The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, his only son, is presumably intended to teach the lesson of faith in and obedience to God. But I feel that there is a very frightening side to this tale. Moreover, the lessons that it teaches us today may have more to do with the relationship between religion and cultural norms, about how scripture is interpreted--and reinterpreted--in light of advances in cultural norms.
In the story, found in Genesis 22:1-19, God informs Abraham that he is to take Isaac, his only son, out into the wilderness. There Abraham is to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God. That is, Abraham is to kill his own and only son to prove his allegiance to God. So, without any question, without any objection, Abraham takes Isaac, along with a couple of servants, to the land that God has designated. They carry firewood and the means to make fire but do not bring along any animal as a sacrifice. Near the designated place, Abraham tells the servants to wait while he and Isaac head up one of the hills with the firewood and fire. Isaac is just a boy, old enough to ask why there’s no animal for the sacrifice but too young to defy his father’s will.
Abraham builds an altar and places the firewood on it. He then ties Isaac onto the altar and raises his knife to kill him. It is only then that God’s angel intervenes, announces that Abraham has passed the test, and tells him not to harm his son. Abraham then unties Isaac and together they discover a ram nearby to be used as the sacrifice in place of Isaac. The angel then announces that because of his obedience, Abraham will be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.
Even if one accepts that Abraham and Isaac were historical persons, it is inconceivable to me that this story could have been historical. So I assume it was written to teach a lesson, a parable, if you will. Essentially, the story teaches blind obedience to God, regardless of God’s command. Here Abraham doesn’t question whether the command is truly from God. Nor does he question whether God really meant what he seemed to have commanded. Nor does he point out to God that he has been instructed to commit a horrible sin.
I’m not sure when we were first introduced to this story. My guess is middle school. It probably would have been too frightening for kids in the lower grades. I’m sure the message we were taught was the simpleminded one of Abraham’s enormous--shall we say blind--faith in God. And for me it was just another Bible story to be learned. But now the story only raises questions in my mind:
- What kind of God would order someone to commit a heinous crime just to prove a point? Or, worse, just to demonstrate his power to command allegiance?
- What kind of person would obey such an order?
- What lesson is to be learned from placing an individual in such an unresolvable dilemma?
- At what point should one disobey an order from someone in authority? When the order is to commit a crime?
- What should one think of a culture that considers the Abraham/Isaac story to have positive moral value?
Every Christian of a certain age was taught the Abraham/Isaac story. Now I wonder if it is still taught as part of the standard repertoire of Bible stories. There is so much in the Bible that is glossed over because it is difficult to explain or seems inconsistent with the contemporary world. The scriptures speak with so many different voices and from such differences in perspective, how is it determined that a passage of the Bible should be adopted as a central tenet, or reinterpreted as metaphor, or quietly ignored?
It is clear that scientific advances have forced the reinterpretation of scripture inconsistent with those advances: the Creation story, the Flood, miracles in general. But I believe the same is occurring with respect to cultural norms as well. As Western culture has evolved, what impact has that had on the interpretation of scripture? Are cultural norms the product of religion or is it the other way around--does religious doctrine follow the lead of cultural evolution? Are these legitimate questions or rhetorical ones?
I think there may be lessons to be learned from the Abraham/Isaac story. Just not the ones that scripture teaches.
© 2013 John M. Phillips