Once upon a time, in the Bible, God and Abraham were having a conversation. God was explaining how he needed to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham was explaining how he shouldn’t do it.
It’s the afternoon, we’ll say, and there is a beautiful sunset, and God and Abraham are standing on a small rise that looks out over a wide plain, and down towards Sodom. This image would hold some significance for Abraham. He has been promised, on multiple occasions, that God will make of him a Great Nation. He has asked Abraham to count the stars in the sky. He has asked him to number the grains of sand. He has shown him wide vistas and said, “This is all for you and your descendants.” All of these are approximations of the legacy Abraham will leave behind. God has asked Abraham to count the stars and number the grains of sand, but at the point of this conversation, this bargaining with God, Abraham has only one child, a boy, Ishmael, whom he fathered with his wife’s handmaid, Hagar. Also, during this conversation, Abraham is 100 years old and his wife, Sarah, is 90.
Earlier in the day, when God appeared to Abraham as three visitors, God tells Abraham that within the year, Sarah will have given birth to a son. Sarah, overhearing this, laughs a little, laughs the quiet part out loud, because, as she says, “I am past childbearing age, and my husband is very old. Am I to have this great pleasure?” But God insists, and tells Abraham that there is a child on the way, and he will be named Isaac.
God then, in need of a listening ear, maybe, or just in the way sometimes God gets lonely (he calls out plaintively for Adam and Eve when they have hidden themselves, and their nakedness, from him) and needs companionship, reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The sins in these cities are too great, God says. Something has to be done, God says. Raze it all and salt the earth. Abraham argues, though, that if there are 50 righteous people in Sodom, that it should be spared. That if there are 45 righteous people, that it should be spared. And we go to 40, and then 30, and then 20, and then 10. And God says, “For the sake of 10 righteous people, I will not destroy it.”
Abraham, who has lied twice about his wife being his sister (which is not technically a lie since she is his half-sister) so as to avoid any kind of punishment or murdering because of how beautiful his wife is, has the audacity to question God, and even chide God a little: “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” This has to sting a little, because, actually, yes, God did, at one point in his history, kill the righteous with the wicked when he flooded the whole earth to punish mankind. God is at his most human in the Hebrew Bible.
Sarah does have a baby, a boy, and she does name him Isaac, which means “laughter” or “he laughs.” It’s a bit of a joke, reminding Sarah that she laughed at the idea of ever having a child of her own. But Sarah also describes Isaac this way: “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
(How important are Bible citations to you? I’m running through this essay without them because I think they can be interruptive. But if you need ’em, let me know.)
Like most family stories, this one is messy. We’re not even really going to touch on the whole Ishmael of it all, but there’s Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Sarah wants banished after the birth of Isaac. All of Sarah’s attention, and all of Abraham’s attention, is on Isaac. (This is a little exaggerated. When Abraham is told by God that Sarah is going to bear a son, Abraham says, “If only Ishmael would live before You!” — in a sense, saying, “I am perfectly happy having Ishmael as my heir. I don’t need another. But God insists, the way God do.)
The most important thing to know about Isaac is that he will soon become entirely a product of trauma. We can read these stories and look for nuggets of hidden truths and Biblical understanding; but we can also just read these stories as stories. Here is a family, here is a terrible request, and on the other side there isn’t a family any longer.
God calls to Abraham, and Abraham says, “Here I am.” God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
And, again, the messiness of the family dynamics ring so true, even to modern ears. God himself ignores Ishmael, and calls Isaac Abraham’s only son. Sons do not fair well in the Hebrew Bible, especially first-born sons. Cain and Abel couldn’t work it out. Ishmael is not considered Abraham’s heir, but Isaac is. Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, are also at odds with each other. Then we get to Joseph and no one likes him. This denial of Ishmael will have consequences later.
God calls to Abraham, tells him to offer his son as a burnt sacrifice, and Abraham sets off the next morning. There is no bargaining this time with God. Why? There is no countering or arguing; no demand for an explanation as to how, exactly, Abraham is going to establish a strong line when one son is banished and the other is dead.
Religious scholars and a certain type of church-y person will say that the story of the Binding of Isaac is about Abraham’s absolute trust in God, and Abraham’s willingness to do anything asked of him. And it might be about that — but this is not a God one should worship. This is cruelty. Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” God says, “Ritually murder your son on a mountain for me.”
