Genesis: Abraham Tested

Genesis 22:1-19

This passage opens with some poorly written dialogue, in my opinion of course. God calls out Abraham’s name and Abraham responds with, “Here I am.” I find this ridiculous. God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac, whom God had promised to be born to him for many years, his son whom Abraham loves so much, and to sacrifice his son on an altar as a burnt offering to please God. Abraham does not think twice, the next morning he saddles his donkey, gathers fire wood, and brings with him his son and two of his servants. When they arrive at the location where God told him to sacrifice his son, Abraham turned to his servants and told them to wait while he and his son worship; they will return when they have finished. Abraham has his son carry the fire wood, and he carries the fire and the knife. As they are heading up the mountain, Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham tells his son that God will provide the lamb. When they arrive, Abraham builds an altar and places firewood on it. He then ties his son down to the altar, and is about to slice open his son when an angel at the last moment stops him. The angel tells Abraham that it was all a test, and now that God knows that Abraham is willing to eviscerate his own son to please God without hesitation, he does not have to continue. He’s promised the same thing God has promised him before: numerous descendants and that his descendants will conquer their rivals. Abraham has already been promised these things and passed the tests that came with them. It sounds like God is trying to go back on his word. Abraham then spots a ram, he then places the ram on the altar, and offers it as a burnt offering to God. Abraham leaves with his servants and his son to Beersheba, where they will stay.

This is not the act of a benevolent God. God clearly enjoys toying with people’s emotions, and torturing them. How could any father, who really loves his son, be willing to kill his son? No sane parent would, I hope, eviscerate their child, and then burn their child’s disemboweled corpse on an altar. Luckily, our rational, secular society locks these parents up, and treats them for the psychiatric conditions they have. Can you imagine how afraid Isaac must have been? Laying there on that altar, with his father looming over him, seconds away from plunging his knife through his chest, and running it down, opening up his abdomen so his bowels spill out. I can imagine him pleading with his father not to end his life so prematurely, tears streaming down his face, gasping for air as he frantically struggles to no avail. His father stands above him callous, his faith unshaken, resolute in murdering his own child to please his God. His God waits, relishes this moment, the desperate cries of the child ringing throughout the mountains, and just as God is sure that Abraham is committed to murdering his own son, an angel prevents it.

One could interpret that maybe Abraham knew God would not allow him to murder his son. He did say to his servants, “We will worship and then we will return to you.” When Isaac asked about the lamb, Abraham told his son, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” If this is the case then, Abraham is not a psychopath.  I don’t buy it though. God, if he exists and is all-knowing, would have seen right through this. I imagine He would not have stopped Abraham. In either case, God would still be responsible for the suffering of Abraham’s child. One can only imagine what type of emotional trauma would result from an experience like this. God still wanted Abraham to attempt to murder his son.

We hear of people, every year or two, who drown their children in bathtubs, cut off their hands, etc., and people think they are crazy, and they are. What if, like some of them claim, God had told them to perform these heinous acts? This time he just did not stop them. This is assuming the Judaeo-Christian God exists. If we lived in a theocratic society that is based on the Bible, would not they be justified in performing such atrocities to their children, so long as God commanded it. If God is real, and he commands the murdering of one’s child, then we would not have any authority to stop them, or reprimand them. Luckily our society has outgrown the morality of the ancient Mesopotamian societies represented in these stories. Sadly, there are some people who would like to enforce this morality on us.

So I say to the faithful, it’s time to do a little “soul” searching. Is this the morality you want our society to follow, or are our secular laws that deem people who perform heinous acts, in the name of God or otherwise, a better alternative?

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2 thoughts on “Genesis: Abraham Tested

  1. I presume you are familiar with Kierkegaard’s reading of this text?

    There are a couple of contexts which I think need to be included when reading this passage. The first is the general acceptance of human sacrifice (particularly of children) in various ANE societies, albeit as an extraordinary measure. Surely the over-all thrust of the narrative is that Israel’s G-d does not actually want human sacrifice.

    Second, the theological import of the story comes, I think, from the very repetition of the promise of progeny. The call to sacrifice Isaac questions whether Abraham is following merely for the promised reward (Isaac) or for the sake of following. The willingness to sacrifice shows that it is the latter. Religions’ tendency towards justifying obedience on the basis of rewards is undermined. It also presages the idea of a ram being a substitute.

    Third, the text is rather terse, in fact. The thoughts and feelings of the characters are never mentioned.

    1. I don’t know why you would presume that I have. I haven’t, and it doesn’t matter if I have or not for the context of this blog. This is my interpretation of the text, hence An Atheist’s Bible Study. I will gladly read it though, and will add it to my ever-growing list of books to read.

      I’m aware that human sacrifice was accepted in some Ancient Near East societies. Many societies in the world have practiced it. That doesn’t justify it. It’s an immoral practice, and hurts the notion that the Bible is a good source of moral teaching.

      I agree that your second point is a good theological interpretation. Though, it also shows that god is a callous tyrant always needing approval of man’s subjugation to him. An omniscient god should just be able to know whether his followers are really followers, and not have to test them by having them attempt to kill their own child.

      Yes, the text is terse. It does not reveal the emotions of the characters in the story. I painted that picture. It is what I imagined when I read the story. I think anyone who has compassion would imagine the same thing as they read this passage about a young boy almost murdered by his delusional father.

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