The sacrifice of Isaac, part 2

Yesterday’s post raised the question of how to read the troubling passage in Genesis 22 in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  To sum up from last time: some people have taken deep offense at the idea that the God of the Old Testament would require at act of child sacrifice.  But taken in the context of the Old Testament as a whole, that perception of God is a bit misleading.  It’s more reasonable to take at face value the later passages in which God thoroughly condemns this practice, and to therefore wonder how else we might understand what God was doing.  And through it all, wherever that understanding might lead, whatever questions remain unanswered, we may simply have to accept the fact that God is God.  And we are not.

Text and context.  It’s an oft-neglected truism: when trying to understand the Bible, we need to read passages in their context.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do that myself.  The problem is that we lose the forest when we don’t step back from the trees.  We make much out of single verses or short passages, ignoring how the intent of the surrounding paragraph, chapter, or book might make a difference.  We miss the nuances that a better understanding of history and culture might provide.

Not that we would all come up with the same interpretation!  But when it comes to difficult passages like Genesis 22, attention to context can provide a much-needed shift of perspective.

In that spirit, let me summarize part of philosopher Paul Copan’s argument in his recent book, Is God a Moral Monster?  Copan gives us three concentric rings of context (pp. 43-47) surrounding Genesis 22: (a) the theme of faith running from Genesis to Deuteronomy (known collectively as the “Pentateuch”), as it plays out in the contrast between Abraham and Moses; (b) the ongoing story in Genesis of Abraham’s call; and (c) the more immediate story of Hagar and Ishmael.

Each of these will help us fill out the big picture within which God’s command to Abraham might make better sense.

  • Abraham, Moses, and faith.  Right from the beginning, Abraham believed and obeyed.  Throughout Scripture, he is held up as an example of righteousness and faith (e.g., Gen 15:6, 26:5; Rom 4)–all before the advent of the law of Moses (a particularly important point to Paul).  By contrast, Moses–as great a leader as he was–failed to enter the Promised Land because of his unbelief at Kadesh when he struck the rock in frustration (Num 20:1-13).  That may seem harsh, making Numbers 20 a difficult passage in its own right.  But the point is that Moses’ example of unbelief (Num 20:12; Deut 32:51; Ps 106:32-33), highlights the faith of Abraham.
  • Abraham’s call and God’s promise.  God’s original call to Abram was “Go…to the land I will show you” (Gen 12:1, NIV).  In Genesis 22, the Hebrew text is similar: “go to the region of Moriah…[to] a mountain I will show you” (vs. 2, NIV).  The two commands to “go” are inextricably linked.  Copan argues that Abraham would naturally have connected God’s command in 22:2 to the covenant promise in chapter 12.  (Indeed, compare Genesis 22:17-18 to 12:2-3 and 15:5.)  The point of the ordeal is a test of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise.  And it’s not merely the test of a solitary individual, but of the father of a nation, whose faith will set the standard for generations to come.
  • Hagar and Ishmael.  As we’ve said before, Ishmael was not the son of the promise, but the result of Sarah and Abraham’s impatience.  Still, Abraham loved the boy.  When Sarah, in a pique of anger, demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham was distressed: how would they survive?  But God reassured him: “I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:13, NIV).  In other words, when the command to sacrifice Isaac came, Abraham had already had to entrust the fate of a beloved son to God.

So whatever we might think of the command to sacrifice Isaac, we cannot take it as an isolated incident.  There is the larger story to consider, of a God who chooses a specific people to be a blessing to the nations, and chooses one man to be the father of that people.  What Abraham does matters; it sets the tone for the rest of the story.  And what matters is faith, a firm belief in the trustworthiness of a God who makes incredible promises.

In that vein, I’ve begun to wonder to what extent my own hesitance regarding the story in Genesis 22 has less to do with the behavior of God than with my failure to grasp the nature and importance of the faith he desires.

That will be the subject of part 3.