xbn .
Politics of Scripture

When Faithfulness to God Hurts Our Neighbor

Whatever our exegesis of scripture and tradition may suggest, it is imperative that we take into account the pain and damage our religious piety causes to others. Is our perception of divine instruction sufficient justification for actual injury (physical, psychological, and/or spiritual) to our neighbors?

1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 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.” 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. 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?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 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. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. 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.”

Genesis 22:1–14, NRSV

On its surface, the lectionary’s first reading this week is not an especially political story. Rather, it is a personal story—a tense encounter between a man, his son, and his God. Nevertheless, the episode recounted in Genesis 22 has been adopted as a paradigmatic narrative by each of the Abrahamic faiths. The importance of the story is unanimously acknowledged. But its meaning and relevance for modern communities is variously interpreted. In this essay I highlight the tension in the text between Abraham’s faithful obedience to God and the injury he deals to his son, Isaac. Through this lens, the story becomes a cautionary tale, challenging us to cease our perpetration of collateral damage upon others in the name of religious orthodoxy.

The New Testament letter to the Hebrews lionizes Abraham as a model of faith, explaining his surprising willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as an expression of his belief in the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 11:17–9). As early as the 2nd century CE, Christian interpreters such as Melito of Sardis also began to see in Isaac a type of Christ—both characters willingly shouldering the wood of sacrifice en route to their own place of execution. In this way, the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is read as a typological anticipation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Islamic tradition also venerates this story in a version preserved in the Quran, portraying both Abraham and his son (traditionally identified as Ishmael) as models of complete submission to the will of Allah (surah 37:102–111).

The Akeda, or “binding” of Isaac, occupies a key space in Jewish faith, read as part of the daily morning prayers and as a focal text for the observance of Rosh Hashanah. In addition to seeing Abraham and Isaac as models of piety, Jewish tradition also places emphasis on the oath made by God in response to Abraham’s obedience:

“By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16–18, NRSV).

An early midrash (often cited in Jewish prayers), responds to this divine oath using Abraham’s voice: “May it be Your will, oh Lord our God, that when the children of Isaac come before You with sins and evil deeds, that this Akeda [i.e., “binding”] be remembered for them, and may You be filled with mercy.” In other words, God’s oath to the ancestor Abraham as a reward for his obedience is the basis for an appeal for mercy upon all his Jewish descendants (see R. David Blumenthal’s excellent article on this point).

These traditional interpretations read the story as an exemplary tale of faith, submission, and meritorious obedience. However, a different interpretative angle is offered by the modern Israeli poet, Haim Gouri, who ends his famous poem “Heritage” (Yerushah) with these haunting lines (my translation from the Hebrew):

Isaac, so it goes, was not offered up as a sacrifice.
He lived many years,
Saw the good life,
Until the light of his eyes dimmed.
But that hour he bequeathed to his offspring.
They are born with a dagger in their heart.

Gouri imagines that despite Isaac’s physical survival, he suffered a crushing psychological trauma in the ordeal of the Akeda: a spiritual wound that is the heritage of each generation of Jews who have also suffered abandonment—or worse—from the One who ought to have been their protector. The poet’s insight shifts our attention as readers away from our natural sympathy with Abraham (the character who has been our protagonist since Genesis 12) to empathize instead with Isaac, bound by his father, witnessing the ritual dagger—the ma’akhelet—in his own father’s hand, raised to strike him. Gouri demands that we attend to the horror of betrayal and abandonment inscribed in the biblical text and experienced by so many of our human family, not least the Jewish people.

In his book Messengers of God, holocaust survivor and celebrated author Elie Wiesel also highlights the rift between father and son in the Akeda. He notes that on the way to Moriah, the story emphasizes the “togetherness” of Abraham and Isaac (verses 6, 8). But after the ordeal, Abraham returns alone (verse 19). Where is Isaac? Wiesel wonders if Isaac “was no longer the same person, [if] the real Isaac remained there, on the altar” (83). Like Gouri, Wiesel also sees perennial Jewish suffering encoded in this tale.

That is why the theme and term of the Akeda have been used, throughout the centuries, to describe the destruction and disappearance of countless Jewish communities everywhere. All the pogroms, the crusades, the persecutions, the slaughters, the catastrophes, the massacres by sword and the liquidations by fire—each time it was Abraham leading his son to the altar, to the holocaust all over again (‘Messengers,’ 95).

While Genesis 22:1 frames the narrative as a divine test, the nature and content of the test remain ambiguous—in other words, it is not clear that unquestioning obedience is the appropriate, desired response to the perceived divine command (just as well, the meaning of the word nissah “tested” is up for discussion, as explored in this conversation with Ethan Schwartz). Even if the test were clear, sound exegesis does not always require the biblical interpreter to agree with a story’s narrator.

In any case, from the empathetic perspective of Isaac, the religious context of this encounter does not justify the violence, it only amplifies the trauma. Not only is Isaac abused by his father (as horrific as such abuse is on its own); the abuse is also correlated to faithful worship. Abraham intends to murder his son in cold blood as worship to God. Though Isaac’s life is spared, his father’s adherence to his perception of divine decree deals a spiritual injury to his beloved son.

