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)
As I am writing this, the nation is reeling from the events following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. As protests against police violence occurred throughout the US and all over the world, the president called the protestors “terrorists” and, on June 1, had a group of them forcefully removed from Lafayette Square with tear gas and rubber pellets to make room for a photo opportunity; posing with a Bible in front of a church, he called for order and state-sanctioned violence to suppress the uprising.
It is the combination of religion and violence that connects our day and age with Genesis 22, a most disturbing Old Testament text assigned for June 28. The essence of it is located in the first two verses:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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” (vv. 1–2).
The story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son is terrifying on many levels. We ask ourselves: “If that is how God tested Abraham, what will my test be?” Abraham can’t win: Prove your love to God and kill your son, or save your son and lose your relationship with God. Besides, this test seems to go against everything we thought we knew of God.
Slowly building, the biblical drama reaches its climax in Verse 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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son (vv. 9-10).
As Abraham prepares to kill Isaac, the language used is not that of ritual but that of butchery. In his translation and commentary on Genesis, Robert Alter points out that the word ma’akhélet which is used throughout for the knife, usually refers to a cleaver used to butcher animals. When such brutal vocabulary is used, it is difficult to see the attempted killing as having the dignity of a divinely approved ritual. Shocked, the reader is asking more questions: Are we expected to believe that God is cruel and arbitrary and capricious, rather than good and loving and merciful? How is this a test of Abraham, and why is it necessary?
In the end, Isaac is spared:
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 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.” 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. 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” (vv. 11-14).
Christians, Jews, and Muslims have taught traditionally that Abraham passed the test by being obedient to God to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son. Does God ever ask us to sacrifice our children? The story-teller of Genesis thinks so. According to his telling, God clearly calls Abraham and commands him to do so. Then, at the crucial point of stopping Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice, the angel says, “for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Paul Nuechterlein offers a modern midrash on the text: “the story-teller in Genesis simply had this wrong: God does not, and never has, asked us to do anything so terrible as to sacrifice our children. The true God didn’t ask Abraham, either. No, the voice of the true God is the one telling Abraham to stop!” Nuechterlein reminds us that two names are used for what the NRSV renders “God” in our text. In verses 1 and 12 (in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac), the Hebrew name for God is elohím, a generic term that can refer to any god or goddess; however, in verse 14 (when an angel saves Isaac by stopping Abraham), the proper name for the God of Israel—YHVH, Yahweh, “the Eternal”—appears in the text.
Seen this way, Abraham did pass the test from God in this story, but not in the way it has been interpreted for so long. Rather, Abraham passed the test by hearing and obeying the voice of the true God at the end, telling him to stop.
Abraham discerned the true voice of God and avoided sacrificing his son by not heeding the words of the false gods. I suggest that this is the task for us in the United States today: to discern the true voice of God. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing protests against police violence, we hear a Christian clamor for “law and order” on one side, and a call to protect the powerless and oppressed on the other. I submit that only the latter is the voice of the true God, while the former is the voice of false gods.
The modern equivalent of the elohím that misled Abraham into a false obedience never demanded by God are the false gods of racism and white supremacy. The death of George Floyd and the message of the protests which have followed have opened many eyes to the way that the destruction and insidiousness of these gods has been embedded in our society—and to the fact that the God of the Bible calls for something very different.
As white people (the present author included) are confronted with the fact that they benefit from their whiteness, and that all of this nation’s institutions (including the church) are serving the status quo, they are invited to stop resisting the impulse to run. Only when white people stop running and resisting can they begin to face racism and white supremacy, and the ways these false gods have poisoned their relationship with the biblical God.
This is the true voice of God:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18).
Until we unmask and disempower the false gods of racism and white supremacy, they will interfere with our ability to listen to the true voice of God.
White people of faith have work to do. A provocative description of this task comes from theologian James H. Cone:
The coming of Christ means a denial of what we thought we were. It means destroying the white devil in us. Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness), take up the cross (blackness) and follow Christ (black ghetto).
The provocation is appropriate, for it reflects Cone’s experience that white liberal theologians (he often mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr as an example) will never truly recognize Black suffering while their perception is impaired by the structural racism in which they still participate and from which they still benefit. Only when the voices of those gods are rejected outright, and their structures dismantled, can true reconciliation to God and one another begin in earnest.