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More Thoughts on Abraham and Isaac

April 13, 2010

Abraham Sacrifices IsaacAbraham. Isaac. Human Sacrifice Boo! Yay angel that saves the day!

What more can we learn from the story? We feel the tension that we simply could not do what Abraham would. We feel utterly repulsed. But then some of us feel slightly guilty. Are we deficient in faith if we could not do such a task? (But then the repulsion…are we deficient in ethics if we could?) Is this the sign that we should leap to faith?

Well, I for one learned a bit from perusing through some of the comments of the BCC topic. I guess I had a few preconceptions that don’t seem to be universally shared, too.

See, it all started when commenter MikeinWeHo said:

…I’m surprised that you didn’t make mention of the Atonement itself, though, when discussing this topic.

I know my gears go to turning here. And I quickly came to think: what a good point! We think of Abraham as possibly mad. A monster. Who would sacrifice his own son?

…and yet most Christians think that the “sacrifice” of Jesus is “beautiful.” A sign of God’s endless love.

And besides…there are some critical distinctions between the two stories.

…or are there?

Steve wrote:

Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice; no one took his life except He first gave it willingly. That notion of self-sacrifice vs. infanticide is pretty important in my book.

But wasn’t Isaac willing as well?

And what I learned throughout the rest of the comments was quite interesting. Apparently, there isn’t a consensus on details relating to Isaac, such as his willingness. So, as another commenter writes:

You have no idea exactly how old Isaac was or how willing he was to be sacrificed. The whole thing was supposed to be a “type” of the sacrifice of the Son of God, and the type wouldn’t hold if Abraham were tying up a screaming child.


I had always just assumed certain details relating to the matter. Isn’t it interesting how bias creeps in like that?

But even more interesting, I had some presuppositions about the very framing of the story. How’s the story even go anyway?

God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s willingness to do so is his obedience and faith. God sends and angel to stop him.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

But from the BCC discussion, I saw so many people who eschewed this telling for others. Let’s take a look at a few of these:

…We should consider that human sacrifice was rampant in the ancient world and that the “gods” always commanded it. What is remarkable about the story to me is that Abraham didnt kill his son. That the true God did not allow him to commit the grievous mistake rampant in that time.

I read the story as showing God’s end to human sacrifice rather than the institution or command of such.

or (more from the same commenter):

Didn’t God tell Abraham to stop?

The scriptures are not written like modern history. I tend to think that when the text reads that God wanted Abraham to kill his son that this was speaking to religious and cultural customs and beliefs of his time not to the true God actually speaking to him.

The angel intervening on the mountain is God telling them to stop. Abraham is a singular and unique individual who heard God’s will while others did not and sacrificed their children.

I guess the third comment was the charm, especially when it comes from a guy who’s generally well known for parsing things carefully, so when he supports an interpretation, even if you disagree, you can at least be sure it was thoughtfully evaluated:

I am fine with pretty much any interpretation that doesn’t lead to, “It’s OK to kill your kids if you hear a voice telling you to do so.” That’s a conclusion I choose not to reach, especially since there are so many other viable ones within easy reach.

It’s just so interesting. All this time, I was thinking the dilemma were some of these: “Does obedience to God require suspension of ethical precepts?” or “How can we be certain that we are correctly hearing God?” I thought, however, that this was a clear example of God asking something that appears very much to require Abraham to suspend his ethical principles. And yet, some people take away completely different questions and answers.

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  1. Andrew, I recommend that you check out Glenn Miller’s article on this subject at the Christian Think Tank.

  2. I’m just glad that the story ends up with Isaac still alive. Imagine if it had ended with Abraham killing Isaac, and then the Lord resurrecting him. Can you imagine how many more deranged religiously-motivated infanticide cases we’d be seeing, year after year?

  3. Jack,

    Just got a chance to check the article…didn’t like the way it started off. “Here, let’s argue by omission! Look at everything the passage doesn’t say…surely, we can just fill in the blanks.”

    Miller supposes that it’s just obvious that the introductory verse (which emphasizes the “test” aspect) makes it clear that Isaac was going to come out alright…but I don’t think that is totally clear. I’m still unconvinced whether — even if it were a test — he “passed”.

    I will say I have to agree with Daniel, though, about the end result. Kill -> resurrect would have led to some more unintended consequences for today’s deranged.

  4. Since when is killing a 15-37 year-old person “infanticide”?

  5. …is there a special word for parents killing children (regardless of age)? That would probably be the thing I would look for.

  6. Filicide.

    Not to be confused with felicide, which means killing one’s cat.

  7. yeah, wouldn’t want to mix those…since one is a tragedy and the other a triumph.

  8. Another thing that irritates me about the Abraham and Isaac story is that God assumes that Isaac is Abraham’s property, which he can destroy at God’s behest. This reflects the attitudes of that time and culture, in which children were seen as the property of their fathers.

    It’s a repugnant story, not only because it encourages suspension of ethics in the name of God, but because it denies Isaac (and all of us by extension) his HUMANITY. If we attribute intrinsic value to our fellow human beings, we’d better damn well be outraged by the story.

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