I’m starting with an apology…Again! What is written below is not dogmatically laying down an easy approach to all things. This, like all my posts, are open to criticism and discussion and I desire so much that people correct me and highlight issues. I can come across at times as strong willed on issues… I can be changed…and that is kind of the point of this particular post. I’m wrestling with how we know Truth and the idea that we do not know ourselves truly. Enjoy!
I’ve been doing an essay on Genesis 22, the ‘akedah’ or binding of Isaac. I have come across an issue that struck me deeply… The majority of Christian teaching on this passage doesn’t strike me as true.
Here’s my reflection…
The God portrayed in this passage commands Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. Abraham, without any words or confrontation or mention of confusion about this does as his god says. On the way Isaac, a grown man (generally agreed by scholars), carries the implements by which the altar will be built and lies down, without any question, to be sacrificed by his aging father.
My question is; what is this teaching us of obedience?
We generally say, as Christians, that Abraham is a man of faith because he did what God asked, no questions asked. This comes also from Hebrews 11 where this is explicitly said. Are we therefore, as Christians, to just do what God says no matter if it is contradictory to what He has previously told us? Are we to just go along with whims of God? Today we explored briefly the passage in Acts 15 where we see the early church discovering a ‘change’ in the plans of God with the blessing of Gentiles by the Holy Spirit. This, for some, is a sign that God changes goal posts. I disagree with this. God always wanted Gentiles part of His people; you just have to look at God’s call on Abraham to be blessed in order to bless others. Acts 15 does not, as far as I’m concerned, say that God changes His mind. If He did then He would not be trustworthy or reliable. In Genesis 22, God is clearly changing the goal posts. Previously He has told Abraham that it is through Isaac that the descendants will come and now He’s commanding that that hope is to be taken away.
Some arguments have been suggested which do not sit well with me.
Firstly, there’s an argument that suggests that Abraham knew that God wouldn’t allow him to sacrifice his son. This gives a picture of spiritual ‘chicken’; see who buckles first. If Abraham (and Isaac, some argue) knew that God wouldn’t go through with it then it’s not a test of their faith. If Abraham knew the mind of God then the whole performance of the ritual is strange. If Abraham is that in tune with the will of God then why he had to go through with the motions doesn’t ring true.
Then, there’s an argument that suggests that the test was to show God as different from the gods of the time; that the other gods allowed child sacrifice and that this was to show God as different. If this is the case, which I think there might be an element of, then Abraham’s obedience is a failure of character rather than something that is in need of praise. Why is Abraham labelled a man of faith in light of an event that shows him to have no idea the difference between Yahweh and the other gods at the time? Why do we laud the character of Abraham as something to aspire to?
The issue that strikes me about the Christian interpretation of this passage is that we look at biblical ‘types’ and fail to analyse the character. Historical critics of texts like Genesis 22 deny a need of ‘psychologising’ the character, i.e. ‘getting inside their head’ and understanding the motives behind actions and thoughts, because they were not written as ‘characters’ but as ‘types’ (fairytale types); they are merely vehicles in the plot, rather than active characters. It is interesting, therefore, when Christian commentators try and show us how we as fully functioning, pschologising characters should behave like these types who have no inner workings. This would presume, therefore, that the Christian commentators disagree with the historical critics and believe Abraham and other characters are, fully functioning, pschologising characters. Why then do they not see the confusion of actions with the way that they are described?
God, as a character, also is contradictory. Nothing is said about the fact that He was proving Himself different from the other gods. He states that He is pleased with Abraham because Abraham went through with the contradictory command. In this passage God seems to bless the actions of Abraham because he has gone through with the arbitrary whim of God and feared Him. Are we to surmise that as Christians we are to live our life in fear of God and to go along with God who changes his mind and who tests us in such extreme and contradictory ways? The Hebrew term for ‘fear’ is also to be translated as a ‘knowing’ and even then it suggests that we are to know God but if He proves Himself different we should go along with that… this leads, unfortunately, to a God who is unknowable and mysterious.
I would be one of the first people to hold up the mystery of God but it strikes me as odd when the Christian faith claims to be a faith that knows God as ‘relationship’; that the incarnation is the good news that God is with us. That God wants to be in relationship with each one of us. He is not distant, aloof, unknowable, but close and calling us to know Him. The mystery of God only goes so far. God is amazingly mysterious, we could never know everything about God but that doesn’t mean we don’t try and discover more of His character. If He were a God that hides from us and misleads us then it destroys any power in the incarnation and the call to relationship with Him. We become like the Muslims who push for the awesomeness of God and some believe God can do anything, including lie and alter. We don’t believe this. We believe that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, which is restricting the awesomeness of God but means that He is able to be understood by us. There are examples, I know, that God changes His mind because of human intervention; Moses and Abraham both argue with God to change things, Jesus, too, changes His mind. I think I’m trying to say that the character of God can’t change. In Genesis 22, however, his character changes and it stands out as odd. What’s also odd is that Abraham is unable to question this change in character when earlier he was ok to question it.
