I’ve been giving the story of Abraham and Isaac some thought lately. It was only about a month ago that the sacrifice of Isaac came up in our lectionary. It as at about that same time that I watched an episode of Game Theory which explored the recent indie game, The Binding of Isaac. The premise of the game concerns a young child name Isaac who envisions his mother receiving a command from God to sacrifice him as proof of her faith. I have not played the game myself, but according to the show the entire game is in some ways an expression of its creator’s own childhood religious trauma.
For whatever reason, it seems a common fear among the vehemently irreligious that any devout Christian is liable to hear voices commanding him to kill and attribute it God at any given moment. While this seems an irrational fear to me, the sacrifice of Isaac has troubled many thoughtful Christians as well. Kierkegaard’s attempts to wrestle with the story are perhaps the most famous. He felt that God’s command to Abraham was so irrational that it helped lead him to believe that faith was an inherently irrational act—that ascending to faithfulness meant leaving one’s reason behind. Naturally, as a Christian with an interest in apologetics, I consider Kierkegaard’s ultimate conclusions to be anathema. As I’ve written elsewhere, faith and reason properly understood are complimentary to one another—not antagonistic. And yet, what is one to make of the story?
Part of the difficulty, I think, is how shallow the typical understanding of the story is—even among Christians. As it’s usually told, God wants to make sure he’s still number one in Abraham’s life, and so He commands Abraham to murder the miraculous son for whom he had waited a century. But once Abraham proves his love for God by raising the knife, God says He’s only kidding because He now knows Abraham’s faith is the genuine article. God then gives them a ram to sacrifice instead, which we’re told is symbolic foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Told this way, the whole thing seems to reek of some pathological insecurity on God’s part and likewise seems like a rather drastic object lesson just for some Christ imagery that nobody would understand until more than a thousand years later.
What’s really going on in this story, however, is deeper than that. To be sure, God is testing Abraham’s faith, but not in the way that most people think. Generically, faith is just a trust in a benevolent higher power. This is where we get the whole “do you love me enough to murder your son for me” angle on this story. But generic faith is not the uniquely Christian kind of faith—the kind of faith that Paul attributes to Abraham. Christian faith or “saving” faith is a faith with a very specific object: the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. I believe this is the very specific faith that God was testing in Abraham.
But this was way before Christ, so how could Abraham have possibly held such a faith? Well, God promised Christ to us as a savior way before Abraham. The first thing God does after Adam and Eve confess their sin—his immediate response to the Fall—is to curse the Serpent and tell him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head, and you shall crush his heel.” Though Adam disobeyed God in favor of Satan (and in so doing handed the devil Adam’s own dominion over the Earth,) God immediately promised that he would break up this alliance and put mankind back on His own side and defeat the devil.
This promise is what the entire book of Genesis is about, and it begins right away. Lo and behold, Eve conceives and bears an offspring. Her response is this very peculiar phrase in Hebrew. It is usually translated as “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” or “the Lord has given me a man,” but it is literally, “I have gotten a man the Lord.” Like Luther and other interpreters, I believe Eve thought she had just borne the Messiah. And really, this would be only natural for her. God had just promised that her offspring (singular) would crush the serpent’s head, and all of the sudden she has an offspring. But then she has this second offspring who they curiously named Abel (which means “useless,”) and things get complicated. Despite the hopes of his parents, we quickly find out that Cain was not the Messiah after all—not only did God hold no regard for Cain’s offering, he actually turns out to be a murderer. But they have another son, Seth, and the line and promise continue.
Next we move into the geneologies that everybody skips over, but which underscore this ongoing wait for the promised offspring. Offspring keep coming, but all they do is live a long time and then die. And yet, there is always another offspring to continue the promise.
Then we come to the Flood when God decides to wipe the wickedness of man off the face of creation. But what about the promised offspring? What about salvation and victory over Satan? Well, God preserves Noah, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” along with his family. Could Noah then be the one? No, he turns out to be a drunk, and one of his sons a pervert. But Noah still passes on God’s promise to his son, Shem.
This continues until we reach Abram—a descendant of Shem whose wife is barren, but whom God singles out nevertheless. What then of the promised offspring? When Abraham and his wife are a hundred years old, God promises and then delivers a genuinely miraculous birth—a son who will be made into a great nation and a blessing for the entire world. And so, the reader is posed with another dramatic question: is Isaac finally the promised offspring?
By missing this central theme, we miss out on the real drama of the Genesis and therefore the real significance of the sacrifice of Isaac. The sacrifice of Isaac was no ploy; it was real. God promised a Messiah whose heel would be crushed by Satan. Whether this Messiah would be Abraham’s son, grandson, great grandson, or descendant, this promised offspring was going to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of the world. The question posed by the story is therefore not whether Abraham loves God enough to murder his son for Him; the question is whether Abraham really trusts in God’s promised redemption through a sacrificial Messiah that is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh—in essence, whether Abraham trusts the person and work of Jesus Christ.
And Abraham believed. He was willing to carry out that sacrifice himself all the while believing that God would raise Isaac from the dead (he tells his servants that they would both be returning from the mountain.) When God has Abraham stay his hand, it is not to say “just kidding about the whole sacrifice thing because now I know for sure that you love me” it was to say “your faith is true and its object real, but it is not to be fulfilled yet; it is not Isaac, but another whom I will provide.” And the drama of the promise continues.
And so, the scandal inherent in the sacrifice of Isaac is merely the same scandal inherent to Christianity: that God so loved the world that he gave His only Son to die on a cross as an atoning sacrifice. Christ remains a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles, but the binding of Isaac is not another stumbling block alongside him. Isaac merely began what was later fulfilled in Jesus Christ.