Soul wounds in the Bible

March 21st, 2023

To demonstrate a trauma-sensitive approach to the Bible for preaching, I will explore the binding of Isaac from Genesis 22 at greater depth along with sermonic possibilities. Many of the steps in the process are the same steps a preacher might typically follow when moving from biblical study to sermon creation. Genesis 22 is a foundational and challenging text for both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. In Jewish settings, this text is often referred to as “the binding of Isaac” or the Aqedah. In Christian settings we tend to refer to this text as “the sacrifice of Isaac.” It is also a text that can pick at the edges of wounds that some in our congregations carry. Family members who experienced the death of their infant daughter named this text in particular as troubling. The idea that God would ask a parent to sacrifice a child is troubling to parents and those who may have experienced abuse or neglect as children. I have worked with pastors who rigorously avoid Genesis 22, which is a challenge as it is so important to the Christian tradition that it shows up twice in the Revised Common Lectionary: in the Easter Vigil and in the Ordinary Time texts for year A. In some other lectionaries, it also shows up in year B of Lent.

The pattern outlined below is not intended as a complete exegetical method but rather a supplement for preachers seeking to nurture possibilities for connection and healing for those with soul wounds.

Applying Trauma-Sensitive Interpretive Tools

1. Scripture as the Language of Faith

Reading scripture as the language of our faith encourages preachers to look at the language used in the text for places of resonance with wounded listeners as a means to nurture faith and relationship with God. If a preacher doesn’t know the original language, it can be very helpful to use study tools or a commentary that highlights details that can be missed in translation.

The language in Genesis 22 reminds us that this is a story about a son. The term son is used repeatedly—some ten times, often with amplified meaning. Isaac is Abraham’s son, his “only” or “favored” son, whom he loves. The problem of Abraham needing an heir was a major theme in Genesis 15–21. Abraham has already sent his other son, Ishmael, out into the wilderness. In Genesis 22 Abraham now stands poised to offer his “promised” son, Isaac, back to God.[1] This is also the first time in the Old Testament that we encounter the word for “loved” or “favored,” used to further intensify the gravity of God’s request.

The biblical language of “beloved son” is deeply resonant. For Abraham’s sacrifice to God to be meaningful it must be something that he deeply loves. The doctrine of providence recognizes that everything comes from God. The idea behind firstfruits is that we give a portion of what God has given to us back to God. In this light, Abraham offers his son, who is a gift from God, back to God. Such giving acknowledges a posture of faithful dependence on God. This posture offered hope to wounded exiles and later inspired the author of the book of Hebrews and the Apostle Paul to lift up Abraham as a model of faithfulness to early Christians who were also enduring wounding experiences.

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2. Assigning Blame

Modern interpreters have struggled particularly with the nature of God and God’s test, which undergirds some of the most common concerns pastors and listeners name with this text. Is the excruciating agony of this test God’s fault, or does the blame rest on Abraham or even Isaac for going along?

One of the troubling aspects of this text for many is that Abraham says yes to God’s request. He doesn’t challenge or even question that he should sacrifice Isaac. While we are told that this is a test, Abraham presumably doesn’t know that.[2] We also know that Abraham is capable of bartering with God. He does so earlier concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the cultures in which Abraham lives, child sacrifice to a deity may have been common.

Isaac’s age is also a concern for many. The word used to talk about Isaac could be applied to anyone from thirteen to thirty years of age. Isaac was not a passive child in these events. He likely had some agency although still under the authority of his father’s house.

Concerning whether “blame” rests on Abraham, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling asks if good ethics can be suspended when following God’s command.[3] Does the divine presence ever call individuals to make excruciating choices that fall outside of acceptable moral law? This is a dangerous line of questioning and one that certainly needs the presence and discernment of the community of faith. We may remember with horror accounts in the news from decades ago in which parents who suffered from mental illness killed their children supposedly in response to God.