Gouri captures this intertwined familial and spiritual trauma in a line from earlier in the poem cited above. At the moment when an angelic voice stays Abraham’s hand, calling his attention heavenward, Gouri writes, “The boy, released from his bonds / saw his father’s back.” This image of the father turning away from the son to face the deity recalls and reinterprets the image of Moses beholding the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (cf. Exodus 33:17–23). The “back” of God, for Gouri, is not a revelation but a divine abandonment. Abraham’s turned back becomes God’s turned back, turned away from the suffering of God’s people. This is why religiously justified abuse is doubly traumatizing. It not only severs the human relationships, but also implicates and twists the relationship between the victim and the divine. If turning toward God means turning our backs to our neighbors, we risk reifying the perception that God has also turned away from them.

As a Christian, I read this painful story with the continuing scourge of antisemitism and Christian anti-Judaism front of mind. In spite of all we learned from the shame of the Shoah, Christian preachers still routinely read “the Jews” (especially in conversation with Gospel texts) as a metaphor for hypocrisy, legalism, and anti-Christian behavior. We rarely stop to think of the injury our sermonic rhetoric perpetrates and perpetuates upon our contemporary Jewish neighbors. And here is the kicker: we justify this injury while imagining that we are faithfully interpreting the Word of God. Injury to God’s beloved, in the name of faithfulness to God.

Of course, Jews are not the only ones who are collateral damage to “faithful” religion. Another, admittedly complex, example would be the political/spiritual trauma experienced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The rationale given for the ongoing (illegal) military occupation of Palestine is sometimes political, sometimes religious, often a blurring of both. The harsh treatment of Palestinians—the far weaker party in the conflict—as obstacles in the way of a divine mandate makes them the victims of a kind of traumatic “binding,” analagous to the Akeda.

I recognize the challenge of raising the Palestinian plight in the same breath as I argue against antisemitism and anti-Judaism, but I believe the principled analogy holds. As for my own faith community’s complicity in this violence, many well-meaning Christians (and other not-so-well-meaning Christians) condone and support the dehumanizing occupation of Palestine out of a conviction that the Bible grants the holy land exclusively to Israel. We rarely stop to consider the spiritual injury we deal to a population who is seeking to follow the God of Abraham (a majority as Muslims, but a struggling minority as fellow Christians). Injury to God’s beloved, in the name of faithfulness to God.

Within the church itself, obedience to God is commonly cited as the rationale for injurious exclusion of minoritized populations from participation and leadership. Consider, for example, the recent move by the Southern Baptist Convention to expel churches from their denomination who have women as pastors (Baptists are, of course, not alone in this practice). As Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler argued in the brief floor debate, “The issue of women serving in the pastorate is an issue of fundamental Biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention.” In other words, Mohler and company believe they are bound to enforce a discriminatory leadership structure that delegitimates the vocations of women called to pastoral ministry and expels entire congregations from fellowship, simply because God—for some reason beyond our understanding—mandates it. Injury to God’s beloved, in the name of faithfulness to God.

Similar appeals to (supposed) biblical mandates are the most common justification for the discriminatory exclusion of gay, trans, and nonbinary Christians from many churches and denominations. Such religiously motivated rejection often has deadly consequences, and not only when such religious scruples are enshrined in law (as they have been recently in Uganda and in several states in the US). Any number of polls tracking the decline of religious affiliation could be cited to demonstrate that such practices have had a spiritually damaging effect on the victims of this discrimination. Injury to God’s beloved, in the name of faithfulness to God.

This essay is not the place to hash out the religious and biblical arguments behind each of these examples. My purpose here is to listen attentively to the pathos of the Akeda, from the empathetic viewpoint of Isaac. Whatever our exegesis of scripture and tradition may suggest, it is imperative that we take into account the pain and damage our religious piety causes to others. Is our perception of divine instruction sufficient justification for actual injury (physical, psychological, and/or spiritual) to our neighbors?

Doesn’t Abraham himself offer an alternative response when he resists the divine intention to destroy Sodom (cf. Genesis 18:16–33)? When he perceived the instruction to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, why did Abraham not respond: “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Genesis 18:25)? Instead, Abraham participates without question in the injurious test, and he returns home without his son.

When our own perceptions of religious faithfulness require that we hurt others, we ought to critically challenge those perceptions, proceed with greater empathy, and be open to changing our minds. Since the “word of God” is always mediated through human interpretation, the Akeda warns us of the dangers of unquestioning obedience. In the end, we each bear responsibility for our own interpretations, actions, and policies. We are not allowed to blame our bigotry on God.

2 thoughts on “When Faithfulness to God Hurts Our Neighbor

  1. Tim, this is a serendipitous article for me this week as I imagine it is for others! Thank you. At LPTS, I took OT with Eugene March and he mentioned that this is a midrash where Abraham got it wrong, Gods never said to sacrifice Isaac and it goes in to delve into this. Do you know anything about this midrash? Again, this is so helpful!! ~ Gail Monsma Gail.monsma@gmail.com

    1. Thanks Gail – I’m glad you found these thoughts helpful! Yes, there is a classic midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) that says: “Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: ‘ O Abraham, My covenant will I not profane (Ps. LXXXIX, 35), And I will establish My covenant with Isaac (Gen. XVII, 21). When I bade thee, “Take now thy son,” etc., I will not alter that which is gone out of My lips (Ps. Ioc. cit.). Did I tell thee, Slaughter him? No! but, ” Take him up.” Thou hast taken him up. Now take him down.'”

Comments are closed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!