The story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22 is another one of those Bible stories that even those of you not immersed in the church know, at least tangentially. According to scripture, God tested Abraham, telling him to take his only son Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him there. Obediently, Abraham headed off with his son. When the boy asked where the lamb was for the sacrifice, Abraham responded that God would provide. Atop the mountain, Abraham bound his child and raised the knife before the angel stopped him. Then Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket nearby, and Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of the boy.
Because my pastor preached on this story recently, and because the lectionary made this the topic for many churches in the last couple of weeks, I have found myself in several deep conversations about this passage. The basics of the conversation are this: Did God really tell Abraham to kill his own child? And if God really did that, why would I want to follow such a mean, sadistic God?
I think God really did say it, but I respect those who do not. I understand the interpretation that says that God did not say it, but I want to explain why I disagree.
To begin with, however, let me explain the other view, at least as I understand it. The writer of Genesis collected oral histories that had been passed down, augmented, interpreted, and amplified. Those stories were about people like Abraham, who lived in a primitive time. Abraham himself lived among the Philistines, a primitive people worshiping a god called Dagon. The culture times in general, and the Dagon-worshiping Philistines in particular, called for child sacrifice. It would have been exceedingly natural for Abraham to believe that God wanted him to sacrifice his child. The story then progresses to a point where the angel stops Abraham's hand just in time, and Abraham learns that our God does not demand child sacrifice and is in fact interested in far more loving and heart-oriented ways.
I agree with everything in that previous paragraph, but I disagree with the conclusion that God did not say what Genesis 22 records. Let me see if I can explain why.
First, scripture is clear. It is hard for me to interpret away "God tested Abraham.... Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there....'" Redacting or smoothing out the difficult parts of scripture that don't line up with our theology on the basis that they are just "interpretations" is a slippery slope towards making God over in our image. It could be our theology that needs to be polished a little.
Second, I believe there is a strong difference between saying that God is "mean and sadistic" and saying that God is "demanding." Through the very life of Jesus we find out that God demands that we - like Arbaham - are to put away the things that bind us, that we leave father and mother and sister and brother, that we take up our cross to follow. The example of Christ is His willingness to give up His life and God's willingness to sacrifice God's own son. The parable of the pearl of great price teaches that we are to give up all that we have to gain the kingdom of God. And on, and on, and on. Nothing about that is easy.
What would be mean and sadistic would have been for God to allow Abraham actually to have killed his son, but the story does not end that way. I am not minimizing the test, but the test was ultimately not about child sacrifice; in fact, one point of the story is that God decidedly does not want child sacrifice. The test was about obedience when we do not understand. The test was about trusting God.
When my children were small, before they learned to swim, they would stand on the side of the pool. From the water, I would call on them to jump. I did not explain that my arms were strong enough to catch them. I just asked them to jump. I taught them to trust me. They learned to jump into water and know that their father would provide protection. It even turned out to be fun.
Third, I do not think that Abraham believed that God would ultimately require him to kill Isaac. Remember, God had already told Abraham - in covenant language - that he would have offspring as countless as the stars, and that this covenant would be accomplished through Isaac. Those words had to be ringing in Abraham's ears as he led Isaac to the mountain. Indeed, Abraham's words in the story are plain: "God Himself will provide the lamb." Abraham's obedience here is counted, we are told, as faith. Abraham believed God and did what God told him to do.
Fourth, we must always read stories like this, especially from early in the Old Testament, with an understanding of progressive revelation. When our two-year-old daughter wants to touch the shiny round red thing on the stove, we yell "no." We tell her not to touch the stove without explaining either the theory of thermodynamics or how our owerwhelming love for her means that we are denying her the temporary fun of touching the burner; similarly, God's early explanations to the chosen people were direct without including all that we now know about God and theology. As scripture stories begin, we learn that God is creator. Quickly following that is the idea that God demands obedience. Then, we get a long lesson in the holiness of God and the holiness God expects from God's people. We start getting some ideas that God gives to us and answers our prayers in the stories of Samuel and Kings, and the Psalms of David finally begin to talk of God's love. It is not really until the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah that we begin to get a clear definition of the love of God, and of course it is not until the appearance of Jesus that we see the love of God fully. And yes, there are early glimpses of God's grace - clothes for Adam and Eve, the mark of Cain, an ark for Noah - but the concept of grace as anything other than a form of one of many religious adjectives for God ("gracious") is scant before the prophets.
In other words, as of Genesis 22, God is still in the business of teaching the basics of obedience. I am not suggesting that God was any different than God is now - no more sadistic or cruel in ancient times than today - but instead that God was reinforcing a prior issue. God called on Abraham to obey and expected obedience. That of course foreshadows our Lord calling on us for radical obedience. Greater love has no one than this, that we lay down our lives.
That is hard. It is difficult. But it is not sadistic. We know God better than that. And the God we know better than that now is the same God who called to Abraham.
Fifth, the ram in the thicket no doubt is a type for Jesus, the substitutionary atonement who takes our place atop the sacrificial pyre. If the call had not been there to sacrifice Isaac, the shedding of that ram's blood would have meant far less.
Some are frustrated that they do not hear God speak today in the same way that Abraham and other Old Testament figures heard God. Some figure that if we don't have burning bushes and talking donkeys today, then perhaps those Old Testament stories really are not so literal. Maybe they are just interpretations of events told in dramatic ways.
I often share that frustration, but I come back to this: Unlike Moses and Abraham, we have scripture to record the words of God. Unlike Balaam, we have Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit of God to speak to us constantly, showing us what God wants and what God is like. Those ancients who predated Pentecost and the gathering of scripture did not have those advantags, and God compensated by speaking to them in other ways.
It is fortunate that God has never asked me to sacrifice any of my children, for I am pretty sure my faith would not stand up to the test in the way Abraham's did. In fact, other than Abraham, the only person to have such a requirement was God Himself.
Yes, I believe God really told Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, and sacrifice him on the mountain. I believe Abraham followed because Abraham obeyed God, and because Abraham remembered the covenant of God and knew that God had long-term plans for Isaac, and because Abraham believed that the God who tested him was also the God "who will provide."
Is it a hard story? Oh yes. Does it teach us much? Oh yes.