Sacrifice and Obedience: Marilynne Robinson on the Timeless Tale of Abraham and Isaac


The Lord commands the sacrifice of Isaac without explanation. He does it to test Abraham, according to the text. From his leaving Ur of the Chaldeans to the birth of Isaac, the narrative of Abraham has been all faith and patience and longing. Everything he is promised is contingent upon the son he does not have. Then, when finally, miraculously, a son has been given to him, the old man is told to kill him. This must be called the climax of the Abraham narrative, a stunningly ironic reversal on the movement of the story to this point.

In what state of mind or soul does faithful Abraham lead his son to the place of sacrifice? He is the first man after Noah to whom God has chosen to make Himself known, at least for the purposes of the biblical account. (Melchizedek and Abimelech suggest there might be more to the story.) Abraham has encountered God directly, but we have no sense of what this experience would have been, except that it elicits a calm and steadfast obedience in him. “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house,’” a very quiet theophany, considering that it is meant to, and will, set off a new era in the history of humankind.

Through Abraham we first know the presence who is known sufficiently as the God of Abraham, who will instruct him so that his children will follow in His way. Part of this instruction is necessarily to distinguish Him from the throngs of false gods that swarmed the imaginations and fed the fears and hopes of ancient humanity.

Abraham’s love for his son is precisely the measure of his obedience in acting on what he takes to be God’s will.

Aside from the accumulation of wealth and household that marks Abraham as blessed in the eyes of the Philistines, God intrudes invisibly on these Bronze Age lives. He does not instruct Abraham to recruit other believers or to create a cultus of some kind. He expects some degree of righteousness on earth, as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah makes clear, and as His protection of Abimelech makes clear also. Mysterious Melchizedek, who appears and blesses Abraham after his rescue of Lot and others, invokes God, “possessor of heaven and earth,” in words Abraham accepts and repeats. El Elyon, God Most High, is a variant of Elohim, the name used for Him by Abraham. This, together with the fact that Abraham in all his wandering never encounters any sign of adherence to another god, neither idolatry nor alien religious practices, suggests an original monotheism, however implicit.

As a strategy of narrative, the background, the terrain of Abraham’s world, is silenced. There were an Ur and an Egypt, but for the purposes of this story there is Abraham, with his kin, his servants, and his flocks. Other nations and the pressures of their ambitions and their influences and examples will be constant presences in the chronicles of the nation this clan will become. Here there is the silence of Abraham as he walks with his son toward the place of sacrifice, and there is the silence of God.

It is amazing to consider what would have died under that knife if it had not fallen from Abraham’s hand—the promised nations, and with them history as we have in fact known it. Why are we to believe that God Almighty is so invested in the emergence of nations, which are often enough troublesome and dangerous? They are lesser Babels, within which human capacities are discovered and expressed that we would never realize on our own. Because we can be beautiful collectively as we are singly— God is enthroned on the praises of Israel. Isaac embodies the future in which all of this will eventuate.

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Sacrifice arises here as if without context. In pagan practice it was believed and intended to please the god to whom it was offered, to sway or enlist or mollify. In other words, it was meant to give human beings some degree of influence over divine sympathies and actions. It was transactional. When the Greek king Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, he does so to obtain winds that will carry his ships to Troy. This one favor is attended in due course by epic grief. Still, the sacrifice is made and the goddess obliges.

This sacrifice is not Abraham’s idea. He has no purpose that would put him in the position of asking God for anything He has not already said He will give him. He drifts over the land he has been promised, looking for grazing, leaving when famine requires him to, growing rich, growing old, living peaceably among the other sojourners in the land, encountering the Lord at the Lord’s good pleasure, never summoning Him.

The Lord speaks to him of an unimaginable futurity, assuming that Abraham will find the same joy He does in the prospect of innumerable descendants. Abraham asks Him how this promise can be fulfilled when he and Sarah have no son, but he never asks outright for God to give them a son. Somehow he is able to believe God long after belief seems impossible. This is the quality for which he is uniquely revered, and one meaning of it is that he does not in any way attempt to bend God’s favor and power to his purposes, to impose his very modest though very passionate yearning on God’s will, even though his longing aligns perfectly with God’s promise.

