Back where I’ve always been
In Genesis (15:6), God determines that Abraham is righteous because he believed what God had told him. Subsequently, God makes a covenant with Abraham that if Abraham is willing to “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17: 1b), then God promises that Abraham will be the “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Ibid, 5b) through the fruitfulness of his progeny. We then learn that it will be through Abraham’s son Isaac “that offspring will be named for you,” (Gen. 21: 12b) but that God will also make a nation of the son, Ishmael, that he has had with his wife Sarah’s slave Hagar because Ismael is also Abraham’s son (Ibid 21: 13). Yet later (Gen. 22: 1-2), God decides to test Abraham by ordering him to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah and offer him to God as a burnt offering sacrifice to God.
What causes God to issue this command? God had already determined that Abraham was righteous and had promised to make him the father, or ancestor, of what has turned out to be the Jews and Christians through Isaac, and the Muslims through Ishmael. Does God now doubt that Abraham is appropriate for this role? Is He perhaps concerned that Abraham has not honoured the covenant by behaving in a “blameless” fashion?
Genesis 21:1 is actually explicit about the cause of God’s command. In seventeen of twenty-one English translations supplied by Google, the verse is approximately as it is found in my New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible: “After these things God tested Abraham…” The phrase “after these things” suggests a causal link to previous actions that caused God to doubt Abraham. Since God’s promises had appeared unequivocal as recently as Genesis (21: 12-13), “after these things” seems to refer to events described between verses 14 and 34 where the previous chapter ends.
It is at 21: 9-11 that Sarah decides that she wants her slave woman Hagar (possibly Abraham’s second wife, according to commentators familiar with ancient Hebrew culture), and her son (and Abraham’s) Ishmael cast out of the family to protect the inheritance of Sarah’s younger son Isaac. Abraham finds this demand “very distressing and consults with God trying to decide what to do. And God says “do not be distressed” and “do as she tells you.” And as a result Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with some bread and a single skin of water, where they almost die, before God’s angel saves them.
I wonder if God regards this as the action of a “righteous” and “blameless” man? It is true that God basically says “don’t worry,” and “do what Sarah wants” but does that mean that it’s OK to do so? And it’s interesting to note that in the past, Abraham was willing to argue with God, if he thought God was behaving unrighteously. When God judged that He would obliterate the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their depravity, Abraham asked if he would do so if He found fifty righteous people living there and God said “No.” And Abraham said what if there were only 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or even only 10, and each time God agreed that He would not (Gen. 18: 16-33).
How could Abraham have raised ethical objections with God concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, and then not done so in relation to Hagar and Ishmael? Abraham was a rich man. He could have sent them with servants, flocks of animals, and money, to ensure they arrived safely wherever he was sending them. They would have, and almost did die, before God intervened on their behalf.
Could it be that, in relation to Isaac, God was not, in fact, testing Abraham? Abraham had sinned in his actions in relation to Hagar and Ishmael, was judged, and the demand to sacrifice Isaac was his punishment. And it was a reciprocal punishment. Abraham had thoughtlessly willed the death of his first son. Now Abraham would have to thoughtfully journey three days and then sacrifice his second and favourite son. Abraham could be viewed as demonstrating repentance for his actions in relation to Hagar and Ishmael, through accepting God’s judgment and proceeding without complaint to execute it. Because he repented, God forgave him, and he was redeemed to his former stature as a righteous, blameless person.
Interestingly, in some Jewish commentaries, Abraham did indeed sacrifice Isaac, though in the Christian bible the story is told that God stopped him as he raised the sacrificial knife. And there are echoes in our bible of this belief that Abraham really did kill Isaac. Genesis 22: 9 records that Abraham bound Isaac and laid him on the wood piled on the altar. In Hebraic burnt offerings standard procedure, one built the altar, started the fire, placed the wood atop it, and then the victim. When Abraham placed Isaac on the wood, it would have been understood he put Isaac in the already burning fire. Further, in Genesis 22: 19, Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, but Isaac is not mentioned. But at Genesis 22: 6, when Abraham and Isaac climbed the mountain for the sacrifice, both are mentioned. And the commentators say, “Where was Isaac?” when he is not mentioned when Abraham returns. The belief was that Abraham proved his faith by putting Isaac to death and burning his body, and then God resurrected Isaac and took him to the Garden of Eden, to be healed.