You Must Not Do It Anymore
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
What on earth are we supposed to do with the story of the binding of Isaac that we find in Genesis 22? It seems almost self-evident that we cannot accept it at face value, as the inspiring story of one man’s utter devotion to God, but we cannot just ignore it, either, pretend it’s not there. The story forms a significant part of the foundation of both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, and to leave its interpretation in the hands of those who would perpetuate the darkest messages that can possibly be derived from it seems irresponsible at best.
So I think we must engage the story—plumb its depths to try to find anything worth salvaging and wrest it from the grip of preachers and interpreters who would use it to paint God in monstrous and abusive colors for their own purposes. We may even find that this passage is a divinely appointed text for this particular time in history.
First, a little background. The passage begins with the phrase “after these things…” (v. 1), so it’s natural to ask, “What things?” If we turn to the preceding chapter, we see that God has at long last kept the promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son. They name him Isaac, which means “laughter,” because both parents laughed at the prospect of having a child at their advanced age. Sarah, a nonagenarian nursing a child, says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6).
The good times come to a screeching halt in the next verses, however, because Sarah sees Abraham’s other son Ishmael playing with Isaac and in a fit of vengeful jealousy demands that Abraham drive out the older boy and his mother Hagar. Sarah herself had first sent her Egyptian slave girl to her husband’s bed to try to get Abraham an heir without waiting for the fulfillment of the promise, but now that she has a son of her own, she can’t stand the sight of Hagar or her son. Abraham meekly complies with his wife’s request, and exiles Hagar and Ishmael to the desert with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water—an almost certain a death sentence, except that God intervenes and saves their lives.
So it’s “after these things” that the fateful demand comes to Abraham’s mind. But there is more. If we look even further back in the chapters of Genesis, we get a portrait of a complex man. The first we hear of Abraham is when he responds, apparently unquestioningly, to God’s call to leave his home in Ur and go where God tells him to go. God makes an extravagant covenant with the rapidly aging and still childless Abraham that he will become the father of many nations and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The apostle Paul will later point to Abraham as a paragon of faith, one who “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3).
But then we have the episode in Egypt, where Abraham, in fear for his life, gives his wife to Pharaoh to become part of his harem. He tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, not his wife, and gets richly rewarded for bringing another desirable woman to grace Pharaoh’s bed. The implication is that Abraham is not only a coward and a liar but also a pimp. Furthermore, he repeats the whole episode a few chapters later with a king named Abimelech. The great faith that Paul extols is nowhere on display in these twin stories.
The final part of our portrait of Abraham comes in chapter 18, when he boldly haggles with God over the city of Sodom. He practically lectures God, saying, “Far be it from you … to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). Abraham talks God down from fifty possible righteous persons to ten, and God agrees to spare the city if that handful of good people can be found. It’s a remarkable moment, and Abraham does it on behalf of the epitome of wickedness, Sodom.
So where are his objections when this same God tells him to turn his long-awaited son into a pile of ashes on a mountain in Moriah? The story in chapter 22 offers no evidence that Abraham questions this supposed divine directive in any way. The writer simply reports the command and then says, basically, “So Abraham got up the next morning and did what he was told” (v. 3, paraphrased).
The traditional Christian interpretation of the story holds up Abraham as a model of faith. The writer of the book of Hebrews observes, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’” (Heb 11:17–18). The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes Abraham as a “knight of faith,” and countless other preachers and writers have followed in the footsteps of these two, declaring Abraham a hero for his unswerving devotion to God, even at the expense of the child he loves.
Some have gone even further, drawing a parallel between the binding of Isaac and the death of Jesus. Like Isaac, Jesus carries the wood that will be used in his sacrifice on his back. Like Abraham, God is willing to put God’s own son to death in order to accomplish something grander. Others point to Isaac as representing sinful humanity, while the ram stands in for Jesus. Like that hapless animal, Jesus takes the place of the intended victim, freeing Isaac and all the rest of us by trading his life for ours. The ram with its horns caught in the thicket corresponds to Jesus with his head encircled by a crown of thorns.
Need I say that I find these arguments unsatisfactory? Need I say that I find something intensely troubling about the notion of a God who requires the death of a beloved child—God’s own or someone else’s—to accomplish God’s purposes? Need I repeat that that the picture of God this interpretation reveals is that of a monstrous, abusive tyrant, not a loving parental God? I don’t think I need to say any of those things. You feel them as well.
One of the problems of this traditional reading is in the meaning of the word “test.” Verse 1 says, “After these things God tested Abraham.” Interpreters from Kierkegaard on down have understood it to be a test of Abraham’s faith. God wants to know if God has made the correct choice for a covenant partner. Is Abraham willing to trust God implicitly, even to the point of giving up what is most important to him? Even if that which is most important to him is the fulfillment of all God’s promises that took so long to come to pass? Will he give up his beloved son, Isaac, the child of the promise, out of his devotion to God? Will he not only give him up, but also put the blade to the boy’s neck himself, spill the sacrificial blood and light the sacrificial fire with his own hands? If that’s the test, then I suppose Abraham passes, but it reveals some really unsettling truths about both the testee and the tester.
