This happy question was put to me recently by my (at the time) 5-year-old son. We were listening to a Michael Rosen poem about his childhood memories of being told Bible stories with the aid of coloured chalks, and of course one of those stories was Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac.
Thanks Michael Rosen. That’s a humdinger of a question at the best of times, and here’s my beloved young son asking why Sunday school hero Abraham was holding a knife to the throat of his beloved young son. Nice one. Time to change the subject probably, but inevitably I plunged on where angels fear to tread, telling the story and trying to explain exactly why our kind, loving God asked Abraham to kill his son.
I’m not sure how much of my over-complicated and theologically-involved answer actually went in, or what my son made of it – he seemed reasonably satisfied and reassured, but that may just have been a desire to shut me up so we could play dinosaurs.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m satisfied with my answer. So padded out a little and adjusted for a non-5-year-old audience, here’s the gist of it:
Firstly, I stressed that it all happened an incredibly long time ago (5000+ years?) in a galaxy far away – or at least in a (to us) far-off and strange land. I said that things were just unimaginably different to here and now, even completely alien in some ways; it’s just not a story that could or would happen to us. In Abraham’s time and the culture he came from, sacrifice was a normal part of life – people routinely killed animals and sometimes even humans (even children) as offerings to their gods. (My son’s familiar with Horrible Histories, so I mentioned the Aztecs and their sacrifices, though they’re obviously a lot more recent.)
Not surprisingly, he needed a little help with the whole concept of sacrifice, so I said that it was giving something important and precious to God to show that he was even more important and precious, or to thank him for giving it to you in the first place (trusting that he’d give you more). I also said that they thought killing was a way to give things to God because the dead animals/people would then go to be with God in heaven. (At the time I thought this was a brainwave explanation, but I sincerely hope that in later life my son doesn’t go around killing people in order to send them to God.)
So that dealt with the context. But still, why on earth would God ask someone to kill their own son?
My main thesis was that God never meant Abraham to actually harm Isaac, nor was he ever going to let him do so. He was simply trying Abraham out to see how much he trusted God and how far was prepared to obey him. God wanted to know if Abraham was willing to give up the most precious thing in his life for God’s sake. He also wanted to see how much Abraham believed and trusted God’s promise that through Isaac he would have thousands of descendants.
This was the key point for me – God had made a promise to Abraham; could he be trusted to keep it? In that sense it’s Abraham’s test of God’s faithfulness and character as much as it is God’s test of Abraham’s faith and obedience.
I also argued that Abraham did trust God, so he probably didn’t really think that God was going to let him go through with sacrificing Isaac. When Isaac asked Abraham where the ram for sacrifice was and he replied that ‘God will provide the sacrifice’, it may just have been a fob-off, or it may have expressed his genuine faith (or at least desperate hope) that God would show up and present an alternative – as in fact he did. The writer of Hebrews offers a different take; he suggests that Abraham believed in resurrection, and was trusting God to give Isaac back to him after death (Heb 11:17-19), which in the event happened figuratively rather than literally.
Finally, what I meant to say but forgot to was that the story is kind of a forerunner or prefiguring of Christ. Like Abraham, God offers his beloved and only son as a sacrifice in order that he would (through resurrection) have many spiritual descendants. I think some have even suggested that Golgotha and Mount Moriah (where Abraham offers Isaac) might actually be the same place, though I really don’t know if there’s any solid evidence to back that up. There are certainly some very strong parallels between the two stories, and personally I find the figurative meanings and parallels a lot more helpful than the literal ones in cases like this.
A personal angle
Then just a week or so later I got a small glimpse of what it might have felt like to be Abraham asked to give up Isaac. My son – the one who’d asked about Abraham and Isaac – became seriously ill and was in almost constant acute abdominal pain which just wouldn’t lift. And of course, one possible cause of the pain was appendicitis; the doctors didn’t think it was, but there was enough doubt for it to be very worrying.
So I came face to face with the thought of what it would be like to lose my son, whom I love so utterly. I don’t honestly know if my faith could survive it. As it was I was shouting and railing (and yes, swearing) at God for not taking away the pain, for not healing him. It was a horrible experience. I thank God that it’s over and my son is well again; but would I have been able to worship God if there had been a different outcome? I honestly can’t say.
Old Testament barbarity
Returning to the Bible, there’s no denying that stories like that of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac are problematic. And of course, the Old Testament is absolutely littered with them; they’re two a page in some parts.
So what are we to make of the prophet who was eaten by a lion after being tricked by another prophet into ending his fast too soon; or of the youths mauled by bears for taunting the bald Elijah; Uzzah struck down for trying to stop the Ark of the Covenant falling off its cart; the sons of Saul impaled and left out on the hillside to lift a divine curse; God sending plague on Israel because David counted his fighting men; or the man who offered his own daughter as a sacrifice to God on the basis of a foolishly-worded vow?
What are we to make of King Eglon impaled on the loo by Ehud; Ezekiel commanded to cook over his own faeces, or Isaiah told to run about near-naked for three years as a sign? These things sound either barbaric or just plain barking.
Yet, like the story of Abraham and Isaac, I do think that most of these tales can be understood at least a little if we place them in context, and don’t try to see them all as an ideal of how God wants us to act now. These tales are not of our times, nor in a sense are they primarily for our times – but we can still get something out of them. If nothing else, we can observe that God manages to use some pretty darn weird and flawed people to carry out his purposes, so there’s hope for us. Or perhaps they just show that God is fairly odd by our standards – or more likely that we’re a bit odd by his.
Alternatively, these stories can sometimes show us glimpses of humanity and compassion against the background blood and guts of a more violent and dangerous age. Biblical scholar Paula Gooder has an interesting take on the gruesome sons-of-Saul story (2 Sam 21), reading it as a tale of one woman’s courage and faithfulness working to end the downward spiral of revenge and bloodshed.
And finally of course we can also interpret many of these tales figuratively or prefiguratively (if that’s a word). As with Abraham and Isaac, these stories often bear prophetic and symbolic resonances which can shed a different light on what otherwise just seem to be tales of unmitigated nastiness.
But if your son ever asks you the question at the head of this article, take my advice and just get the dinosaurs out straight away.