I don't doubt that many adult Bible studies and Sunday School classes are among the most dogmatic, irritating places to be caught - just as the stereotype suggests. But that has not been my experience. I am sure my selection bias is great, but I have had no other type of discussion - college bull session, barroom, online comments, work lunches, private parties, classroom - that approaches the adult studies I have attended in my life for openness, intellectual adventure, and non-defensiveness. Christians are certainly subject to the same conceits, hobbyhorses, and crusades as everyone else, but a good Bible study has a feature that can override these.
People want to get it right. No one likes to have to eat their words, be proved wrong, or have their points neglected or misunderstood. But sometimes folks will put up with all of that, because getting the right understanding is of primary importance.
This week I preached on Abraham's binding of Isaac for sacrifice (I didn't get it down to 10 minutes; twelve, I think), and by design, the adult class was discussing that section of Genesis in the context of Petersen's The Jesus Way. One of the participants raised the question of whether Isaac was slow or limited in some way; if he was "a special needs kiddo." We shy away from such a thought initially, but it's not like God didn't do stuff like this a lot in the genealogy of Jesus. Foreigners, prostitutes, adulterers, murderers - they're all in there. Why not a simpleton as well.
As Isaac speaks in several places, we are not talking severe developmental disability here. But the possibility that he is a slow learner offers a possible explanation of what occurs to him. His trust in Abraham is dramatic - not quite sensible. I don't deny the possibility that Isaac had some great faith in his father that is part of the story of faith we are to learn. But the two are not mutually exclusive.
Isaac's own son tricks him with a rather simple ruse later on. Yes, Isaac was old; yes he was hungry; but...still. A goatskin? Jacob knew his mark, as did Rebecca. Rebecca's implied contempt for her husband is also explained if Isaac is limited. She gets into this arranged marriage, finds out that the new husband is wealthy and devout but not her equal in intellect - a growing manipulation and condescension might be the natural result, even in a society where women did not ordinarily have high status or authority. Her ability to control him may in fact have saved his bacon many times over the years, and few of us can resist such temptations long.
Huh. Jacob is quite a bit like his great-uncle Lot, isn't he?
Also, Isaac does not send the servant out to find him a wife, Abraham does that. In fact, Abraham trusts this head servant at several junctures where he might be expected to confer with his oldest son instead. Odd.
It gives a different view of the faith of Abraham. He waits a hundred years, God proves his faithfulness by giving him Isaac. But gradually, he comes to suspect that something is not quite right. Is this my legacy? I am to be the father of nations through...him? I don't understand. But Isaac lives on, first child, inheritor. And not too swift. Yet God keeps nudging Abraham: You trusted Me before and I did the impossible. Trust Me again.
In my sermon, I wondered how Abraham had heard God at all. We make excuses, find rationalizations, and hear what we want to hear. Somehow Abraham stuck with it, wanting the right answer, through all the up and down emotions that say "Surely this must be God's will! Surely this can't be God's will!" For anyone who has had a large decision and honestly sought God's direction, you know that there's a lot of noise interfering with the signal, a lot of breaking things down and starting again; leaping, hesitating; embracing, rejecting. God says "Go forward."
So is this how the prophecy is to be fulfilled? I sacrifice this one, God provides another, even later in life? Or have I misheard? Maybe God means some other kind of sacrifice, of letting him go on his own, or a blood-covenant the boy and I share. And God says "Go forward."
The fantasies grow darker here. If the boy Isaac was so obviously a hopeless simpleton, part of Abraham may have even wanted him out of the way, clearing the space for a better one, a more fit legacy. And yet, your boy...good and gentle and the great miracle of your life. I shall refuse. God will have to do some different miracle, I'll not sacrifice any human, certainly not my Isaac, my laughter, my treasure.
We are not told what temptations are whispered in Abraham's ear - Genesis stories tend to be multilayered, but not infinitely so. Perhaps the devil himself wondered what was up, uncertain what appalling humility was in the works. Which way to tempt? What's my goal here? Such puzzlement may be echoed in the NT, when Satan tempts Jesus in odd, probing ways. We usually teach that story as if the Prince of Darkness has a clear plan he's trying to steer this Jesus to. Yet perhaps...perhaps he was also guessing at that point.
Whatever was whispered, it cannot have made things any clearer for Abraham. What he most fears, what he secretly wants that he cannot admit; what he refuses to consider, what he must do.