A common refrain I have is that the Bible is not the Word of God. The Bible is a composition of a variety of writings, each with a political agenda. I have to remind myself of that when I read about Isaac, or poor Job, or Jephthah and Jephthah’s daughter (more on them in a bit). They describe a certain kind of relationship God has, but it may not be described accurately. In the Hebrew Bible, God says that to show your willingness to follow him, you must sacrifice your son. In the New Testament, Jesus will say to the Rich Young Man, “Sell all your things to follow me.” Of those two sacrifices, one is more moral than the other, at least in my mind.
The sacrificial party is Abraham, Isaac, and two of Abraham’s men. They walk for three days, and we have no idea what they talked about. How much does anyone know on this walk? What is on Abraham’s heart each step that takes him closer to Moriah?
On the third day, Abraham stops and tells his two men to wait for him: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
Let’s talk about the word the word “we” is doing here. For those who want to argue that Abraham knew all along that God wasn’t really going to make him sacrifice Isaac, they’ll point to how Abraham says “we will worship” and “we will come back to you.” Why say we, they ask, if Abraham knew he was going to kill his son and return alone.
(An ogre and a child are walking into the woods. The child looks to the ogre and says “Gee, it sure is awfully dark out here and i’m getting scared.” And the ogre says back to the child, “You think you’re scared? I have to walk out of here alone!”)
But it could also be a small lie, this “we” there and “we” back — and Abraham has told small lies before for self-protection. If he said, “We’re going to worship, and then I’ll come back,” he would have to answer some uncomfortable questions and risk being stopped in his divine mission. “We” is a polite fiction to grease the wheels of worship.
This next part in the story is also worth a little digging:
“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”
Sacrifices must be pure. They must be unmarked and unblemished. Abraham lets Isaac carry the wood, but not the knife, and not the fire, because if Isaac were to nick himself, or singe his skin, he would no longer be a Good Offering to God.
Sacrifices are also usually from the first-born of the flock. And Isaac is the second-born son. Why doesn’t God ask for Ishmael? And here we enter into a debate between Islam and Judaism and I, a white Baptist, am just the person to tell you about it.
Some Muslims believe that it actually was Ishmael whom Abraham was supposed to sacrifice. There’s a lot of quibbling about the phrase “take thy only son.” Some Muslim scholars say that Ishmael is the only one that could ever have been an “only son” because he was an only son for 14 years, until the birth of Isaac. And Isaac would never have the experience of being an only son, since he is the second born.
The midrash on this story captures some of this uncertainty. Here is a record of the “full” conversation:
God: Take your son
Ibrahaim: I’ve got two sons
God: Your only son.
Ibrahaim: Each son is an only son to his mother.
God: The one whom you love.
Ibrahim: But I love both of them.
(This actually sounds more like the Abraham we know from the Sodom and Gomorrah story.)
In the Bible, Isaac only speaks to his father once. “Father! The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
Things move quickly from this point. Abraham builds an altar, lays the wood, binds his son Isaac, and lays him on the sacrificial table.
A father is about to murder his only son. Because a deity said to.
The fact that Abraham doesn’t, in fact, sacrifice his son — an angel stops Abraham and sends a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Just as Abraham said God would. “God himself will provide the lamb, my son.”
(There is a LOT of Christian symbolism that can be read into this story — a father sacrificing his only begotten son; a son carrying the wood that he’s to be sacrificed on — but it’s not actually present in the story. This is a Jewish story about a Jewish event. Those Jews who split from Judaism to become Christians would know these Torah stories by memory, and these would, of course, influence the writings of the gospel. But again: the Hebrew Bible isn’t Christian, it’s co-opted.)
Abraham is blessed for his faithfulness — which, again, is often preached as the main message of this story: God may ask you to do the impossible, but he will be with you the whole time. I still don’t care so much for that as a spiritual take-away. There must be other ways for us to demonstrate love and devotion to God (or the Universe or the Sacred Mystery or whatever you are or are not calling the ineffable).
Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, there’s this curious passage towards the end of this story: “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.”
This event is utterly destabilizing for Isaac. There’s this detail, about how Isaac marries Rebekah in his mother’s tent, and that Rebekah “became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Gen 24:67) When we see him next, he is an old man, blind, and maybe or maybe not aware that his younger son, Jacob, is heisting the birthright from Esau. Isaac is passive and sad and seemingly cut off from any action — which is what you’d expect from someone who is nearly murdered by his father.
So much care and attention is given to Abraham’s faith and faithfulness. So little is said about what this must have been like for Isaac. “Somewhere there must be more love.”