Abstract:The account of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac has been and will likely continue to be violently applied so long as the dominant misunderstanding of the text prevails. The first section of this article argues that the Abrahamic narrative has been dangerous and has been used to promote unhealthy decision-making. The second section reconsiders the logic of obedience presented in Gen 12-22. The text has a dangerous reception history, in part, because many preachers, authors, and congregants have misunderstood the rational grounds given in the text for Abraham's faith in Gen 22. The primary error is in separating the supreme act of faith (Gen 22) from the uniquely miraculous life of faith (Gen 12-21). The danger is not in the text itself but in the prevailing interpretation and application of the text. The third section gives five guidelines for preaching and applying Gen 22. These guidelines are more faithful to the entire Abrahamic narrative, and they guard against inappropriate and dangerous applications of this text.
Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac can be a perplexing account. Since it is foundational to Old and New Testament theology, it cannot be marginalized. Since it is a sensational narrative, it can be easy to preach and hold an audience. It is not only perplexing, foundational, and sensational, it can also be dangerous. The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I aim to persuade the reader that the Abrahamic narrative has been and will likely continue to be dangerous so long as preachers, authors, and congregants continue to misunderstand the rational grounds given in the text for Abraham's faith in Gen 22. Second, I aim to show that the danger is not in the text itself, but in the prevailing interpretation and application of the text.1
In this article I argue that Abraham's actions are outside the realm of imitation.2 It is not my argument that makes the sacrifice of Isaac inimitable. It is the description of Abraham's entire life, as recorded in the Bible, that places its violence outside the realm of human imitation. I am simply setting the violence in the context that the text claims for itself.
1. The Danger of Genesis 22
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!"
And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a holocaust."3
In the book Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer 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 that he had a hand written revelation from God that prompted his actions. After his arrest, he stated, "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."4 Every reader should be horrified at this.
The majority of non-Christian authors I have read treat Abraham's sacrifice as the irrational product of blind faith.5 They see blind faith as one of the greatest causes of religious violence.6 Thus they might believe that someone like this Utah murderer acted like Abraham. They recognize the bloody reception history of Gen 22 and wish that believers would purge this account from their Bible.
I suspect that most Christians, to one degree or another, have experienced anxiety about Gen 22. Moral disgust at something like this Utah murder comes into tension with the belief that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son as an act of obedience to God. Could God command something extreme of a modern Christian? How would they know? What if they misunderstood God? I believe this anxiety results from a wrong interpretation of the text. Many Christians have been taught that faith-devoid-of-reason is a good thing.7 Abraham believed God and raised the knife even when he could not have articulated good reasons for doing so. For them, it is beautiful when a believer performs radically abnormal actions for God even when their actions seem irrational. To this end, preachers often extol Abraham as the exemplar of blind faith who obeyed the inner prompting of God. The audience is assured that God stopped the knife for Abraham and that God will ensure that no harm comes to the obedient Christian.
It is a central contention of this article that many Christians and non-Christians make a similar error: They treat Abraham as irrational because they are not taking seriously the arguments put forward in the entire Abrahamic narrative.8 They divorce the supreme act of faith from the miraculous life of faith described in the text.9 Below I argue that Abraham had good reasons for his actions. When one reads Gen 22 in light of Gen 12-21 it becomes clear that Abraham's actions were not irrational.
Abraham's actions have been used to justify individual and national violence for millennia. This murder in Utah is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bloody reception history of Gen 22. Abraham's narrative is extremely dangerous! I will argue that the danger is not in the narrative itself. It is the prevailing interpretation, proclamation, and application of this narrative that is dangerous.
2. Rereading Genesis 12-22
How did Abraham arrive at the place where he believed that he really heard God tell him to sacrifice his beloved son? This driving question comes from Krakauer who was reflecting with disgust on the Utah child sacrifice. After recounting the horrendous double murder done by that Utah man in the "name of God," the author asks: "How could an apparently sane, avowedly pious man kill a blameless woman and her baby so viciously, without the barest flicker of emotion? Whence did he derive the moral justification? What filled him with such certitude?"10 Krakauer asks this question of the Utah murderer, but I will ask it of Abraham. "Whence did Abraham derive the moral justification? What filled Abraham with such certitude?" Answering this question ironically gives us a solid ground from which to denounce the Utah murderer.
