Monday, January 19, 2009

Abraham and Isaac

It is often suggested that "the God of the Old Testament is cruel, quick-tempered, jealous, and warmongering." I'll address more of this later, but for now lets look at one of the cases of supposed cruelty found in Genesis 22:

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."[...]

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Now, this can easily come off as a fairly mean thing for God to do. Ask a man to sacrifice his son, what kind of cruel God would do that?

I have felt that way when reading this story before, but then that's looking at matters in a simplistic and worldly manner. We have to consider more to really understand. It took me just a little time and thoughtful reflection.

First, we must consider our approach. Are we looking to ascribe rotten things to God? If we are, we could imagine sinister motives for even his more plainly kind actions. Are we considering other things that are revealed to us in scripture? If we do this, then the whole matter falls into another light.

Thus we turn to the New Testament and see that God is love [1 John 4:8], and we return to Genesis to try to see if there is a way to understand the story as loving. Let's take it apart, and address the different problems.

1. Isn't it cruel for God to ask someone to kill someone?

The first problem is that this assumes that death is the worst possible thing. For someone who denies the soul, death is the end. But if there is an immortal soul, then it is eternal life which ultimately matters, and this life only matters inasmuch as it affects eternity. Therefore if God takes a life, and he does so already knowing the eternal destination of the soul, then he will be sure that the soul goes to the place he knew it had chosen.

Part of the reason humans must be so careful about killing people, even exercising some restraint in war, use of capital punishment, and in situations of self defense, is because humans are not omniscient, and are not competent to judge when a person is ready to leave this world for their eternal destination.

So, if God were to ask someone to kill someone (not something he does often), he would do so knowing the positive impact it would have on eternity and the moral validity of such an action in this instance, something a human is never competent to judge.

Not that this actually applies to this situation anyway, since God did not let Abraham kill Isaac, and he had never intended to let him.

2. But it's still cruel to make a man think he has to kill his son. It's just creepy.

Now, it was certainly a painful experience for Abraham. I'm sure he walked up the mountain thinking, "will God really make me do this? Why would God miraculously give me a son, and then take him away?"

Meanwhile he is telling Isaac that, "God will provide the lamb," hoping that he's right, trying his best to trust in God, even though God has asked him to do this terrible thing.

Let us remember Abraham was the father of the faith. He knew of God, but God had not yet given the law to Moses, and the Jewish faith was in its infancy. Abraham would certainly have hoped that God wouldn't take his son, but Abraham did not have the entirety of revelation we have today. God worked over many years through many hard lessons to teach his people. He did not just pass everything to them at once.

But would such an experience build the faith, or would it cause injury to Abraham or his son? I think the results speak for themselves. Isaac was not angry with God. He passed the faith down to the next generation.

So, if it caused no harm, and it broke no moral law, what is cruel about it?

3. Why make them go through all that, what possible purpose could such a test have served?

If the test served no purpose, and accomplished nothing, then it would indeed have been cruel to force Abraham through those worrisome days, wondering if he would really have to sacrifice his beloved son. But, if the test served a purpose, then the struggle Abraham went through to pass it could have actually been necessary.

The story seems to imply that God did this just to test Abraham's faith, but if God knows all things he could have known Abraham's faith without the trauma. This means that the purpose of the test was not for God's benefit, but somehow it was for Abraham, and perhaps for us.

Abraham learned that if he has faith, and he does God's will, even when it seems like the hardest thing in the world, God will provide, and things will turn out well in the end. And God rewarded him by making him not just the father of Isaac, but the father of the Jews, and by extension the Christians. And these people would remember his faith forever, and remember the lesson that God will always provide.

But this story's connection to God's providence goes further. The story is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that will redeem all nations.

Isaac, like Jesus, was long awaited and born miraculously. Then, this innocent firstborn son was taken up the mountain which prefigures Golgotha, and carrying the wood which prefigures the cross.

But the two stories end very differently. Isaac, who is only human, and has at least the stain of original sin, is spared by God who substitutes a sheep for Abraham's son. Jesus, who is human, but also God, and entirely without sin, is not spared. For God will suffer himself what he spares us, and his son is the lamb who dies in our place.


trice said...

well said - thank you for sharing that meditation

Nathan Cushman said...

For a little more light on this topic: I was listening to a talk be Stephen Ray, and he mentions Hebrews 11:19 which reads, "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death."

This sheds some more light. Abraham knew that God had promised Isaac to him, and he knew God's power, so in his faith, he did not need to fear, as we might think, the permanent loss of his son.