***Dave struggles with The Sacrifice of Abraham.

Ah, the Sacrifice of Abraham is certainly one of the more disturbing parables in the Bible and a lot of Christians, particularly moderates, have had a rough time coming to grips with it. Some Christians simply accept it at face value and refuse to see a problem with the idea that God would just up and ask one of his most devoted followers to sacrifice his son without anything in the way of an explanation as to why.

The story is a favorite among the Fundamentalists who preach that blind faith is what you should have in God’s word as it’s the perfect example of unquestioning obedience to God as the ultimate test of faith—a standard that all Christians should try to live up to. Alas, those that do end up being labeled crazy and thrown in prison often by the same people who promoted this idea as being the ultimate form of faith in the first place. I’ve always found that ironic because, honestly, how do you know for sure that these people weren’t told by God to kill their family members as a test of faith? Maybe God intended it to be a prank like with Abraham, but forgot to jump in at the last minute because he was distracted by Pat Robertson claiming God told him that Bush’s gout was a direct result of the homosexual agenda or whatever idiotic thing he’s ranting about as of late.

More reasonable Christians, however, find it a difficult story to embrace. ***Dave relates his thoughts on it in this entry:

The story is creepy in the extreme, calling to mind religious lunatic parents killing their kids “because God told me to.” Yet it plays a central role in the liturgical cycle, calling to mind as it does God (the Father) offering up his own son (Jesus) for the whole world.

But …

I mean, damn. To be deadly honest, were God to appear to me and say, “Hey, Dave, take your daughter, your only child, the one you love, and go and offer her as a burnt offering to me,” I’d … either figure I was going nuts, or that I was being Tempted by Someone Quite Other Than God.

Ah, but if I were convinced of the Speaker’s bona fides? That this was, in fact, God talking to me?

Sorry. No great nation would issue from me. I just couldn’t do it.

***Dave goes on to explore a few possible explanations and which of them he tends to lean toward, but it’s clear from his entry that he’s not happy with the conclusion he’s drawn and the whole story sticks in his craw. Honestly, I don’t blame him. It’s one of the several things in the Bible that contributed to my move away from Christianity. Even if I were inclined to believe in God(s) I’d have a hard time with accepting the Christian viewpoint on his nature as there’s just too much in the Bible that seems contradictory to what a supposedly benevolent God would be like.

In the various arguments Christians have put forth from time to time here on SEB someone invariably will argue that God gave us free will because he didn’t want mindless automatons who did whatever he told them to, but then you come across a story like the Sacrifice of Abraham where a man is praised and blessed by God for acting like an unquestioning, mindless automaton which seems to put the lie to that claim. In other words, God gave us the intelligence to question and then demands that we don’t. Seems kind of stupid to me and it one more reason to toss it in the dustbin as another idiotic concept that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

At any rate, I don’t know if it’ll make him feel any better, but I’m glad ***Dave would question his God should he/she/it ever decide to command him to kill his daughters. That may make him a lousy True Believer in some respects, but it makes him a great parent.

22 thoughts on “***Dave struggles with The Sacrifice of Abraham.

  1. Thanks. Since part of what I suspect I’m here for is to be a “great parent,” that’s an assignment I’d like to take up and run with.  grin

    Not that there aren’t times when I feel less than omnibenevolent toward my daughter, but at least I don’t blame any desire to mete out the Wrath of Dad on her on God (or the Devil) telling me to.

    Your observation about free will is a good one.  I do think there are times when a leap of faith is necessary, when reason fails to compel.  But I firmly believe that leap is one has to take onesself, not dragging someone else over the precipice with one.

    More importantly, if one gets an unequivocal command directly from God—is that really an exercise in free will?  I mean, fiery letters or burning bushes or Messengers with the Aura of God about them—how could you actually say no?  And what, then, would be the point of saying yes?  Just as we recognize the intrinsically coercive nature of authority figures with children, so God making His presence too well known would seem to compel by that very nature.

