Reconfiguring Abraham’s Test—What Is the Aqedah (Genesis 22) Really About?

In four previous blog posts, I summed up various aspects of the argument of my new book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God.

My Blog Posts on the Argument of Abraham’s Silence

1.  Abraham’s Silence—Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me

2. The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

3. The Contrast between Job and Abraham—From Vigorous Protest to Unquestioning Silence

4. Abraham’s Shift from Protest (Genesis 18) to Silence (Genesis 22)—What’s Going on?

This post is the fifth in that series.

Here I want to address—head on—the question of what the test in Genesis 22 is all about.

Does Abraham Love God More than His Son?

It is traditional to think that Abraham is being tested to see if he loves God more than Isaac, his son.

However, a careful reading of Genesis reveals that while Abraham loves Ishmael (his first son, born of Hagar), it is doubtful that he cares at all about Isaac (the covenant heir that God promises will be born to Sarah).

Evidence for this is that he passes Sarah off as his sister after God announced the coming birth of Isaac (while Sarah is likely pregnant with him). The result is that the Philistine king of Gerar takes Sarah into his harem (Genesis 20), so that God has to rescue her.

Abraham Is Being Tested for His Discernment of God’s Character

A better interpretation of what is going on in Genesis 22 is that God is testing Abraham for his discernment of God’s character. Is this the sort of deity who demands child sacrifice on the part of his faithful followers? Or is this a God of mercy? After all, Abraham is a man from a pagan culture (Mesopotamia) with no prior knowledge of this God.

This question of merciful character was also the point of the episode in Genesis 18, where God revealed his plans to Abraham about Sodom. The point was so that Abraham could learn about YHWH’s “way” of righteousness and justice, in order to be able to pass this on to his household and descendants (Genesis 18:17–19).

And God revelation to Abraham about the cry of Sodom did lead to Abraham’s passionate intercession on behalf of the city, because Lot (his nephew) was living there.

But (as I discussed in the previous blog post) Abraham stops his request for God to save Sodom too early. And so he never fully plumbs the depths of God’s mercy.

So God gives him another chance in Genesis 22. But this time it won’t be his nephew Lot (who lives in Sodom) who is in danger; it will be Isaac, his own son. And it won’t be God who will do the act; Abraham himself will do it.

If anything would cause Abraham to speak out, this would be it.

God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his own son ought to generate protest on Abraham’s part and intercession behalf of Isaac.

But he doesn’t speak out. Instead, he goes silently to obey.

God sends him on a three day journey to a distant place (Moriah) to perform the sacrifice, intentionally giving Abraham time to think about it and gather the courage to speak out. But Abraham never gets to that point.

God Might Also Be Testing Abraham’s Love for Isaac

It is possible that there is a second dimension to the test.

Perhaps God wants Abraham to positively develop a love for Isaac. After all,  when God describes Isaac as the one “whom you love” (Genesis 22:2), this isn’t necessarily a statement of fact. It could be an encouragement, as in, “you love him, don’t you?” Then show it, by your response. Testing can bring out what is only potential, if we rise to the occasion.

Three Chapters on the Aqedah

So far I have just given the barest outline of the position I develop through three chapters in Abraham’s Silence. There is a great deal in those chapters that I haven’t even touched on in the above sketch.

For example, I have one chapter specifically devoted to the question of whether it is right to question the traditional interpretation of the Aqedah and whether it is appropriate to question God (since my alternative reading of the Aqedah is that Abraham should have questioned God’s command to sacrifice his son). This is the burden of chapter 5: “Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?”

Then I have an entire chapter examining clues in the text of Genesis 22 that all is not right with Abraham or with Isaac in the story. And then I examine connections between the Aqedah and the book of Job, which suggest that Job leads to a critique of Abraham’s response to God in Genesis 22. This is chapter 6: “Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job.” 

