How often do we blithely go through the motions of the Biblical text without really engaging or challenging that from which we are reading? We assume the conclusions that have been arrived at before us and we repeat their assertions – from Church Fathers or modern Orthodox theologians – without having done any work ourselves. This is work, I believe, God has set before us and wants us to do. Sometimes I think that we do this because the text we read from is deceptively challenging (in a blessed way). When we engage with it honestly, problems may arise that challenge us as we seek for their solutions. But God gives us these opportunities so we wrestle with the text through other lenses. When we have properly engaged with the text, we make the stories of the Old and the New Testament more than just stories. They become more meaningful, moving, and less distant from us. They become the personal oral history of our own people, the chosen people of God.

In the mid 90’s, as a young, non-practicing Christian undergrad at UCSC philosophy department, one of the required readings was Soren Kierkegaard’s piece on Abraham and Isaac in his book, “Fear and Trembling.” It was this piece that set me on the path to actively engage with the scriptural text. Kierkegaard attempts to understand the narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, a sacrifice that was demanded of him by God, through a secular philosophical lense. For the philosopher, the demand made by the Judeo-Christian God is quite a conundrum. Kierkegaard reasons thusly: If God is a god of love, how then can He require a sacrifice of a child? Not only that, but how can He require a sacrifice of His obedient servant’s only son, a son who has been borne to his servant in his extreme old age and a son to whom, as God attests Himself, has promised to fulfill a great destiny through? “[…] I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” Genesis 22:17-18.

At the end of Kierkegaard’s reflection upon this terrible situation, he arrives at two logical conclusions. First, Abraham is a madman and a (potential) murderer, attempting to follow through with command of God that is contrary to God’s established morality, and therefore, there is nothing to be admired about him. Second, there is a principle higher than God’s established morality at work. Abraham demonstrates this through his unquestioning obedience to God at all costs to himself and his promised future. He is to be admired for this. For Kierkegaard, and for myself as well at that time, neither conclusion seemed to be more satisfactory than the other and both conclusions seemed to be lacking.

Fast forward a decade or two during which I listened to many homilies about Abraham and Isaac and God’s call for sacrifice. These homilies were given by many well-intentioned, good, Christians – Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Many, if not most, of the homilies focused on the story as being a type, or a prefigurement of God the Father, His Son, and the plan for humanity’s salvation story. They smoothly wrapped up their homilies, praising Abraham and his obedience, but I always experienced that nagging feeling from my undergrad philosophy days. Something was missing from the telling of the story. If it was a type of salvation story that was to come, then shouldn’t more of its elements be in line with that story’s counterparts?

In the Orthodox Christian Old Testament narrative, Abraham alone hears the voice of God give him the command to take Isaac up into the wilderness and sacrifice him. And so, without discussion of any kind, he takes Isaac and a couple of servants and departs to the land of Moriah, loaded with wood, fire, rope, and a knife. As they near their destination, Abraham dismisses his servants, and he and Isaac journey on. Isaac, silent throughout most of the story, eventually asks where the sheep is for the sacrifice, to which Abraham replies that God will provide one when necessary. An altar is built out of firewood and Isaac is bound and laid upon it. Abraham then takes his knife to sacrifice Isaac. As he is about to follow through an angel calls out commanding him to stop and blesses his obedience (righteous fear of God). Lifting up his eyes, Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket behind him and so offers the ram in Isaac’s place. He returns home without Isaac.

So, what’s the problem with this narrative you might ask? It seems pretty straight forward and fits the Salvation Plan narrative nicely, does it not? But I’d argue that it both does and it does not. In one sense it does so loosely, with the father offering up his only son, who is the singular fulfillment of future life and kingdom. This obviously refers to Christ. On another level this narrative doesn’t work and here’s why.

First, Abraham is known for seeking counsel and talking about his plans with those closest to him – Sarah, Lot, the Lord, etc. For him to not enter into discussion about anything God has asked him to do, even in passing with his wife or the Lord Himself in depth, is challenging to say the least. This is especially so in light of how much Abraham loves them both. Didn’t Abraham dialogue with the Lord over Sodom and Gomorrah and about Lot’s fate? Why would he not have done so over Isaac’s even more so? What about Sarah? Isn’t Isaac Sarah’s son as well? Where is the love being expressed between the two of them?

Second, if Isaac is the prefigurement of Christ, then shouldn’t there have been dialogue between the father and the son about the impending sacrifice? If the sacrifice is to be the proper and right kind of sacrifice, then it must be voluntarily given. This is not an animal being offered up, but a human being. So it can’t just be Abraham offering to sacrifice his son. Isaac too must be given the opportunity to voluntarily lay his life down. For this to happen there must be some informed dialogue. This is seemingly absent from the text. Even the ending is challenging. Rather than the son returning home with the father, the father comes home alone.

So how are we to deal with these disparate elements and bring them back into the typology of the plan for salvation? To fill in the missing dialogue we might look to other sources within scripture. Christ Himself gives us ample parables of fathers and sons, and servants and masters. We might also look to extra-biblical texts, including Jewish sources, for commentary on these texts, trusting God will help us discern which are from Him and which are not. Working out these seemingly problematic sections of scripture, we ourselves will have been obedient to the sacred cause set before us, to actively engage the Word of the Lord so it may work in our lives. In doing so, we become all the more the chosen people of God.