    Indeed, by extension, the same could be true for a single book being written that Has All The Answers (e.g., the Bible).  What would be the point of being created with free will and the capacity for personal growth if the end point were so (ostensibly) clearly defined, strait and narrow?

    My own belief is that we have to do a lot of personal discernment.  That that’s the whole point.

    I think there’s a lot of value in the Bible, even the Old Testament.  I think there’s also a lot of stuff in there that got attributed to God’s will as mistakenly (or self-servingly) as things have been since then.  Ultimately, for myself, I can seek illumination or insight there, but not final answers, and as unsatisfying as lack of clear-cut rules and regs may be, that’s part of what makes me human, rather than a robot.

    Your mileage will almost certainly vary, of course.  That’s part of the fun, too.  Or, as Twain said, “It is not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.”

  2. Much of what appears in the texts of organised religions simply strikes me as illogical behaviour for a being capable of creating the Universe.  I just can’t imagine a being with that kind of power being so petty, or narrow minded, or whatever you want to call it that he would condemn people simply because they eat the wrong food, or wear the wrong blend of fabrics.

  3. I just can’t imagine a being with that kind of power being so petty, or narrow minded, or whatever you want to call it that he would condemn people simply because they eat the wrong food, or wear the wrong blend of fabrics.

    But it is pretty easy to imagine people in leadership situations making stuff up and claiming to speak for Him.  And that is almost certainly what happened, whether there’s a Him or not.

  4. Chiming in: It also might call to question just what “value” such a being might have for human beings? (visions of “The Last Dragon” and “Sho’nuff” come to mind) Or does a “creative force” just exist to “create” and has no natural inclination to “judge?”

  5. I have a differnt take on the implications of this story than you do Dave. Like you, I’ve struggled and struggled with the story of Abe taking Isaac to the moutain because God told him to kill him. It seemed so wrong, and for a long time I’ve stayed away from the OT wanting no part of that God.

    I still want no part of a God that demands that children be killed because he says so. It is not characteristic of a loving, caring, and most importantly, a teaching God. Equally revolting to me is Abe. I’ve wondered how a guy that could argue with God on behalf of others (See S&G story) go forward silently when it involved his own son??

    I’ve got 2 takes. The first, and the one I prefer is that Abe was testing God as much as God was testing Abe.  God said earlier that he wouldn’t flood the world again. That reflects a sense of mercy for the innocent.  A sense of mercy that is not reflected in the act of the flooding itself. The account of S&G reiterates this with Abe picking up on the lesson and arguing for the innocent.

    So the way I read the account of Abe, he did not intend to kill his boy. He foreshadows this in v. 5: He said:

    “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder. WE will worship and then COME BACK to you.”

    Abe always intended that the both He and the boy would come back. Moreover, the fact that he never discussed God demanding Isaac’s death with Sarah further corroborates this. Surely, he would have consulted with his wife if he contemplated taking Isaac’s life.

    So Abe went up the mountain to see if God was truly a benificient God, unlike the gods worshipped by others at the time, who did demand child sacrifices to be made. Had God not recanted his demand, Abe would have simply come back down the mountain with the boy and been on his merry way. The fact that God proved up for Abe that he was different reinforced His Goodness.

    Equally important, God was testing Abe to see if he truly understood the lesson of mercy that he taught with the S&G incident. God knew Abe would not kill the boy at his behest. The test was not to see if Abe would blindly and blithely engage in abhorrent behavior, but rather if Abe would put God to the test and apply God’s teaching from the S&G lesson. Abe did. Both Abe and God passed the test.

    (There are problems with the above and the below with some comments following this from the messenger if correctly transcribed, but the above is by far my favorite interpretation)

    The second is that Abe flunked miserably. God wanted Abe to say to Him what kind of God are you? Are you no better than those false gods that demand that tender children be slaughtered like hooved beasts? No!! You are the God that would save S&G if only 10 innocents could be found!!

    Rather than doing this, unthinking, uncaring, Abe proceeds to kill his own flesh and blood. However, God stops Abe before he can proceed forward like a pre-progarammed robot.