Chapter 7 is the climax of the argument, where I explicitly address the question: “Did Abraham Pass the Test?” Beyond looking at the earlier Abraham story as context for Genesis 22, I examine the effect of the test on Isaac (including evidence in Genesis of trauma he suffered).

In this chapter I also take a look at what most readers think is God’s affirmation of Abraham through the speeches of the angel from heaven (Genesis 22:11–18). By careful attention to what the angel says, I show that it is entirely possible that God is actually showing his displeasure with Abraham.

I’m aware that this claim will seem incredible to most readers of this blog post. But I won’t defend it here.

For that, you will need to read the book.

Holistic Eschatology and the Courage to Pray

The two primary topics I’ve been interviewed on for podcasts over the last few years are 1) humans made in God’s image (based on my book The Liberating Image) and 2) holistic eschatology (based on my book A New Heaven and a New Earth). These topics address creation and eschaton, that is, the origin of God’s good world and the consummation of that world as God brings it to its intended destiny.

An Earthy Spirituality

What both books have in common is a focus on God’s purposes for human flourishing in the context of earthly life. God deemed the world “very good” in the beginning (God doesn’t make junk) and God desires to redeem this world the corruption and distortions of sin (God doesn’t junk what he makes).

This holistic focus seems to have touched a nerve with many Christians, who are tired of the church’s traditional limitation of spirituality to the interior life and an ethereal heaven hereafter.

This doesn’t mean that we should play off concern for this world against spirituality. Rather, what we need in an earthy spirituality, where we live in God’s presence in the midst of the complexities of life in the real world, rather than seeking escape from this world.

Holistic Eschatology and an Open Future

This earthy spirituality was the topic of a podcast interview that I did for the God Is Open website. The website title alludes to what has come to be called Open Theism, the view that the future is genuinely open and not predetermined by God, “because God is alive, eternally free, and inexhaustibly creative.”

Here is my interview on holistic eschatology posted on the God is Open website.

The interview can also be found on YouTube.

The Courage to Pray

Because Open Theism is interested in the reality of prayer, by which we are able to impact God to act differently in a genuinely open future, the God Is Open website posted the audio of a sermon that I preached in 2017 on Moses’s intercession on behalf of Israel in Exodus 32 (“The Courage to Pray—Learning from the Boldness of Moses in Exodus 32”).

Exodus 32 recounts Israel’s idolatry of the Golden Calf and God’s decision to destroy them in judgment. But when Moses interceded for the people, God changed his mind and forgive them.

I preached this sermon in my home church, Community of the Savior, which uses the Revised Common Lectionary. I wove together aspects of the four lectionary Scriptures:

I began the sermon with a reference to the speechless person in Matthew 22 and ended up contrasting this with Moses’s bold prayer to God. I ended with Philippians 4:6. Along the way, I reflected on our own assumptions about God that often get in the way of honest prayer.

You can listen to the sermon on the “God Is Open” website

Or you can listen to the sermon on the Community of the Savior website.

If you want to read the sermon, you can download a PDF here.

The Boldness of Moses and Abraham’s Silence

The topic of Moses interceding for Israel at the Golden Calf episode is the starting point for a chapter called “God’s Loyal Opposition” in my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

Here is the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?
Part 1: Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible
1. Voices from the Ragged Edge
2. God’s Loyal Opposition
Part 2: Making Sense of the Book of Job
3. The Question of Appropriate Speech
4. Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him?
Part 3: Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straitjacket of Tradition
5. Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?
6. Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job
7. Did Abraham Pass the Test?
Conclusion: The Gritty Spirituality of Lament

I recently wrote a short blog post in which I contrasted Moses and Abraham, as part of a series on the argument of the book.

Society of Biblical Literature Session on Moses and God in Conflict

I will be giving a paper on Moses’s intercession at the Golden Calf incident at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio on November 22, 2021. I was invited to give this paper last year, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic it was postponed to this year. There will be four papers in a session on “Characterization of YHWH and Moses in Conflict (Crisis) in the Pentateuch,” which is jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is the abstract of my paper, entitled “How and Why Does God Change? Exploring the Logic of the Divine Shift after the Golden Calf.