So what’s this all got to do with anything? Well apart from being an outburst of frustration and confusion, I’d like also to suggest where the theatre can help.
If there is anything that the theatre can teach us is that of character and story. Understanding motives of characters in a text is our bread and butter. Characters like Abraham are approached in the same way as any other. If we read the story of Abraham we see events unfolding in a different way altogether. To save a bit of time I want to point you in the direction of Gunn and Fewell’s book ‘Narrative in the Hebrew Bible’ and the chapter on Abraham and Sarah. Here you see characters acting in consistency with true human beings. God is constant and eliminates any confusion. Leonard Sweet, also, in his book ‘Out of the Question…Into the Mystery’ argues a similar point about how the ‘akedah’ is a two-fold test one of obedience but also, and more importantly, a test of relationship. God asking Abraham ‘Do you know me?’ This part Abraham fails. There are, I know holes in some areas but as a theatre director it helps to explain issues of character in the passage. The Abraham in Sweet’s interpretation rings ‘true’
If we approach characters in texts as types rather than human beings then we run into issues of application.The issue I have,as I said at the beginning is it’s not ringing with truth. It feels like those time when someone tells you something you know isn’t true. When someone explains something and it doesn’t feel right.
I want to finish by touching on another issue I’ve come across this week. We are struggling, as a society, with issues raising from the feminist movement. In the current landscape, men now struggle to know what it means to be a man. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, uses the word ‘man’ for all humanity and during the feminist movement, women, quite rightly, changed it to ‘people’. Men were left, however, with a stereotype of what ‘men’ were to be and do. Feminist readers changed some of the ‘men’ to ‘people’ and left others as ‘men’. We are then depicted in the Bible, as a gender group, to be what the feminist critique movement perceived us. This is a swing to ‘anti-men’.
This has implications on what our society communicates to young men. If you do not comply with the accepted understanding of ‘man’ then you stand out. I, like many others in the Arts, have struggled with this gender performance issue. It’s not talked about but there’s no teaching on what it means to be a ‘man’. What is the outcome of such confusion?If the true man acts in a certain way and I don’t fit then am I truly a man?
As a boy growing up I knew I was different from the football playing, beer drinking men around me. Was I therefore a woman? No but I was obviously more like the girls than the boys… I’m gay. This, in hindsight, was not the case. What helped me to discern whether I was gay or not? Open talking with my mum who helped to define what being gay was; the biological, natural response to the sexual act. My relationship with my mum helped me, early on, to discern my sexual orientation. I know I am a rare case to have such an open and willing relationship with my mum. It makes me think… how many boys who, like me, did not fit into the ‘man type’ jumped to the conclusion they were gay?
I have experienced friends who were seen as ‘camp’ and began to embody that understanding of themselves. In their sexual exploration the gender performance spoke into how they related to women and men in a sexual way and soon spoke of themselves as gay. Do pre-adolescent children have a concept of sexual orientation or gender performance? People will communicate, both positively and negatively, to the gender performance a child inhabits; “He’s camp”. If I had listened to what people had said about me in my formative years then my interest in girly things would have been influential as how I saw myself and my male and female friends. I didn’t listen. I am not by any means saying that gay men are making it up. What I am suggesting, however, is that sexual orientation is tied up with a whole heap of issues of identity and psychology and, until biological testing proves otherwise, our sexual orientation is connected with nurture and what we percieve as truth. People influence us and our idea of Truth. The issue is that there are lies. Which is which?
What I am trying to articulate (and not doing a very good job at!) is that we, as the Church, need to start looking at people, not as statistics or trends, but as individuals and to know that when we meet people they have been shaped by experience that we, as mere mortals, have no way of untangling. There’s a thought that the only person who knows you is you. This is a lie! I do not know myself. I have a good idea of myself but I don’t know myself completely. I am changing and being formed all the time and sometimes that’s postive and sometimes that’s negative. I rely on the truth that all things find completion in Christ. In Christ is where we find our true identity. Until we find ourselves in Christ in eternity we are all performing a character of who we think we are and the Christian faith suggests we allow Christ to shape and form us into himself. There are vast swathes of people, me, at times, included, who do not allow the change of identity and character to happen but God is working in us to transform us from who are to who we are meant to be.
You don’t have to be like you are.
In the interpretation of Genesis 22 I don’t find truth. It unsettles me. I am willing to be changed and shaped but only by the Truth. God loves a doubter, he always has. Is there significance in the fact that the nation is named after Israel rather than Abraham? Israel = ‘he who wrestles with God (and Man)’
Is this a cop out? Yes.