    After this is over. The words seem like they are rewarding, but the speaker is different. God never appears to Abe again. Instead it is a messenger that appears. Moreover, the text reflects (in translations other than the one I prefer) the clause “whom you love” is no longer referenced when the messenger is referring to Isaac. It may be fairly inferred from those bible versions that it was apparent to God that Abe did not love the boy or he would have stood up for the boy.

    Just my thoughts.

  6. Looking back to my childhood, I think one of the reactions I had when hearing this story for the first time, I was struck by the unfairness of it all. The thought that Isaac could be put to death by his own father, and for what? Well not for anything he had personally done or not done, but it was because of a matter between his father and his god.

    Another story that added to my sense of the unfairness of the biblical god, was one about the ark of the covenant and the ox cart. The story goes that king Solomon ( it could have been David, but I am pretty sure it was Solomon ) seemed to think the method of transporting the ark of the covenant on poles was a bit of a nuisance, and things would be much better if it was placed on an ox cart.

    Now god had been pretty specific about how the ark should be transported, and cared for in just about every situation, and ox carts were not mentioned anywhere. So this was a situation where the king was essentially saying, ‘I know better than god’. You can tell by the fact this story is even in the bible what is coming next, of course the king is setting himself up for a fall.

    Well more precisely the ark is being set up for a fall, as it topples from the ox cart on a bumpy road, this next part is what caused me a big problem with the biblical concept of god. Who do you suppose was punished for this lapse? Was it the king for arrogantly deciding he knew better than to follow his gods specific directions? No, of course it wasn’t, the one punished for this incident was the hapless individual who reached out to stop the ark from toppling, and was killed stone dead on the spot!

    And how about the family of Job? You remember the ones who were given to the devil to do with as he pleased, just so that god could allow Job’s faith to be tested. Needless to say that they all died in horrible ways, but not to worry though, as god got him a whole new family afterwards, so it’s allright then… wink

    To conclude I’d like to quote ***Dave, and say that on this point I agree with him 100%. It’s reassuring to see that people like ***Dave exist, and proof that you can be christian ( or any other faith for that matter ) and still use your own reasoning.

    My own belief is that we have to do a lot of personal discernment.  That that’s the whole point.

  7. To begin with, I am not compelled to view the Old Testament in a positive light or to reconcile it with my personal values. Nor do I view it as anything other than a man-made work of fiction.

    That said, I would approach questions of meaning in the exact same way as any other text. Who wrote it, what was the historical context, and who was the intended audience? Further, I’m deeply suspicious of over-elaborate interpretations and attributing more cleverness and depth to an author than warranted. So, whatever meaning a member of the target audience would have considered obvious is probably what the author wanted to convey.

    While I haven’t peeked at scripture since I was about seven, I don’t consider reading the story as a god demanding blind obedience as an unreasonable take. Consi’s second take isn’t entirely unreasonable, either, but I doubt it fits well within the OT as a whole.

    No matter, though. What I glean from religius forums is that there is an art to cherry-picking from the OT – the objectionable parts are safe to discard, because they can be considered superceded by the New Testament. Even if that story depicts an atrocity, that was then and now is now.

    If I were a Christian or Jewish, there are three related questions that come to mind. What does the story tell about the god, Abraham, and Isaac? It’s hard to see how I could come up with answers other than “I want no part of that”…

  8. I really liked Dan Simmons’ take on the story in his Hyperion books.  A rabbi is told to take his daughter and sacrifice her to the Shrike, and (SPOILER WARNING) although he struggles against it, in the end it is his daughter who volunteers to sacrifice herself, thereby resolving the dilemma.

    But that’s neither here nor there.  If you think about it, almost NOBODY believes that God ever talks to anybody.  In fact, the more serious you are about claiming it, the more sure people are that you’ve gone round the bend.  People will only accept the idea as long as “God” is saying something they’d be willing to agree with anyway, and it’s vague enough.

