The story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac is a disturbing one for most of us, regardless of what age we are. Even a child has to wonder, “What kind of dad would do something like this?” Most adults have to wonder, “What kind of God would do something like that?!” And whether we call this story “Abraham’s Test” or the “Sacrifice of Isaac”, there’s no way around the fact that it’s just a scary story—period.
I remember listening to this reading in church as a young boy of 5 or 6. No one else seemed the least bit shocked by this story, so, thinking I must be missing something, I did what all good boys do: I asked my dad. As he was tucking me in for the night, I told him, very honestly, speaking from my depth of confusion, that I found this story very disturbing and so I asked him why God would want Abraham to kill his own son. To be fair to my dad, maybe he was tired after a long day, maybe he was just caught off guard by such a serious question at bedtime, but without even a moment’s delay he said, “Well, Michel, Abraham was just doing what God told him to do, just like all of us have to do what God tells us to do. If God told me that I had to sacrifice you—since you are the eldest son—I would have to obey God and do it. Good night, now…sleep tight!” He turned off my bedroom light, and closed my bedroom door on his way out, leaving me in complete and terrifying darkness—scared to death that the day might come when my father would have no choice but to kill me in order to please God.
In the decades since that unforgettable night, I have read and heard a lot of explanations offered by priests and ministers and teachers and professors: none of them ring true to me. Here’s the crux of the problem: If God loves me as much as I know He does, then he surely loved Isaac that much as well. And, if Isaac is some kind of “archetype” of Jesus, who was also sent to be killed by the same God, then why didn’t God love Jesus? It has never made sense to me to propose belief in a God who would kill a child just to make a point with the dad—and nevermind the fact that the mom isn’t even part of this story, that’s a topic for another talk some other day!
When I became a parent myself and was raising 3 sons, who also wondered about this story, I simply told them that it was an ancient story that no one really understood and that they shouldn’t worry about it. (I also related the story of what my own father had told me, and tried to relieve any possible apprehensions that they might have had with the story!) Fortunately, I was raised Catholic so there was no need to accept the Bible as “inerrant” or “literally true”, so I was content to just put the story of Abraham and Isaac away into the file marked “Bad Bedtime Stories for Children” and just leave it alone. As a priest, I have never attempted to preach on this reading, until today.
In light of the prominence of this story in Judaism and in Christianity, I’ve decided that there has to be some way of interpreting the tale that makes sense to both my intellect and my heart, and as I prayed and took this into lectio divina this week, reflecting on all the times when I have misinterpreted God’s word within me, or when I have talked myself into following a particular path trying to convince myself that God was the inspiration for my decision—something occurred to me.
What if Abraham was exactly like me and just got the message all wrong? What if Abraham’s image of God was completely off the mark, that God never intended him to make the ultimate sacrifice of his son? What if the story isn’t about unquestioning obedience? What if it’s about the mercy of God that is so expansive and all-inclusive that a ram caught in a snarl of bushes is able to redeem the situation?? Maybe Abraham is mistaken in his perceptions of who God is, and maybe he is mistaken about being asked to sacrifice his son in order to be faithful to God!
Let’s back up a little bit into my world history class, because in order to understand something of the original tale, it’s important that we recognize the reality that throughout our human history, people have at various times practiced human sacrifice. All of these peoples and cultures held to the notion that they did this by divine command. Our consciences and understandings have outgrown this primitive view of reality because we automatically recoil from the very idea of human sacrifice. There is something primal about our love for innocent children that prevents us from accepting the idea of child sacrifice.
We know that human sacrifice was a custom among some of the early Caananite tribes, and that sacrificing one’s child or children was evidence of one’s devotion to the gods. It is plausible that Abraham, too, wants to show how devoted he is to his God, and the way to do that is to be willing to go as far as they did in expressing this devotion. This is a way of making the story more psychologically credible: he witnesses people around him offering up their children to show their faith and obedience, so he thinks he ought to do the same. The longer he thinks about it and focuses attention on the idea, the more he convinces himself that his God is actually encouraging him.