We know what Abraham’s thoughts are because the Lord tells him and the text tells us. What could Abraham say to Him, if he were to attempt an appeal? He is my son, my only son, whom I love. But this appeal is precluded— God knows what He is asking. Abraham’s love for his son is precisely the measure of his obedience in acting on what he takes to be God’s will. Then what of the covenant? What of those teeming nations, waiting to exist and to be blessed? These seem not to be considerations. What of the promises that were the bond between us, which I believed? Abraham might have challenged God in these terms. He could have said, as he had done before, attempting to intercede for any righteous there might be in Sodom, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

But God knows that the crux of it all is that Isaac is Abraham’s beloved only son, and Abraham understands this. The stars of the heavens and the dust of the earth and all the generations that equaled their numbers would seem remote indeed beside this boy struggling under his burden of firewood. The irony of God’s seeming readiness to make all those promises null might correspond to an indifference on Abraham’s side to everything but the loss of his child.

That the very particular history of the Lord’s relationship with Abraham falls away in this long moment makes the story universal. Abraham could have been any ancient worshipper who believed his god or goddess demanded his or her child. Archaeological remains in Carthage include the bones of young animals among those of small children, suggesting the hope that these substitutions would be acceptable, though they seem never to have become customary. In the New Testament, in accordance with Mosaic law, two pigeons are sacrificed in the place of a first male child, the infant Jesus.

If the story of the binding of Isaac is cruel, the cruelty it exposes plagued the lives of those who felt compelled to sacrifice children, whether Carthaginians or those unspecified others who are mentioned among the idolators of that world. The one God, Elohim, might have mourned this suffering and chosen to correct this misapprehension of His nature and His will. The plain statement of the tale is that the Lord does not want the sacrifice of a child, but that He is pleased to accept an animal, here a ram that He Himself has provided.

The God of Scripture tolerates sacrifice rather than requiring it. The festivals established in the laws involve sacrifices that are also feasts, in which the widow, orphan, and stranger are to take part. They define community. We moderns like our turkey dead and plucked before we have anything to do with it, but we know what it is to gather around a turkey and to bond in some way with the community who also participate in the secular consecration of the creature. But actual sacrifice was prone to excesses of every kind. It was thought to be effectively offered, that is, given, to a god or goddess and, at best, to put him or her under a kind of obligation.

In The Iliad, the old priest Chryseis prays to Apollo, saying, “If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned for you thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer,” and avenge me. Prometheus had tricked Zeus into accepting thighbones wrapped in fat as the gods’ portion of a sacrifice, securing the better part for human consumption. All the same, Apollo is immediately enlisted.

The prophet Isaiah and others voice the Lord’s impatience with the practice: He says to Judah and Jerusalem, “Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. ‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats… Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth.’”

As He does so often, He asks for justice rather than sacrifice: “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” The Canaanite gods would languish if they were not fed by sacrifices. The Lord says in Psalm 50, “I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are mine…for the world is mine, and all the fulness thereof.” And, “Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High.” Human autonomy is unlike all other things. No ritual can make any creature or object more the Lord’s than it is in itself. But in bringing before God justice or righteousness or thanksgiving, we are offering what we might very well withhold. We all know this from experience and observation.

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Ritual sacrifice is a difficult subject for modern Western readers. But then very few of earth’s peoples have fallen into that category. It is surely reasonable to assume that we are not always the Bible’s primary audience. The idea of child sacrifice seems to have been felt as a temptation, perhaps because it might have been thought to have a special efficacy. What could show more devotion than the gift of what is most beautiful, most precious to oneself? After Abraham has shown his willingness to carry out this appalling act, the Lord says, “Now I know that you fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Now Abraham knows that the most passionate worshippers of Moloch or Anat are not more devout than he. The most excruciating sacrifice they made was no greater than the one he would have made if God Himself had not forbidden it.

