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Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?
With Abraham on Mt. Moriah
When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser. The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son. The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not. Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him. For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised. But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”1
We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust. Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2). And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.
We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception. Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally. Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” in Gen. 22:2),2 Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions. How could he put faith above reason? He didn’t! He put reason in service of his strong faith. This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!” His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him. The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning. This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology. If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way. Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.
A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson
There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the book of Hebrews. The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods. When our predisposition to reason independently is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.
What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22. That faith did not venture on types and transformations. Faith took God at His word! For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value. To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently. But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture. Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.
This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible. Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake. Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round. Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).
1 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41
2 Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability—when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny—all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” (W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.