Unfortunately, over the course of history and today, too many have sustained wounds associated with people mischaracterizing God’s call. We might look at preaching healing words in light of the church’s role as a complicit or active perpetrator of soul wounds. Such experiences may lead us to see the wisdom of Kant, who viewed Abraham as having failed God’s test. Kant held that if a divine apparition called one to do something immoral no matter how “majestic the apparition may be and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole of nature,” the person must consider this command an illusion.[4] For Kant, moral law is an absolute. One can never be clear about whether the voice one hears is really God’s.[69] As a fallible human, Abraham may have mischaracterized God’s call.

3. Focus on the Power of God

One of the questions that troubles many with this text is why God tested Abraham. Testing happens in both the Old and New Testaments. Satan famously tests Job. Deuteronomy interprets Israel’s experience in the wilderness as a kind of testing.[5In the New Testament, Jesus himself is tested in the wilderness, and Jesus teaches us to pray that God would save us from the time of trial, temptation, or testing.[6] Early Christian communities experienced intense testing and may have wondered whether they could remain true to Christ in the context of persecution and pressure from surrounding cultural practices.[7]

Testing may be understood as an outcome of living in a world that has yet to fully experience the complete fulfillment of God’s promise. God’s reign is here but not yet complete. We must, like Abraham, accept the call that holds both God’s testing and God’s providence. If we seek providence without testing, we end up with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” If we seek only testing, we refuse grace altogether. If we accept neither testing nor providence we find ourselves outside of covenant with God.[8]

Relationship with God means continuing to communicate, even in the aftermath of wounding experiences. In the same prayer that we pray about being tested, we also pray for God’s provision. For those who are in the midst of a time of trial, prayer takes on a more urgent tone. We may ask God why we are experiencing this trial. We may ask God for assurance of survival or for God’s presence to draw near to us.

It may be helpful to name the confounding nature of this passage in a sermon. We are creatures and cannot fully expect to understand the Creator. God is large enough to handle our questions. Acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers may be reassuring to listeners who are in the midst of trials. While our understanding has limits, we can still trust God. It is important to offer those who are suffering some secure theological footholds. For example, the unreasonable love of God is most acutely illustrated for Christians in the person of Jesus Christ, whose identity is marked both by crucifixion and resurrection, in whom we can lose ourselves and gain life.

Much of our focus so far has been on the risk taken by Abraham and Isaac, but some scholars emphasize that God too is taking a risk. This willingness to risk is part of God’s power. Is Abraham trustworthy? God has promised that the covenant will be carried through Isaac. If Isaac is killed then God’s promise will not be fulfilled. Risk-taking on God’s part continues through all of scripture: in the incarnation, God embarks on a trajectory that will lead to risking God’s own life in the person of Jesus Christ.

4. Typology

When dealing with a challenging passage, it can be helpful to remember that we are not the first people to read or preach this text. Genesis 22 has a rich interpretive history. We have named the theological resonance between this text and Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Early Christian interpreters saw it too and tended to interpret this text spiritually, in part as a way to deal with the difficulties of a more literal reading of the text. Irenaeus and Tertullian explored this text typologically, looking at the wood Isaac carried as corresponding to the wood of the cross. They saw resonance in the willingness of a father to sacrifice his son and found theological depth in God’s provision—God providing the right sacrifice and the dynamic of God resolving the threat of death with life.[9] In one of the earliest surviving post-scriptural sermons, Melito of Sardis shows a significant limitation of this typological approach by noting that Isaac never suffers but Jesus does suffer.[10] Jesus goes further than Abraham and Isaac in obedience and faith.[11] Early Jewish scholars lifted up Isaac’s willingness to die as an example for martyrs in the faith.[12] Sixteenth-century Christian Reformers tended to focus more on Abraham’s faith than typological linking, but the use of this text in present-day Easter Vigil worship shows that the theological resonance continues to be important to the Christian tradition today.

5. Cross and Resurrection

The tool of seeking hope in the text by looking through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection is helpful for this passage. This text has deeply affected our atonement theology. In their book Preaching the Atonement, Peter Stevenson and Stephen Wright highlight several key points of resonance between Genesis 22 and Christ’s atonement.