Practical Implications of Biblical Themes

Topics like the image of God, holistic eschatology, and boldness in prayer are vitally important for Christian living with honesty and hope in this fractured and broken world. In everything I’ve written on these (and other) subjects, I’ve tried to tease out various practical implications for life.

For those interested in following up on the implications of Open Theism for issues of Christian living (including prayer), see The Openness of God A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), chapter 5: “Practical Implications.” The book (which was voted one of Christianity Today’s 1995 Books of the Year) has five authors, each of whom wrote a separate chapter. Chapter 5 was written by David Basinger, my colleague at Roberts Wesleyan College.

The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

This is the second in a series of blog posts where I’ll 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 this fall (October or November 2021).

This is a follow-up to my post called, Abraham’s Silence–Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me.

Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible

Although my book Abraham’s Silence is explicitly focused on interpreting Genesis 22 (known as the Aqedah or the Binding of Isaac), the book begins by examining how the Bible views the realities of suffering and especially how it affirms the validity of our challenging God about suffering, in bold prayer.

After an introductory chapter (called “Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?”), Part 1 of the book addresses “Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible.”

This section includes two chapters, one on the existential power of the lament palms as Israel’s normative “protocol” for processing personal and communal pain in relationship with God (chap. 1: “Voices from the Ragged Edge”) and one on the intercession of Moses and the prophets on behalf of Israel, when God was about to bring judgment on his people (chap. 2: “God’s Loyal Opposition”).

Lament Psalms and the Processing of Pain

My problems with Abraham began when I discovered the lament psalms.

I starting studying and teaching the lament psalms many years ago, after having gone through a time of personal darkness. I lost my way in life and began to doubt God’s goodness.

As a result, I stopped praying; this wasn’t intentional on my part. But I now realize that it was a natural outcome of the fact that I was unsure whether God was trustworthy.

So I found it immensely encouraging to learn about the lament psalms. Fully a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments or complaints, prayers from the ragged edge of life that articulate pain honestly to God. These prayers not only complain to God, but they ask for redress.

Lament prayer revitalized my faith at a time when it was imperiled. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching the lament psalms as model modes of prayer for sustaining our relationship with God in difficult times.

Along the way, I wrote a short meditation on lament, called “Voices from the Ragged Edge: How the Psalms Can Help Us Process Pain” (1994). I expanded this meditation for the chapter on lament psalms as a resource for developing and sustaining a robust life of faith.

Moses’s Boldness before God at the Golden Calf

And then there’s Moses, who interceded for Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf—and thereby prevented God from annulling the covenant and destroying the people (Exodus 32–34).

This is how Psalm 106:23 remembers the incident:

Therefore [God] said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Moses interceded again after the people refused to enter the Promised Land when the spies told them of the giants who lived there; once again God accepted Moses’s prayer and did not destroy them (Numbers 14–15).

After Moses, various prophets deliver a message of judgment to Israel, calling for repentance; they then turn to God and ask for mercy and postponed judgment, to give the people a chance to repent.

Jeremiah is so persistent that God has to tell him three times to stop interceding, since God can’t bring judgment if he keeps praying.

Later, God laments in Ezekiel 22:30 about the lack of prophetic intercession:

I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” 

My study of lament psalms and the intercession of Moses and the prophets (along with my own personal experience of lament prayer) has led me to believe that that the God of the Bible values vigorous dialogue partners. This God invites us to approach the divine throne room with courage, expressing our genuine needs, including our complaints.

So the resounding question of my book is, Why didn’t Abraham do this? Why didn’t he bring his lament to God over the command to sacrifice his son? Why didn’t he intercede for Isaac?

In my next blog post (The Contrast between Job and Abraham), I’ll explain how the book of Job figures into all of this.