But what if the test is of a different nature entirely? What if God is testing whether or not Abraham will object to this order? Whether or not he has a true moral center, or if he will simply blow whichever way the wind blows? After all, he went along with Sarah’s schemes, for all intents and purposes sentencing his elder son Ishmael to death just to pacify her. Before that, he was quite content to save his own skin by twice giving his wife as a sexual plaything to the highest bidder. He doubted God’s promise of a son, practically laughing in God’s face, and tried to make the promise come true by his own efforts. Then he went to bat for a bunch of wicked strangers in Sodom, all to spare his nephew, the morally bankrupt Lot. What if God has begun to have doubts about this Abraham?
If that is the case—and some rabbinical traditions hold that it is—then Abraham proves to be a supreme disappointment. God keeps waiting for the moment when he will wake up to the moral outrage of this request and put his foot down, saying, No, I will not perform this horrible act, no matter who tells me to do it. Instead, God watches Abraham sharpen his knife; watches him place the wood for the offering on his son’s back; watches him carry fire all the way up a mountain, hunched over the guttering wick of his lamp to make sure it stays lit; watches him build the altar and arrange the wood; watches him truss his son with ropes; watches him raise his knife to slaughter the boy, seemingly without a single misgiving. No wonder the angel cries out with such urgency, “Abraham, Abraham! … Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him” (vv. 11–12). That kind of urgency is needed to stop a fanatic with a head of steam.
What none of these approaches has taken into consideration so far is the impact of these events on the boy himself. Isaac becomes a pawn in the contest between God and Abraham; a cypher with no intrinsic value, only his instrumental value as the basis for the test. But I have always wondered what kind of emotional or psychological impact an event like this would have had on the boy. How do you rebound from the trauma of having your own father raise the knife over your throat, and then to hear your father later explain that God told him to do it? Is it any wonder that Isaac’s son Jacob could refer to the deity as “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (Gen 31:42, emphasis added)? Is it any wonder that Isaac is the most passive of the three great patriarchs? Sandwiched between the vivid figures of Abraham and Jacob, Isaac comes across as an anemic, forgettable character. And what about his relationship with his father? One rabbinic tradition suggests that after this near-slaughter, Abraham and Isaac go down opposite sides of the mountain and Isaac never speaks to his father again.
Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” relates the narrative from the boy’s perspective, and he draws some contemporary lessons from his experience. The figure of the father is almost godlike to the nine-year-old boy: “He stood so tall above me; / his blue eyes they were shining / and his voice was very cold.” Abraham reinforces this sense of awe and existential distance between himself and the son when he says, “I’ve had a vision, / and you know I’m strong and holy; / I must do what I’ve been told.” Cohen’s Isaac tells the story in a deadpan manner, as if he is still transfixed, all these years later, by the riveting figure who held him with a paralyzing combination of terror and love: “Then my father built an altar. / He looked once behind his shoulder; / he knew I would not hide.”
But Cohen does not stop at the borders of the biblical narrative; he brings the story home to his time. He wrote the song in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and a seething generational conflict in American society. He has Isaac say to the leaders and fathers, “You who build these altars now / to sacrifice these children, / you must not do it anymore.”
Fifty years on, the words still ring true: a scheme is not a vision; you must not sacrifice these children anymore. As we approach the Fourth of July, we are hearing yet again the drumbeat of militarized patriotism—the notion that our independence was only secured and can only be maintained through force of arms. We are told again and again that we must honor the troops and thank them for their service and sacrifice, but we are seldom asked to ponder the morality of the age-old practice of the young paying the price for the mistakes and ambitions of the old.
Wilfred Owen does ask this question in his poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” which he wrote in the wake of the First World War. He too mines the story of the binding of Isaac for his commentary. The poem reads in part:
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven;
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Are we like the old man of Owen’s poem, who will not listen to the voice of the angel begging him to spare his son, but who instead goes ahead with his appointed slaughter? In his budget President Trump proposes deep cuts to food stamps, school lunches, Head Start programs, and a variety of other programs that have proven reliable in reversing the effects of poverty. The health “care” plan that Mitch McConnell is trying to push through the Senate over the objections of every Democrat in that chamber, as well as a growing number of Republicans, would cut $35 billion from Medicaid over the next decade or so, and would cause millions of people to lose their health insurance. At the same time, the budget finds room to jack up military spending by tens of billions of dollars, and the health care bill includes tax breaks for the wealthy.
We stand over Isaac on the altar, our knives poised. Whose voice will we heed, the angel’s, crying out for mercy for the child, or that of our own greed and inner violence, telling us to spill that blood, light that fire, appease that angry god?
The good news hiding in this dark story is that God will provide. I choose not to take the story at face value, as though God would ever command someone to sacrifice his child. Instead, I see it as a rebuke of one man’s misguided fanaticism and a reiteration of the promise that runs through the Bible from the first page of Genesis to the last verse of Revelation—the promise that God’s world is a world of abundance, and God will provide for our needs. Even in the darkest moments of our lives, when we feel betrayed by our friends, family, and even God, when we find ourselves lying on that altar with the blade poised above us, when we want to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” the good news is that God is there. God will provide. God is our source and destination, the Alpha and Omega of our lives, and love is God’s other name.
In the name of this God of love, this God who will provide, let us reject those voices that want to keep us bound in fear and suspicion. Let us declare our independence from the forces that want to isolate us from our fellow beings and convince us that scarcity, not abundance, is the way of the world. Let us stand up to those who would build new altars to sacrifice the children on and say, “Stop! You must not do it anymore!”
Cohen, Leonard. 1969. "Story of Isaac." Songs from a Room. Columbia.
Owen, Wilfred. 1920. "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young." Public Domain. Online. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/parable-old-man-and-young