Friday, October 14, 2005

The Silence of Abraham and Isaac

I had to present an exegesis of Genesis 22:1-14 in my Old Testament class today. Thought I'd share it with you:

Genesis 22:1-14, often referred to in Christian Bibles as “The Testing of Abraham” and in Jewish tradition as the Akedah, or “Binding of Isaac” is fraught with tension and challenges us with its long silences. It stands as a single narrative unit, but within the development of the larger story of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The reader or listener is immediately drawn into the story by the effective use it makes of dramatic irony. Immediately, after only the first verse, we know something that neither Abraham nor Isaac know—God is testing Abraham. And as we listen to God’s command to Abraham, that he should sacrifice now his only, favored son, whom he loves (Besides asking Abraham to sacrifice his family’s future, which God promised through Isaac, God seems to be adding salt on the wound here), we are privy to what Abraham knows but Isaac doesn’t as the two prepare to journey to the place where God has directed them. Given what we know, the story is one of increasing dramatic tension. We watch as Abraham himself cuts the wood for the offering. Then the two travel for three days, during which the story offers nothing but silence. If you’ve ever set out on a long journey with something on your mind, you can just imagine what this must have been like for Abraham.

The break in Abraham’s silence is an interesting one, because his promise to the servants that he and Isaac will return is either a deception, wishful thinking, or a suggestion that he knows something that we don’t. Nevertheless, it is a bit shocking to learn next that Abraham lays the wood on Isaac for the rest of the journey, to a destination still far away, as many as 3-4 days longer, suggests the New Jerome.

This next part of the story, the rest of the journey, is set off by the repetition of the phrase “the two of them walked on together,” certainly to emphasize the dialogue which takes place between Isaac and Abraham. Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. One wonders how Abraham could even answer the question, and, again, his words cause us to question. “God will provide,” he says. Is this, we can ask, another deception, is he speaking of Isaac, or does he know something we don’t know? Our questions carry us to their arrival at the mountain, as well as the arrival of the climax. The story slows for a moment as Abraham prepares the altar and binds Isaac, but the tension reaches its peak as Abraham raises the knife to strike. With Abraham, we’re likely to breathe a sigh of relief as the angel stays his hand. Abraham is congratulated for showing his fear of God in not withholding his son, the future of his promised family line, and a ram is given in place of Isaac. Still, we are left with the questions. Did Abraham know something we didn’t know? And, what exactly is this story about anyway?

In its original context, there are a number of possibilities. First, we must notice that this passage begins “after these things,” indicating this is part of a larger story. Indeed, the Jewish tradition has been to see this as the tenth and most important of the trials of Abraham, and there are suggestions in the text to support this. The expression “go to” which God uses in commanding this journey only appears one other place in the Abraham story, in Genesis 12:1, when he is first called. This suggests that despite a few failures along the way, Abraham has finally proven that he has the trust which God asked of him. There is even perhaps a suggestion in the angel’s words “now I know that you fear God,” that God had doubts about Abraham similar to those Abraham expressed about Abimelech in Genesis 20:11. Indeed, Walter Brueggeman speculates that God himself does not know whether Abraham will actually go through with it. The later exilic audience would be likely to understand the binding of Isaac as emblematic of their own captivity, the story holding the promise that God will provide for them, as he did for Abraham and Isaac.

The Jewish study Bible calls the interpretation of this as a polemic against human sacrifice a “widespread misperception,” and the New Jerome downplays this interpretation as well. The Jewish study Bible goes on to note that most rabbinic commentators indeed see Isaac as an adult, and a willing participant in the sacrifice. Jewish commentators also seem to anticipate the Christian connection between this story and the sacrifice of Christ. The substitution of a male sheep is said to foreshadow the Paschal lamb in Exodus, and a midrash relates the laying of the wood on Isaac to the Roman practice of crucifixion. These undergird the obvious parallels between Abraham giving up his only beloved son and God doing the same.

The emphasis in both the Jewish and Christian traditions with regard to this story has been on the faithful obedience of Abraham and Isaac, though as the naming of the stories suggests, the Christian focus is more exclusively on Abraham. This emphasis purports to offer some explanation for the silences the text faces us with, but there is still that and the question: Did Abraham know something we didn’t? The impulse in the historical evaluation of this story has been to say yes. Twelfth century Rabbis Ephraim and Judah, Origen, Augustine, Luther and even the Letter to the Hebrews all suggest that Abraham had some foreknowledge of resurrection or at least a belief that God could raise the dead. If not this, there is the suggestion that Abraham knew God would stop him or somehow see to it that Isaac survived, as Calvin suggests.

But what if what we are faced with is just silent, blind obedience? Can we accept that? Immanuel Kant insisted that a true God could not demand such a thing, and thus found the story absurd. I myself have to wonder why someone who so insistently questioned the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah could be so silent about his own son. The Jewish study Bible provides little consolation when it points out that the innocence of Isaac actually makes the sacrifice more commendable than the “forensic” destruction of the guilty Sodomites. However, at a time when often we find ourselves dwelling in silence at the unspeakable destruction of a September 11, Hurricane Katrina, or an earthquake in Asia, I would suggest that perhaps we not try to explain away the silence which confronts us in this story. Soren Kierkegaard, commending the story over Kant’s objections suggests that the reason for Abraham’s silence is that he can say nothing intelligible in response to the terrible act which God has demanded of him. Indeed, we may find instead in this story how much Abraham’s silence speaks to us when, as pastoral ministers, we are faced with the tragedy of another, and realize that there is no consolation that can be spoken. There is no remedy to the silence. Yet we can, like Abraham and Isaac, join that person on the journey to a place that God will show us, and walk on together.


Anonymous Ruth said...

Thanks for this reflection. Ever since we looked at this passage in my Jewish Thought class at college last year, I've been trying to figure out what I think of the story - I'd thought before that class that I knew what it meant pretty well, and now I'm not so sure. One interesting point Rabbi Barry (the prof) brought up in class (which I actually thought you were going to make, based on your post's title) is that Throughout the rest of Genesis, after this event Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again, at least in what has been recorded. He suggested that this could mean that there was a falling out between the two of them over this (which, if you think about it, could make sense. How much interaction would you want with you dad (or mother) if he (or she) had just tried to kill you?).

Oh, and in my high school Sacred Scriptures class, we took a different, rather interesting way of looking at the story. We put Abraham on trial for reckless endangerment of a child (although if Isaac was in his mid twenties or thirties as some scholars say this wouldn't have worked as well). In case you're wondering, we ended up with a hung jury.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Not only does Abraham not speak to Isaac again as far as we know, but this is also the last time in Scripture he speaks directly with God as well! I had a time limit, so I wasn't able to bring in all the interesting connections I found. Thanks for your comment!


8:06 AM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

Like I said, Mark can I borrow your notes next semeseter. I take OT then.


2:03 PM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Dear Mark,

Your blog is great! Thank you for showing it to me.

It may have been excruciating for Abraham to make that journey to the sacrifice. But, imagine how he might have felt on the journey home.

He could go to sleep that night, and wake up the next morning, knowing deep in his heart that there is absolutely nothing that he would not do for God.


5:34 PM  

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