In 1946, German philologist and literary critic Erich Auerbach published his famous work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature in which he devotes one section to the comparison of Genesis 22, “The Binding of Isaac,” with an episode from Homer’s Odyssey. In his analysis, Auerbach outlines the grace and prosaic beauty of the Genesis account even compared to the Greek classic. Since his analysis (and even before), Christian and secular readers alike have been transfixed by the elegance and depth of this particular Old Testament tale.
The typical understanding of the Binding of Isaac story is that it is a monument of one man’s faith. This interpretation is seen in Hebrews’ inclusion of Abraham into the “Hall of Faith” chapter, lauding the patriarch for his willingness to offer up his son to God. But in revisiting the story, it is not exactly clear that this is, in fact, what’s going on in the story. Abraham is certainly a figure of faith, but is this the intended message for the dramatic narrative of Genesis 22?
Early on in the story, we’re given our first hint that the classic interpretation may not be exhaustive, for in the first verse the narrator chooses to tell us that the following episode is a “test.” In less capable hands, this revealing could disrupt the suspense of the narrative, but for this account it focuses the reader as the narrator intends. Primarily, it diverts the audience from worrying about the fate of the young heir in order to better understand the motivations—the fear and the faith—of our protagonist. The reader is forced to consider Abraham’s response—his silence, his reply to Isaac—as well as the multiple levels of irony in the story. Beyond this feature of revealing the narrative as a test, the narrator allays any doubts concerning the character of God, assuring the audience that God does not really desire human sacrifice.
The exchange by which God delivers his startling command is brief; Abraham’s only contribution is the words, “Here I am”—a recurring phrase in the story. After God commands Abraham to kill his son, we are told nothing about the patriarch’s state of mind or reaction; he simply arises in the morning and begins his preparation. This silent response stands in deep contrast with the bold Abraham we have encountered in previous episodes—it is completely different than the Abraham we saw deliver an eloquent defense for the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is the only active character in the story; if anyone is to plead Isaac’s case, it must be him. Yet he says nothing.
The narrative speeds up as Abraham prepares for the journey and offering. He gathers the supplies and along with Isaac and two servants, he heads off to place God has shown him. As they come near their destination, Abraham commands the two other men to stay back, saying, “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Is Abraham lying here or does he actually believe that Isaac will return? Whatever the answer, the question returns in the subsequent scene as Isaac and Abraham walk on together and Isaac asks his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Isaac may be suspicious or he may be naïve, but in either case, the ironic question is cloaked in tragedy. Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and they walk on together.
In the following verses, the ancient writer shows his mastery of the craft. Upon arriving at the site where the offering is to take place, the pacing of the story slows down to a crawl. Every detail of the scene is described, the building of the altar, the laying down of the wood, the binding of Isaac, the laying him upon the altar, the laying him upon the wood.
(As a brief aside, how are we to understand the physical binding of Isaac? Abraham is old—though this means little in ancient stories—and Isaac is young. Did the son comply to the will of the father, or was Abraham forced to subdue his son in this dark hour?)
Abraham takes the knife and raises it above his head, determined and ready to fulfill the divine will. But at that very moment, a voice cries out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” And the patriarch responds, “Here I am.” This phrase, used before to acknowledge the daunting task of the Most High, used before to answering the tragic question of the child, this phrase is used here at the climax of the story to conclude Abraham’s burden. It tells us that the test is over, and Abraham—either in hopeful openness to an out, or in shock and fear—lays down the knife and looks up to see a ram caught in a thicket. His earlier statement that the Lord would provide has come true—but is this faith or is this irony?
After sacrificing the ram, the Lord restates his blessing toward Abraham and his descendants. We are told in the final verse of the narrative that Abraham “returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba, and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.” This final statement calls back to the earlier uses of the phrase “went together,” but this time it is different. While the statement remains ambiguous, it leaves unclear whether or not Isaac, the son whom Abraham loved, was among those who walked together to Beer-sheba.
The Binding of Isaac is a layered and complex narrative. In typical Hebrew fashion, the storytelling is laconic and we are never allowed into Abraham’s mind—we never fully see what he is thinking. This has led many to speculate on the meaning of the story: it could simply depict a man who was willing to sacrifice his son to God and was thus rewarded; it could depict a man who obeys out of fear of divine wrath and out of resentment never speaks to his god again; it could depict a game of ethical chicken, whereby Abraham knew that God would ultimately provide but was forced to get as close as possible to actually killing his son; similarly, it could depict God’s pre-planned way of proving himself to Abraham; it could depict a test conducted by a God that had grown unsure of the man he had chosen to bless the world through.
The possibilities are endless—is this a story of faith or fear? All of the aforementioned interpretations have been extrapolated from a close reading of the text and peer-reviewed by those engaged in the analysis of this story. In some ways the plurality of meanings is a testament to the legendary composition of this story, but in many ways, it leaves the believer—the person who comes to the text looking for guidance, for a figure to follow—empty-handed.
While I generally think the second-to-last interpretation is the most likely, the Binding of Isaac is most valuable as a reminder that the heroes of Scripture are not flawless and are often shaded in mystery and even dark tones. They are not always figures to emulate, but rather individuals to wrestle with and consider as we strive to better know God.