The binding of Isaac and the binding of God

I’m reading a wonderful book by Duke Divinity School professor Ellen F. Davis called Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. It’s a series of loosely connected essays and meditations on various OT books and stories, what she calls an “unsystematic introduction.” Davis’s purpose, she says, is to provide an alternative to the way Christians usually approach the OT. Conservative Christians may read it primarily as a moral rulebook or a set of prophecies of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, while liberal Christians, if they read it at all, tend to view the OT as morally and spiritually primitive, fully superseded by the New Testament. In contrast to either of these approaches, Davis commends a “spiritually engaged” reading of the OT, focusing on “what the Old Testament tells us about intimate life with God” (p. 2).

As her title suggests, a common theme running throughout the book is that the God of the Bible is unique among ancient deities in that he is deeply concerned and involved with the plight of humanity. “God’s life is bound up inextricably with ours” (p. 1). As she says a little later, “the fundamental article of biblical religion [is] that God’s life, God’s glory, even God’s well-being, are indissolubly linked with our lives. For Christians, the sublime expression of that indissoluble linkage between God’s glory and frail human life is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ” (p. 19). God actually takes a risk in entering into a covenant with creation–the success of this covenant depends in part upon the free response of human beings.

Which brings us to the story of the Binding of Isaac, which Davis rightly calls one of the most terrifying stories in the Bible. She notes that modern “enlightened” Christians are deeply uncomfortable with this story, and she identifies two strategies they use to get around it. One is to simply reject it as an expression of an archaic, sub-Christian conception of God. (Davis says she heard one preacher emphatically declare that “I do not worship the God of Abraham”!) The second strategy is to see the story of the aborted sacrifice of Isaac as a symbolic representation of ancient Israel’s leap beyond the widespread practice of infant sacrifice and its transition to “ethical religion.”

But, Davis says, neither of these approaches take the Bible and this story with full seriousness. She proposes a closer reading to see what’s really going on here. What this story is about, she argues, is God and God’s plan for blessing to creation. “Genesis is primarily a book about God, and secondarily about human beings encountering God” (p. 58). Davis notes that previously in Genesis we’ve seen God’s plans for humanity go awry time and again: first in the garden of Eden, then in humanity’s descent into violence culminating in the flood, and finally in the Tower of Babel incident. God’s new strategy in the remainder of Genesis (and the whole Bible for that matter) is to bless all of humanity by creating a covenant with a particular people. “At this point, God gives up on trying to work a blessing directly upon all humankind. From now on, God will work through one man, one family, one people, in order to reach all people” (60).

For this to work, however, God has to find out what kind of man he’s dealing with in Abraham. That’s the purpose of God’s test in asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. After seeing that Abraham is willing to go through with it, “God knows something now that God did not know before. Genesis offers little support for a doctrine of divine omniscience, if by that we mean that God knows everything we are going to do before we do it” (p. 58).

God’s new strategy is hardly surefire. We should not be surprised if adopting it makes God anxious, for now everything depends on the faithfulness of this one man Abraham. God, having been badly and repeatedly burned by human sin throughout the first chapters of Genesis yet still passionately desirous of working blessing in the world, now chooses to become totally vulnerable on the point of this one man’s faithfulness. It is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive solution to a problem. (p. 60)

One reason this story appears so early in the Bible, Davis thinks, is that it teaches us something fundamental about Israel’s “complex witness” to God.

The Binding of Isaac shows us a God who is vulnerable, terribly and terrifyingly so, in the context of covenant relationship. We are more comfortable using the “omni” words–omnipotent, omniscient–to describe God. Yet if we properly understand the dynamics of covenant relationship, then we are confronted with a God who is vulnerable. For, as both Testaments maintain, the covenant with God is fundamentally an unbreakable bond of love (hesed). And ordinary experience teaches that love and vulnerability are inextricably linked; we are most vulnerable to emotional pain when the well-being and the faithfulness of those we love are at stake. And as we have seen, the Bible shows that the faithfulness of even the best of God’s covenant partners is always up for grabs. So it follows that God’s vulnerability in love is an essential element of covenant relationship. (p. 62)

This is one reason that the Binding of Isaac resonates so strongly with the story of Jesus’ Passion (which brings us to today):

It is in Christ hanging on the cross that we see, for once in history, the two sides of this story fully joined in one person. In Jesus Christ we see a son of Abraham sparing nothing, totally faithful in covenant relationship with God. At the same time, we see in Jesus God’s total faithfulness, expressed now as excruciating vulnerability, even to death on a cross. These two images–Abraham binding Isaac, Christ nailed on a cross–are the supporting structures for the long convoluted story of sin and salvation. When reason fails, as it does at least one Friday each year, then we must listen to the stories with our hearts. (pp. 63-4)

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