So the seeming cruelty toward Abraham is compassion toward those great nations who learned from him or modeled their piety on his. God’s stated purpose in His dealings with Abraham is to teach righteousness to later generations. If the purpose of the story is to instruct, this puts it into a category readers resist—“didactic” is never a compliment. But it should be remembered that the text intends a God’s-eye view, one meant to shape the nations He is creating. It is true historically that Abraham’s people were spared a profound, self-inflicted misery, which is at the same time a profound misunderstanding of the nature and will of God.

Bringing before God justice or righteousness or thanksgiving, we are offering what we might very well withhold.

This reading shifts emphasis away from Abraham’s obedience and toward the sacrificial act itself, the killing of a child. Isaac is utterly singled out by the narrative of his father’s life and the miracle of his having been born to a very old woman. Providential history has a role for him. But this does not so much make his death, should it have happened, exceptional as it draws on the singularity of any child, and of the bond of trust between any parent and child. It is impossible not to wonder what Abraham’s thoughts would have been, what nihilism and despair at being brought to the destruction, by his own hand, of hope and promise made flesh in his son. Nor do we know what Isaac thought or felt. Nothing distracts from the unspeakable imminent act. The point is not that Abraham is exemplary in submitting to this demand but that other parents do this also, often enough for the practice in whatever form to persist as a grim concern in Scripture.

In the somber book of Judges, a man named Jephthah vows to the Lord that if he wins a battle he will offer as a sacrifice the first creature that comes through his door. Nothing suggests the Lord does or does not take note of his oath. Jephthah’s daughter opens the door, dancing in celebration of his victory and homecoming. She piously accepts the consequences of his oath and is sacrificed in due course. This is a terrible sorrow to him. “She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” God does not ask for the sacrifice and He does not intervene in it. But the fatherly grief of Jephthah and the unrealized life of his virgin daughter are the burden of the tale.

A reading that sees in the dramatizing of child sacrifice something shocking and transgressive, rejected by God, rather than one more proof of Abraham’s patient obedience, is supported by the two stories of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar the foreigner, the slave, the concubine, is the one character in the text who is likened to Abraham, and in no small way. She has a great historical destiny through her son, which is announced to her by an angel in exuberant terms that explicitly recall the Lord’s promises to Abraham: “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.”

Weary of her mistress’s bitter resentment of a situation her mistress has brought about, her pregnancy, Hagar runs off into the wilderness. This is a text or a world where anything could be true and therefore nothing is without meaning. The angel, who is the Lord, knows where Hagar is and in what state of mind, and He is ready to comfort her. For her as for Abraham His assurances exceed belief—descendants who cannot be numbered can hardly be imagined—but first of all there will be a son. I have mentioned before that for Hagar this promise comes in the language of annunciation, its first appearance in the Bible.

Nothing is described to let us imagine her experience of these two theophanies. Hagar says she has seen God and lived. More to be noted, God has seen her. Abraham is a prince among pastoralists while Hagar is a slave sick of mistreatment. The Lord and the text create an equivalency between them that is unique in the Hebrew Bible.

The desire for children and the love of them is central to the Hebrew Bible, as is loyalty to them despite all and grief at their loss. Like Abraham, Hagar comes near losing her son, in her case because the godly father of the child, to be rid of him, sends the two of them into the wilderness. Ishmael is born because Sarah and Abraham are desperate for a son, and now they send him away, perhaps to die. This is as perverse in its way as the Lord’s demanding the sacrificial death of the long-promised Isaac. We see the grief of the slave Hagar in a choice that seems characteristic of her, to attempt to distance herself, to make at least a gesture toward escape from the unbearable.

If the narrative were chronological, Ishmael would be an adolescent at this point, but Hagar “cast the child under one of the shrubs,’” language that suggests he is very young, a babe in arms. There is rage suggested in the possibly ungentle word cast, and care in the fact that she places him in the shade. “And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.’” But she cannot leave him, either. Whether she hears the cries of the child from this distance is not clear. But “God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven.”

The story of the binding of Isaac follows that of Hagar and Ishmael, after some brief business about the use of a well. And just at the point where “Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son,” the Lord intervenes again, and in the same way. “The angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven.” Hagar sees a well of water, Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket. The parallel is very close.

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reading genesis

Excerpted from Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc. Copyright © 2024 by Marilynne Robinson. All rights reserved.

Marilynne Robinson



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