There are two things in life guaranteed to make both liberals and atheists mad. One is the story of Abraham and Isaac. The other is the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).
One is the story of an elderly man who thinks he hears God’s voice telling him to kill his own son. The other is of God sending His own Son to be tortured and die for the sins of His people. Both make modern thinkers break out in a cold sweat. How can we believe in a God like this? How is this not abuse?
In this article, I’m not going to deal with both of these issues in depth. I’m going to look more closely at Genesis 22—the story of Abraham and Isaac. This won’t be a deep exegesis, more a fly by of Abraham’s life and how we can understand its practical implications in our me too world. (For more on how PSA helps us shepherd victims of abuse, see my article here).
Is God Guilty of Abuse?
In the book, Under the Banner of Heaven, the author begins by telling a chilling story of a Utah man who killed his sister-in-law and 15-month-old niece at “God’s command”. The murderer claimed he had a “hand-written revelation from God” that told him to do it. After his arrest, he said, “You would think I have committed a crime of homicide, but I have not. . . . I was doing the will of God, which is not a crime.”
As he was about to kill his 15-month-old niece with a ten-inch boning knife, he told her, “I’m not sure what this is about, but apparently, it’s God’s will that you leave this world; perhaps we can talk about it later.” He described his actions saying, “It was like someone had taken me by the hand that day and led me comfortably through everything that happened. . . . These lives were to be taken, I was the one who was supposed to do it. And if God wants something to be done, it will be done. You don’t want to offend him by refusing to do his work.” In the book, the author asks: “How could an apparently sane, religious man kill a blameless woman and her baby so viciously, without the barest flicker of emotion? Where did he get the moral justification? What filled him with such certainty that he was obeying God’s will?”
These same questions are often asked of Genesis 22. It’s not hard to see why Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and just about every other atheist in the world hate this text. At first reading it doesn’t look too good, does it? Many Christians don’t know what to do with Genesis 22, so they body-swerve it as much as they can. I mean think about it: Some old crackpot hears a voice from God telling him to go up a mountain and sacrifice his son to show his religious devotion. We hear that and we think: Ambulance for Abraham and social services for Isaac. Let’s get that poor kid out of there. This is as bad as terrorists strapping bombs to pregnant women in the name of Allah.
Yet, there it is, in the Bible. The holy, authoritative, infallible Word of God. As I said, It doesn’t look or sound too good, does it? In fact, it looks like we are making a hero out of a deluded, mentally ill, fanatically religious child abuser.
So what are we to do with it? This is a difficult question, especially when thinking about the topic of abuse. We all know that at the heart of abuse lies manipulation, control, and power. And all these seem to be on display in Genesis 22. A grown man, tying up a poor, helpless boy, getting ready to stab him, all because God spoke to him. Instead of exegeting the text fully here, I want us to deal with a few of the most obvious questions that get thrown at this text, and then look at how not to apply this passage of the Bible.
How did Abraham know it was God talking?
This is the most obvious question, right? How can we be sure that it was God’s voice Abraham heard? How is this not exactly like the dude from Utah who killed that poor mother and child? Most commentators get twitchy and question how Abraham could be sure that this was really an act of faith. That God had really spoken to him.
One commentator said that the issue was that Abraham was 99 years old at this point, and so must have misheard the Lord. He said “take Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice to me”, instead of take “Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him to me”. Easy mistake to make, right, when you’re nearly 100? Job done. Mess cleared up. Well, apart from the fact that Abraham did in fact hear God clearly.
Abraham is a unique figure in the history of the world. Genesis 22 didn’t happen in a vacuum. On its own, it would be pretty hard to defend. But, God had been speaking to Abraham since chapter 12. This wasn’t just a bolt from the blue.
In Acts 7:2 we read: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.” God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, 21 and here in 22. Abraham had a long history of God speaking to him, so Genesis 22 is nothing out of the ordinary. Abraham had a very special relationship with God, and no other human in history has lived under the same circumstances. So, let’s agree that God speaking to Abraham was a pretty normal state of affairs. Now, what about the charge that poor little Isaac was merely a pawn in this power play by God? And that Abraham was guilty of abusing his son in order to appease this bloodthirsty deity?
How old was Isaac?
To the charge of Isaac being a defenceless boy, we need to understand that his age is never directly mentioned in the text. In fact, Isaac is described in the Hebrew as a young man. He is never described as a child and he is not thought of in that way by any Jewish scholars. He was old enough to know about the sacrificial system and he was strong enough to carry all the wood needed for the sacrifice up a mountain. So, however old he was, he was not defenceless. He could’ve given Abraham a smash in the mush at any time (remember, Abraham was 99).
So, what we have now is a story of a faithful saint and a submissive son carrying the means to his death in his arms as he travels to the sacrificial spot. If anything, this ought to teach us about the faithful obedience of the son as much as it does the faith of Abraham. Are we getting the picture yet? The foreshadowing of what is to come? Don’t worry, we will get to it. The gospel is all over this story.
We all know the end of the story. Isaac is bound, Abraham lifts the knife, an angel stops him, and a sacrificial ram is found in a nearby bush. Phew. It all ends well. Now, how to preach this stuff? That’s the issue. I think we will learn better by understanding how not to preach this passage.
We’ll look at that tomorrow.