Derek Leman’s Daily Portion today comments on the Akedah story in Genesis 22. Here are his comments:
God wants to know. He gives Abraham a terrible test, the worst. What kind of god asks his devoted follower to sacrifice his son? What kind of person would kill his son for a god? Does Abraham fail the test or succeed in that he is willing to do the deed?
Every indication in the story of Genesis 22 is that Abraham passes the test. הָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם ha’Elōhim nisach et-‘Avraham, “That [same] God tested Abraham.” From God’s point of view, this test was real. And then after Abraham shows he is willing to kill his son, עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים ‘atah yada’ti ki-yerei’ ‘Elōhim, “Now I know that you revere God.” God’s purpose in the test was to know something [by experience, by seeing it in action] about Abraham’s trust and reverence.
How can we understand this test? For one thing, gods expecting mortals to offer up a child was a known thing in Abraham’s world. Also, we see from the story that God would not allow Abraham to actually offer his son. It’s bad enough, it seems to us, that God asked. At least we know God would not actually desire a child’s death to satisfy his need to be worshipped. But there is also one other implication in the way the story is told that can help us have confidence in God’s goodness.
The way the story is told, Abraham and Isaac are both struggling to understand what is about to happen. Abraham makes several statements which could be seen as lies, something we know he is capable of, or as hopeful expressions of trust that the situation will end without tragedy.
Abraham tells his attendants, “The boy and I, let us go there and worship and let us return to you” (the verbs are in the cohortative mood, though most translations ignore it). Abraham says Isaac will return with him.
Later Abraham tells Isaac, who is becoming frightened, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
Abraham seems to trust that the outcome will be a good one. No doubt he is fearful. It’s possible he is lying to his son and the servants. The story is deliberately opaque, leaving us to consider multiple possibilities.
But we have to consider, perhaps the test was not “will Abraham kill his son to show how much he adores me, his God and benefactor?” but perhaps something else: “Will Abraham trust that I am not like other gods?”
Vs. 1 explains God’s purpose in asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. For Abraham, perhaps the test is giving up the one thing that makes God’s promise work and thus lose all that God promised. If he accedes to Adonai’s request, he will have no offspring and thus he will no longer be a blessing after his death. For God, perhaps the motive is to see if a mortal can love him more than life, offspring, and blessings. Will Abraham continue with this deity who takes back the one thing he has desired?
As writer Skip Moen has emphasized in his book, Crossing, the request Adonai makes, “Take your son . . . and offer him,” is not a command. The verb take has the particle of entreaty נָא (na’) following it and should be rendered “take, please.” Abraham is not obeying a command from Adonai, but acceding to his request.
Vss. 7-8 are troubling. Does Isaac suspect? Does Abraham’s answer calm his fears at all? It cannot be, as some have said, that Abraham knew and intended by his words to say, that God would substitute a ram for Isaac. This was no true test if Abraham had no fear God would take back the child of the promise. Abraham is being deliberately obtuse to his son, deceiving him. Yet Abraham’s words are true in a way that the patriarch does not suspect.
God will save the boy though Abraham will not.
The meaning of the story is clarified greatly by vs. 12, when God says, “Now I know.” Readers have spun many theories over the centuries: Abraham knew Isaac would not die or he thought the boy would be resurrected or this was really just God teaching against human sacrifice. All of these theories crumble under the weight of vs. 12. God wanted to know if a mortal could love him with “disinterested love,” that is, love for God’s own sake and not for the things he can give.
The test was so that God could know Abraham’s heart truly. But isn’t God omniscient? Does he need to test us in order to know what is in our hearts? The story teaches us something wonderful about knowing: to know by experience is infinitely greater than to know by cognitive awareness. What good is it to know in our head that a beloved person loves us in return? We want them to show us or tell us. And this leads to a wonderful realization about God: he desires our love. We might imagine the Omnipotent is immune to such needs or think that they are weakness.
“Now I know that you revere God,” he says to Abraham (I am translating “fear” as “revere, hold in awe”). The positive message of this story fits with much we read elsewhere, especially Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (e.g., Deut 6:2; Prov 1:7; Eccles 12:13).
But there is no denying the story is upsetting. Would God have a father take the life of his son? How can we relate to a God who would ask such a thing?
This is not a contradiction of belief in divine omniscience. Knowledge is more than cognitive awareness. A higher kind of knowledge, which God seeks here, is experience. The purpose of Abraham’s test is that God would know by experience the depths of his trust and faith. Abraham is the father of faith and his great crisis story shows us what deep faith looks like, loving the Giver more than any gift. If God was willing to take away the very promise that drew Abraham out of his clan and away from his gods, what reason would Abraham have to love God? Only the awe of heaven could explain Abraham’s clinging in spite of God’s taking away. This is exactly what God says in response.