In Genesis 22 we read that “God tested Abraham.” This test consisted of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and his only heir.
Those of us who grew up in church are familiar with the story and probably don’t think much about it. If asked, we will mouth happy platitudes to “interpret” the event. But the whole episode is very puzzling to new readers of the Bible. It makes no sense to them that God should ask such an outrageous thing of Abraham—something so outrageous, in fact, that it contradicts God’s nature and even explicit denunciations elsewhere in the Bible of the very thing God tells Abraham to do. Jeremiah quotes God in Jeremiah 7:31: “They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.”
If a father in our congregation announced that God had appeared to him and ordered him to kill his son in order to demonstrate his obedience to God, it is unlikely we would pat him on the back and say, “sounds like a good idea. Do what God tells you.” Instead, we would be very quick to yell, “are you nuts?” and to tell the father he hadn’t heard from God at all. If we saw something on TV about some father doing such a dastardly thing, we’d call him a loon and hope that he spent the rest of his life in jail, at the very least.
So what in the world is going on in Genesis 22 with Abraham and God? Just because it’s in the Bible, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be shocked or appalled.
Of course, in the end, God prevented Abraham from going through with his crime (which perhaps is a clue to what is really going on). But the whole episode remains unsavory and bizarre. Many commentators have attempted to explain that the near-sacrifice is a picture of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The ram that Abraham sacrifices in the end instead of Isaac is said to be symbolic of Jesus’ death in place of humanity. But I’m not entirely satisfied that this explanation removes the creepiness factor from the episode: that an old man was instructed by his God to kill his son and that he was willing to do it.
The author of Hebrews comments on the event, explaining that it demonstrated Abraham’s faith, since Abraham believed that a dead Isaac could always be raised back to life by God (see Hebrews 11:17-19). James 2:21 comments that Abraham was considered righteous for offering his son.
Neither passage, however, really tries to explain why God would ask him to do something so completely at odds with everything we know about God’s character, and that even Abraham knew about God (consider that the prohibition on murder predates Abraham as reflected in the story of Cain and Abel and the institution of a death penalty for murder in Genesis 9, following the Flood). No passage in the Bible suggests that offering up one’s children as burnt offerings is a positive family value. In fact, the Bible is rather consistent in arguing against human sacrifice. Murder is consistently presented as a bad thing.
So what to do?
One key thing to notice about the Bible: it does not always present activities that we are supposed to emulate, or events that we are supposed to like. Often, the stories told are designed for the opposite: to serve as warnings, or to upset us so that we will behave differently. For instance, in the book of Judges when Jephtha actually follows through and sacrifices his only daughter as a burnt offering, the reader is supposed to be horrified. In the same way, the reader should be shocked when Lot in Genesis, and the unnamed Levite of Judges, offer their daughters or concubine to be raped by mobs.
In the New Testament, we are told that the Law was humanity’s schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24-25 KJV). And here in Genesis 22 we are told explicitly that “God tested Abraham.” The question that has entered my head recently is a simple one.
Did Abraham actually pass God’s test?
That’s a slightly different question than whether he demonstrated his faith (which was the concern of the New Testament passages).
So, did Abraham give God the answer he was looking for when he told him to go sacrifice his son? Or was it rather that God was testing him to see if he had gotten past his cultural predisposition to sacrifice offspring, a common enough practice in the land he had come from and especially the one that he was then living in.
Was God, in fact, hoping Abraham would say, “Um, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
God might then have asked Abraham “why not,” and gotten the further response, “because killing one’s offspring is a heinous idea.” Based on what we see about God’s attitude regarding human sacrifice, it does not seem unreasonable to me that God might have been hoping for such a response from Abraham. Certainly his faith in God and his obedience were commendable, just as Jephtha’s willingness to keep his word was commendable. But sometimes following the rules may simply not be the right thing to do.
After all, we do have other examples of people in the Bible “disobeying” God or “talking back to him”—and it was considered the proper response. Take Moses as an example. After the Israelites make the golden calves and run amuck, God tells Moses to stand aside so he can slaughter them all. Moses tells God not to do it. He asks God to spare the people (see Exodus 32:9-14). Moses told God no, and God was okay with that.
God adapted himself to Abraham’s response to the test with Isaac: “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12) That does not mean that Abraham had responded precisely the way God wanted, anymore than Moses’ objections to God’s command to rescue the Israelites from Egypt was what God was really looking for (see Exodus 3). But God adapted to Moses: he overcame each of Moses’ objectives. He adjusted to them: he even appointed Aaron to act as spokesperson.
Why didn’t God upbraid Abraham for making the wrong choice with Isaac if it was the wrong choice? Why didn’t he tell Abraham, “you shouldn’t have tried to do that?” Well, God did stop him from performing the sacrifice. He did substitute a ram. Then he acknowledged Abraham’s faith and his obedience, much as a good teacher might acknowledge a student’s valiant, but misguided attempts at an answer and choose to point out what’s positive in his effort, even in the midst of overall failure. The fact that God didn’t allow Abraham to actually sacrifice his son is an indication that Abraham’s choice was not really God’s purpose in this exercise. If we are to assume that God always achieves his will, then the ultimate outcome of events perhaps serves as a clue to what God’s actual purpose was in the first place.
