The biblical story of the Binding of Isaac - known in Hebrew as the Akedah - is one that many people find troubling at a fundamental level. It starts with God asking Abraham for a sacrifice - his only son Isaac - and Abraham at first seems to dutifully follow through. Most people remember the story for the climactic moment where Abraham is about to complete the sacrifice by killing Isaac, when the angel of the LORD steps in and stops him, at the same time providing a ram to be offered instead of the boy.
The horror, of course, comes from the idea of a parent offering a child as a ritual sacrifice - if not just from the horror of a parent killing their child at all. But Christian culture seems to have bypassed this shock, maybe due to familiarity, and instead has fixated on Abraham's faith. Some have gone as far as to admire the idea of being so loyal and devoted to God that they would be even willing to kill their own children if asked. That willingness is seen as the point of the text and the model of faith that religious parents ought to live up to.
The following meme - drawing on content from the 2018 film Avengers: Infinity War - nicely demonstrates how people are able to make light of the otherwise shocking events of the Akedah story:
The interesting thing, though, is that this meme mis-represents what actually takes place in Abraham & Isaac's story, instead inserting the wild ambition and sociopathic goals of Thanos. The villain in Infinity War is driven by his own ill-conceived goals and is willing to simply sacrifice his own daughter, Gamora, to achieve that goal. But the moment depicted in the meme above plays out much differently in the Akedah story:
"Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered." (Genesis 22:7-8)
Abraham lets out this hint and at least one other hint that he doesn't think that God will actually require Isaac to die. (You can look more into that below in the Questions section.)
We can also observe that the point of this story is not about having "so much faith" that you are willing to kill your own child. It's more of a counter-cultural statement to the culture that Abraham lived in: this God does not require child sacrifices - a stunning claim that would have been against a shockingly accepted norm in that society.
In his book What Is The Bible?, Rob Bell offers these insights:
"So, back to our original question: What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? Now, an answer: Not this one. The other gods may demand your firstborn, but not this God.
So if God doesn’t want Abraham to offer his son, why the charade? Several responses: First, the drama is the point. Abraham knows what to do when he’s told to offer his son because this is always where religion heads. So at first, this god appears to be like all the other gods. The story is like the other stories about gods who are never satisfied. The first audience for this story would have heard this before, it would have been familiar. But then it’s not. The story takes a shocking turn that comes out of nowhere. This God disrupts the familiarity of the story by interrupting the sacrifice. Picture an early audience gasping. What? This God stopped the sacrifice? Huh? The gods don’t do that!
Second, the God in this story provides. Worship and sacrifice was about you giving to the gods. This story is about this God giving to Abraham. A God who gives? Who provides?
Third, this isn’t a story about what Abraham does for God, it’s a story about what God does for Abraham. Mind blowing. New. Ground breaking. A story about a god who doesn’t demand anything but gives and blesses.
Fourth, Abraham is told that God is just getting started, and that this God is going to bless Abraham with such love and favor that through Abraham everybody on earth is going to be blessed. This God isn’t angry or demanding or unleashing wrath, this God has intentions to bless everybody. Abraham is invited to trust. To have faith. To believe. To live in these promises."
Learning to read biblical stories for all their little details, in their literary and historical context, and all the other necessary steps for interpretation, can help to keep us away from dangerous and harmful interpretations and point us more towards the true intended meaning of scripture. Below, you'll find a series of readings and study questions that can help you explore the Abraham & Isaac story in detail for yourself, in their broader biblical context. My hope is that you'll find new insights into the nature and heart of God as you do so.
- Read Deuteronomy 18:9-14. What do you notice in this passage that is relevant to the story of Abraham & Isaac?
- Read Leviticus 18:21. Same question as above, what is relevant here to the Abraham & Isaac story?
- You know what to do. Deuteronomy 12:29-31. How does God feel about child sacrifice?
- And Psalm 106:37-41. Same question.
- And Jeremiah 7:30-31. How does God feel about it?
- Credit where it's due: I got this list of scripture references from the book Saying No To God by Matthew J. Korpman
- Given everything you've read in the other parts of the Bible, turn to Genesis 22 and read verses 1-3. Knowing what you know about how much God says he hates child sacrifice, what is your reaction to this passage?
- Notice in verse 1 that it says God "tested" Abraham. What do you suppose is the test?
- Look closely at Genesis 22:3-8. Does Abraham give any hints that he thinks something else is going on? Does he give any hints that he thinks God won't actually require that his son be killed?
- Look closely at verse 10. Many movies and TV adaptations heavily dramatize this moment. Does the passage say that Abraham raised the knife in the air, or that he put the knife to Isaac's throat, or anything like that? Or does it only say that he picked up - as in got - the knife?
- Given all the verses above about how God hates child sacrifice, do you think God would have waited until Abraham was swinging the knife before stopping the sacrifice?
- Would Abraham doubt God's instruction, or God's sense of justice? Would Abraham challenge God, or play "chicken" with him? Read Genesis 18:16-33. How would you describe Abraham's attitude towards God?
- How would you describe Abraham's sense of justice, of right and wrong, based on this passage?
- A long time passes between Genesis 18 and Genesis 22 - many years and life experiences with God have taught Abraham many valuable lessons about who God is and what he is actually like. Do you think that by the time we reach Genesis 22, that Abraham thinks that God actually wants Isaac dead, or does Abraham realize that it's a test?
- Read Mark 12:26-27. Given what Jesus says about God being "not God of the dead, but God of the living," what do you think it might mean in Genesis 22:15-17 when God says "because you have not withheld your son from me" - that he will then bring many descendants out of Isaac? Which of these options would have been "withholding" Isaac from the God of the living - successfully killing Isaac, or not successfully killing Isaac?