Thursday, October 17, 2013

Abraham Sacrificing Isaac: Not What You Think

By my lights, there is no greater challenge to the threat of Biblical inerrancy than the apparent barbarity of God as portrayed in the Old Testament. One apparent textbook example of this is the famous Bible story in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac in Genesis 22. How could God tell a righteous man to murder his own innocent son? The common perception of the story is that Abraham, convinced by God that he was going to lose his son, prepared the sacrifice. The problem with this perception is that it’s false. Abraham knew he wouldn’t be giving up his son, and so the story of Abraham sacrificing his son isn’t quite as bad as it looks.

The Forgotten Part of the Bible Story

You might say, “Wait, how did Abraham know that he wouldn’t be giving up his son?” Because in the previous chapter God promises Abraham that Isaac would have children (see Genesis 21:12). Abraham knew that if nothing else, God could raise Isaac form the dead. This isn’t just my interpretation of the Bible story; it’s the Bible’s. Check out this oft-neglected Bible passage of the story:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.[1]
In light of all this it’s also noteworthy that just before the would-be sacrifice, Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”[2] If the Bible story is true, Abraham evidently believed he would be coming back with his son alive, even if he didn’t quite know how that was going work. I think God’s test of Abraham was a test of how well Abraham trusted in God to fulfill God’s promise to him.

You might say, “But God was asking Abraham to kill his son, and that’s atrocious!” But how good or bad an action is depends on the context, e.g. what results from the action. In our world, rendering someone temporarily unconscious isn’t nearly as bad as killing them because if you kill someone they stay dead and their life is permanently taken from them. But now imagine a scenario I’ll call the “Wake Up World” in which killing someone and temporarily rendering them unconscious are equivalent: if you kill someone, they come back from the dead and wake up like they took a nap. Thus in the context of this world, killing someone isn’t really that bad because it’s basically equivalent to making them take a nap; killing someone would be no worse than temporarily rendering them unconscious.

But then if we are to be consistent thinkers, we must recognize the same logic of the Wake Up World—whereby killing is no worse than rendering someone temporarily unconscious—also holds in the case of Abraham and Isaac whether we like it or not. So while it may seem emotionally repulsive to liken Abraham killing Isaac to Abraham speeding up Isaac’s naptime schedule, because of the unusual context akin to the Wake Up World it’s not all that far off. We can think of God saying something like, “To test your faith in me I’m asking you to place the welfare of your child in my hands in rendering Isaac temporarily unconscious.” Think of it like a trust exercise in which you fall backwards and you trust the person behind you to catch you. No real harm comes because you know there’s someone to catch you, a bit like the way Abraham knew God would catch Isaac.


I suppose the critic could say that even with these factors considered there’s still a problem, but a few things should be noted. First, even if there is a problem, it’s not nearly as big as the common misperception would have us believe, since at worst Abraham believed he would be rendering his son temporarily unconscious. Isaac would take a rather unusual nap and then wake up. Second, at least with respect to what would happen to Isaac, the biggest problem seems to be an emotional one rather than an intellectual one. Intellectually, the logic of the Wake Up World seems solid; clearly in a context like that killing someone is no worse than rendering them temporarily unconscious. Emotionally, it’s harder to accept that once you put in a father and son to instantiate this concept, and I can understand how it would be emotionally difficult to separate the unusual context of the Bible story—where in this case Abraham was basically being asked to speed up little Isaac’s naptime schedule—to the normal context of the everyday world.

In any case, we should all at least get rid of the misperception that Abraham thought he was losing his son, because that’s just not how the Bible story goes.

[1] Hebrews 11:17-19 (NIV)

[2] Genesis 22:5 (NIV)