The typical sermon constructed around the Binding of Isaac goes like this: Abraham had so much faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice anything, even his own son, for the sake of obeying God. That’s how much faith Abraham had.
It begs the question, faith in what exactly? Which attribute of God did Abraham have so much faith in that he was willing to bind his son to an altar and kill him? Certainly not faith in God’s view of all beings created equal, with equal worth, having an equally hopeful future and purpose. And apparently, not faith in God’s unchanging nature or unbreakable promises. Remember, his wife laughed out loud when God suggested she would get pregnant. And in fact, not more than four chapters prior, Abraham himself changed God’s mind when it came to the fate of Lot and the city of Sodom.
So why didn’t Abraham argue with God over his son the same way he did for his cousin Lot?
We need to remember that children were not seen as they are today. Now we lather our kids in legal and social protections, perhaps to a fault. Then, they functioned as a measure of a man’s material worth, alongside women and cattle.
But that’s far from an excuse. In fact, that should be an indictment. Isaac’s relationship with his father would have suffered irreparable damage after this moment, no matter that Abraham never actually sunk the knife in.
At this point, I should also point out that the idea of challenging the patriarchs is not a radical, revisionist reading of Scripture. One pastor I once heard give the typical “obedience and faith” sermon on the binding of Isaac turned right around and said we shouldn’t follow the example of patriarchs like Jonah (who ran away) or Adam (who caved to temptation). So it seems that even by evangelical standards, using the patriarchs as anti-examples is acceptable. It just depends on the message you’re trying to send.
And so, in search of a different message, I’ve been helped by articles like this towards a different understanding. What if we read this passage, and others like it, through the lens of child advocacy and development? What if instead of obedience to authority, conformity to external power structures, and blind faith in the benevolence of authority figures at the expense of reason and rationality, the lessons we learned from this part of Scripture had to do with preventing child abuse, and promoting emotional literacy and bodily autonomy for children? What if we asked how Isaac felt, and gave him a voice where Genesis gives him none?
If someone were to replicate Abraham’s act of “faith” today, they would be arrested. Maybe it wouldn’t directly involve child sacrifice, but would any scenario in which a parent disregarded the life of their child for the sake of principle be acceptable? Our current laws and social norms say absolutely not. And yet we continue to teach our youth to venerate Abraham for being ~faithful and obedient~ because it’s all a test; it’s about whether you’re willing to put God first above everything else.
But what if God was testing Abraham to see if he understood what kind of God he was serving? In other words, what if the test was not whether Abraham would follow instructions to the letter, but whether he would have the guts, and the discernment, to say, “No, I’m not doing that, the God I serve would not ask something like that of me”?
The line between Abraham’s mistake of actually intending to sacrifice Isaac (and causing all kinds of trauma), compared with his earlier successes of literally changing the mind of the Almighty by bargaining for the life of a few of his relatives in a nearby city, could serve as a nuanced and potent discussion of ethics today, especially when it comes to prayer and revelation. Just because we can talk to God, and trust that God is revealed to us, does not mean we always see or hear correctly.
The ancient world was full of gods who demanded blood and unswerving loyalty. That was nothing new. To see God as Lord, to understand obedience and surrender as central to a pious life, was nothing new. But that this particular God, claiming to be absolutely sovereign over all other gods, was also good and gentle and humble? That was radical and revolutionary. Maybe the blessing at the end of the ordeal, where God reaffirmed Abraham as the future father of many nations, was only the least good outcome: maybe Abraham, and us as well, missed a valuable opportunity to understand God as loving above all else; to understand that we worship the God who does not require child sacrifice.
My guess is that you won’t find this interpretation of Genesis 22 very often in evangelical circles. That’s not necessarily because all evangelicals are resistant towards alternative readings of Scripture (although that’s often the case). There’s just such a good opportunity in these verses to bulwark the institutional authority of the church, and tighten the unholy ties between church and state. The purpose behind the “obedience readings” of passages like Genesis 22 is to further the status quo in regards to power structures and authorities. If the test of good Christian faith is blind obedience to the point of sacrificing loved ones against all rationality and intuition, then it makes sense that slaves ought to obey their masters, or wives ought to submit to their husbands and not speak in church, or the poor should submit to the governing authorities.
The Religious Right has intentionally and explicitly used Scripture for political ends: it’s up to us to counter their harmful theologies and just as intentionally use Scripture to work towards the flourishing of all humankind.