This entry is part 4 of 57 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 6:1f – Who were ‘the sons of God’?
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’?
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”?
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east?’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5 – Son? Servant? Male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 25:40 – Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’?
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – No room at the inn?
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’?
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’?
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’?
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – Saved through child-bearing?
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – the Saviour of all people?
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
The account (in Genesis 22) of how God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, is one of the most problematic in the whole of scripture. It seems to teach that blind, irrational faith is a ‘good thing’, even the result is that you are willing to slaughter a member of your own family because you think that God has told you to do it. Of, course, God prevented Abraham from killing Isaac in the end (Gen 22:12), but that does not seem to get us off the hook: we presume that Abraham would have gone through with the terrible deed if God had not intervened.
What sort of God would give such a command? And what sort of person would have such a perverted religion to think that God would give such a command?
Dawkins (The God Delusion, p242) states the problem with his usual level of subtlety:-
By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders’. Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions. [In Islamic teaching the story is told about Abraham’s other son, Ishmael].
So, what sense can we make of this dramatic account?
1. The end of human sacrifice?
The OT everywhere regards human sacrifice with abhorrence. The law explicitly prohibited it, Lev 18:21;20:2. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11:30–40), the demands of Gibeon (2 Sam 21:8, 9, 14), and the practices of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6, 2 Chron 33:6) are all held up as examples to avoid, not to emulate. It was good king Josiah who abolished the practice of child sacrifice, 2 Kings 23:10. The prophets condemned it, Jer 19:5; Ezek 20:30–31; 23:36–39.
‘The biblical prophets and the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid [the practice of child sacrifice], but that also implies that it continued to occur. In fact, the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac suggests that Abraham was familiar with human sacrifice and was not surprised by Yahweh’s demand. However, the story also provides a model for the substitute of an animal for a human sacrifice that clearly draws a distinction between Israelite practice and that of other cultures.’ (IVP Background Commentary)
Writing in Christianity magazine (July 2012) David Instone-Brewer sets out his view that the point of this account is not only to show how Abraham’s faith was tested, but also to provide an unforgettable and definitive rejection of child sacrifice. It was an object lesson in what would later be made clear in precept (Lev 18:21; 1 Sam 15:22).
Instone-Brewer writes: ‘Human sacrifice has been found in many societies, and in some places it ended only fairly recently. It has been almost completely abolished today, apart from a few underground practices which are declared illegal in all countries. We may regret the way the Conquistadors destroyed the civilisations of the Mayans and Aztecs, but surely not that they ended the widespread practice of offering beating human hearts to the gods. Equally, few can regret the fact that missionaries stopped the daily child sacrifices for Kali in India in the 19th century. The most recent missionary-led campaign against human sacrifice was in Papua New Guinea, where tribal leaders apologised in 2007 for having eaten four Methodists in 1878.
‘It would be an exaggeration to say that the Bible and Christianity has been the only force behind this movement away from sacrifices, but it has certainly been the major cause of change. Starting with Abraham, continuing with Moses, and culminating in Jesus, there has been a continuing emphasis on reducing or ending blood sacrifice.
‘Today we rightly emphasise religious tolerance, but we shouldn’t let this blind us to unacceptable practices in some religions. The Indians put up statues in honour of William Carey, the missionary who helped expunge the practice of burning the widow on her husband’s pyre. South Africa put up a statue of Archbishop Tutu who helped persuade it to abandon apartheid. Perhaps one day Afghan women will be allowed to put up a statue to those who defeated the Taliban and enabled them to get an education.
‘Just because a ‘normal’ practice is a religious custom, it doesn’t make it acceptable. God used a painfully unforgettable method to teach this to Abraham. When we need to get similarly important messages heard, sometimes we may need to use a megaphone too.’
2. An anticipation of the death of God’s own Son?
Steve Wells (compiler of The Annotated Sceptic’s Bible) thinks that the story of Abraham and Isaac is ‘obscene’. But he is right about one thing: there is a close affinity between this account of (intended) sacrifice and that of God sacrificing his own Son:- ‘God supposedly tested himself, just like he did Abraham, only this time he went through with it. He killed his own son for some god-awful reason. I guess it was to keep himself from torturing others for stuff they didn’t do or didn’t believe. Or something like that. Believers call it Good Friday.’
