On killing one’s children: Making sense of Abraham and Isaac

July 27, 2007 at 12:11 am 3 comments

I recall sitting in philosophy class last year and listening to my professor go off on one of his frequent tirades against religion. We were supposed to be discussing Heraclitus; instead Dr. Jensen was berating the Old Testament.

“What kind of God,” he scoffed, throwing open his palm and leaning over the lectern, “would tell Abraham to kill his own son?”

Well, it’s a fair question.

After all, here we have God “testing” Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac—to sacrifice the child that God himself promised, the one in whom God said all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

You’d think Abraham might have balked, but his response to the imperative is stunningly matter-of-fact: “So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey…” (Gen. 22:3).

God commands; Abraham obeys; no questions asked.

The command was bizarre, yet the Bible approves of Abraham’s obedience, on the face of it. Hebrews 11, for example, praises Abraham’s demonstration of faith, and modern believers hold him up as a model for us all.

Abraham’s faith, we’re told, is the kind of faith we should aspire to: the kind of faith that is willing to follow God’s instructions with perfect trust and perfect obedience, no matter whether or not the instructions makes sense.

But the problem with this becomes obvious when we note that the plain and repeated command of the Old Testament is that human sacrifice is prohibited (Deut. 12:31, 2 Ki. 17:17, 2 Chron. 28:3, Jer. 19:5, Eze. 16:20, 21).

Should Abraham be commended for doing what God himself has said is wrong? Surely not. How could true faith involve a willingness to obey even when it means disobeying? It’s a truly bizarre God who would ask for that kind of faith.

How, then, are we to understand this story?

Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God?I got many of my own questions about the story answered after reading the interpretation of Alden Thompson in his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? The way to make sense of this story, suggests Thompson, is to realize that God worked with Abraham on Abraham’s level.

Ancient Canaanite religious rites called for human sacrifice, so Abraham was probably familiar with the practice. Though Abraham’s faith is remarkable, there is no reason to assume he had an advanced knowledge of God: Given his cultural context, he likely would have seen the sacrifice of his heir as the ultimate offering he could make to God. It is only in such a setting that this “test” makes sense.

The point of the story, though, is not that God actually wanted Abraham’s sacrifice. Of course, God commends Abraham’s faith and his willingness to give up his son, for Abraham’s faith was laudable. But the significance of the passage is that God stops the sacrifice and provides a substitute lamb in Isaac’s place.

The story, then, has nothing to do with praising Abraham’s willingness to comply “on faith” with the bizarre “tests” of an arbitrary God.

Nor does the story imply that truly faithful people should be willing to sacrifice their own children if God asks. (The self-proclaimed modern-day Abraham who tried to sacrifice his family “on God’s orders” last year got 90 years in prison–and rightly so.)

On the contrary, the message is that the Israelite God, unlike the Canaanite gods, neither needs nor wants human offerings of propitiation.

So, in answer to Dr. Jensen’s question, what kind of a God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son? The kind of God who works with his people at their level and in accordance with their limited knowledge–and then moves them beyond that level.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  July 28, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    If the story happened just the way it is recounted in Genesis, I doubt that I could ever make my peace with it. If we consider the experience from Abraham’s perspective, it’s bad enough. But for the ultimate good of eliminating child sacrifice from Israel, arguably it could be worth it.

    But the morality of the story is even worse if you consider it from Isaac’s perspective: Abraham … bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

    Imagine Isaac’s terror. Would he be scarred for life? Would any explanation suffice to make it OK between him and Abraham afterward? I have my doubts.

    On the other hand, the story may have been shaped for dramatic effect. I tend to think a lot of the Old Testament stories are like that: a historical kernel that has been polished, in multiple tellings of the story over many generations, to make it a “better” story. So maybe the event wasn’t quite as bad as all that, with Isaac bound and terrified as his Dad reached for the knife ….

  • 2. Jamie  |  July 30, 2007 at 8:47 am

    I totally identify with your resistance to the story. On the other hand, your take seems to assume that Isaac was unwilling to participate. Given his culture, maybe he wasn’t.

    Other than stating that he was a “lad” old enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice, I don’t think the Bible says how old Isaac was at the time of the incident. However, unless he was very young, he could almost certainly have escaped from Abraham, who was very old and probably not in a good position to restrain him. This suggests his willingness to participate. Child suicide bombers in Muslim countries apparently aren’t afraid to sacrifice their lives; possibly something similar went on here.

    Still, even if Isaac was a willing sacrifice, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was terrified. But would that mean he was scarred for life because of the incident? Maybe not.

    Again, I am suggesting that the emphasis of the story is on a correction of the distorted views of Abraham and his society. If Isaac had grown up in the kind of culture where child sacrifice was practiced, and he now encounters a God who says he doesn’t want child sacrifices, the experience could have been, in an admittedly odd way, therapeutic.

    At the least, Isaac would have an excellent understanding of what redemption means.

  • 3. John  |  December 4, 2012 at 12:09 am

    People will certainly do gyrations and turn somersaults to try to make sense of the nonsensical when it comes to religious belief. This is a story told by people from the Bronze age; a mythical story like all the bible stories. No righteous, loving, caring, forgiving, omniscient god would ever put a father to such a cruel and depraved exercise/test. That would make the god evil and the father intent on carrying out this directive a truly demented parent. No caring parent would sacrifice his or her son under these or any circumstances. Belief in God may be in our genetic makeup or a vestige of superstition. Who knows. Believing in science and reason–and especially disbelieving in gods for which there is no evidence of their existence–is the evolutionary direction of humankind. Instead of believing what we were told about god from the time we were three years old, the next generation will think independently about the issues of faith and religion.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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