When God gave a new command for violence to Abraham, the command came to a person who experienced high levels of miraculous validation.11 The miracles were large-scale, frequent, predicted, communal, variegated, long lasting, and multi-sensory. To the degree that the miraculous validation increases, the chance that one is deceived or exercising blind faith decreases. If there were certain types of miracles, then these miracles would function didactically. True (and well-grounded) knowledge of God's will could be communicated accurately through miracles.12 We will now examine Gen 12-21 in an effort to see the miracles in Abraham's life that preceded the command to take life.
Abraham's recorded journey with God began with the command that he leave his homeland and travel to a new land (Gen 12:1; Acts 7:3; Heb 11:8). If we are to read Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in context, we must begin considering his entire faith journey, which began in Gen 11:27.13 We do not know exactly what means God used to initially disclose his will. According to Acts 7:2, "the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham." God gave him promises, and he obeyed (Gen 12:2-4). It is crucial to note the fact that God did not command Abraham to commit violence in Gen 12. If God commanded violence at this point in Abraham's life then there would be many similarities between Abraham and the Utah murderer.
God continued his relationship with Abraham and appeared to him when he entered the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7). Later, when Abraham sojourned to Egypt a miraculous plague fell upon Pharaoh and his house. Because of this plague, a foreign ruler from a different faith affirmed Abraham as the prophet of a powerful God (Gen 12:10-20). We do not know what type of sense-experience led Pharaoh to conclude that this plague was from Abraham's God, but we do know that Pharaoh gleaned the proper lesson from the event. After this Abraham allowed Lot to choose his piece of land, and God visited him again (Gen 13:14-18). In Gen 15 God appeared in person and in a dream or vision. Later God visited Abraham, made a covenant with him, changed his name, and promised that the seed of promise must come through Sarah and through Isaac (Gen 17). Then God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). In Gen 20, God plagued Abimelech and then revealed himself to him in a dream with the result that Abraham was again affirmed as a prophet by a leader of a different ethnic and faith community (Gen 20:1-7, 17-18). After decades of waiting, Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the son that God would bless the world through (Gen 17:15-19; 18:10-14; 21:1-8). After Isaac was born, God appeared to Abraham, the miraculously validated prophet, and promised to care for Hagar and Ishmael even after they were no longer under Abraham's care (Gen 21:8-21). These texts highlight the peculiar nature of Abraham's relationship with God. God has not placed another human in the same circumstances as Abraham.
The account of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom constitutes the greatest epistemic validation of Abraham's belief in the entire narrative. The destruction of Sodom further validated God and Abraham's ability to rightly interpret God's revelation. In Gen 18:16-33 God appeared to Abraham and told him that he would destroy the city of Sodom. Verses 17-18 read:
The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do [to Sodom], seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?"
When I reverse the ordering the logic of this statement becomes apparent:
Since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and since all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him, therefore I shall not hide from Abraham what I am about to do [to Sodom].
That word "seeing" shows that Abraham was to learn from Sodom and Gomorrah.14 What was he to learn? The text suggests at least three things he could learn: (1) God was just in taking life; (2) God was powerful; (3) as a man, Abraham was able to rightly interpret God's revelation. Further, the lesson Abraham learned is explicitly tied to the hope of the world through Abraham's offspring.15 Abraham experienced the reality and power of God through what he heard, felt, smelled, and saw in the Sodom and Gomorrah event. God told him of the miraculous destruction and then performed this act before his eyes.16 Because Abraham learned from this event, he did not challenge God in Gen 22 in the same way that he did in Gen 19. Because Isaac knew his father had been miraculously set apart by God, he was willingly submissive. Because of the miracles, neither Abraham nor Isaac are examples of a normative parent-child relationship.
In Gen 22, Abraham's faith was tested by the apparent contradiction of God's promise with his command.17 God's promise to bless the world through the offspring of Isaac came into conflict with God's command to sacrifice Isaac before he had any offspring. God asked that Abraham sacrifice the heir through whom the world (including Abraham) would be blessed.18 It is likely that Abraham did not know how God would remain faithful to all his promises. However, because of the miracles, Abraham knew that God was trustworthy and that he could rightly interpret God's will.
