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Arguing with God

Austin Seminary professor gives Presbyterian Association of Musicians a fresh take on the Binding of Isaac

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Suzie Park teaches the Hebrew Bible at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

LOUISVILLE — Following the compelling study of the Cain and Abel story she delivered Tuesday to the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, Dr. Suzie Park, who teaches the Hebrew Bible at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, turned to another of the faith heroes held up in Hebrews 11 — Abraham, who, according to the Genesis account, was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac — during a Thursday broadcast to the 800 or so people registered for PAM’s online Worship & Music Conference, celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary.

A sacrifice or near-sacrifice story is common to three faith traditions, she noted — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christians, of course, have Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

But Abraham? “Why hold up a violent, dysfunctional story as a core narrative of the faith?” Park asked. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac in Genesis 21, “in the very next chapter God inexplicably tells Abraham to kill Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering.” Abraham has had another son, Ishmael, sent away “in another horrifying tale,” as Park called it.

The Genesis 22 account “is noted for its sparseness,” she said. The writer “tells the reader little or nothing to help make sense of the story.” Nor does the reader get answers to obvious questions: What is the emotional state of Abraham? Does Isaac know what is going on? Where’s Sarah?

Additionally, the story offers scant answers to any number of theological and ethical questions. Instead, “it compels the reader to wrestle (with the questions) themselves,” she said, including: Why does God ask Abraham to do this unspeakable, unethical act? What was God trying to find out? What would be worth this loss of life? “The Cain and Abel story was about interhuman violence,” Park said. “Here God’s role is more direct.”

The writer of Hebrews may view the story of the Binding of Isaac, as it’s sometimes called, as a true test of either Abraham’s faith or his fear of God. But a careful reading of Genesis 22 makes it “a lot more difficult to dismiss the story as a test of faith,” Park said. The Genesis account raises disturbing questions: Couldn’t God design a test that wouldn’t involve the death of a child? What kind of God does this? Do we want to worship a God who does this?

What’s clear is that “Abraham will do anything that God instructs,” she said. “Is that what we want faith to be?”

“We may want to,” she said, “but we can’t wiggle out of confronting these theological problems.”

At the story’s end, Abraham returns to Beer-sheba with his servants. There’s no mention of Isaac returning.

“Instead of just accepting the usual interpretation, the story compels us to look at this narrative — to argue against it, even to say no to it,” Park said. “Let’s try that.”

Instead of a model of faith, reimagine Abraham as an anti-model, she suggested, “a model of what not to do. Interrogate his actions, and declare that he should have questioned God, resisted God’s unethical command, and say no as we readers say no now.”

Using this approach, Abraham fails the test. “He passes the pure blind obedience test, but he does not pass the larger unstated test about how one should behave when confronted with an unethical dilemma,” Park said. “We know Abraham can argue with God,” because he did so four chapters earlier in Genesis 18, bargaining with God to spare Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot lived.

“Or, he should have just said no, no matter the cost,” Park said. “This is especially the case when we look at how the action affects the people around him,” most noticeably his wife. “Abraham does not say a peep to Sarah about what he is going to do on this special father-and-son trip … He seems to treat Isaac as if Isaac belongs to himself alone, as if Sarah has nothing to do with this child.”

Following this story, Sarah dies. Rabbinic sources say she dies “because she finds out what her no-good husband was up to with this child she has waited her whole life for,” Park said.

But the person most affected is Isaac.

“There are small clues that Isaac was deeply traumatized by what happened,” she said. Isaac is never depicted speaking to his father again. Perhaps he had a psychological transformation as a result of his near-death experience. “The old Isaac never returned to Beer-sheba,” she said. “The text hints he was psychologically damaged.”

But there are glimmers of hope in the story. Writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says in his book “Messengers of God” that it’s significant that Isaac’s name means “laughter” in Hebrew. “It’s not just because he’s a humorous character,” Park noted, “but because he survived and carried on after his ordeal. He somehow lives on and learns to laugh again. He offers us a model of hope.”

“No matter our trauma,” she said, “we too can survive and live and laugh as Isaac did.” In addition, “we are now in a better position to defend other Isaacs in the world.”

So faith, she said, is harder to identify than the writer of Hebrews presents through examples in Chapter 11. “It is arguing against God when people like Cain are treated unfairly,” she said. “It’s about standing up to God, or to those who claim they represent God.”

“The need to protect anyone and everyone who is in danger or oppressed — that is what true faith is,” she said. “These stories seem to argue what it truly means to be part of a great cloud of witnesses.”

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