The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 offers fertile ground for theological reflection. It is a tale that is simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting, straightforward and complex, pragmatic and melodramatic. These divergent challenges are a crucial part of its enduring relevance to Christians, Jews and Muslims. It’s a story that defies reductive interpretation — attempts to distill simple life-lessons risk losing the nuances that have resonated so deeply with so many for so long.
I certainly don’t have a definitive interpretation of the tale, but I do think the story itself offers some guidance for how to approach it. That is, at least part of its message is that we should be cautious about being overly certain of our understanding of that message — or indeed of any message.
In Genesis 22 God asks Abraham to give up what he holds most dear in life and by doing so to apparently subvert God’s promise to him. Abraham knows this promise: that through Isaac his descendants will be more numerous than the stars (Gen 15.5, Gen 21.12). To sacrifice Isaac would seemingly turn this promise into a lie. Abraham is faced with an intransigent tension: will he withhold what God asks of him in light of his understanding of God’s promise? Or will he heed God’s command and sacrifice the incontrovertible promise from the very same God?
We must ask ourselves the same questions: are we withholding that which we cherish? That which we think God has given us? That which we think is essential to God’s plan? Is our faith wrapped up in our own understanding, secure in our own knowledge, immune to challenge, inured to certainty? Are the most precious aspects of our faith — doctrines and beliefs that are founded upon the very promises of God — really just modern representations of Isaac? Would we be willing to give them up, even if doing so goes against what we “know” to be true?
What “essential” aspects of Christianity are we unwilling to sacrifice? What walls have we erected around orthodoxy that, though often well-meaning, are ultimately working against the very faith that we profess?
R.W.L. Moberly in his essay “Living Dangerously” says:
Christian faith creates a presumption that in Scripture in general, and in Gen 22 in particular, there is truth. This presumption, however, should lead not to any kind of complacency (“we have the answers”) or superiority toward other (“we’re right, you’re wrong”) but rather to a willingness on the part of community and individual alike to expose oneself to what the truth, and right worship, of God actually entails: a rigorous, searching, critical, purifying process in which what one holds most dear and God-given may be precisely that which must in some sense be relinquished if faith is to be genuine — and in accordance with the patter of father Abraham.
We can learn many lessons from the life of Abraham, but perhaps none more important than that which is summed up in Proverbs 3.5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek understanding, but instead that we should never become smug, confident and over-assured that we have the inside track with God. Our insights are all too fallible and it is because of that fallibility that we must hold our beliefs with humility rather than hubris, recognizing that though we should always seek the truth, we often fall far short of it.
Abraham passed God’s test — but do we?