The Power of Point of View

Genesis 22: God Gambles on Freedom

Aaron photo 4by CHARLES AARON   Interpreters often portray Genesis 22 as an example of Abraham’s faith. God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, the son through whom God will, supposedly, fulfill the promise to Abraham of becoming the father of many nations. Abraham demonstrates faith in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, stopped at the last minute by the angel. Christians and Jews have felt considerable tension about this passage, with its call for child sacrifice to show faith. Might Perspective Criticism bring new insights into this passage, even though the tension still exists?

Point of View analysis suggests that the reader does not identify with Abraham within the narrative. On the informational plane, the reader knows details that Abraham does not. The reader knows that the divine message constitutes a test, information withheld from Abraham. This discrepancy creates distance between the reader and Abraham.

More importantly, the reader knows nothing of Abraham’s thoughts or feelings. Readers have often tried to fill in the blanks, suggesting likely intense emotion raging within Abraham’s mind. The reader sees only Abraham’s actions. Even Abraham’s words carry much ambiguity. When Abraham announces in vs. 5 “the boy and I will walk up there, worship and then come back to you,” what purpose does the sentence serve? Does Abraham deliberately deceive, or does he hold out hope that somehow Isaac will return with him? When Abraham answers Isaac’s question about the sacrifice with the cryptic sentence, “God will see to it,” how does he intend that response? Does he deceive Isaac, withhold information from his son, or again hold out hope? The narrator keeps the reader from knowing Abraham’s inner thoughts and true meanings.

Within the narrative, the character of God seems not to know the answers to these questions. In vs. 12 the angel announces that the divine figure knew Abraham’s intentions only at the end of the test. Abraham revered God and would not withhold his son.

Consistently, the narrative sets up a situation of “nonconcurrence between planes.” On the spatial plane, the reader sees Abraham in every scene of the drama. On the informational and psychological planes, however, the reader feels distance from Abraham, who becomes an enigma.

Theologically, readers might not want to affirm that God cannot read human thoughts. Psalm 139 serves to refute that idea within the whole canon of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, within the narrative world of Genesis 22, the narrator assumes that God does not know what Abraham intends to do until the actual raising of the knife.

This literary device, of setting the reader up to identify with God, who does not know the outcome of the test, points toward a different interpretation of Genesis 22. Although Abraham shows faith, the emphasis in the narrative is on the freedom of choice God gives Abraham. Even though other parts of Genesis emphasize God’s ability to influence events (45:8), the message of Genesis 22 affirms that God does not overwhelm human choice. God allows Abraham to decide his role in God’s plans.

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