The story in Genesis has a climactic ending, made even more dramatic because the real voice of God is eventually heard quite clearly by Abraham, but God says something completely different from what Abraham expected. The dramatic ending does not involve the sacrifice of Isaac, rather, it’s the forceful word of God that Isaac must NOT be sacrificed. And so, a story that begins with the threat of impending tragedy ends in a perfect oneness between the heart of God and the heart of humanity.
There is, I believe, a profound and simple truth for us in this story: the will of God may sometimes be hidden or not clear to us, but ultimately God’s will is never going to be something that contradicts our purest love or our most cherished truths that have already been planted there by God. All Scripture, as St. Paul reminds us, is written for our edification and growth and since the Bible as we know it wasn’t put together yet when he wrote those words, it’s reasonable to assume he meant ALL scriptures, even those from outside our own faith tradition. In none of the world’s scriptures is there anything but love communicated about how we are to treat each other. Ultimately, the word of God comes to us in love—a love that is always deeper and more wise than we sometimes recognize, but it is always in service of our highest good.
This brings us to a point about Scripture, one that has been made only in the last half of the previous century: those who want to see things as God sees them, to understand the thoughts of God as God understands them need to realize that even the writers of scriptures were limited in their understanding of God’s thoughts. All humans are, to use Paul’s words, “seeing through a glass darkly”, and this includes the writers, editors and interpreters of the Bible.
It is NOT the will of God that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac; the true nature of God was revealed instead when God stayed Abraham’s hand and prevented the sacrifice. Abraham was not blessed for correctly perceiving God’s will, he was blessed because even when he thought he was doing God’s will, he remained open to the idea that God might want something else instead. In other words, he wasn’t so hung up on being “right” that he missed the chance to receive a new insight.
This is why we cannot continue to look at the scriptures uncritically and just accept the stories at their face value. We have to use what is called the “historical critical hermeneutic”, which just means that we need to interpret the stories in light of all our knowledge, not just our particular denomination’s theology. So, instead of looking at the Bible as an archaic collection of weird stories, we can see them as a huge repository of truth that has as much relevance today as it ever did. This is what it means to call scripture the “Living Word of God.”
“You did then what you knew then. When you knew better, you did better,” said Maya Angelou to the woman who had come to her for spiritual direction. And so might she have said to Abraham after this incident with Isaac. Abraham got it wrong, but when he knew better, he did better. It’s not about being right: it’s about being faithful.
Faith always includes the possibility that we could at any given moment be wrong, and that is why faith takes courage. We live the best we can discern today, and tomorrow we may find a better way. Not being obsessed with “being right”, we are not at all harmed by being mistaken.
This is Good News, but not always easy news because this freedom entails a great deal of responsibility: that’s why freedom is so terrifying and why many people prefer to be told what to think, what to feel, how to act, what to do, what not to do, etc… That is the core reason why there are still fundamentalist churches that pretend to know all the answers, that is why there are men in institutions all too willing to provide all the answers to those who are too fearful to use their freedom.
When we look honestly within our own hearts and minds, we find vestiges of this older, less free way of living, and sometimes these influence our current choices. Sometimes we fear being wrong. Sometimes we’re reluctant to take a risk because we’re afraid we might be mistaken. But we’re in the best of company! The NT is full of examples of people who took two steps forward and two steps back…Peter, Paul, James and John, Mary of Magdala…the list is endless. None of these people ever settled for an answer because someone else told them to just accept things the way the way they were. The Hebrew Scriptures are also full of these people who, like Abraham, believed wholeheartedly in God, strove to learn God’s plan for his life, discerned God’s will as best he was able, but always considered his views and beliefs as provisional. His openness to receiving more information, more revelation, more insight is why we remember him and why we claim him as our Ancester in the Faith.
As terrifying as our freedom can seem, we will not find inner peace by simply surrendering ourselves to someone else’s way of believing or thinking or acting. Just as world peace will take serious work, so, too, does inner peace. But to stand unafraid, open to new possibility, to new understanding, to learning from others besides our usual gang of “yes-people”—these things prepare us to receive the Word of God that is intended especially for us.