I remember talking with my sister not too long ago about the story of Abraham and Isaac. There have been a few notable reflections on it in the past few years in pop culture, including the videogame The Binding of Isaac and the recent song Abraham’s Daughter.
We both agreed that yes it is true, the story is bizarre, barbaric even. But it makes no sense only outside of its biblical context.
But I did a bit of thinking, and now I think even within the Bible there are nonsensical ways to look at it. The number one justification I hear about for the binding is that God was using it as a way to test Abraham’s faith. Non-Christians argue that this is cruel and pointless, and I kind of agree. God had already credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. And God knew that when push came to shove Abraham (like all of us) could be a bit of a wimp. Which is why the only thing God required Abraham to do during the ‘signing’ of the first covenant was fall asleep! (Gen 15:12)
I think the only way to look at it that doesn’t smack of human (and often fallible) sense is from a Christological perspective. This goes beyond the act being a symbol for future generations I think; it was a window into God’s heart and an act of communion. In the same way that we are called to die on the cross as Jesus did, in the same way Hosea was commanded to take the adulterous Gomer for his wife, Abraham was called to do something drastic and, frankly, against all human sense, in order to be intimate with God, to understand what he is like.
Abraham was the father of a beloved son, so was God. Abraham set up the apparatus to kill his son, so did God. But Abraham was stopped from killing his own son at the very last moment – but God did not give himself that luxury. He had mercy on Abraham and his son, but for the sake of the glory and the future kingdom he did not spare his own heart nor the life of his own son. But in the binding of Isaac, God was showing Abraham ahead of time the glory that would be finally be achieved, and the pain it would in the process cause him – a pain that he mercifully spared Abraham from suffering.
So what it comes to is this: that in the binding of Isaac God achieves intimacy with the people he loves through an act of sacrifice (or in this case near-sacrifice). This is a veiled message of the gospel before its time, true, but it is also a deeply personal act of love, trust and companionship. Think of the times when God wanted to make himself known to Moses, whose face shone with the glory for months after the experience, or Jesus’ transfiguration before his apostles’ astonished eyes! And for him to show sinful Abraham what it’s like to be God? It’s unthinkable! This is no distant, unfeeling God at all.
So I’d say outside of the Christological context it is pretty hard to make sense of this event, no matter how much else of the Bible we throw into it.