The classic analysis of Genesis 22 is simply recounted in the brief summary that Abraham's faith is put to the trial when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. While faith does play an important role in the life of Abraham (for certainly had Abraham had no faith, Abraham would have been lost to history and forgotten), an analysis via source criticism would suggest that the Yahwist writer (the so-called “J” source) by his inherent themes would have himself considered the major theme of the trial of Genesis 22 to be not one of the general faith of Abraham but more rightly a paradox, a drawing of Abraham into a contest of having to choose to follow God's Word or God's Word. As will be addressed, faith alone is inadequate to solve the paradox. The trial, in light of the “J” sources general themes, must be labeled as one simply of obedience and not faith.
Source criticism studies the bible to determine the source and to ask such questions as the following: Who wrote the biblical passage in question and why? To this end, one of the sources that this form of criticism suggests wrote, or at least edited, text is known at the “J” source. The “J” source, from some time around 950 BC, is so named for use of the name JHWH (or more commonly in English YHWH) for God. The “J” source often describes God as anthropomorphic and relies heavily on a theology of Divine Grace (McKenzie and Haynes 35-41). With the repeated use of YHWH in this form, an exposition of the text would suggest that the “J” source compiled most of the text for Genesis 22, though there is debate as to whether the Elohist source had a hand in editing or writing the final verses 15-19. Mainly on the basis that God suddenly speaks through a messenger or “the angel of Lord,” as is a common method for the Elohist, who preferred a non-anthropomorphic and more transcendent motif for God (Bandstra 109-123).
The Yahwist source is from the southern kingdom of Judah against the rebellious northern Israel and as such emphasizes monarchy and obedience and also stresses themes that rebellion and human initiative as being bad. From that point of view, Judah was not concerned if northern Israel had faith in the kings of Judah of the Solomonic line. The “J” source was concerned with obedience. This same theme becomes apparent in Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac so that God can test Abraham, though Abraham does not know this until the end. In this story following the “J” source theme, God is not interested in faith per se but only in obedience.
The root word of obedience is to obey. To obey is to comply with or follow the commands or guidance of (“Obey”). Faith, on the other hand, requires a person to be steadfast or loyal in allegiance or affection (“Faith”). Obedience does not require this caveat of loyalty or affection. Though Abraham is considered one the greatest of the men of the Old Testament, he was still but a man. Granted, he was from a different time and culture, he was prone to the same general psychology, i.e. feelings and reactions, of any other man. Abraham would have surely been a sociopath, or at the least morally bereft, had he, at this point, felt sincere affection for a deity who required him to kill “the only son that he loved” (Genesis v.2).
The same can be said of Abraham for the steadfast or loyal allegiance criteria. To say that Abraham, when commanded to sacrifice Isaac, did not have doubts (to say the very least) as to his allegiance to YHWH would be to deny the humanity of Abraham. Combine this with the fact that the refined, Christian notion of God as a loving and personal and benevolent entity who loves us was a completely foreign concept to Abraham. Abraham would have had doubts, unless he was a complete automaton1 or, more precisely, a theonomaton, if you will.2 This would, of course, defeat the entire purpose of YHWH's test of Abraham, if Abraham was nothing more than channeling the divine will, as faith would be irrelevant. A test or trial implies an unknown or uncertain outcome (“Test”).
At no time in the entire chapter of Genesis 22, is the word “faith” ever used. The fact that Abraham had faith in YHWH is not the proper context or question for this specific incident. If faith can be said to have any relevance as a theme in this specific incident, the issue would have to be faith with the act itself, or, more specifically, whether Abraham had any faith in the action itself of sacrificing Isaac. Further, an such analysis would seem incorrect to say that Abraham had any faith in the action in which he was commanded (that is, to sacrifice Isaac).
The true dilemma that faced Abraham was not a dilemma of “Do I have faith in God or do I not have faith in God?” but was, in actuality, “Do I rely on God's Word (when He told me to sacrifice Isaac) or do I rely on God's Word (when He told me through Isaac I would be a great nation, et. al.)?” The dilemma was the paradox that YHWH presented to Abraham, which can only be solved by obedience and not faith. For faith would have worked in either case and yet still not solved the paradox, or at the worst, faith would have destroyed faith.
