Thursday, October 24, 2013


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


  1. Issac is a type of Christ who came and died for our Salvation. God gave His only Son and Abraham was a type showing the willingness to obey God

    1. Thanks, Wanda, for pointing out the similarities between the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story and the God/Christ sacrifice story. There does seem to be a correspondence between Isaac and Christ (only sons, etc.). But that similarity seems to break down when comparing Abraham with God. In addition, Isaac was ultimately spared, whereas Christ was not. Moreover, in reading the story in Genesis it just seems obvious that the lesson is centered on absolute obedience to God, regardless of the command. It's hard for me to see the Abraham/Isaac story as some sort of foretelling of Christ's crucifixion story.

    2. God is hard to unstand. but He is God and we are not. He is way more lenient in the New Testament after Christ died and rose again.

  2. John,
    I vote in favor of the cultures of the day as the influence that promoted the beginnings of the monotheistic religion that began with the tribe of Abraham. The result is that their God-The True God-made them the "Chosen People". This is a perfect history(Genesis- written by Moses?)so Moses could lead the Israelites as an authority figure chosen by God.
    As a young person I always thought the sacrificial system was cruel by the present day standards. Even though I learned it was considered an offering of something of value equal to money in those days as well as blood for atonement. I thought it scary God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son and wondered if either of my parents would be willing to do that to me. Of course God didn't let Abraham do it and said "just kidding. Just Wanted to see if you'd do what I said." With age I learned many old religions and cultures in the world used sacrifice/blood rituals of animals or humans as part of their culture and belief system. This was done to appease the Gods or a specific entity or a sacrifice that supported the culture's priesthood, or to maintain control of the people.
    As a kid that story taught me out of fear I better obey parents and God. Of course with age it was explained in adult Christian terms as the precursor of Jesus sacrificing his spilt blood for our sins. Abraham representing God's unquestioning willingness to shed his son's blood for our atonement. I see it more in terms of the story of how Abraham a tribal domestic herder became the father/founder of the monotheistic Jewish nation. He was influenced by the cultures and religions around him as was Moses. The sacrificial system for atonement was a culturally accepted ritual. It also is a story that may have been written down later after it was passed down orally. It also could be a story added later to teach and impress the "Sons of Abraham" that they were to become a separate people/nation chosen by the One True God. The story of Abraham's unquestionable obedience to God and his willingness to sacrifice his son, resulted in God's promise to Abraham that his family would become A GREAT NATION. THIS story supported, and promoted the cohesiveness as a tribe/people that would one day be their own nation. Other cultures changed in time and stopped their sacrificial systems.
    John I see Your questions as very legitimate questions? In the story it is assumed that God talked to Abraham and he assumed it was God speaking to him--The one true God. In that time and culture people believed these things and the story was accepted.
    Today anyone caught ready to knife their own son because God told him to do it would be isolated and tested for a mental diagnosis.
    1. Not God like at all by our modern logic.
    2. What kind of person?- one from that sacrificial era hoping to establish and maintain a distinctive culture and tribe of people to become a nation under the one "true"monotheistic God.
    3. You can only learn the lesson meant for that age of reasoning. Its a story that secures Abraham as the "God ordained" chosen one to start and continue his tribe and religion.
    4. Mostly rhetorical. There are many psychological studies about the extremes people go to when someone in authority tells them what to do.
    5. This one calls for serious thought so is perhaps the best question. The lesson is only relevant to the culture of that time and place.

    1. Thanks, "Anon," for your detailed comments. Perhaps I intended the questions to be more rhetorical than they came across.

      I had never thought that my parents would "sacrifice" me, but it had occurred to me to wonder why God required an animal sacrifice to demonstrate allegiance. Thanks for pointing out that the Hebrew tradition of sacrifices is simply one of many examples of ancient cultures that have used that device, including human sacrifice. At some point I realized that the system was also used to provide the priest clan (the Levites) with food.

      The notion that the Abraham/Isaac story is a foreshadowing of God's sacrifice of Christ never made sense to me. The parallels simply aren't that strong and it smacks of overreaching for a solution to a difficult problem. To me the parallels are much stronger between the A/I story and, frankly, the history of demands for blind obedience in totalitarian societies.

  3. Totalitarian and hierarchical. Sorry bout the previously wordy comment. I think it was a story to control and start a Hebrew nation.