Obedience of Abraham and Jesus

Abraham’s obedience to God up to the point of doing “the unthinkable” reminds us of Jesus’s own obedience unto death. In the event of the crucifixion, God puts God’s self to the same test as Abraham and proves God’s deep and costly love for us.[13] That God experiences the loss of a child may be comforting to those carrying wounds of loss. This experience of loss is part of the life of God. We have a God who can intimately understand.

Unity of Father and Son

The closeness of Abraham and Isaac reminds us of the closeness of God and Jesus in the life of the Trinity, particularly the way Jesus and God are portrayed in John’s Gospel as acting together.[14] Jesus leaves his disciples in the garden and travels the way of the cross without them, continuing on only in the presence of his Father, much the way Abraham and Isaac leave the servants behind and travel the last part of their journey alone. The unity in action between God and Jesus and the apparent closeness between Abraham and Isaac keep us from making Isaac a “pure victim” with no agency in this story and keep us from drawing clear lines of agency within the Trinity. The Trinity was working in concert rather than God the Father and the Son in antagonism.

The Ram and the Lamb

Here we experience contrast rather than similarity. Abraham and Isaac are spared the costly sacrifice because God provides what is needed. In the crucifixion God in Christ is not spared. However, we do see resonance between Isaac and Abraham and humanity; our theology proclaims that people are spared because of a sacrifice provided by God.[15] This claim may ring hollow for wounded listeners who have survived trauma. They may understandably ask why they were not spared from pain and loss.

Beloved One under Threat

The final point of resonance noted by Stevenson and Wright is the motif of a promised one—a long-awaited one becoming a victim. Isaac isn’t only a beloved son, although this is clear in the text. Behind this text is the story of God’s promises, God’s covenant with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, and, ultimately, God’s blessings for the nations. God’s promises are bound up in Isaac. We can imagine that this may have felt like a burden for Isaac. Some in our congregations may resonate with the wounds connected to high expectations, especially people who experienced loss in childhood like Isaac did.[16] Jesus too is the long-awaited Messiah of promise yet paradoxically dies so that God’s realm can come and God’s life-giving purposes can be fulfilled.[17] As followers of Christ, we too are called to give up everything so that our lives can be given back to us in freedom.[18]

Preachers need to stay in close communication with those who carry deep wounds. Preaching is not a separate act from pastoral care. In a sermon that uses a deep theological grammar, there is a place for truth-telling about the horrors of human brokenness. When someone’s world is falling apart, it naturally elicits strong emotions. God is strong enough to handle these emotions. Sermons that take God’s healing power seriously must tell the truth about the deepest pain so that God in Christ can redeem even this pain. At times, it may be helpful to stick more closely to the biblical text and allow the experiences of biblical figures to “stand in” for the experiences of listeners without making painful links that are too concrete for listeners’ wounds. For preachers who are seeking to nurture resilient congregations, the biblical text can provide a window to speak truthfully about the wounds that individuals and communities carry and God’s healing power.

Excerpted from Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls by Joni Sancken. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Eugene F. Roop, Genesis, Believer’s Church Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Harold, 1942), 145.

[2] Ibid., 146.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin, 1985).

[4] Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, trans. and ed. Allen W. Wood and George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 283. From The Conflict of the Faculties, 7:63. See also Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 106.

[5] Jon Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 106.

[6] Roop, Genesis, 149.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 191.

[9] Ibid., 192–93.

[10] Ibid., 150. See also Ante-Nicene Fathers, vols. I, III, IV.

[11] Melito of Sardis, “On the Passover” paragraphs 9, 69.

[12] Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 101–3.

[13] Roop, Genesis, 150.

[14] Peter K. Stevenson and Stephen I. Wright, Preaching the Atonement (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 8.

[15] Ibid., 8–9.

[16] Ibid., 10.

[17] One can imagine that Hagar and Ishmael being sent away may have been wounding for Isaac as well.

[18] Stevenson and Wright, Preaching the Atonement, 10–11.

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