One of the stories in the Old Testament that anger people the most today is that of Abraham and Isaac. God comes to Abe and says, “Abe, take Isaac up that holy hill and kill him seven kinds of dead on the altar up there. Do it for me, Abe”. Abe goes and does it. As Sufjan Stevens puts it,
When the angel came you had raised your arm.
Put off on your son.
Take instead the ram until Jesus comes.
We read this as incomprehensible act of violence by a petty deity that should drive us to “hand back our ticket”, like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. This is the kind of scene that prompts Prof. Dawkins to write,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
But this is the kind of reading that lacks the basic historical empathy needed to understand texts written from outside our culture. God asking Abraham to kill Isaac is not a case of God trying to break his own rules. In the age of Abraham and indeed in the age when Genesis 22 was written, child sacrifice was a normal cultic activity. As John Howard Yoder puts it, child sacrifice was “no more ethically scandalous or viscerally disturbing than the killing of the villain in a western film is to most readers today”. For this text to be read, we must remember than this was not perceived by the final editor or their audience as an act of murder but of ritual holiness.
Now that doesn’t mean that such actions were ok. How the Bible is written inside the boundaries of cultural practices that it critiques and does not support is a whole other entry or indeed a whole other freaking blog (but Genesis 22 continues Genesis’ pattern established right at the outset of using the practices and writings of other religious worldviews and weaving them into the story as a means of critique.)
So what does this passage mean? It was not some arbitrary test of Abraham’s faith. It was not a command to break some moral law. It was in fact, a reminder of God’s promise to Abraham to bear him a seed and through him a whole nation. Does Abraham believe that of God? To the extent that as an old man he is able to raise his arm against the son who he waited long for over many decades?
To grasp Genesis 22 then, we have to hold together what God reveals about himself (contra the gods of the nations) by utilising and then subverting the common ritual practice of filicide and what it means about faithfulness that Abraham who is credited as righteous on account of his faith in God’s promise to bear him a son is willing to trust God enough to raise an arm against the son he hopes is his heir.
Your Correspondent, Likes to go to the cinema if he needs to clear his throat