Earlier I asked of Abraham the questions asked of the Utah murderer: "Whence did Abraham derive the moral justification? What filled Abraham with such certitude?" We have answered this question by showing that the Abrahamic narrative unites the command for life-taking obedience with large-scale miracles that provide strong evidence for God's faithfulness and Abraham's ability to rightly interpret God's will.
Peter Williams rightly situates God's command in Gen 22 in the context of the rest of the Abrahamic narrative:
[In] Genesis 22 when God tells Abraham to offer up Isaac . . . God has shown himself able to do remarkable things, and in the prior revelation given to Abraham already by the time we get to Genesis 22 we find that God has revealed to Abraham that through Isaac in particular he is going to have future offspring. Now at this point Isaac has not had any children and so Abraham has to know that Isaac is going to have some future existence beyond him sacrificing him and that has to be a future existence involving offspring. It is rather striking that he says to the servants at the bottom of the mountain "I and the boy will come back to you." So I don't need to read ahead to Hebrews and cheat and find the end of the story to find out that Abraham knew that God was able to raise him from the dead. I can get to where Hebrews got just on the basis of the Old Testament. In other words, in a miraculous universe where such things can happen there may be certain things which, in an atheist universe, can't really work.... The really big factor is the question of God's trustworthiness.19
Similarly Francis Schaeffer argues:
Kierkegaard said this was an act of faith with nothing rational to base it upon or to which to relate it. Out of this came the modern concept of a 'leap of faith' and the total separation of rationality and faith. In this thinking concerning Abraham, Kierkegaard had not read the Bible carefully enough. Before Abraham was asked to move towards the sacrifice of Isaac (which, of course, God did not allow to be consummated), he had much propositional revelation from God, he had seen God, God had fulfilled promises to him. In short, God's words at this time were in the context of Abraham's strong reason for knowing that God both existed and was totally trustworthy.20
Given the entire Abrahamic narrative, Abraham should have believed that he really heard from God. The large-scale miracles lend credibility to Abraham's faith when he heard, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a holocaust."
Because God chose to unite new commands for life-taking obedience with large-scale miracles, there is solid ground from which we can critique the present day murderer who claims that God has commanded him to commit violence.21 People in the present day should doubt any mere vision that calls for Abraham-like violence because they have not become a recognized prophet with the large-scale miraculous validation required to pass the epistemological exam. Murderers and the deranged can borrow language from the sacrifice of Isaac, but they cannot repeat the context of the Abrahamic narrative. This discredits their appeals to comparable sacred violence. One misuses the climax of Abraham's story when they divorce it from the rest of the drama.
Abraham knew that Isaac would not remain dead. He knew that "we will return" (Gen 22:5). This was not a leap taken in despair but a rational faith-filled act. Because God promised that he would bless the world through the offspring of childless Isaac, and because God commanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the burden of responsibility rested on God to make good on all his promises. Because of the large deposits already in Abraham's trust bank he knew with certainty that God would either stop the knife or raise Isaac up from the dead.22
In the present day, invoking the Deity by saying that he declared violence does not say anything true about reality. The miracles surrounding the sacrifice of Isaac have never been historically repeated, and thus all close comparisons are false. God has not placed another human in the situation of Abraham. Therefore, violently imitating Abraham's story and actions are impossible. Gen 12-22 places the sacrifice of Isaac outside the realm of human imitation. If the events in the Abrahamic narrative, in its entirety, informed Abraham's actions in Gen 22, then the account of the sacrifice of Isaac poses no threat of violent imitation.
3. How (Not) to Preach and Apply Genesis 22
This article has situated God's command to Abraham within the context of a unique and miraculous relationship with God. As a result, the modern Christians should recognize that God did not command irrational violence from Abraham. Since Abraham is considered an exemplar of faith, the logic of obedience in Gen 22 should inform preaching, writing, and, most of all, application. Many believers routinely apply Abraham's narrative in irrational (though usually harmless) ways. Many unbelievers, who are more aware of the bloody reception history of this narrative, consider the commendation of irrational obedience to be a game of high-stakes Russian roulette. Most who hear the narrative will be harmless "blanks" but a few will prove explosive. Believers and unbelievers alike have commonly failed to understand the logic behind Abraham's faith as recorded in the text. This misunderstanding stems, in part, from those who have exposited and applied this text in written and oral form. Believers and unbelievers should be able to agree that the Bible describes Abraham in a unique way that makes his actions impossible to imitate. The aim of the next section is to state five guidelines for preaching and applying this text in a way that is (1) more faithful to the narrative, and (2) less likely to encourage irrational behaviour. I will state each guideline negatively and positively.
