In this week’s portion, we are confronted with one of the most difficult philosophical / theological stories in the Bible: the near-sacrifice of Isaac.
Non-comprehension is an important, even a critical element in understanding the “nature of God” or, to be more precise, in acknowledging the limits of our understanding of God.
So, while it’s hard for anyone to wrap their head fully around this story, there are several perspectives that may be instructive.
The episode begins with the following introduction: “and God tested Abraham,” as if to prepare the reader to say: “this is only a test” or God really doesn’t mean what He is about to say.
But why does God feel the need to test Abraham in such a brutal way? We saw last week how God begins his interaction with Abraham promising him everything, in exchange for very little. If Abraham goes to the land of Canaan – where he was headed anyway with his father before they settled down prematurely in Haran – God will “bless all the nations of the earth through him.” Abraham believes in God, does as God says, and God makes good on His promise, giving Abraham and Sarah a child despite Sarah’s age. So everything seems to have worked out nicely.
Except for the lingering question that God seems to have: how do I know that Abraham loves/trusts/believes in Me absolutely and completely?
It is that basic, all-too-human need for certainty relative to a person’s heart – a certainty that God no longer has following the generation of the flood – which God seeks to regain by putting Abraham to the test.
Abraham passes the test, and God – judging on how the angel addresses Abraham – could not be more satisfied. If God doubted His faith in Abraham, those doubts are over. The test was successful.
The other perspective is Abraham’s. We know Abraham has no difficulty arguing with God – in the episode that precedes this one, Abraham repeatedly entreats God to save the people of Sodom; nor does the Bible refrain from describing Abraham’s misgivings when he has them – as when Sarah asks him to kick out Hagar and Ishmael.
But here Abraham displays no misgivings whatsoever. It is as if, in his relationship with God, God can do no wrong. He implicitly loves/trusts/ believes in God completely. And indeed, by the end of the story, that complete trust is vindicated.
(There could also be a different representation of Abraham’s perspective, what I would call the atheist’s take on this story. I put this section in parentheses because it is not consistent with taking the text at face value nor with my effort to understand “the nature of God.” But it is instructive.
The atheist does not believe in the existence of God but can explain man hearing what is described as God as “a voice in man’s head.” So let’s follow this perspective: Abraham again hears this voice which he calls God’s, this time instructing him to sacrifice his son – something not out of context, as child sacrifice was very common at that place and time. So Abraham is about to go through with it, but again hears a voice doesn’t proceed. Perhaps the second voice Abraham’s own, drawing a line and saying: I reject this and I am not going to sacrifice my son. Maybe this is the story of a man who thought to do something and then at the last minute thought the better of it; and the “rejecting” of the first voice was in fact his greatness.)
The bottom line is what’s important: there was no human bloodshed.
It is hard to say God saved the day: to the contrary, He planned the whole thing. But it is fair to say, no matter how you look at it, the day was saved. (Though the effect this incident had on Isaac is hard to imagine and the Bible is mum on the subject, though it is fair to say that Isaac lives very much in the shadow of his father.)
This hard-to-comprehend, formative story seems to be part of God’s learning curve in figuring out how to build a relationship with man. And, as with the flood, this is a trial that God will not put man through ever again.