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What kind of a God would do that?

Last week my Bible study group discussed Genesis chapter 22 - the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac.  At first reading this can seem a brutal story, of a jealous and possessive God determined to wring every possible concession from his follower, before relenting at the very last second and grudgingly supplying a sheep instead.

But as we talked it through, I came to see that there are other ways of understanding it too.  Like most Biblical stories, we are given very little insight into the thoughts and emotions of the characters.  We have to recreate them as we read.  Sometimes it's as if we were reconstructing a building from the clues in its excavated foundation.  And like in that archeological task, we often bring our own ideas about what the construction should look like, as well as following the pattern of other buildings of that time.  It's possible to recreate two very different buildings from the original foundation stones.

Here are two possible readings of the Abraham and Isaac story.  Which one is more like your version?  And how do they answer the question, "What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his own son?"

One

Adi Holzer [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Now Abraham had followed God for many years, and God blessed him with a son in his old age.  But God was still not satisfied, but suspected that Abraham loved Isaac his son above the Lord his God.  So God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!"  And he said, "Here I am."  And God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering upon the mountain."

So Abraham was afraid, and he rose early in the morning and went to the place of which God had told him.  He took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!"  And he said, "Here I am, my son."  Isaac said, "I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"  Abraham sought to comfort his son, so he lied and said, "God himself will provide a lamb, my son."  And they went on together, but Abraham's heart was heavy within him.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood on it, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar.  Then Abraham took the knife to slay his son.

Then God realised that he had made a mistake, and that Abraham was more faithful than he suspected.  So he repented of his demand for child sacrifice and sent the angel of the Lord, who said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God."  And Abraham saw a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So the anger of God was averted.  And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time, and said, "Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, I will indeed bless you."

But Isaac knew thereafter that his father was prepared to kill him, and that knowledge bred fear and hatred in his heart towards his father.  And although Abraham called the name of that place "The Lord will provide", Isaac for many years thought of God as the one who tried to take him away.


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Two

Jan Lievens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Now Abraham had walked with God in faithfulness for many years, and God blessed him with a son in his old age.  After some time God saw that Abraham had grown in wisdom, and was ready for the final confirmation of God's promises to him.  So God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!"  And he said, "Here I am."  And God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering upon the mountain."

Abraham trusted God, for he knew that God had promised him many descendants through Isaac, and therefore must have some purpose behind what he was asking him to do.  So he rose early in the morning and went to the place of which God had told him.  He took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!"  And he said, "Here I am, my son."  Isaac said, "I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" And Abraham believed God's promises, so he said, "God himself will provide the lamb, my son."  And they went on together in hope and trust.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood on it, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar.  Then Abraham took the knife to slay his son.

Now God knew that Abraham understood fully that his son had come from God and was subject to God's purposes, and the covenant between them was sealed by this symbolic sacrifice.  And God had not intended that Isaac should be harmed.  So he sent the angel of the Lord, who said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God."  And Abraham saw a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  Thus the covenant was ratified by blood, as ancient law required.  So Abraham called the name of that place, "The Lord will provide".

And now that Abraham had tested his trust in God to the final limits, and still proved that God was faithful, the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time, and said, "Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, I will indeed bless you."

Comments

John Evens said…
In either interpretation I've always felt like Isaac gets a rough deal. I mean, I still struggle with the subtlety of whether Abraham trusted that the instructions would change, and never fully intended to sacrifice his son, or if he really expected to do it. How would Isaac have made sense of it?
Forrest Malloch said…
Or might if be, even, that Abraham misunderstood what God was asking of him? That, following the culture of all the religions about at the time, child sacrifice appeared to him to be a natural way of expressing his faith and gratitude to God? That what God was actually teaching him was that child sacrifice was abhorrent to him?
After all, God had no need of a test to know what was in Abraham's heart, did he? But he may have needed to demonstrate to Abraham that he is very different from the cruel gods around about.
I agree with John about Isaac - he does get the roughest edge of this.
Martha said…
Yes, and we don't get told anything about Isaac's feelings or reaction to it - it's almost as if he isn't much more than a sheep from the storyteller's point of view.

We talked a bit about the fact that Abraham seems to hear unequivocally from God, whereas anything we "hear" is generally open to interpretation, to say the least. It's difficult to know whether it was just written down that way or whether Abraham did hear that clearly, isn't it?

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