It may well be God wished to give Abraham a prefiguration of the sacrifice by which his promise to bless all the families of the earth would be fulfilled (cf. Gen 12:3). The words of Jesus himself lend support to this view, Jn 8:56 (“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”) Isaac was not, of course, just ‘any son’: God had promised that it would be through him and his offspring that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Moreover, it is to be noted that the place that Abraham to Isaac to was “the region of Moriah”. The distance was unexpectedly distant if God’s purpose was simply to test Abraham’s faith. But the destination is less unexpected when we consider that this region includes Jerusalem and its environs.
3. Context is everything
Valid as the preceding observations may be, it is when we consider this story in the light of God’s dealings with Abraham up to this point that we can really start making good sense of it.
In a recent article in Themelios, Matthew Rowley comments that this passage has been misunderstood by believers and non-believers alike. Taken on its own, Abraham’s experience as recorded in this chapter suggests that Abraham believes that the Lord has commanded him to commit a barbaric act, and that Abraham had no rational grounds (apart from the bare command) for doing so. Thus understood, the passage seems to offer excuse to all those others who commit atrocities because they think that God has commanded them to do so.
Rowley’s argument is that the preceding chapters (Gen 12 onwards) record copious instances of God’s miraculous work, such that Abraham was well prepared for the test of chapter 22. These miracles, says Rowley, were ‘large-scale, frequent, predicted, communal, variegated, long lasting, and multi-sensory’.
- God had called Abram to leave his home country and to travel the land that he (the Lord) would show him,Gen 12:1.
- God had supported his call with a set of remarkable promises, Gen 12:2-4.
- God had appeared to Abram when he entered Canaan, Gen 12:7.
- God had sent a plague on Pharaoh and his house, with the result that Pharaoh acknowledged the power of Abram’s God, Gen 12:10-20.
- God had visited Abram on further occasions, Gen 13:14-18; 15. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham, made a covenant with him, and assured him that the seed of promise would come through Sarah and Isaac,Gen 17.
- God had appeared to Abraham again, at the oaks of Mamre, Gen 18.
- God had visited Abimelech with a plague, and then revealed himself to him in a dream, with the result that Abraham was affirmed as a prophet by a foreign leader, Gen 20:1-7, 17f.
- God had miraculously enabled Sarah to conceive and give birth to the son through him he would bless the world, after years of waiting, Gen 17:15–19; 18:10–14; 21:1–8.
- God had appeared yet again to Abraham, promising to care for Hagar and Ishmael, Gen 21:8-21.
The greatest validation of Abraham’s faith comes in the narrative about the destruction of Sodom. Gen 18:17faffirms that God has the right to take life, and that Abraham was able to correctly understand God’s revelation. Moreover, all of this is tied to God’s promise to bless the entire world through Abraham.
When we come to Gen 22, both Abraham and Isaac know that the former has been miraculously set apart by God; hence the submissive faith of both. In that chapter, Abraham’s faith is tested by the apparent contradiction between God’s promise and God’s command. Although he would not have known how God would fulfil his promise, he had been brought to the point where he could trust God to be true to his word. It is remarkable that Abraham had said to his servant, “I and the boy will come back to you” (Gen 22:5; see also Heb 11:17-19)
So Abraham is not guilty of a blind and irrational ‘leap of faith’, as some have supposed. He had ample reasons for trusting God and for believing that he was correctly able to interpret God’s words to him. To commit an atrocity simple because ‘God told me to do it’ is a sign of a deranged mind. But the situation regarding Abraham was entirely different; he was a prophet who had received repeated miraculous validation from God.
‘Because God promised that he would bless the world through the offspring of childless Isaac, and because God commanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the burden of responsibility rested on God to make good on all his promises. Because of the large deposits already in Abraham’s trust bank he knew with certainty that God would either stop the knife or raise Isaac up from the dead.’
Rowley concludes with some lessons for preachers:-
- Don’t separate Gen 22 from Gen 12-21.
- Don’t make Abraham an exemplar of blind, irrational faith.
- Don’t attempt to draw universal applications from those parts of the narrative that should be regarded as unique.
- Don’t make Abraham’s relationship with God normative (as if we can treat our own quiet prompting from the Holy Spirit as if they were on the same level as his miraculous validation).
- Don’t casually spiritualise Abraham’s actions (for us to raise a metaphorical knife over our idols is not the same as Abraham raising a real knife against his own son).