For example, if Abraham had rationalized the command to sacrifice Isaac by believing he had hallucinated it or just outright refusing to do it, he could still cling to the “faith” in God, who had promised to turn him into a great nation and been theologically and morally justified in his own mind. Conversely, had Abraham convinced himself to sacrifice Isaac, he could have clung to his “faith” in God and, in his mind, been justified morally and theologically because he had followed God's command, even if that meant that the other promise was nullified by the act itself. In either scenario, Abraham would have been faithful in one act to God, but at the expense of not being faithful in the other act to God.
Furthermore, the truest philosophical irony, vaguely hinted at by John Calvin in his Genesis 22 analysis in Commentaries on Genesis, of the paradox is that if the story was solely about faith, in the worst case scenario, faith would have led to the destruction of the one thing that Abraham had: faith. Isaac was the hope of eternal salvation and the promise of YHWH. His death would have extinguished the one thing that Abraham had given up everything for, causing a loss of faith. Logically, how can the story's theme be about Abraham's great faith, if by that faith he ran the possibility of losing the faith which he had to begin with?
To this end, the only way Abraham can extricate himself from this theological and moral paradox is to simply be obedient. Simply relying on faith cannot give you a rational answer, and at worst, cause the destruction of the faith itself. If YHWH was truly behind both oral manifestations (again, the promise of Isaac and the command to destroy Isaac), following either option would be both right and wrong.
In all scenarios, Abraham could not possibly have been unwaveringly steadfast or loyal if he was human; he was asked to kill his own son! For this act and for these reasons, the term “trial of faith” is inadequate. Obedience is to comply: no strings or reason or loyalty attached. Faith could not have seen Abraham through in the act itself; only by obedience could Abraham do what was asked for there was no way to rationalize the one act without sacrificing the outcome of the other act.
The point of the “J” source was to stress a certain theological point in the Abraham paradox. In a time of political schism, in which the 10 northern tribes of Israel had broken away after the oppressive debacle of Solomon's son, the point of view of the “J” source from a Judean perspective is to theologically stress the importance of the line of David and obedience. Only obedience will bring about the restoration of Israel's golden age of monarchy. When humans “strike out on their own,” chaos follows, so says the “J” source.
It would seem logical that a great way to teach about the importance of obedience would be to present a tale about Abraham's test for obedience to reinforce this theme. Faith in the long string of bad monarchs/tyrants from the Davidic line would not be consistant. Any analysis of any biblical commentary of the kings of Israel after Israel rebelled is grim reading (Toews 98-197). More logically, the “J” source would stress a theme of if we are obedient, somehow God will make it all right in the end because of his covenant (McKenzie 121). Obedience to king, God, and country was the order of the day for the “J” source; faith was, at most, secondary to that.
In conclusion, the story of the trial of Abraham, in light of the “J” source authorship and political situation, the case would seem to suggest that the “J” source's intent in relaying the classic trial of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was not intended to be a story of a trial of faith but a test of obedience presented to Abraham. In the final analysis, reliance on faith, as the word is properly defined, was insufficient. Only in the sheer act of obedience was Abraham able to get through the logically unsolvable paradox that YHWH presented.
Bandstra, Berry. “Word order and emphasis in biblical Hebrew narrative : syntactic observations on Genesis 22 from a discourse perspective.” Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew p 109-123. Winona Lake, Ind : Eisenbrauns, 1992.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on Genesis, Vol 1. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1996. 15 October 2004
McKenzie, Steven L., and Stephen R Haynes. To Each Its Own Meaning. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
McKenzie, Steven L. “The Typology of the Davidic Covenant,” The land that I will show you : essays on the history and archaeology of the ancient Near East in honour of J. Maxwell Miller. Sheffield, England : Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
Toews, Wesley. Monarchy and Religious Institutions in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993.
“Automaton.” Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Chicago: Rand McNally 1971.
“Faith.” Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Chicago: Rand McNally 1971.
“Obey.” Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Chicago: Rand McNally 1971.
“Trial.” Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Chicago: Rand McNally 1971.
1 Automatic being the root of automaton, or someone (or thing) who works completely automatically. The words automatic, automaton, and autonomy all derive from the same Greek root word of autonomos, meaning independent (“Automatic”).
2Conversely, theonomy is that state of being completely controlled in action by God. Though I can find no reference to such a word in any dictionary, it would seem appropriate to call someone or thing that practices such characteristics as a theonomaton, just as someone who is automatic becomes a automaton.