This is the fourth in a series of blog posts where I outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic in November 2021.
This is a follow-up to my third post called, The Contrast between Job and Abraham—From Vigorous Protest to Unquestioning Silence.
Over the years I’ve been struck by the vivid contrast, not just between Abraham and Job (discussed in the previous blog post), but also between Abraham vigorously protesting God’s judgment of the people of Sodom (and his interceding on their behalf) in Genesis 18 and yet silently obeying God’s instructions to sacrifice his own son in Genesis 22.
Why does Abraham shift from vigorous protest in Genesis 18 to silent obedience in Genesis 22?
The Striking Contrast between Genesis 18 and 22—Forensic versus Sacrificial?
One important explanation comes from Jon Levenson, who suggests that in Genesis 18 the issue is forensic and so the question of justice is foremost. Thus, Abraham argues the case on behalf of Sodom.
However, Levenson suggests that things are different in Genesis 22, since the issue there is sacrificial. In a sacrificial situation, we owe everything to God. Thus, if God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, Abraham has no recourse but to obey.
This is a fascinating explanation of the possible contrast between Genesis 18 and 22.
However, I think it is, ultimately, unsatisfactory.
Let us look more closely at Genesis 18 to see what is happening there.
Genesis 18 as a Teaching Moment—About God’s Character
In Genesis 18 God tells Abraham that the outcry of Sodom has come to him and he is going down to investigate.
But the narrative doesn’t have God telling Abraham outright. First God wonders if he should inform Abraham about his plans (Gen 18:17). Then he decides to tell him, because he chose Abraham for a particular purpose, namely, “that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19).
In other words, this is a teaching moment for Abraham. God informs Abraham about Sodom because he intends that Abraham should learn YHWH’s “way” of “righteousness and justice,” so that he might pass this on to his family and household.
After all, Abraham is coming to know YHWH, a God unlike the deities of the Mesopotamians (among whom Abraham used to live) and the Canaanites (among whom he currently lives). Since YHWH is starting a new people group from Abraham’s descendants, who are to model an alternative way of life among the nations, it is imperative that Abraham come to understand more fully the character of this God.
And what better way to teach this than by an interactive, dialogical session.
So, God informs Abraham of his plans.
Abraham’s Bold Intercession in Genesis 18—On Behalf of Sodom
Abraham immediately responds, objecting that it wouldn’t be right for God to destroy the city if there are fifty righteous (or innocent) people living there (the Hebrew word ṣadîq can mean either righteous or innocent).
Abraham’s motivation for interceding for the city is twofold.
It is based on the (unstated) fact that his nephew Lot, along with his family, is living in Sodom. This shows that Abraham has an implicit sense of justice and fairness.
However, his intercession is also based on a misreading of what God said.
God did not say that he was planning to destroy the city, only that he was going to investigate whether the situation required judgment (“if not, I will know”; Gen 18:21). That Abraham read this as meaning that the destruction of Sodom was a foregone conclusion is based on his misreading of YHWH’s character as a harsh judge.
But the point of the episode is precisely that Abraham would learn about YHWH’s version of justice. So Abraham has jumped the gun.
Here is how the teaching proceeds:
- Abraham makes an opening offer of fifty; God says sure.
- Then Abraham says, how about forty-five; God says fine.
- Abraham proposes forty; God agrees.
- Then Abraham drops the “price” by ten instead of five, and offers thirty; God says, let’s do it.
- Abraham then offers twenty; God agrees.
- Then Abraham says, I have one final offer—how about ten? God says, ten it is.
No Bargaining Here
Contrary to a traditional reading of the text, there is no bargaining (or bartering or haggling) going on here, since bargaining involves two people starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. The dialogue in Genesis 18 is different.
If this were a used car sale, where the buyer keeps on reducing his offer and the seller accepts every offer the buyer makes, I would think the seller wants to simply give the car away.
It is as if YHWH is looking for an excuse to save Sodom (and Lot).
What is God trying to teach Abraham about the “way of the YHWH” from this exchange? What sort of “righteousness and justice” is God displaying here? Certainly, one infused with mercy.
But the fact that Abraham (not God) stops at ten suggests that Abraham hasn’t learned what God wanted to teach him.
Yet God sends angels to save Lot and his family—even though that is not something Abraham explicitly asked for.
Abraham’s Lack of Intercession in Genesis 22—Even for His Own Son
So, God devises another teaching moment. But this time he ups the ante. He tells Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering at a place three days distant.
It is not his nephew, but his son, who will die. And God will not do the destroying; Abraham must do this himself.
But God gives him three days of travel to think about it.
What will Abraham do?
We already know the answer from Genesis 22.
The question is: What is the test of the Aqedah really about? Is it (as is commonly thought) about whether Abraham loves God more than his son?
Is Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son, without even interceding for him, meant to be a positive model for us?
Tune in for the next blog post on this subject, where I critically examine the nature of the test.