Difficult Texts

Abraham and Isaac, 1645, by Rembrandt van Rijn, etching and burin sheet (trimmed to plate mark): 16.1 x 13.3 cm (6 5/16 x 5 1/4 in.), at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC The binding of Isaac. The Akedah. The testing of Abraham. No matter what you call it, this story found in Genesis 22:1-19 is difficult and disturbing. It’s one of the Biblical stories that everyone “knows”, even if they have never read the Bible. You can read the story here. My purpose today isn’t to offer a complex and full discussion of the binding of Isaac. My purpose today is to think about what to “do” with such difficult stories.

No matter how many times I read and re read this story, it remains a difficult text for me.  The story itself is simply and sparingly told, but what the story has to tell us is complex. There is no simple lesson from this simply told tale. I have discussed it in various study group settings. I have read many Jewish and Christian commentaries on this text. I think I have a sufficiently complex understanding of this text. Yet every time I read this story, it’s emotional impact is like  reading it for the first time. I suspect this is the experience of many people with this text. We never become comfortable with this story.

That bothered me for a long time- the reality that I would never become comfortable with this story. I thought I should be able to, once I had studied it, read this story without being disturbed by it. But  it upsets me every time I read it. I simply don’t like this story. 

And that’s all right.

It’s all right to say I don’t like this story.

It’s all right for a Biblical text to be upsetting.

Sometimes Christians think that we need to like every story in Scripture. We also sometimes think that every Biblical text ought to be uplifting and edifying and inspiring- chock full of feel good timeless truths.

But that’s not what we have in the Bible. And I think it’s OK to say so.

What’s not OK is to ignore the text, or trivialize it, or sanitize it.  Not everything in the Bible is there to make us feel good, or happy or special. You may have heard the saying that the purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Well, I think that holds true for the Bible also.

The binding of Isaac is surely a story to afflict the comfortable. It afflicts those of us who think we understand God. It afflicts those of us who have a comfortable faith. It afflicts those of us who think we already give God everything. It afflicts those of us who like our faith and “our” God tidy and proper.

The binding of Isaac, the testing of Abraham, this story  is a persistently difficult text, it raises uncomfortable questions, it confronts us every time we dare to read it. My hunch is that’s exactly what the story is supposed to do.

I’d like to know, what do you think? 


Two additional comments of a more practical nature concerning difficult texts.

You don’t have to wrestle with difficult texts, or any Bible story alone. We are fortunate today to have many good Bible commentaries available to us. They are written to help us, so take advantage of the wealth of information available. In addition, reading and discussing the Bible with a small group of people is helpful and important. Biblical interpretation has always been a group effort, please make the effort to find a group you can be part of.

Sometimes because of our particular personal situations, certain Bible stories just too difficult or painful to read.  There were several years I simply couldn’t read this story. In some situations, it is appropriate to leave a particular story unread.

4 thoughts on “Difficult Texts

  1. There are plenty of biblical stories that are hard to understand. I venture to propose that many are so much so, just simply b/c we don’t live 5,000 years ago in ancient Israel when these stories were authored. What does come through as a running stream through Scripture of the kind of God is, and his nature. Many people–at first–tend to impose traits on God that are quite human. If they assess their presumptions of God, they will see that they most often resemble, and quite closely I might add, the characteristics of their own father, or another human authority figure they are familiar with. “Normal” yet misguided.

    God is holy, he’s not like a man (or person) too much. He is also, and we must really “get this”, truly good. If we fully understand his nature and the continual redemption he offers and always has, we can follow that stream, and love and worship our Good Creator loyally, without understanding him through and through.

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  2. An excellent post, Nancy, and some excellent advice. I’m curious, have you had a chance to read Scot McKnight’s “Blue Parakeet” yet? Apparently, the book is all about dealing with difficult texts which all theological systems face. I’d like to look it up myself sometime – Ben

  3. Lisa, you’re quite right, we need to remember these stories come from a different culture and time. That can be an enormous help in our interpretive efforts. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Ben, Haven’t read “Blue Parakeet” yet, its on the ever increasing reading list. I did just get McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” from the library yesterday.

  4. Some time ago I either read or heard that Isaac was a youth and not a young child at the time of this story. He could easily have resisted or escaped–but he submitted to his father’s account of God’s Word–and that they both looked forward to the resurrection of Jesus. I didn’t find that made the story any easier to deal with–but it did put the concept of submission and of death-to-self in a new light.

    I suppose the story is a metaphor for Father God and His Son–and Father God did deliver His Son to death. That doesn’t make it easier, either. I simply don’t like the story–and remind myself that God told His people they should not sacrifice their children.

    But a possibility came to mind one day–something I’ve not heard elsewhere. The cultures surrounding Abraham did sacrifice their children. Was God giving Abraham an illustration of the horror? After the event, the concept wasn’t an abstract thought in Abraham’s mind. He’d lived through it and he knew God offered another way. And so did Isaac.

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