“The main thing is, do not (use) fear at all.”
Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son Isaac and an angel of God calls out to Abraham. “Stop! Don’t hurt the child! Because now I know that you fear God, and you did not withhold your son from Me.” A few verses later, Abraham is promised that his offspring will be like the stars in the heaven and sand on the beach.
It appears that “fearing God” is supposed to be complimentary. I have a couple problems with this simple interpretation.
First, was it not apparent that Abraham feared God when he took his son Isaac to the altar in the first place? What happened at this point that confirmed Abraham’s fear of God?
Second, if you look for references to the word “fear” (yirah) in Genesis, you’ll notice something fascinating. Fear is always used in negative or disapproving context. Here are 12 examples from the first few Torah portions.
1. Adam runs from God and hides in the garden because he is afraid. He should not have done that.
2. God tells Noah that the animals will fear mankind. The garden was perfect harmony so this fear is not ideal.
3. Even the Tower of Babel seems to be inspired by fear “lest we become scattered across the land.”
4. Sarah says she did not laugh because she was afraid. That’s a lie.
5. Abimelech’s subjects feared him. This is misplaced fear of a human king.
6. Abraham says “there is no fear of God here” to excuse his lie to Abimelech about his wife Sarah. Another lie because of fear.
7. The angel tells Hagar that she should not fear for her son Ishmael. Clearly, fear is not good if she is being told not to fear.
8. Isaac is afraid of Abimelech’s people so he lies about his wife Rebecca. More lies.
9. God appears to Isaac and says “I am the God of your father Abraham, do not fear…” Again, the Divine instruction is not to fear.
10. Isaac trembled in fear when he discovers that Jacob snatched the blessing from Esau.
11. Jacob is afraid when he discovers he slept in a holy place. But there is no indication he did anything wrong. His fear seems misplaced.
12. Jacob uses his fear as an excuse to justify leaving Laban without saying goodbye. He probably should have said goodbye properly.
Now we return to the verse at the Binding of Isaac.
13. The angel says: “Stop! Don’t hurt the child! Because now I know that you fear God, and you did not withhold your son from Me.”
It’s possible that this is a compliment, but I think it should be consistent with all the other references of fear.
Perhaps the message to Abraham was not a positive one. Maybe the angel saw that Abraham was actually about to slaughter his child. For real!
Abraham had silently acquiesced to this Divine decree without a protest. Clearly, Abraham thinks of God in terms of an all-powerful Being that is to be served with fear. If Abraham served God with love, he should have been outraged by this commandment from a God of love. But Abraham was not outraged. He served his God with fear. That Abraham “would not hold back from slaughtering his son” is a criticism! He should have held back! He did not because his service of God through fear.
A few verses later, the Divine promise of seemingly infinite offspring is reiterated as a response to the sort of relationship with the Divine that Abraham has clearly chosen. If you are going to rely on fear of God to pass this religion on to your children, one child per family is not going to be enough. It won’t be too long before the fear of God will become misplaced or it will be implemented improperly and an entire generation will be lost.
If you’re rolling with fear of God in your fuel tank, you’re going to need a huge community so that you’ll survive the inevitable defections. Abraham is promised that he will lead a large nation because he has chosen fear of God and without large numbers, that will not last very long. Fear is not efficient.
Whatever values we wish to impart to our children and communities, we should not use fear to enforce or convince others of our views. Love and kindness are much better containers for important lessons. We don’t like feeling fear. Others do not like feeling fear as well. The least efficient way to teach is with fear. Let’s stop.