Some angles on the binding of Isaac

June 20, 2011

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Violence. Danger. Fear. Trust. Betrayal. Salvation. Ethics.
They're all invoked in the story of the binding of Isaac. Here are a couple
different points of entry into this difficult passage:

  • The story is often recited to emphasize Abraham's
    obedience. But what was
    going through his mind when he said to Isaac, "God will provide the ram," or when he told the
    others, "the boy and I...will
    come back to you"? If Abraham
    believed these things,
    then he never thought he would actually kill Isaac. And if he trusted God's promise of
    descendants through Isaac, then it would be reasonable to expect that he
    wouldn't have to kill Isaac--or that if he did, God would resurrect him (Heb.
    11:19). Yet God/the angel affirms that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. What did Abraham think? Was he willing?
  • Biblical
    texts related to child sacrifice seem to contradict each other. In Ezekiel
    20:25-26, God gives statutes "that were not good" about offering up
    firstborn children, in order that God "might
    horrify" the people. In Jeremiah
    19:4-6, God condemns burning children as sacrifice, something "which I
    did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind." The contradiction
    resolves if we understand the different perspectives reflecting different
    periods in history.
  • This
    quote from Catherine Madsen got me thinking about the inescapability of
    violence--and the need to deal with it in stories about God:

What if the alternation in God's character between tender
care and ferocious brutality, between limitless creation and wholesale
wreckage, occurs not because the writers of the Hebrew Bible admired brutality
or wreckage, but because they could not escape them? Metaphor is a talking
cure: it starts at the point of injury. ("Notes on God's Violence,"
CrossCurrents, Summer 2001.)

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