Genesis 22

The first nineteen verses here are some of the most famous in the entire Bible, and the story is foundational to much of Western culture. It is a remarkable tale, supremely told, and as heart-rending today as it must have been for its first hearers. Abraham’s greatest test, the near sacrifice of Isaac: release, restoration, and a re-affirmation of promise.

The details here warrant a book-length treatment, but since ours is not the place for such expansiveness instead we will merely mention two hints of the depth available to be explored; these will have to suffice as indicators of what might be discussed prior to turning to the points which we will highlight. The first of these, then, is that Abraham’s “Here I am” of verse one is the same Hebrew term (hineni) that also forms his response to Isaac’s call in verse seven (given differently in its English translation) and to the “angel’s” address in verse eleven (whom, it might be commented, interestingly speaks of the divine using the first person: verse twelve has it state, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”). This word, scholars tell us, indicates a state of attention, openness, and a willingness to respond. Abraham is fully alert; he is “in the moment” as a Zennist might put it. Secondly, as has been written in the Genesis Rabbah, Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice (and incidentally, with this image in mind, what Isaac knew or intuited by this labor of his the text itself does not mention) is like a person about to be executed by the Romans and caused to carry their own cross. We can of course understand Jesus here; but so too many, many others who were cruelly put to death by this method.

On those lines of utter self-sacrifice, we note verse nine: “They arrived at the place of which God had told him [i.e. Abraham]. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” I have long thought about this: there is no mention whatsoever of a struggle here; Isaac allows himself to be bound, he submits to being placed on the wood, he becomes the sacrifice. I imagine him gazing up at his father – knife held aloft, its tip glinting down at him, suspended there in the sunlight – with his eyes wide open; accepting. “May it be,” he might have thought, “Hineni.” Culturally, socio-historically, the fact that he was innocent only made the offering that much more appropriate.

“Looking,” and “seeing” provide the next pair of verses to dwell on:

22.13-14: “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a [there is a footnote here: “Reading ’eḥad with many Heb. mess. and ancient versions; text ’aḥar ‘after.’”] ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, [footnote: “I.e., ‘the LORD will see’; cf. v. 8.”] whence the present saying, ‘On the mount of the LORD there is vision.’ [another footnote: “Heb. Behar Adonai yera’eh.”]”

Abraham was open, Isaac was open, they were fully alive in the world and in the very specific situational details which they trusted God/“God” had placed them in; whatever we may make of the empirical implications of this type of ontological thinking, what remains is that the characters in this story trusted and acted in the awareness and alertness of what we might call “hineni”: they said yes to and in trust, as indeed much of the “kingdom of God” message of Jesus would centuries later promote (e.g. of the “birds of the air, lilies of the field” type; see Matthew 6.26-33, and from the so-called “lost Gospel” known as Q the Sayings numbered 51-53). What is more, in so doing they were thereby able to “see” (comprehend) and notice that everything necessary was already present, pre-provided as it were, ready and waiting, they only had to take it and put it to use. It is naturally possible to protest that the ram who became the sacrifice was equally as innocent as Isaac (maybe more) and neither deserved nor needed to die, but such entirely misses the purpose of a narrative like this which is not anyway literally true; it is rather literary-ally true, which is to claim that it has a kind of mythic and symbolic truth that imparts a valuable life lesson for we humans trying to find a place for these tiny existences of ours within a vast universe, for the significance we are blessed to have despite the cosmic insignificance (astronomically thinking) of our little corner of space. We find the meanings that we make, and fables like this go a long way towards helping impart such. One more reason to keep reading.

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