Abraham in Genesis 22: Model or Monster?
Abraham in Genesis 22 – Model or Monster?1
'God has told me to kill my son!' How would you respond if someone told you that? On a practical level you would probably seek immediate help for the speaker (and their son) to avoid a disaster. On a theological level you would almost certainly think that the speaker is wrong – God wouldn't ask such an immoral thing!
How, then, do we read and use a passage in the Bible where it appears that God does just that? In Genesis 22:2 he says to Abraham ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ Abraham's response is to obey without question, right up to the point where he stands, knife in hand over a bound Isaac, and God tells him to stop (22:10-12).
There are other passages in the Bible when people behave in ways that we find immoral. The particular difficulty in this case is that God both commands (v.2) and commends (vv.12, 15-18) the problematic action. Moreover, elsewhere in the Bible Abraham's action here is held up as a model of right action for the faithful believer (Hebrews 11:17-19; James 2:21-23). How, then, should we read and use this difficult passage?
We need to start by immediately ruling out one way of reading the text. We should never read the text as a literal command to kill our children. This illustrates, in an extreme way, the danger of an overly literalistic reading of a passage: 'Good biblical character X did Y, so I should also do Y!' We must be more nuanced and careful in our interpretation.
In this short article I will not give 'the answer', but hopefully provide ways that will help us to read and use it as part of scripture. We start from the basic interpretative principle that we need to begin with the original meaning of the passage, including cultural and biblical context.
One element of this is understanding the cultural context of the time. We recoil, rightly, from any suggestion of killing a child, considering it child abuse of the worst kind. However, in the cultures of the time child sacrifice was far from unknown. These were cultures where many children died as infants, and where famine or disease could lead to the death of an entire family. Moreover, often the family unit was more important than we would recognise, with our strong focus on the individual.
Imagine a situation where your family faces death by famine. The only hope is to pray to the gods for help. To demonstrate your sincerity you sacrifice to them the most precious thing that you have: one of your children. Thus you give up one child, so that your other children and family might have a chance of life.
Therefore, Abraham would not have had the automatic repulsion that we would have. However, this does not mean that the command was easy. Note the wording in verse 2: 'your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac'. The four phrases build up the relationship and therefore the horrendously difficult nature of what Abraham is told to do.
This story is arguably the climax of the Abraham stories in Genesis 12-24. These stories start with God's speech to Abraham which contains both the difficult command to leave his land, and the amazing promise that he will receive descendants, land, and blessing for himself and others (Gen. 12:1-3). These promises form a thread that links all of the Abraham stories together. The beginning of the fulfilment of these promises is the birth of a son, Isaac, to this old man and his barren wife (Gen. 21:1-7). Abraham has been told that it is through Isaac that the promises will come (Gen. 18:19-21).
Now, at the end of the stories, God tests Abraham (Gen. 22:1). Testing in the Bible is a costly and difficult process which is ultimately for the testee's own good. The test is whether he can give back to God the miracle child that God has given him, the child who carries and embodies all the promises that God has made. To put it another way, in Genesis 12 God asked Abraham to give up his past. Now in Genesis 22 God asks Abraham to give up his future, including the promise. Abraham's relationship with God is tested to an extraordinary degree in holding together this seeming contradiction between what Brueggemann describes as God's high promise and his dark command. This contradiction cannot be simply resolved, but must be lived through as part of the life of faith.
We are not told what Abraham thought or felt about the command. This is normal in Old Testament narrative, where we learn about the characters by what they say and do. Abraham's actions clearly denote obedience. Apart from this we have a couple of short speeches from him. In verse 5 he tells the accompanying young men that '…we will return to you' suggesting that in some way he hopes that Isaac will return. Then, in response to Isaac's question about the lack of the lamb he simply answers that God will provide the lamb (v.8). We should not read these speeches as a blasé assurance that everything will be fine, as this would diminish the difficulty of the test. (After all, in one sense God has already provided the lamb – Abraham's son…) Rather, they are the outworking of his relationship.
