Abraham's Sacrifice: Gerhard Von Rad's Interpretation of Genesis 22

Article excerpt

From the perspective of Heilsgeschichte, Gerhard von Rad saw clearly that Genesis 22 deals with the possible annihilation of the covenant promise. A fresh approach to Genesis corroborates this view and demonstrates that innerbiblical exegesis has shaped the message of Genesis 22.

Gerhard von Rad wrote many books and articles in his academic life and he commented on nearly every biblical book. What is especially noteworthy about his interpretation of Gen 22, the story commonly known as "The Sacrifice of Isaac" or "The Binding of Isaac"? Although many of von Rad's literary and historical judgments about this text are obsolete today, his careful reading of Gen 22 offers indispensable clues to an accurate understanding of that story, clues that are not always provided with the same quality and substance by the many articles and books on Gen 22 that have appeared since von Rad's death in 1971. The following observations and interpretations rely especially on von Rad's treatment of Gen 22 in his commentary on Genesis and in his little booklet Das Opfer des Abraham, which was published in the year of his death, 1971.1 The following considerations will be developed in three steps: 1) The long shadow of Hermann Gunkel's interpretation of Gen 22; 2) von Rad's main observations on Gen 2; and 3) recent corroborations of von Rad's interpretive approach to Gen 22.

A preliminary note, however, is in order. Genesis 22 is a highly controversial text, and there are many possible hermeneutical approaches to it. Therefore, some restrictions apply to what follows. I will not deal with non-historical approaches to the text. To be sure, such approaches are possible and necessary, but they need to be bracketed for the purpose of this essay. Genesis 22 will not be praised, criticized, or blamed for its assumed lack of morality. This essay has a limited scope in order to understand this text, following the example of Gerhard von Rad, as a literary expression of specific religiously interpreted experiences of the past.


A glance at the discussion of Gen 22 before von Rad is necessary because otherwise it is hardly possible to understand the background against which he is arguing. Crucial in this respect is the influential interpretion of Gen 22 by Hermann Gunkel in his 1901 commentary on Genesis,2 on which von Rad explicitly draws several times. As is well known, Gunkel was especially interested in the oral prehistory behind the legends in Genesis that are the main constituents of the book. His commentary opens with the programmatic statement that the book of Genesis is a collection of legends.3

For Gen 22, Gunkel assumed a pre-Israelite etiology behind this story that favors animal sacrifices over human sacrifices. The origins of Gen 22 lie in an earlier oral tale that explained why God does not want human sacrifice, but animal sacrifice.

A glance at the "history of religions" background of Gen 22-assumed by Gunkel-enables the reader to turn the cruel story about the God who wants Abraham to kill his son into a critical dismissal of human sacrifices. This interpretation, which Gunkel himself very explicitly held to be true only for the prehistory of Gen 22, not for the present text itself, is still widespread in theology and the church-now, however, applied to the story itself. According to this approach, Gen 22 actually is a humane, not an inhumane, story. Ironically, in this explanation the biblical text gets a "biblical" quality only by referring to its pre-biblical origins. As for the interpretation of the current text of Gen 22, Gunkel held that the author "wants to portray a religious ideal through Abraham,"4 the ideal of obedience and fear of God.

Some decades later, von Rad's commentary on Genesis saw very clearly that even if Gunkel's reconstruction is correct (and von Rad agreed here with Gunkel), this reconstruction does not help in understanding the present story in Gen 22. …