The story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command is a biggie for three faith groups: Jews, Muslims and Christians. Interestingly, each tradition has focused on a different overall meaning. For Jews, it is that the Lord will provide. For Muslims, the obedience of Abraham is the central thrust. And for Christians, the parallel between this story and the sacrifice of Jesus has been significant.
Despite the meaningful interpretations from those faith traditions, on a personal level, the story of God asking Abraham to kill Isaac has caused individual thinkers a lot of angst through the years. Typically, people react to it in one of two ways. Either they flat-out reject a God who could do such a thing, or they try to rationalize God’s actions in an attempt to defend God’s honor.
This is a tricky story. Before we launch into it, perhaps it would be a good idea to review a few of the basics on how to approach the Bible in general. The Bible does not give us a definitive picture of God. Instead, it tells us about the way people in different contexts have understood God. Those understandings are always limited by the lives of the ones who are telling us the story. It’s told through their eyes. So, what we get in the Bible is a collection of stories told by a variety of people who have a variety of perspectives based on a variety of experiences. That’s why we can say that the Bible is not a history book or a science book. It’s a book of faith.
Unfortunately, calling the Bible a book of faith is often misunderstood as well. That’s because, for many people, faith means accepting things at face value that nobody in their right mind would ever believe are true. But that’s not at all what faith is. Faith is a distinctive framework for living in this world. To live by faith is to walk in a relationship with God, open to the truths God reveals along the way. To say that the Bible is a book of faith is to say that it bears witness to the way people of faith have experienced their relationship with God through the ages.
When we read and study the Bible, its authors become a part of our faith community. Their witness informs our discussion as people of faith who are open to the truths God is revealing to us. I hope you hear what I’m saying here. The Bible is not a book we come to for answers. It’s a book we come to for questions. It’s not the final word that ends the discussion. It’s the living word that continues to be a part of the discussion.
Many of the Old Testament stories come to us by way of oral tradition. They were handed down from one generation to the next until finally, in a time when the religion of Israel was being threatened, someone thought, “This is a good time to start writing some of these down so we don’t lose them.” The story of Abraham and Isaac was once a part of that oral tradition.
Can you imagine a wise sage telling these stories to children as they sit around a campfire? Many of them were told to explain why the world is as it is. “Children, do you want to know why there is so much evil in the world? Well, once there was a man named Adam and a woman named Eve.” “Would you like to know why people are so violent? Let me tell you about two brothers named Cain and Abel.” “Have you noticed how people speak so many different languages? It all began when they were trying to build this really tall tower.” Explaining why things are the way they are comes through in the story of Abraham and Isaac as well.
The most primitive form of religion is the one that makes a case for an angry god who can only be appeased with some sort of sacrifice. In the ancient world, this primitive belief system was common, and along with it, the practice of child sacrifice. The story of Isaac and Abraham seems to have been told as a polemic against that. Yes, other gods may demand infanticide, but not this god, not our God. We worship another kind of God. Our God provides another way. This story differentiated the God of Abraham from the gods other people were worshipping. It was part of the process of figuring out just who our God is and what makes him different from other gods. I like that way of considering this text. It makes sense. But it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the narrative itself. And that’s why this is such a rich faith story.
Why would God ask Abraham to do this to begin with? And why does Abraham go along with it? It makes no sense that Abraham would do this when you consider his background.
Abraham was an old man and, in ancient times, any future hope a person had was intricately tied to having children, particularly sons. Abraham and Sarah had waited forever to have the child God had promised. They even decided God needed a little help and took matters into their own hands by using a surrogate mother, one of their servants, Hagar, to produce a son for Abraham, Ishmael. Then, in the midst of human impossibility for Sarah, she conceived and bore Isaac, even though she was in her eighties. With a true son to be the heir of Abraham, Sarah wanted Ishmael out of the picture, so she told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham questioned God on this matter, and found reassurance that God would be good to Ishmael and make a nation from him. So Abraham sent his first born son away, confident that his nation and his name would rise through Isaac.
Now, after going through all of that -- God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? This is crazy. Not simply because Abraham is asked to kill his son, which is horrific enough. But because it seems to contradict what God has already done through his faithfulness in providing Isaac. This is the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Now would God ask Abraham to kill that son? Seriously?
Well, it helps somewhat to know, from the first sentence of this story, that God is testing Abraham here. But what kind of a test is this? Was he testing Abraham to see if he would be obedient? Certainly, Abraham doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to following God's lead.
When God told Abraham that he was going to destroy those dens of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham couldn’t accept it and tried to talk God out of it. When Sarah told Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael needed to be sent away, Abraham questioned God. And I don’t even want to get into that messy incident where Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin despite the fact that he knew how God felt about it.
So, considering the way Abraham behaves elsewhere in the biblical narrative, the Abraham in Genesis 22 seems completely out of character. After God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.” All the other things God asks Abraham to do and he digs in his heels, fighting God every inch of way. And NOW he chooses to acquiesce? No questioning, no pleading on Isaac’s behalf, Abraham just gets up in the morning and sets out to do what God tells him to do. What’s the deal? Could it be that, given the history he had with God, Abraham knew better than to believe that God would actually let him sacrifice his only son? Perhaps Abraham trusted that God would provide another way all along, just as it turned out he did.
Yes, knowing that this was some kind of a test for Abraham seems to help a bit. But, did Abraham pass or fail the test? Did God expect Abraham to obey whole-heartedly without putting up a fight? Or was he testing him to see if he would speak up and refuse to do something so absurd? Is it possible that God was disappointed in Abraham's unquestioning obedience? God's last-minute rescue suggests that Abraham's response was off the mark. Abraham may have deserved credit for his devotion, but his behavior called for swift intervention in order to spare Isaac.
This is a great example of one of those Bible stories that was never intended to give us THE answer. Instead, it invites us into a discussion. It’s also one of those stories that just won’t let us go because it entertains the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with in every time and place. Does God ever test us? Even when we think we hear God speaking to us, can we really be sure the voice we’re hearing is God’s and not our own? How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to follow God? Would God ever require something of us that we know in our hearts is wrong? Can we ever know what God is really asking of us without stepping out in faith and putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that God will lead us to where we need to go?
It’s been thousands of years since this story was first told around a campfire and, for people of faith, the discussion continues.