At the climax of the story when God tells Abraham to stop, he says: 'now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' (v.12) This is God's verdict on the test set out in verse 2. Abraham fears God. Fearing God in the Old Testament is not a negative thing. Instead it is positive: knowing and acknowledging that God is truly God; the basis for right action. By not withholding his son, Abraham shows that he places God above everything else, even the promise that God has made, and his own future through Isaac. He is willing to give it all back to God, rather than grasp it as his. Abraham passes the test, as verses 15-18 make clear.
One other point of biblical context is worth noting. The sacrifice is on Mount Moriah. The only other biblical mention of Moriah is 2 Chronicles 3:1, where is it the site of the temple. The comparison is deliberate: the place where people meet with God and offer sacrifice to him as part of their relationship, the place where God provides. Moving on from this we can note a later story where a son climbs a hill, but this time there is no voice from heaven and the father does not stop. The place there is not Moriah, but Calvary; another place of seeming horror which becomes the ultimate place where God provides for his people.
How do we read this passage well? In Moberly's words 'the reader … must be disposed to think about the story's own concerns, such as costly faithfulness to God or the nature of true worship. The more one attempts to think with the text, the less one is likely to stay with or develop thoughts about delusion or child abuse.' As with all difficult texts, we need to read them with a sensitive eye to the rest of scripture and the theological engagement of the community of faith. In this way such difficult texts function as part of all inspired scripture in promoting right belief and right action for the believer (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
1 This title is based on a chapter of a similar title in R.W.L. Moberly (2009) The Theology of the Book of Genesis. Cambridge: CUP, 179-199. Moberly's work has deeply influenced my understanding. His longer 2000 book (The Bible, Theology and Faith. Cambridge: CUP) is, for me, the most detailed and useful treatment of this passage.
2 David Gunn & Dana Fewell provide an ingenious alternative reading of the passage where God wants to see if Abraham will refuse and stand up for at least one member of his family (1993, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: OUP, 90-100). However, God's commendation of Abraham's actions makes their reading unpersuasive.
3 Jewish and Islamic understanding of the story would echo this. (For Jewish understandings, see J.D. Levenson (1993) The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son – The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven: YUP, esp. chps 11, 12, 14. For Islamic understanding, see the Qur'an, Sura 37:99-112, cf.16:120-123.)
4 This is not simply the pedantry of a biblical scholar. A newspaper story shows the horrific outcome of this: (Broward Palm Beach New Times (May 2014). Available at: https://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/bible-verse-being-investigated-as-possible-motivation-for-toddlers-alleged-murder-6461324. Accessed 11 March 2021). The reference in the note to a sermon on Genesis 22 is a chilling warning to all preachers to consider how our sermons may be (mis-)heard.
5 There is not the space here to give a full exegesis and interpretation of the passage. For this, see Moberly and commentaries on Genesis.
6 This did not mean that the parent did not love the child – quite the contrary (the most precious thing…)
7 I am here not trying to justify or commend child sacrifice in any way; rather simply to help us to understand why it was not condemned in these cultures.
8 One can also see them as a thread that binds the Pentateuch, and indeed the whole Bible together (see e.g. Acts 3:35; Gal. 3:8, 14).
9 See the paradigmatic Deuteronomy 8, and also James 1:1-4.
10 W. Brueggemann (1982) Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 189.
11 We should note that Abraham is not someone who is always unquestioningly obedient. In Genesis 18:22-33 he debates with God over the future of Sodom and Gomorrah (see especially v.25!) One difference here is that he is arguing with God regarding the destiny of others, rather than himself and his family as in Gen. 22.
12 The similarity between vv.1-2 and 11-12 indicates this.
13 See Proverbs 1:7, the key verse for the book. Also Exodus 20:20 which links test and fear, and many others (Gen. 20:11; Exod. 1:17 etc.)
14 See the narrator's link to the temple in v.14 of our passage.
15 Romans 8:32 'he who did not spare his own son' may be an allusion to Genesis 22.
16 Moberly, 2009, 190-191. Thinking with the text would include an understanding of original context.
17 Moberly (2009, 195) notes that nowhere in Christian or Jewish interpretation is there an account of believers using this text as a warrant for child abuse or killing.