The story of the sacrifice of Isaac demands our close attention even as it requires us to make some daring suggestions. The following is not the only possible reading of the story, but it is one that takes the story very seriously even as does the text itself. The story is difficult for us to hear, in part, because of the way God is often interpreted. Perhaps we can read the story in a way that involves God as more than simply the initiator and resolver of Abraham’s challenge. In this sense the story is about God, Abraham, and their covenant relationship.
The story opens with God’s shocking command that Abraham take Isaac to the land of Moriah and there offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Why would God make such a terrible demand? Child sacrifice was an abomination in Israelite society under any circumstances. That Isaac was Abraham’s “only son … whom you love” only heightens our natural aversion for a God who would command the death of a child. It will not do to say that Yahweh wanted to test Abraham. The sentence, “Some time later God tested Abraham” (22:1) does not explain God’s motive; it describes the story that follows. If we want to understand God’s motive for this test, we may find one at 22:12. There God said, “Now I know that you fear God.” After this dramatic narrative had run its course, God himself said “Now I know,” which seems to strongly suggest that God’s motive in testing Abraham was that God wanted to know for sure about this man’s faith.
Some will surely object to this line of thought, saying that since God is omniscient, God already knew the quality of Abraham’s faith. But that idea is not without its problems. For one, it still leaves us without an explanation for the test of Abraham. Worse, it leaves us with a picture of a God who is not above putting even his beloved covenant partner through an agonizing emotional ordeal. Then there still remains the matter of the biblical text itself and its strong implication that God wanted to know. If the text presses us toward the idea that the motive for this test was that God wanted to know, dare we shrink back from that implication? Surely we have here yet another example of biblical paradox. In this text we have God wanting to know, whereas in many other biblical texts we find that God sees and knows all. That we take the Genesis 22 narrative at face value does not require us to set aside all those other texts. Instead, we must affirm the paradoxical and often mysterious way of God with the created order.
God is but the first subject of this narrative. There is also Abraham, who is the central figure. Would he have faith? Would he trust the command of the God who had promised him everything through the beloved Isaac? Few if any of us will ever face such a test, and for that we can be profoundly grateful, for this test carried Abraham beyond the domain of ethics and morality. Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard rightly saw that Abraham’s obedience carried him into a region where there were no rules for living. No Israelite moral code would justify the sacrifice of Isaac. There would have been no way to explain or justify that action to Sarah. In order to follow this command of God, Abraham had to act purely on faith, and here faith meant trust in the promise and command of God.
Abraham was faithful to the command of God. After the journey to Moriah, God knew that. On Abraham’s side there was faith. On God’s side there was promise. These were the terms of the covenant. The happy ending to this narrative is that the covenant between God and Abraham was reaffirmed and amplified.