Genesis 22 – No Sacrifice to Platitudes

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997
Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997

Topic? Genesis, Chapter 22. “Take your son…”

We sat in a classroom without windows, the students arranged in discussion mode around a U-shaped set of tables. A cousin of one of my students had been shot and killed just days earlier; the two had grown up together – quite literally – in the same household. Two other students have been struggling all semester with depression. Another has been long challenged by a set of disabilities – this semester, they seem to be worsening.

The previous week we had read a number of midrashim on the Akedah. We explored the terse, cryptic language that marks so much of the text. Abraham had already sent one son into the dangers of the wilderness as a kind of sacrifice to his wife’s fears, one student pointed out. Was Isaac (almost) a sacrifice to God’s insecurity about Abraham’s loyalty? If so, she asked, why would God need to test Abraham? Hadn’t he proven a loyal and trusting servant?

Our second day of discussion involved source analysis. Genesis 22 is the work of the E-writer, who composed his narratives sometime between 928 BCE and the Assyrian invasion that destroyed Northern Israel in 722 BCE.

Not everything in the text seemed to fit together, though.

Scholars have long noted that verses 14-18 diverge in style from the rest of the narrative; they have even been called “clumsy additions” to the text. Where so much of Genesis 22 is taut, economic, sparse, these verses are repetitive, poetic in nature.

Academics have also pointed out that verses 11-12 and 14-17 use YHVH for God; the text otherwise refers to God as Elohim (a dominant characteristic of the E-writer’s Genesis stories). They’ve observed that God’s relationship with Abraham is generally notable for being panim el panim, up close and personal. Angelic announcements from on high are not so frequent, they note. God more typically appears in patriarchal narratives as a kind of earthly messenger. It’s hard not to wonder why the text needs to say that Abraham offers the ram tachat beno (instead of his son) when that ought to be self-evident to the reader.

One scholar, Omri Boehm, has pointed out that if you remove the “angelic” verses, a coherent, narrative remains – consistent in style and dramatic development. But it does not tell a tale of an obedient, loyal Abraham. Without those verses, Abraham disobeys God. He almost sacrifices his son, but when he sees the ram, he makes a substitute. Genesis 22 was, Boehm argues, once a story of Abraham’s rejection of God’s test; later writers, who wanted an obedient Abraham, added the angelic intervention. It’s another example (like the conflicting accounts of who killed Goliath) of an intertextual polemic.

We have all sorts of evidence that the various writers of Tanakh disagreed, overrode and overwrote each other’s narratives. But asking whether angels descended on Genesis 22 at the hand of a writer who wanted a different reputation for Abraham was just a first step for our class conversation.

Here is what my students asked: What happens to all you’ve been taught if you imagine Abraham defying God? How could one possibly imagine a God who could or should be defied in any circumstance?

My students have been taught that God is never to be questioned. God knows best. God has a plan. Our job is to do as told.

But in a room where one young man is trying to understand why his cousin was murdered, where two students fight with internal chemistry and social messages that bathe them in despair, in a room where a student finds her capacity to read and write – always slow – getting slower and harder to control given the disabilities of body she must manage, God does not always seem to know best. Nor is it clear how any of that pain could or should be part of a divine plan.

Ancient writers of nearly three thousand years ago offered narratives that permit us to question God’s nature and our purpose. That is a gift.

The student whose cousin-brother was killed must be allowed to honor his anger and his grief even if it means asking where God was when the shot was fired. The students who wake to depression need acknowledgment when they feel lost and alone. My disabled student will not be comforted, I suspect, by claims that her challenges are part of God’s plan.

The “other” Genesis 22, one that features a disobedient Abraham, has granted us the right to question how God works and who we are. We are not asked to sacrifice our pain to platitudes.

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