Today we hear the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because he hears the voice of God telling him to. (The text is Genesis 22:1-18) This story has been used – as it still is today – as evidence of Abraham’s faith in God, and as a prefiguring of God’s acceptance of Jesus’s sacrificial death.
With all due respect, I wish to offer another opinion on how to read this story. It’s based on three things:
First, even granting that culture was different in Abraham’s day and that children may well have been differently-valued, it seems to me that no parent not in the grip of illusion would do this – in Abraham’s time or at any time. “Faith” does not equal insanity (despite the two being too-often confused).
Second, we see a very different Abraham just a few chapters earlier in Genesis (18:22-33), when Abraham bargains with God about the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no meek, “Ok, if You say so” in this story. Abraham is no pushover when something matters to him.
Third, We need to remember that this story was told in a culture in which child-sacrifice was a common practice – of the pagan religions that surrounded and threatened the Jewish people. The key to the story is not Abraham’s seeming willingness, but rather God’s urgent and stern prohibition against killing Isaac that comes at the end of the story: “Do not raise your hand against the boy. Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God.” (22:12)
Putting the pieces together here’s what I think is going on:
First, the story relies on the natural desire of parents to protect their children (whether you prefer the traditional interpretation or the one I’m about to lay out). Abraham’s choices are meant to seem horribly unnatural to hearers right from the start. We have made the story too conventional by reading back into it the centuries of interpretation and so we lose the revulsion that was part of the original story’s context and impetus. This is only a minor problem in the traditional interpretation, but a major one if what I think is going on is true.
Second, the story is meant to illustrate that any supposed “voice of God” commanding child-murder is an illusion that is to be resisted. Of course, the story can’t start out saying “Abraham was deceived into thinking God was telling him to kill Isaac” – that ruins the drama and so the lesson. No one wants to follow an illusory command. It’s the sense that such a command could be real that needs to be opposed. So Abraham is shown, at the start of the story, thinking that God is really telling him to do this.
Third, the turnaround at the end is not that “God changes his mind” or “God is satisfied Abraham is dutifully obedient”; it’s that Abraham discovers that God does not want child murder. His initial sense of “what God wanted” was deceptive and illusory (as, implicitly then, is the teaching of the pagan religions around the Jews that “their god wants child murder”).
The story’s point is that child-murder is the result of a horrific illusion and is utterly condemned by God. And the corollary is, It is possible to be deceived by this illusion and to think it is genuinely what one must do.
“God wills it!” has been the battle-cry of too many people through history. The wisdom of a community (plus the tradition of our church) can be a guard against self-deception. This story, read correctly, is part of that. Until next week, peace.