I’d like to start a little conversation around the appropriate use of the NT when interpreting the OT. I ran headlong into this issue in my sermon on Genesis 22 (which I plan at some point to write and post here–I don’t write them ahead of time, it’s part of my prep to preach without notes, so I’ll have to get around to it) when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then relents and is recognized by Abe as “Provider.” It is yet another text in Genesis that, in addition to being sacred Scripture, is a brilliant piece of world literature. Ok, back to my issues.
The verse that presents this question is v5 in which, having reached the base of the mountain, Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (TNIV)
It seems to me that the narrative presents at least two possibilities. On the one hand, we could read in this text belief on Abraham’s part that he will not kill Isaac as God has instructed him to do, whether because he plans to disobey God or because he expects God to deal with the situation such that Isaac will return with him very much alive (the latter, of course, is precisely what happens). On the other hand, we could read in this text that Abraham is reluctant to share with the servants what he believes God has told him to do. These are all plausiable options to be considered at the beginning stage of interpretation in my opinion. The work of the interpreter (if one will be faithful to the task) is to recognize as many possible readings as one can and then either affirm or reject them in order to get to where one stands on the particular text.
In this case, at present, I end up with the “Abraham is reluctant to come clean with the servants” option. It seems to me that’s the way the narrative development most naturally flows. A couple of reasons include that Abraham keeps this command of God from everyone in the text, both servants and son–why? Can we not think of many reasons we would keep this to ourselves if we were in Abraham’s shoes? Would we be above deceit with the servants? Abraham hardly has a record of avoiding deceit thus far in Genesis. Also, Abraham now knows that this is a God who means business. When he says something will happen, it will. What reason have we to suppose that Abraham is not taking God at his word in v2? Because God’s faithfulness to his word is sort of in conflict (part of the challenge of the text) since in the chapters leading up his word/promise is that Isaac with be the heir of the promise and in v2 his word is commanding the sacrifice of Isaac (only the reader knows this is a “test”), the only reason I can think of is that Abraham is privileging one word from God over the other. Which will it be–the former or the latter word? How does he choose? This seems to be a place where interpretation is more art than science–we must choose which word from God Abraham hears as to be privileged over the other. A third possibility would be that Abraham believes both can somehow be true or made true. This one seems a little far-fetched, but it is technically a possibility, I suppose.
On this choice, it seems to me that the narrative reads in such a way that Abraham is leaning into the mystery of this God but probably very much believes that the most recent word from God is the one that will control the situation–he does take the knife in hand after all.
Ok, so what help might we have from the New Testament? James uses this text in chapter 2 to illustrate the importance of works in confirming our faith. Abraham took the knife in hand. No help–he doesn’t speak to our problematic verse.
But a familiar chapter in Hebrews, chapter 11, speaks directly to our verse in question, v5, in Heb 11:17-19. In particular, v19: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (TNIV) The picture here is of Abraham, foreseeing a path ahead based on his knowledge of God, etc, and therefore saying with confidence to the servants, “we will worship and then we will come back to you.” One way of reading this passage in Hebrews and Genesis 22 would be to say, “Hebrews says thus-and-such, therefore that’s what Abraham was thinking.” That seems pretty straightforward.
What I’d like to do, however, is quibble with notion of employing the NT for interpretation of the OT in this way. Granted, I could be wrong. If so, that will be quite helpful to know. And I am a person who subscribes wholeheartedly to the authority of Scripture. So, part of this conversation is implicitly about how the authority of Scripture “works.”
Two reasons come to mind, aside from the fact that I simply read Abraham differently before I go and have a conversation with Hebrews about what it might mean. Hebrews reads it differently that I had, so now we need to talk about why that is so and work towards a way forward.
The first reason is that I have questions about Abraham’s ability to imagine the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. That’s an historical question of sorts. Perhaps there was a frame of reference for that phenomenon in his day and time and place that he could have “reasoned” from. That would require investigation.
The second reason is more difficult to answer. This concerns Hebrews’ track record for well-grounded readings of the OT, which may or may not be an issue depending on which English translation one goes with of the Greek phrase here. In the verses immediately preceding those about Abraham, Hebrews has this to say regarding Sarah in v11 (according to the TNIV, ESV, and NASB translations): “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.” In the NIV and NRSV, v11 has Abraham having faith and Sarah becoming pregnant based on his faith. But the fact that several major English translations disagree on which way the Greek reads opens up the former as a very legitimate possibility. And, if we were translating from the Greek we would not be able to read the Genesis stories about Sarah, realize that she does not express the faith described in verse 11 and therefore translate it to read that Abraham had the faith. Our reference must only be the best reading of the Greek grammatically. Two conservative translations (NASB, ESV) have decided that Sarah is the one expressing faith in verse 11. Let’s assume that is the correct translation. As I’ve said, unless I’ve missed something–tell me if I have–evidence for Hebrews’ interpretation of Sarah’s story is not to be found in the text of Genesis that we have (perhaps the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint, reads differently here?).
Anyone with facility in Greek who can argue for one reading or the other of Heb 11:11? With the ability to bring insight about that issue of a reference in the Septuagint?
What else might I be missing to either clear up or even muddy the waters further for us?
One thought on “nt interpreting ot? – genesis 22 & hebrews 11”
Guy, you bring an interesting point regarding the use of NT scripture during OT interpretation.
One thought on this topic I have actually stems from the basis of several Roman Catholic beliefs. The Roman Catholic church believes that, while the central basis of belief is the Bible, events not recorded in the Bible but transmitted through other means are also to be believed (let’s suspend the arguments of Luther for a minute – I am not saying I agree or disagree with the Catholics here).
Could the same be said of the Hebrews interpretation of Genesis. Could the fact that Sarah had faith have been passed down from generation to generation outside of the book of Genesis only to be finally recorded in Hebrews?
Of course, this is a bit of a conundrum if we then profess Scripture Alone. Which scripture!