There are two things I think you should consider when looking at a really famous and much-discussed passage: what did the original writers want to say in it, and what did you get out of it.
The answer to the former, I really don’t know. But I do know that our popular image of how it went down is not the most prevalent one in Judaism or in many early interpretations. We tend to picture Isaac as a little child, dragged up the mountain by Abraham and tied up on an alter, utterly clueless as to what was going on.
And that’s certainly a textual possibility. Isaac’s age is never mentioned. But many Jewish commentaries, based on passages that follow, considered Isaac to be an adult at the time of the near-sacrifice. Sarah dies at 127 at the start of the next chapter, at which point Isaac would be 37. What’s more, the tail-end of this chapter (which I’ll get back to in a bit because it was something new for me) is the first introduction of Isaac’s future wife Rebekah. From this, many rabbis took the events of chapter 22 to be involving an adult Isaac.
If that’s the case, then there’s no way the very elderly Abraham could have tied him up unwillingly. In this interpretation, both Abraham and Isaac are the ones demonstrating faith here: Abraham’s faith in God, and Isaac’s faith in his father.
So what “faith” are they demonstrating? “Faith” as blind obedience to any mandate of God? I know that’s how many Muslims would see this, as a demonstration of submitting your will to God, and it’s how Kierkegaard saw it with his “leap of faith.” But I’m of the other line of thinking which looks at little clues and sees Abraham’s faith as an act of trusting that God would make sure everything turned out all right. He tells his servants that he and Isaac will be returning (v 5), and he assures Isaac that God will provide the sacrifice for them (v 8). It’s possible, of course, to read these as Abraham lying, that the awkwardness in the dialogue, the odd pauses, is him trying to cover for the fact that he plans to kill his son. But it might also indicate Abraham’s own fears about what he’s doing. “Isaac is the son who I’m supposed to have descendents through, right? How can that happen if he kills him? Surely God must have some plan for Isaac to come out of this all right?”
And of course God does. He never seems to have actually expected Abraham to have to kill Isaac, just to be willing to do it (v 12).
And some people might consider that as horrible as actually following through with the sacrifice. How can God expect someone to go through the agony of knowing that their child might die, might be sacrificed?
I might have been left in the same situation if not for a few factors. The first, I feel embarrassed to say, is my recent re-watch of the third season of Fringe. In it, one of the main tensions is that the nigh-omniscient Observers want Walter Bishop to be prepared to sacrifice his own son – the son he literally tore the universe apart to have – in order to save the world. Unlike God, they actually go through with it – save for one who, as in this account, intervenes at the last minute to try to find another solution.
This got me thinking: we actually ask parents to be prepared to sacrifice their children all the time. It’s called the military. It’s called mission and service work in dangerous parts of the world. It’s called letting them travel across 14 time zones to the most seismically active part of the world.
And it’s an act of faith, an act of trust that they’ll come out of it all right. Only unlike in this story, there isn’t always a ram offered at the last minute. Sometimes our children die. Sometimes they are really sacrificed.
Even then, as a Christian, as a Jew, as a theist, you’re expected to trust that God has a plan that will make it all right in the end, even if you can’t see it. It’s a hard, hard thing to have faith in. The world is a dark place and it’s hard to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel. For me, the best strength is knowing that I’m not alone on this journey. All other human beings go through it – including the human being who was also God.
But that’s getting ahead of things a little.
After Isaac isn’t sacrificed, Abraham receives news from his family who is still living up north (v 20-24). He has a great-niece named Rebekah, and in a few chapters she’ll make her appearance into the story. This wasn’t something I realized was part of the sacrifice chapter. For now, I wonder if the original writers didn’t intend this to be tied into the reaffirmation of God’s promises just a few verses before (v 16-18). Abraham and Isaac, having gone through this trial, are now ready to continue the work of making all those innumerable offspring, as Isaac will soon be married.
The Japanese: tamesu “to test” (v 1), yakitsukusu “to burn whole” (v 2), kura “saddle” (v 3), me wo korasu “to strain one’s eyes” (v 4), sonaeru “to furnish, to provide” (v 8), shibaru “to tie up, bind” (v 9), hofuru “to slaughter, butcher” (v 10), oshimu “to be unwilling, to be reluctant” (v 12), joumon “castle gates” (v 17).
Two interesting thins in the Japanese. The first is that the NCT opts for “to slaughter” in v 10, whereas the NRSV only gives that as a footnote alternative for “to kill.” It really emphasizes the brutal and inhuman thing that Abraham might have had to do. The other is that sonaeru, “to furnish, to provide,” is a homonym of a word that means “to sacrifice, to offer.” That means hearing this out loud in Japanese would give some interesting plays on words that might not have been present in the Hebrew or the English. Misheard, God suddenly is not providing a sacrifice, but actually making it. Food for thought.