Responses & Resources for the Abraham/Isaac Question

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

So my post last week about wrestling with the story of Abraham and Isaac and considering the role that conscience plays in our interpretation and application of Scripture generated quite a response. I got “farewelled” and called a heretic. People bemoaned my slippery-slope sliding, mocked my lack of theological training, and accused me of challenging God, hating the Bible, and exploring atheism.  But in the midst of all that came some really fantastic insights, challenges, questions, and ideas…exactly what I’d hoped the post would generate.  And I was reminded that I’m not alone in my questions and curiosity, and that questions and curiosity need not threaten faith but can actually enliven it. 

As it turns out, people have been wrestling with this text and its implications for centuries and there are many fascinating, helpful perspectives on it. And when I asked for more, you sent me poems, essays, books, articles,  encyclopedia entries, and even songs—little gifts that softened my defensive posture by infusing me with fresh curiosity. 

This, I believe, is exactly what the Bible is meant to be: a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. The Bible invites us into conversation with God and with one another as we debate, discuss, wrestle with, and learn from its various texts. And this divine conversation reminds us that being people of faith isn’t just about being right; it’s about being a part of a community, part of a great tradition of dialog. Think how boring and individualistic the Christian life would be if biblical interpretation were easy! 

So I thought I’d share with you some of the best responses and resources I received over the past few days. While I don’t agree with every point in every one of these comments, articles, and quotes—I’ve included thoughts from Christians, Jews, and even atheists—I think they provide great fodder for conversation and may help you as you work through all this on your own. Feel free to share your own favorite posts or resources in the comment section.  

Theology and biblical interpretation aren’t meant to be done alone, but in community. We’re all learning as we go. So let’s take a deep breath and just listen to one another for a while: 

From the comments… 

 From Nate Pyle: 

“If, as some argue, the story of Abraham and Isaac is about God revealing himself in a new way and showing that a religion requiring a child sacrifice is wrong, I can't help but wonder what that means for us. For me as a pastor, being sure not to sacrifice my family and my kids on the altar of church. Not sacrificing people with a heavy, moralistic yoke. Not sacrificing relationships because of "truth." Maybe it is time we pay attention to all the ways we sacrifice people on the altar of religion and then stop it.” 

From Amanda:

“There is a scene at the end of Shusaku Endo's exquisite historical novel, Silence, in which the young Jesuit priest Rodrigues is given a choice between ending his Japanese Christian brothers and sisters' tortuous suffering by recanting and trampling on an image of Christ, or standing resolute in his faith and not denying his Savior. In his agonized moment of indecision, Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ say, ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ And so, I will forever treasure this novel for teaching me that to deny our absolute faith in God and belief in right doctrine out of love for another is to do exactly as Christ would have us do."

From Kathleen Margaret Schwab: 

“I personally find convincing the theory that the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Issac is a story about the end of child sacrifice. Perhaps the beginning of the culture beginning to wrestle with this ancient practice, and define a response. Sacrificing children was a part of the culture of the time. The Hebrews broke from this practice and went on to be very very critical of it...although the OT also records that even kings of Israel sacrificed their children, which implies that common people may have also done so. I personally think that humans often deal with emotionally heated topics through story telling. The story of Abraham, with the details of the journey, the wood, the binding and the knife, provokes a powerful emotional response from the listener or reader. I think most of us want to say NO! And then our emotional response is confirmed by a message from God, that this sacrifice is not necessary.  I think we need to dig into stories like this, to see what message they give, the emotional arc they take us through.” 

From Micah: 

“Oh man, have I spent a lot of time on this passage. I've hated it and loved it and hated it and loved it again. At this point it's one of my favorite passages of scripture. It wasn't an accident that we named our kid Isaac. There's a lot to this passage, but there's one thing that you've not mentioned that I find completely fascinating: Abraham did not regard God's command as immoral. When you read the text again and again and grapple with it, you're struck by the fact that Abraham's objections were purely logistical, not moral. Isaac was the child of promise; how could he have descendants if he died? Abraham didn't seem particularly fazed by the whole "child sacrifice" thing, and for good reason: child sacrifice was completely normal in his area. No one had ever voiced objections to child sacrifice. Why would they? On what grounds would one of his neighbors have ever decided that a child's life had inherent worth? God didn't ask Abraham to do anything out of the ordinary in Abraham's culture. But it was out of the ordinary for the new culture that God wanted to create. Else why supply the ram at all? So I don't read this passage as a cruel and petty God testing Abraham. I see this passage as the beginning of a redemptive arc that sweeps through all of Scripture. It's the beginning of God teaching his people a new and better ethic. It continues on in, for example, Deuteronomy 18:10 and then carries on throughout the story of Israel. (Micah wrote more about this in a post here.