3.1. Don't Separate Genesis 22 from Genesis 12-21
Stated positively: Make every effort to place Gen 22 in the miraculous context of Gen 12-21. Strive to unite the climax of the story with the decades of miraculous backstory.
If all you mention of the Lord of the Rings is Sam and Frodo at Mount Doom, bickering about throwing a piece of gold away, then you are missing the whole story. There is a huge difference between the climactic scene and the story in which the scene is situated. The climax needs the story in order to be coherent. Do not divorce Abraham's supreme act of faith (Gen 22) from the rest of his miraculous life of faith (Gen 12-21).
3.2. Don't Make Abraham the Exemplar of Blind Faith
Stated Positively: Highlight the evidence given in the text for why Abraham should have believed that he could rightly interpret God's will.
Believers and skeptics alike regard Abraham as the Bible's faithful exemplar.23 My concern here is with Christians who believe that Abraham's sacrifice set some sort of precedent.24 How one perceives the original narrative influences the way that one can follow the precedent set by the text. Those who interpret Abraham's faith to be "blind" apply Gen 22 as follows:
- If Abraham in Gen 22 is the exemplar of faith,
- if Abraham's faith was irrational or blind in Gen 22,
- then I follow Abraham's example best when I exercise blind or irrational faith.
- Thus I might use Gen 22 to support an action that requires blind or irrational faith.
The hermeneutical judgment about Abraham's blind faith influences modern applications of this passage. This reader may be prone to irrational decisions because of what he or she interprets to be a biblical precedent. Someone inhabiting this paradigm might kill their daughter after having a dream that God commanded this.25
The following illustration shows how application would be different if the interpreter noticed the large-scale miracles mentioned in the whole Abrahamic narrative. I have argued that these miracles made Abraham's faith rational. If this is the case, then a Christian will apply Abraham's example to a different set of circumstances:
- If Abraham in Gen 22 is the exemplar of rational faith,
- if Abraham's faith was exercised in the context of strong reason in Gen 22,
- then I follow Abraham's example best when I exercise faith in accord with reason.
- Thus I might use Gen 22 to support an action that requires faith and strong reason.
Notice that the person in the present day will apply the Abrahamic narrative to a different set of situations. They are more likely to use the narrative as support alongside their strong reason. They might trust God to provide needed money to complete seminary. But they would consider killing their child based on a feeling or dream to be outside the realm what God would ask.26 They would recognize that they have not been miraculously placed, like Abraham, at a pivotal moment in redemptive history. They would see that Abraham had good reasons for his faith-filled actions.27 Thus their faith-filled actions should also accord with reason. This is how one follows the faith of Abraham.
3.3. Don't Sacrifice Discontinuity on the Altar of Continuity
Stated Positively: Labor to show Abraham's uniqueness before one draws out universal applications from his narrative.
One of the pleasures and pitfalls of preaching is the need to apply the text of the Bible to the modern Christian. Making the Bible relevant is pleasurable because God works through the text to bring someone into a relationship with him. Thus there is a high level of continuity between all peoples and groups that have been in a covenantal relationship with God. This continuity provides fertile grounds for applying the Bible to daily life.
Application also opens up the door for misapplication. In the effort to maximize correspondence between Abraham and the modern Christian it might be easy to minimize Abraham's uniqueness. I am not arguing for a radical discontinuity between Abraham and the modern believer. There are many lessons that one can learn about God, faith, the human condition, and God's faithfulness to promises. Abraham properly fears God and has a faith grounded in the person and work of God (Rom 4; Heb 11:17-19; Jas 2:20-21). However, if discontinuities between Abraham and the Christian are not highlighted, the Christian might not be able to distinguish God's speaking to Abraham from the communications claimed by the deranged Utah murderer.
