Humans have an amazing capacity for contextualising. When we see the world, we only notice the things that ‘stick out’ somehow, that don’t belong.
We do the same when reading. Only the parts that don’t make sense or form contradictions come to our attention. If you have spent your whole life surrounded by stories, explanations, and repetitions, you will find it easy to miss just how weird some things really are. I’ve started applying this perspective to reading the Bible- trying to read each passage as if it was the first time all over again. The New Testament is strange enough (Paul saying that woman shouldn’t speak in church, for example, requires a lot of interpretation), but the Old Testament is where things get really interesting. Why does Lamech randomly sing a song to his wives where he killed either one or two men in what may or may not have been self defense? Was the Flood just a metaphor, and if so, a metaphor for what?
It was one of my professors who actually first asked my question about Abraham and Isaac. Let’s look at the context, shall we? God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, yet by the age of 75 or so he still had no child. After a brief dalliance with the help, Abraham had a son, Ishmael. Shortly after, while Ishmael was still a boy, Abraham’s wife Sarah bore him a son, Isaac. Now Isaac was the promised son, and God spoke saying that Abraham’s descendants would come through Isaac. Finally, after years of waiting, Abraham had his promised son. One evening, God appears to Abraham and says, ‘Take your only son Isaac, whom you love, up to the mountain and sacrifice him to me.’ The next day, Abraham takes Isaac and two servants, and they start out towards the mountain. Isaac wonders why they have no animal to sacrifice, and is probably quite surprised when his father ties him to the altar. As Abraham takes the knife in hand, an angel appears and tells him to spare his son, and to rather offer the ram who was caught in a nearby thicket. The story ends with God blessing Abraham and his descendants as a reward for his faithfulness.
There are so many questions we can ask here! The language used in the Bible is actually very undramatic und undescriptive; we are left to imagine what Abraham and Isaac were thinking and feeling. First of all, we don’t know how old Isaac actually was. He is usually protrayed as a child, but In the religions of those times, child sacrifice was a very normal thing to do. In fact, God later tells the Israelites that they should never offer their children to Him as their neighbours do. So, let’s go to the questions! Why does God say “your first and only son”? Just a chapter before we see how Ishmael was sent away. Secondly, if child sacrifice is against his nature, why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the first place? The third question is the one my professor my asked. Can God, as the source of all goodness and morality, command you to do something wrong?
Now, I’m going to be focussing primarily on the second question, the why. In most Protestant tellings of this story, the focus is entirely on Abraham. “Imagine how difficult it was for Abraham, yet he stayed faithful and was blessed for it.” In fact, the chapter heading is titled “Abraham Tested”. People also claim that the story is a precursor of Jesus, that we see here how God offered his only son for us. And while I believe that these are valid points, I’d like to look a bit deeper into God’s side of the story, and I’ve done a bit of inconclusive research of this. We know from later in the Bible that God is both unchanging and that he despises child sacrifice. So, I think it is reasonably certain that God would never have allowed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. So why would He command it? God had just destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in front of Abraham’s eyes, so Abraham knew that death was a valid possibility with God. He didn’t have any Leviticus or Deuteronomy to refer to. And never mind Abraham, what about Isaac? Besides the terror of seeing someone about to cut your throat while tied to an altar, I imagine that your relationship with your father rathers cools after he tries to sacrifice you. Ah yes, you say, God never intended to let it happen! Well, what was it then? An elaborate prank? If I break into a house and hold the family at gunpoint only to say afterwards, “Don’t be silly, I was never going to shoot you! You were never in danger,” you can be quite sure that I’d go to jail anyway. Would you want to follow a God who would force you through something like that?
And this is why this case is so difficult. Because God is good, He would never allow unnecessary suffering and most certainly would not cause it. So let’s look at some possibilities:
1. Serve as a precursory picture for Jesus. Very possible, yet we want to believe that God wants to best for us as individuals, not only as Mankind. So that would mean that God would allow causing great physical and emotional pain on individuals for the benefit of others. Seems very unfair and almost capricious for our understanding.
2. He needed to test Abraham’s faith before choosing him. This might also be true, but remember that Abraham had already been blessed by God. The blessing he received after the sacrifice was basically a reiteration and expansion of what God had told him before.
3. Abraham was testing God. Now this is a possibility held by some Jewish scholars. They say that Abraham only went along with the commandment because he was testing God’s morality. Especially following Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham wanted to know whether God would spare an innocent life. So he followed the command fully expecting God to step in and save Isaac. This explains why, when Isaac asked Abraham where the sacrifice was, Abraham replied that God Himself would provide the offering.
4. Isaac agreed to become a sacrifice. This version comes from the Muslim tradition. They say that Isaac knew full well and gladly offered himself as sacrifice to the glory of God. Therefore he was not bound at all, and God (or Allah) chose to save him as a reward for his willingness. This version seems irreconcilable with the Biblical narrative however.
5. God was punishing Abraham. In this version, God would never allow Isaac to be sacrificed, but was rather teaching Abraham a lesson for not believing in him. By not trusting God fully and begetting Ishmael, he showed that he did not trust God to do things in His time. The command then fulfills a dual purpose: God gives Abraham another chance to trust Him fully, while the three days preceding the sacrifice allow Abraham to realize what he’d done wrong. While this does sound logical, we still have the problem of God seeming deceitful by giving a purposefully misleading command. Also, it seems rather harsh to Isaac.
6. God required only a symbolic sacrifice. In this version, Abraham was fully aware of God’s good nature and never believed that God would allow the sacrifice. Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question, ‘God will provide,’ can easily be understood in this context. Abraham was just going through the motions and waiting for God to intervene.
7. Super faith. Abraham was so trusting in God’s promise, that he believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be. This version is quite similar to the previous version, only that Isaac seems to get an even worse deal. But then again, if I had the opportunity to be the first person raised from the dead, I would consider taking it. So maybe Isaac was more accepting of the sacrifice thing after all than we give him credit for.
There is no conclusive answer to be drawn from the text. By leaning on preceding and following passages we can try to set the story in context to make it more appealing to our morality, but God doesn’t need our approval in any case. If something doesn’t seem right to us, we can be certain that there is some justification lying behind the scenes we are unaware of. And even if there isn’t, who are we, with our limited conscience and narrow reason, to possibly imagine judging God?