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The Psychology of Abraham (Genesis 22)

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 16 July 2009

in Biblical Studies, Old Testament

Recently, I was looking at Genesis 22 with a Bible Study that I’ve been leading for a while now. For about seven months we’ve been walking through Genesis, chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been looking forward to Genesis 22 as it is my favorite chapter in that particular book.

We read the text together, and then I began talking about what the text has meant to me. This spurred quite a bit of conversation. You can check out our group’s (primitive) blog for my thoughts on that.

Of the many things that we discussed, I was most intrigued by the psychology of Abraham. God (Elohim) comes to him and commands that he sacrifice Isaac. Now, Isaac, of course, was the fulfillment of God’s promise. Through Isaac and his offspring Abraham was supposed to become a great nation.1 After so many years of waiting and hoping, he and Sarah finally have this promised child. Now God is asking that Abraham trust him in a rather insane way.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2 ESV).

We had a great discussion about what might have been going through Abraham’s head the evening before he and Isaac embarked on this journey to Moriah.

Some folks in the group felt that Abraham had become so in tune with God that he didn’t even question it. No longer do we see Abraham bargaining with God as we did in the Sodom episode in chapter 18. By this time Abraham has learned that God is faithful and will fulfill his promises. Therefore, he doesn’t question it. He gets up, makes everything ready, and off they go.

Others, however, decided to make Abraham a lot more human, and a little less superhero. They imagined that the evening before the journey was perhaps the worst night of Abraham’s life. Surely, he tossed and turned all night long, unable to sleep as he agonized over his decision. Would he trust the voice and do as it commanded? Or would he turn his back on all of that and give in to his preservation instinct?

Both of these interpretations are interesting in their own right. I don’t think that either can be proven right or wrong, but both say equally true things about God and Abraham. The former interpretation makes Abraham out to be the Knight of Faith that Kierkegaard loves2 and Hebrews extols. The latter interpretation helps us to understand how difficult the way of God can be, and how even our greatest heroes are irreducibly human.

I tend to humanize Abraham. I think this was no easy task for him, and I’d like to draw some additional evidence to support this: Genesis 22:5.

BHS Hebert Translation
‏‏וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶם פֹּה עִם־הַחֲמוֹר וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר נֵלְכָה עַד־כֹּה וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם׃ Abraham said to his servants, “Remain here with the donkey. The boy and I will go as far as there, worship, and return to you.”

Mostly, I would like to draw your attention to the word that Abraham uses to refer to Isaac: נַעַ‏ר (transliteration: na’ar).

This particular word is not at all uncommon in the Old Testament (256 occurrences), nor is it uncommon in Genesis (27 occurrences; mostly in Genesis 21 and 22). נַעַ‏ר has two primary meanings: (a) boy or young man and (b) servant. Definition (b) is featured, for example, in this verse; they are the two male servants that Abraham commands to stay with the donkey. Definition (a) is also featured in this verse; this is the word that Abraham uses for Isaac.

What I find so painfully interesting about this is that Abraham chooses not to use the word “son” (‏בֵּן) when talking about Isaac. Instead, he merely refers to him as “boy.” Why is that? I would think that Abraham, after waiting so long for Isaac, after going through all of the trials that he had gone through, would be so proud to refer to his son as such. Instead, he refers to him with the same word that is used to refer to his servants.

I propose that Abraham is attempting to distance himself from Isaac. He has agonized over this decision. He has thought about it all night long and all three days of the journey. The only way that he can part with this child, the only way that he can jeopardize the promise that God has made to him, is to cope — he must stop thinking of Isaac as “son.” Once he removes that relationship, he can pile the wood on Isaac’s back and begin the hike up the mountain where he will bring the knife to Isaac’s throat and spill his blood (were it not for the angel of the Lord, of course).

If you think about it, this is an extremely common coping mechanism. When we lose something or are in danger of losing something, we often downplay its significance for us. We do this not only to make a great external show to put up a façade of strength, but also to put a wall around our hearts and preserve them from the pain and horror of loss.

I think Abraham had to stop thinking of Isaac as his son. If he had continued to think of Isaac as a son, then he would never have climbed the mountain and the Lord may never have provided.3

Then where would we be?

Footnotes

  1. See Genesis 21:12 — “…through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
  2. In reading about the Knight of Faith for this particular post, I ran across this fun blog post: “Charlie Brown: A Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith” — how true!
  3. I find Hebrews 11:17–19 very interesting — especially with respect to the Kierkegaard discussion. Here’s the ESV:
    By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

    The Knight of Faith believed that it was a moral imperative to follow the command of God even when it seemed morally reprehensible. For Hebrews, the coping mechanism is an intense faith in the notion that God would fulfill his promise through whatever means was necessary — even if that meant bringing Isaac back from the dead.

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