrifice of Isaac, part 4

  1. I’ve enjoyed this series over a very difficult text. (My wife has always hated this story, even more so when it was the sermon text the first week after our first child was born!)

    In particular, I found this line compelling: ”Genesis 22 won’t let us get too cozy with any self-serving notions of faith.”

    That ties in, for me, where the story finds its ultimate traction as part of the Christian story: the father who does not spare his beloved one and only son, so that there might in fact be a faithful people of God, is God Himself.

    The echoes of Gen 22 recur in the NT: ”You are my beloved son” at the baptism; ”God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all,” in Rom 8.

    The Christological reframing of the text helps me get my mind around how it’s a text we’re supposed to participate in. It’s the story of the God who loved the world so much he gave his son; the son who loved the world so much he gave himself, and the Father-Son who continue to love the world so much that they send us to demonstrate this God’s self-giving love in our lives and in our communities.

    1. Beautifully said; thank you. And it’s wondrous to think how Abraham, in his moment of obedience, could not know all this, yet still have that faithfulness woven so seamlessly into the larger story. That in itself should inspire faith in a broader and deeper way than in Gen 22 taken by itself. (And seriously, how did Gen 22 get to be the text when you were holding a newborn?)

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