    Vague, horoscope-like “God told me to tell you that he loves you and has a plan for you” = okay

    Specific “God told me to tell you to move out of your house and give me your daughter” = not okay

    Seeing Jesus in a piece of burnt cheese = plausible

    Seeing Jesus sitting on your living room sofa = get the straitjacket

    It’s as if deep down, on some level, people DO know that he’s just a figment of their imaginations.

  9. While I’d be inclined to agree with the assessment you made of the different cases, I don’t know that I’d agree with the “deep down” sentiment (I mistrust that as much as I mistrust the “well, you know, deep down people know there really is a God, they just won’t admit it”).  Certainly, once, there was much more acceptance of “God speaks to folks”—were folks more credulous, or are we simply more skeptical?  (And, to be fair, how broad really is the “we” we’re talking about?)

  10. As a guy who studied the bible as a kid, perhaps because I was just a kid, I had great trouble reconciling the wrath of God from the Old Testament with the hippy, iconoclastic God pictured by Jesus Christ. Hell, the God of the OT was quite the oddball. I mean, if the guy floods the world and says “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’ll never do it again”, I see him in no better light than a guy that beats his wife and spouts the same excuse (although I’ll attribute a grain of moral fiber to the guy if he actually doesn’t do it again).

    Consi’s interpretation seems clear and rational, and I support it generally. I think this story is a wonderful lesson on what it means to love, as a moral mandate (that is what the Bible’s good at, after all). In fact, when I started taking the books with a grain of salt later in life, they made a lot more sense, and showed a lot more use in the modern day than when I took them literally.

    I dare say that was their purpose all along; that it was written to guide our decisions as we developed, and not to forcibly revert us to some previous era. I’ve always tended to believe that the greatest wisdoms shine eternal, but we need to grow up to see them for ourselves – to actually look and see the truths in the world, the methods be yours. I think that’s why I turned away from the Bible – it was too easy to see it in too many different lights. It’s like truth through a signal scrambler.

  11. I dare say that was their purpose all along; that it was written to guide our decisions as we developed, and not to forcibly revert us to some previous era.

    Hmmm… As an atheist, this is about the only interesting question about the fairy tales of the Bible: what did the storytellers believe themselves, and what was their intention?  Unlikely that we’ll ever know- I doubt that any convincing memoirs will show up, and in any case the stories passed through many hands before they were cherry picked by the Council of Nicea and set down in their present forms.

    True- there are hardwon nuggets of wisdom in the Bible (the Golden Rule comes to mind).  It is not the worst blueprint for the design of a society that has come down the pike.  But the blatant errors of fact (the Earth, with water, existed before the Sun? C’mon!) and the bloodthirsty and arbitrary Policeman in the Sky (thou shalt not wear linsey-wolsey? Puleeeze…) should make any logical person think twice before regarding it as anything other than a quaint relict of our superstitious past.

  12. Even the Golden Rule opened a floodgate of well-intentioned meddling.  I prefer the Silver Rule; “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”.

  13. I had great trouble reconciling the wrath of God from the Old Testament with the hippy, iconoclastic God pictured by Jesus Christ.

    That’s probably because the Old and New Testament are products of different times that depict entirely different deities.

    I think this story is a wonderful lesson on what it means to love, as a moral mandate

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see an unhealthy dependent relationship.

    I dare say that was their purpose all along

    And this is what I mean with over-interpreting. The deity of the Old Testament is wrathful and trying to wrest a gentle interpretation from a story of the OT seems like reading far more into a text than the author put there in the first place.

    As a basic observation, by and large, the Christians that commented here bend over backwards to see the story in a different light than the non-Christians. Interesting.

  14. Even the Golden Rule opened a floodgate of well-intentioned meddling.  I prefer the Silver Rule; “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you

  15. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see an unhealthy dependent relationship.

    I can see a number of ways in which we can see that – the son unhealthily dependent on the father, and the father unhealthily dependent on God. I think where we differ is where you’ve made your point with overinterpreting.

    The deity of the Old Testament is wrathful and trying to wrest a gentle interpretation from a story of the OT seems like reading far more into a text than the author put there in the first place.