God’s plan was for Isaac to be the heir. We’re told that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Yet after that, he takes Hagar and has Ishmael by her. Later, he wishes to God that Ishmael could be the heir. And yet, despite all that, it will still be Isaac. Abraham is never explicitly condemned in the Bible for Hagar and Ishmael; and yet God passes them by and focuses on Isaac. He adapts to what Abraham has done, which he did out of faith that God would fulfill his promise of an heir, misguided as his choices actually were.
But why would God ask of his servants a thing that he doesn’t actually want them to do? To elicit the response that he got in the case of Moses when he told him to step aside and let him slaughter the Israelites for their sin: to see that his servant has understood the lessons previously taught and that the lesson is so firmly ingrained, that even opposition from God himself is not going to shatter the belief. Consider the impact, then of these words from the Deuteronomy:
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
And very similar words from Paul:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel….even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-8)
God wants to know if the people believe what they believe simply because of who told them, or if they are completely convinced. If you change what you think simply because someone tells you to change it, then did you ever actually believe it? For most of us today, if God tried to tell us to sacrifice a child, we’d tell him no. We have learned the lesson that Abraham (and the human race of that era) still hadn’t gotten: killing children is wrong. Since then, the human race has grown in grace and knowledge thanks to a patient God.
The story of Balaam and the donkey reflects the same thing we see in God’s testing of Abraham. God tells Balaam not to go and curse the people of Israel. (Numbers 22:12). But when Balak continues to beg, Balaam tells the men Balak has sent that he won’t disobey God, but, “Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the LORD will tell me.”
So that night, God tells him, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” (Numbers 22:20) Which contradicts God’s original command not to go (see 22:12 again).
So, Balaam leaves with the messengers of Balak. And what happens? Numbers 22:22: “But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him.” What follows is the story of Balaam’s donkey. God had told Balaam not to go; Balaam wanted to go: he wanted the money being offered. So God told him, “Go.” His response then should have been, “Um, no, I’ll do what you told me to begin with.” But God wanted to see if he was firmly committed to not cursing the Israelites; the incident with the donkey did keep him from later mouthing a curse. But Balaam’s failure to tell God no at that point nearly got him killed.
Most modern readers of the Old Testament are troubled by the command God issues to the people of Israel to wipe out the Canaanites (see Deuteronomy 20:16-17). God had ordered the Israelites to commit genocide against another people. But today we believe genocide is evil, especially after some of the horrors of the twentieth century. Wholesale slaughter of women and children also seems contrary to the biblical concept expressed elsewhere that fathers are not to be punished for the crimes of their children, and children must not suffer for the crimes of their parents (see Deuteronomy 24:16). Then there’s the obvious general biblical principle of loving one’s enemies (see Leviticus 19:18). God’s order to the Israelites to wipe out women and children, as well as all the men, is hard to justify when examined in light of the rest of the Bible.
Again, all sorts of “explanations” have been offered by theologians to try to soften the impact of God’s command against the Canaanites. But given that the Israelites failed to ever completely carry out the order (just as Abraham failed to sacrifice Isaac), and given that we even have examples of condemned Canaanites repenting and joining with Israel (as for instance the Gibeonites in Joshua 9 and Ruth, a Moabite—notice the attitude against the Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:3-6, and yet Ruth becomes ancestor of both David and Jesus)—I think perhaps the order to exterminate Canaanites is like the tests that were presented to Abraham and Moses: to disagree with God and instead do what is right.
Admittedly that sounds odd. But perhaps God wanted his people to stand up on their own two feet, use the brains God had given them—and express the love that he’d tried to teach them. God hoped that his people would learn to make the right choices themselves, rather than needing rules and orders.
At Nuremburg, several of the Nazis gave as an excuse for their crimes that they were merely “following orders.” Perhaps God does not think that’s a valid excuse any more than the judges at Nuremburg did and he wanted his people to learn that lesson as soon as possible—even when He’s the one giving the orders.
But what are we to do with James 1:13 which tells us that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”? Wouldn’t God be tempting Abraham with evil by asking him to sacrifice Isaac? Regardless of the response God wanted from Abraham, James creates a problem, at least on the surface.
But in context, James is speaking about our day to day temptations, whether to eat too much or to sleep with our neighbor. But there are different sorts of tests that God does bring, that don’t fall into James’ category. For instance, in Deuteronomy 8:2, Moses reminds the people, “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” Likewise, when suffering comes to us, we must decide: do we turn to God or away from God? Our faith is constantly being tested (see James 1:2-3).
We live by faith, not by sight. We are saved by grace, not by keeping rules. Paul writes that “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
People like rules and regulations. They want everything simple, black and white, no thinking required. But that’s the essence of worldliness, according to Paul in Colossians 2. Rules are important for children (notice how they react if you try to alter a rule in a familiar game), and for humanity when it was in its childhood. But we’re adults now. Perhaps God expects us to think for ourselves: we have been trained; we know that loving God and loving people is what it all comes down to. We can see the old tests. And now the Holy Spirit indwells us. If we see people in the Bible behaving in ways that makes us cringe—well, that’s probably the point.
The center of the Bible, the interpretive guide and tool is to “love God, and to love people” (see Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:13-14). Those are the commands of God we have been asked to obey. Interpretations of God’s words that lead to a contradiction with those commands are necessarily wrong.