Abraham and Isaac: Killing for God?

Within the Bible, there are many passages that seem to be completely upside down relative to our moral compass. Why are these in the Bible at all? Surely we have all asked that question at some point or another. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, when Abraham believes he must kill his son to prove his faithfulness to God. It is a passage that causes great dissonance for many. After all, who could imagine God telling you to kill your own child?

The traditional reading of this passage in Genesis 22 is that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and once God sees that Abraham is faithful enough to kill his own son, God tells him to stop. Many consider this to morally reprehensible, akin to maniacal warlord Negan in the first episode of season seven of The Walking Dead. In this episode, Negan instructs Rick to cut off his own son’s arm. Once Negan sees that Rick’s spirit is finally broken enough that he is willing to hurt his own son, he tells him to stop. The methods of Negan are not anything that we would salute. Thus, we ask: Is God really like that?

Alternatively, there is a second (and not nearly as popular) way of reading this passage. First, a short lesson. In the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), there are many names that the Israelites use for God. Yahweh is of course the personal and specific name that they use to talk about their own God in particular, which is translated as “LORD” in most English versions of the Bible. Conversely, Elohim is a much more generic name that is sometimes used for their own God, but also for the gods of other nations, angels, kings, and other divine beings; this word is much more flexible than how it can be translated into english.

It is worth noting that when Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac, he does not ask any questions. Child sacrifice was likely common in his former religious belief system. In Genesis 22, it is Elohim (plural in Hebrew) that calls for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Elohim that shows Abraham where to go to do it, but it is an angel of Yahweh that stops Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice. This story could instead be read as Abraham’s old gods calling him to offer human sacrifice, but then Yahweh calls off the sacrifice. The picture painted here is not God testing Abraham’s obedience through a morbid request, but it is instead a decisive turning point in which Abraham leaves old conceptions of the divine behind in order to embrace a new perception of reality.

The Bible cannot be read coherently as an immutable list of static facts, but instead it is a series of dynamic changes as the story advances and humanity grows in their consciousness of who God is. This is the story that we are called to be a part of, as history moves forward into becoming a new creation, and it is in this ever-expanding story that we find Jesus being the one consistently advancing the plot. The Good News is that God looks like Jesus, and all other portraits of God need to be subject to and reinterpreted in light of Jesus.