Christians have an additional reason why they should believe that imitating the faith of Abraham would not requires violence. After the crucifixion, believers stand in a very different place in redemptive history. Many of the themes in Gen 22 are amplified in the New Testament relationship between Jesus and his Father.28 Though some have argued that the crucifixion was divine child abuse, this charge evidences a fundamental misunderstanding of the person of Christ in relation to the Father and of their purpose in the incarnation.29 On this side of the cross Christians can see Abraham's test of faith as foreshadowing ultimate redemption in Christ.
3.4. Don't Make Abraham's Relationship with God Normative
Stated Positively: Treat Abraham as a character whom God uniquely called for a particular purpose. Abraham and the covenant God made with him are non-repeatable. The Christian is not constantly hearing new covenants from God or receiving new commands to sacrifice Isaacs.
I believe that a large percentage of Christians do a disservice to their own experience of God and to Abraham's experience of God by treating his life as a pattern for Christian living. For example, Ben Campbell Johnson makes Abraham's experience of directly hearing from God normative. He does this by watering down the Abrahamic narrative itself:
We do a disservice to God, to Abram, and to our faith when we place Abram in a special category as a hearer of God's voice. [We imagine God speaking to Abram shouting through a megaphone] but what if God did not shout at Abram but spoke in a flash or a gentle flow of thoughts into his mind? In some ways these were normal thoughts like he had had before, yet in other ways they were very different. These thoughts about a land, a nation, and being a blessing were ideas he had pondered in the same way he had pondered the number of his sheep, his cattle, and his servants.30
It would be unsettling if Abraham only heard God's voice through a "gentle flow of thoughts." Were Abraham's thoughts about sacrificing Isaac "normal thoughts like he had had before?" Had he pondered killing his son in the same way he "pondered the number of his sheep?" Johnson's sermonizing on Abraham is typical. In making Abraham's experience of God normative he has handicapped his own ability to provide solid grounds for Abraham's actions on Mount Moriah. It is ironic (but normal for this type of literature) that this book, which prominently features Abraham's hearing of God, never mentions the sacrifice of Isaac.
3.5. Don't Casually Spiritualize Abraham's Actions
Stated Positively: When calling your audience to radical devotion, remember that devotion for Abraham required being willing to kill his innocent son. Therefore, you should give your audience good reasons for why God would not call them to act violently toward a human.
One of the main methods of applying the Bible to modern life is to spiritualize the narrative and draw general applications from the example in the text. While there is validity in this approach, one must be very cautious as they carefully nuance application. Spiritualizing violent passages is extremely common because it is difficult to know what to do with these texts. Spiritualization allows the preacher to end a difficult sermon on a positive note that moves the audience towards action. Speaking of the conquest narrative, Jeph Halloway writes: "While [spiritualization] is personally meaningful, I would think it awkward to talk about my struggles with covetousness and worldly pleasures while standing in the midst of the rubble of Jericho. . . . The biblical material on holy war will have its spiritual lessons, but to seek them in indifference to the actual events of the conquest of Canaan ignores the harsh reality of bloodshed and violence."31 Similarly, one could spiritualize the sacrifice of Isaac and say that God is calling the Christian to offer up to God their personal idols. If this approach is taken, one must always remember that Abraham was called to raise a real knife and sacrifice a real human. He was not called to raise a metaphorical knife over his lusts.32 One should not seek application while being indifferent to the actual events described in this narrative.
This article has argued that there is real danger in misunderstanding (and thus misapplying) Gen 22. This narrative has been and will likely continue to be dangerous so long as preachers, authors, and congregants continue to misunderstand the rational grounds given in the text for Abraham's faith in Gen 22. The primary error is in separating the supreme act of faith (Gen 22) from the uniquely miraculous life of faith (Gen 12-21). The danger is not in the text itself but in the prevailing interpretation and application of the text.
I have argued that the Bible itself, in its very description of the contexts of violence, places the violence outside the realm of imitation. I have set Abraham's obedience in the context that the text claims for itself. It is not my argument that makes violent imitation of the text impossible, rather it is the very claims of the Bible. Because Abraham had good reasons for believing that he stood in a unique relationship with God, the modern preacher should speak in a way that highlights the rational grounds for Abraham's actions.