Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Failing the Test: The Story of Abraham and Isaac

Recently, I've been thinking about something I read in a Madeleine L'Engle book ("The Rock That is Higher") more than a year ago that until now had dismissed as just merely something I didn't believe. The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most common ones to the Christian Orthodox and Jewish traditions, and rightfully so. Having to sacrifice your son is never something I'd like to be challenged to do in the future, and so, I used to not feel any connection to Abraham and the entire story surrounding God's request that he should sacrifice his son.

But then, it came up somewhere else---in another book---and I decided to revisit the story again and see if I really agreed with the "new interpretation" that was out there in so many Christian scholar circles today, on this particular story.

Simply put, many Christian and Jewish scholars today are saying (what Madeleine wrote over 10 years ago about) that perhaps Abraham actually failed the test yet God honored and fulfilled his promise to him anyways. Yes that's right...you heard what I said: Abraham failed the test and God intervened just before his son was to be killed.

If you read more closely and you seek out the character of God more thoroughly in the Old and New Testament, it seems very against God's nature to request such a thing. I know, I know...many of you are saying, "But he was only testing Abraham---to see if he really feared God, and loved God more than anything." But I'm thinking more now, "Was he?" It seems this tenth test of Abraham was really a test of whether he would choose law over love. And sadly, instead of choosing love Abraham chose law, and didn't even go as far as to question God's motive on the matter. Was Abraham simply obeying or is there such a thing as discernable obedience? Why didn't he question God who had called him to keep his commandments (which how could he forget, included "Do not murder") when God was asking him to violate one of these commandments? All throughout the Old Testament it seems Abraham and so many others wrestled with God and argued with Him whenever He would ask something shady or unreasonable of someone. I mean come on, God changed his mind a number of times because of people like Abraham who wrestled and duked it out in the relational life pool of ideas with God. Is it ironic or mere coincidence that Jacob, the man who wrestled with God is whom Israel is named after? God's chosen people's very name suggests the fact that they "wrestle," and yet, Abraham (this time around) doesn't do anything of the sort! Something is seriously messed up here, isn't it?

Perhaps I'm merely trying to understand the infinite too hard with my finite brain. Perhaps I really don't understand this kind of God---a God that would ask me to murder someone I loved so dearly. After all, if this happened today would not 99% of Christians be telling the Abrahams out there, "That is not God telling you to kill your son! That's someone else! Don't listen!"

From my perspective so far, it seems that you don't have to change a lick of scripture to come up with this interpretation of the story. It seems that Abraham could've seemingly failed the test, but yet, by God's grace was given what was promised to Him anyways. And if I'm not mistaken, wouldn't that be more in line with the God we Christians proclaim to serve? Wouldn't this interpretation make more sense when it comes to years and years later and Jesus is about to be crucified, and it is uttered (and compared) "Are you sons of Abraham or sons of God?" Or metaphorically speaking, do you live for the law or live for love?

I'm still thinking on this a great deal, but when I read this again recently and did some more research on it, I came to see it as a much more freeing and grace-filled interpretation of a sacred story that's been agonized and studied over year after year for thousands of years. I'm gonna keep searching, but for now this is just another thing in my life in which God's grace grows and my need for mercy extends even greater.


e.shorb said...

Thanks for the insights and fresh perspective Nevs. It's not one I would have come up with on my own, as I generally accept OT teachings without thinking too terribly much (sad, but true), but is a view will definitely consider the next time I look at that story for myself.
This is unrelated, but when you get a chance, check out this link. I think you might find some of her thoughts and comments interesting.

Chalupa said...

i too don't always think of these things but it makes perfect sense. if you're interested in the emerging church you might want to check out http://thevoiz.typepad.com/weblog/

i guess you could call him an online acquaintance of mine

Neville said...

It's not like I thought of this whole interpretation. Madeleine L'Engle first wrote something about it and then recently, I came across it again in a book by Leonard Sweet entitled "Out of the Question...Into the Mystery." So check out that book for more thoughts on the subject (or rather, thoughts I didn't already cite in this post).

Also, I'll check out these web sites and see what they have to say. Thanks Erica and chalupa!

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this post, especially in light of this weeks' events in London. It is impossible to imagine the mindset of such attackers, and yet cultural relativism has taught me to try to appreciate alternative perspectives, especially the ideas of blind faith and obedience that I cannot myself fathom.

Your post complicates this even further for me. Clearly I need to think more about this. Thanks!


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Derby said...

Very interesting. For a lot more on the story, and an interesting perspective, read Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.

I hadn't heard of that interpretation of the story. What I've most often heard taken from it is that it's a type of God's sacrifice - an example of a Father giving up his Son, even though it's the most terrible thing he could do. Also the lamb as a sacrifice in place of the boy. I don't see immediately that these would interfere with L'Engle's interpretation, though I can't accept it just yet.

(no, I don't think we know each other)