    Here’s my thing; the Bible is basically a gigantic moral diatribe, and not even a very clear one at that. Anyone who tries to get “meaning” of any sort usually has to go out on some limb, no matter how far from the trunk, to get it. The same can be said for any form of art. The meaning, similarly, is subjective.

    My personal interpretation of it and other art, is just because X comprises Y, does not mean that X is all that can be taken usefully from Y. The OT especially is a violent and sadistic little piece, but I don’t see a conflict in looking at the Bible for something other than violence and sadism. It, when combined with other methods of your choice for determining the nature of the world around you, for your purposes, can still be a useful tool.

    But then, just as some people dismiss art as trash, so can one rightly interpret the Bible as crap. It depends whether or not you draw meaning from it (which would explain the difference between the Christians and non-Christians). Despite the fact that I see the Bible as allegorical, you might not. *shrug* That’s really up to the interpreter, which, as I’ve said, is why I don’t rely on the Bible as a source of insight. It helps, but it can’t be depended on – several cups of salt are necessary. Enjoy the Bible as part of a balanced diet of skepticism, historical context and human nature.

  16. Actually, I don’t see the Bible as much of anything at all. As I’ve said before, with the exception of quotes that get tossed into the fray once in a while, I haven’t peeked into one since I was about seven – a few decades ago.

    I do not view the OT as primarily a piece of art, the proverbial work of fiction. As far as I know, it is the culmination of centuries worth of oral religious tradition, fixated in writing and subsequently edited some more. With that in mind, I more closely resemble a fundamentalist in my approach to the OT, i.e. I do take it literally instead of allegorically.

    But as you said: *shrug*. I don’t have to reconcile the OT and NT with what makes me tick.

  17. However, awards for earliest recorded mention may go to Hinduism.

      “This is the sum of duty: do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.

  18. I prefer the Silver Rule; “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you

  19. With that in mind, I more closely resemble a fundamentalist in my approach to the OT, i.e. I do take it literally instead of allegorically.

    Fairy tales and religions are both allegorical: they tell stories with morals as a kind of social engineering, whether consciously or unconsciously.  The difference is that religions purport to be true, and the carrots and sticks proffered by religion supposedly transcend our earthly life.

    I’ll go along with elwed, and say that if the Bible is not literally true (and it obviously is not), there’s no reason to take any of it more seriously than Gilgamesh, or Fantasia, as a guide to life.  The more so, given that Jehovah is so grumpy.

  20. But even before that, there was Mom:
    “Cut that out.  You wouldn’t like it if HE did it to YOU, would you??

  21. I’ve recently grown to have a great fondness for this passage.  Mainly because I’ve discovered Soren Kierkegaard’s interpretation is the basis for his work Fear and Trembling.  In this he describes the sacrifice as a teleological suspension of the ethical(TSE).  In my opinion this is one of the most ingenious ethical theories of all time.  I realize too that I am likely in the minority to say that and with most of my philosophy it comes down to a respect for the absurd more than the logical.

    I won’t try to explain the TSE, I think the text I linked to is fairly straightforward.  That said, I don’t believe anyone could be asked by God to murder someone anymore because Christ already paid the sacrifice and there is no more reason for any demand like that to be met.  I think now the closest thing any Christian can be asked to perform a TSE is to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, etc.  I see those commands as being milder forms of Kierkegaard’s TSE.

    I’m not sure if this has been noted yet or not, but I have heard many theologians assert that Abraham did it fully believing that God would raise Isaac from the dead after doing the deed because of His promise to Abraham about being the father of a great nation.

  22. I realize too that I am likely in the minority to say that and with most of my philosophy it comes down to a respect for the absurd more than the logical.

    Credo, quia absurdum, eh, Theo?  Suum cuique, but I’ve always considered the absurd to be a great reason to laugh, but not to believe.  On the other hand, since the logicality of religion crumbles on close scrutiny, perhaps absurdity is its strongest suit…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.