What are the politics of the (almost) Sacrifice of Isaac?

Essays, The Politics of Scripture

Does this text foster or critique violence? Perhaps the text should be read as anti-political or an alternative politics? Or does it get at the question of our most sacred idol, the family?

Does this story foster or critique violence?  Perhaps it should be read as anti-political or an alternative politics? Or does it get at the question of our most sacred idol, the family?

Genesis 22:1-14
22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

22:2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

22:3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

22:4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

22:5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

22:6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

22:7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

22:8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

22:9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

22:10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

22:11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

22:12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

22:13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

22:14 So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

The blog post is part of series of posts on the politics of Scripture. We welcome submissions on Scriptures from any religion.


2 thoughts on “What are the politics of the (almost) Sacrifice of Isaac?

  1. This story always makes us uncomfortable. And it should! Not for the reason you may think, however.

    Whenever this story comes up in conversation, brows furrow and hands wring because of the gruesome premise of the narrative: Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his first-born son! Few of us have the nerve to believe in a God who could command such a thing. And most of us worry about the health of a society in which people profess to believe in a God who demands such absolute obedience. Such people do not have the normal moral limits that would prevent them from doing horrifying things in the name of God. The story brings to mind terrorists who willingly kill themselves and others in the name of God. Most of us think that such people are a menace to society and such a God is a threat to democratic forms of public discourse.

    But I think the opposite might actually be true. Democracy requires the sorts of virtues that Abraham exemplifies in this story. It is a narrative about the first law of life (including political life)–“You shall have no other gods before God.” While we tend to focus on the morality of child sacrifice, the story places the focus elsewhere. It is a test. God is trying to determine whether Abraham truly puts God before all else, including his son and the hopes and dreams his existence represents.

    God has promised Abraham that he will be a great nation. Only after long years of agonized waiting, did the promise appear to bear fruit. The old, barren couple–Abraham and Sarah–had a son: a first tiny step toward their hopes and dreams. Would Abraham, could Abraham, give that up for the sake of God? Had Abraham come to associate Isaac with the realization of his hopes and dreams or did he still know that God was the only true and trustworthy source of hope? Would Abraham cling to God or to Isaac? The true God or a false idol. Isaac, of course, is more than an idol. He is a child of God. But isn’t that what all idols are–good gifts of God that are mistaken for God in Godself.

    In the end the story makes its own message quite clear: “God provides.” Isaac does not provide. His survival is not the source of Abraham’s hope. Abraham does not provide. He cannot, by dint of his own will power, prevent Isaac’s demise and thereby keep his own hope alive. God provides. God alone is the source of hope and promise and life.

    The problem is that we often sacrifice our own greatest hopes and grandest ideals in an effort to preserve them from disaster. Think of the American response to 9/11. We came close to destroying democracy in a desperate and fearful effort to preserve it by any means necessary. Think today of the stalemates in Washington that prevent our public officials from responding to the economic crisis and leaves our nation on on the brink of defaulting on our credit.

    It is not absolute loyalty to God that threatens human community, morality, and politics. It is the absolute commitment to the false gods of party, ideology, and nationality that threaten to tear the universe asunder. Only when we loosen our death-grip on these genuine good gifts of God will God place them back in our hands. Otherwise, they give birth to destruction and despair rather than life and hope. The lesson of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac for political life today is “though shalt have no other gods before God” and “God provides.”

  2. This story is as troubling and problematic to me as it is to most readers. One understanding I have found particularly illuminating in drawing a productive political reading of the text comes from Avivah Zornberg in both The Beginning of Desire and the Murmuring Deep. Zornberg suggests that insofar as the Akedah is a test of Abraham, it is a test he fails rather than passes.

    It is provocative to compare Abraham’s conduct of questionless obedience to divine violence on Moriah to his tireless petition in Mamre against God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18).

    In deriving a political ethic from Isaac’s binding and near sacrifice, I read the story as an unsettling glimpse at our human potential to be persuaded to violence by powers claiming absolute authority. This story lays bare the hastiness with which humans readily undertake violence and reveals God’s intention to interrupt the tragedy when possible. The narrative proximity of Sodom and Moriah show both the potential of humans to advocate for justice against absolute authority as well as the potential to become fatally obedient.

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