From Rabbi Moffic: 

Jewish tradition has a long history of arguing that Abraham FAILED God's test. He should have protested. That's why it is an angel at the end who stays Abraham's hand, not God. Just as Abraham protested in Sodom and Gomorrah, all the more he should protested when God's ask him to sacrifice his son.

Articles, Essays, Books, Poems…

Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: 

“The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.” Read the rest here (or a summary here)

The Jewish Virtual Library’s “Akedah” entry (shared by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg): 

“Milton Steinberg (Anatomy of Faith (1960), 147), rejected Kierkegaard's view as ‘unmitigated sacrilege…While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to his God, it was God's nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth.’ Other thinkers such as J.B. Soloveitchik have found the Kierkegaardian insights fully compatible with Judaism. Ernst Simon (in Conservative Judaism, 12 (spring 1958), 15–19) believes that a middle position between the two is possible. Judaism is an ethical religion and would never in fact demand a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham is, therefore, ordered to stay his hand. The original command to sacrifice Isaac is a warning against too complete an identification of religion with naturalistic ethics." (Read the whole entry.)

Rob Bell’s The Gods Aren’t Angry (or, abbreviated in “What is the Bible: Part 6”)

“…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…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.”

 “Abraham’s Madness” by Bink Noll (shared by Preston Yancey) and “Sarah: Before Mount Moriah” and “Isaac” by Madeleine L’Engle 

But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman (reviewed here) and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son by Jon Levenson 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on “Noah” - seems relevant 

“[Noah] failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God….God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith . It isn’t until Abraham, when God says, ‘we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,’ Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?’ He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.”

Blog Posts…

Derek Rishmawy with “Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience” 

“All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.”

Neil at Godless in Dixie with “Evangelicalism: It’s Not Just a Messaging Problem” 

“In the end, if whatever God tells you to do is right, then morality is fundamentally relative.  Once you’ve decided on that way of thinking, it inevitably devolves into a theological debate about God’s feelings.  This is a highly subjective discussion, of course, since one of the key tenets of monotheism is that if there is a God, you’re probably not him.  So how is it that you feel qualified to determine what he wants and what he doesn’t (and for that matter, why it has to be a “he”)?  It’s your word against another man’s word, not God’s word against everyone else’s.  You can try saying “but the Bible says,” except that’s really the word of more people just like you.  Any attempt to deny this leads to untenable absurdity because the Bible isn’t even consistent with itself.  Biblical writers didn’t all see everything the same way."

[I included the atheist's perspective because it was one of the only responses to actually engage the question at the heart of the post of which the story of Abraham and Isaac was simply an illustration. Also, it was refreshingly free of condescension!]  

Lee Wyatt with “Do Christians Still Sacrifice Their Children?: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” (this one also includes a nice quote from John Howard Yoder) 

“Evans is in effect complaining about a flat reading of the text which assumes any and every command of God is applicable to his people anytime and anywhere.  Yet she appears to practice the same hermeneutic in assuming that believers today might sometime face the same command to sacrifice our children. This is a red herring because we will never face such a command.  Evan’s failure to read the Bible as a story told as chapters or acts of a play (Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation) and factoring in the difference it makes that we live in the fifth chapter or act, “the Church,” rather than the earlier ones where these texts are found.  After Christ, and in the absence of anything remotely similar in the rest of the New Testament, ought to assure us that whatever those earlier stories mean, they no longer hold for the chapter of the story we live in.  That doesn’t lessen the difficulty we feel with those earlier stories, but it does mean that things have radically changed since Christ such that no more of that kind of thing is appropriate or should even be thinkable for God’s people today.  Yes, some do still think that way, as Evans points out, but that is a misuse or misinterpretation of the Bible and should be treated as such.”

Caroline Langston with "Holding the Blade of Sacrifice" 

It occurs to me that all the violent Old Testament stories that are routinely dismissed by contemporary Christian progressives for their supposed brutality and vengeance are, in fact, the very ones I love. For are not the depictions of riven families and murder and inconclusive journeys how we actually experience life here, in the Far Country? It strikes me that the stories of the Hebrew Bible, read in an evolutionary manner, are a great mercy to us humans, for they bring God nearer to us than we could ever imagine. We who are clueless, bumbling about in our wilderness, thinking we are trying to be obedient.

I'm rereading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in preparation for Lila and just happened to bump into this quote, (in the voice of Pastor John Ames) which seemed relevant: 

"My point is that Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and that the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment to save the child. Abraham's extreme old age is an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious, but also, I think, because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents' love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in the wilderness."


What did I miss? Please feel free to share links in the comment section! 

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