Coming Out of Ur - How the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac defined God for all of us
Most people are very familiar with the basic plot line of Abraham sacrificing Isaac on the Mountain:
God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain. Abraham prepares to kill his son, gets to the top of the mountain, pulls out his knife, and is stopped by an angel.
Despite it's popularity, the tale of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac remains horribly misunderstood.
After reading the story, many moderners are troubled by the passage, asking "How is God not cruel for asking Abraham to Sacrifice Issac?" Others may ask "Doesn't this passage paint God as at least flirting with the idea of child sacrifice?" It's hard to talk about this passage without the questions of whether God is evil or immoral coming up.
There is, of course, a very large cultural divide between us and the men who first wrote the passage in these questions: Abraham (and Abraham's culture as a whole) would have had the very opposite image of God upon hearing this story.
Let me explain.
The biggest problem with the way that we approach this story is that it has been separated from the larger overarching theme of Abraham's life. To try to understand God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac without looking at the rest of Abraham's life is like trying to understand a movie, by watching only 10 minutes of it. You might understand the final plot twist, but you will miss the overarching story. To understand the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, one must understand Abraham.
The Setting for the Story of Abraham and IsaacThe story of Abraham is from the ancient world -- not ours. Although we knew of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the bible, Abraham has no such resource. God is, to Abraham, altogether unknown when God first asks Abraham to leave his land (Ur) and move to a new place (Israel), where God will bless him and make him the father of a great nation.
Abraham's back storyThe story of Abraham's life is about coming out of Ur, but in more than one way. In those days Ur (the place that God asks Abraham to move out of) was the mecca of bloody religions. Thousands of gods hailed from Ur, a rain god who requires human sacrifice to keep the rain coming, a fertility god who craved blood, a regional god for this place and that, etc, etc, etc. Again, Abraham knows nothing of God at this point, Is God good? Is He Evil? Controlling? Vindictive? Angry? Passive? Perverted? Nice? These questions have not be asked yet, much less answered. This is Abraham's -- and, collectively, mankind's first introduction to the Hebrew God. Whatever God does to Abraham will define His nature, personality, and identity to billions of people.
So Abraham sets out, trying to obey God's commandment to move, motivated by the promise of blessings and many children. Along the way to Israel (and leaving Ur), Abraham sells his wife into sexual slavery, but gets he back when the man who bought her finds out she's not a virgin (which God says he revealed to the buyer). The buyer is more than a little upset, because in the culture at the time, a woman who was not a virgin had little to no value. Along the way, multiple times Abraham argues with God and is distrustful of a God who he keeps thinking is out to get him. Abraham and his wife laugh at God when God tells them that God is going to give them a son in their old age.
The bible doesn't say this, it doesn't need to, as anyone of that time would have immediately understood that gods don't take kindly to being laughed at. Abraham, and the earliest people who heard the story, would have expected Abraham to die.
Instead, God asks Abraham to name his son "Laughter" (which is what "Isaac" means in Hebrew). God defines himself immediately as someone with thick skin. You might say that God reveals himself as the type of God who when mocked, joins in on the joke; the type of God who asks you to name your child after the jest you made at his expense.
But Abraham hears none of this. God, again, promises to protect Abraham, but Abraham, again, sells his wife into sexual slavery. Many scholars believe that this second inclusion is by accident (the theory states that it is the result of a simple copying mistake when the eyes of the person reproducing the passage fell on the wrong area). Although the middle of the story is almost word for word the same as the first time Abraham attempts to sell his wife, I disagree with this theory, as it ignores the approximate 1000 years that this tale operated as oral literature. By using this repetition, the tale would have been easier to remember, and furthermore using exact wording is a dramatic literary device that makes the case that Abraham has learned nothing from the first time he sells his wife into slavery and God rescues her. This second time, Abraham demonstrates, yet again, that he still does not trust God to protect him. God warns the buyer in a dream that this woman is Abraham's wife. The buyer asks Abraham to pray that God would spare his (the buyer's) life for what he (the buyer) has done. This exchange is very revealing about the culture of the times, as the buyer has done nothing wrong and has merely been tricked by Abraham, yet the buyer is convinced that God will kill him for nothing more than being deceived.
Soon after this, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, again, illustrating that they do not trust God, attempt to have a child through a surrogate mother. After she bears a son, Abraham's wife becomes jealous of the woman and her son and mistreats them. Abraham and his wife have a fight where she finally brings up their history and says "May God, himself, punish you for what you have done to me!" Abraham's wife drives the woman and her son into the desert, and Abraham makes only the smallest attempt to help them in their journey. God appears to the woman and her son when they are dying in the desert giving them food and water, and saying that the boy will father the Arab nations, that He will protect them and sustain them, and that they too will be blessed by God.
Culturally at this point in human history, women were property -- nothing more. Both times Abraham attempts to sell his wife, no human characters feel remorse for buying or selling women but, rather, the only emotion displayed are when both buyers felt cheated for buying a woman who was not a virgin (and thus who had less value). Returning to Sarah's outburst, another man, at this time, would have culturally been able to kill or send away his wife for this type of disrespect. Abraham's lack of a response, should be viewed not as righteousness or progress -- he obviously thinks of his wife as property, as he has attempted to sell her twice -- but probably indicating a deep depression. Depression and hopelessness could also be the reason why he makes almost no attempt to save the life of his surrogate son, who he did have a strong cultural obligation to look after.
Interlude: Be careful not to assume that God condones human slavery or the mistreatment of women because of Abraham's actions. Abraham does not speak for God, and although God makes almost no commentary about Abraham's sale of his wife, he intervenes both times to rescue Sarah. For more about God's specific instructions about what to do about slavery please see my commentary on Colossians 3.
Still Abraham is distrustful. The very next time that God speaks to Abraham and again promises that Abraham will be made into a great nation, Abraham says "Far be it from you to rain down destruction on the righteous as well as the wicked. Far be it from you! Will you do what is right?" These are bold words to be sure, and Abraham's most dramatic challenge to God's character yet.
At this point in the story, it looks like God has completely failed thus far in convincing Abraham to trust him. Everything that God tries results in more distrust from Abraham.
God the Storyteller, the Artist, the Playwright, the ActorThis is the backdrop for the story of Abraham, and this is where God does something dramatic. And Drama is entirely the right word for what happens next, for God puts on a play. God becomes an actor -- a master playwright -- an artist. Playing the part of the very types of gods that Abraham knew in Ur, God he asks Abraham to sacrifice his son (a request for which Abraham apparently needs no instructions, as God gives none, yet Abraham know what tools to gather). With dramatic flair, God stops the knife at the last second, playing the old familiar tune, in a brand new way; writing a new ending for the story Abraham thought he already knew; writing a fifth chapter for the play that everyone "knew" only had four.
ConclusionWe read this story through our modern eyes. Eyes which will see the very opposite thing than that which was intended: to us the shocking dramatic moment is God asking for a sacrifice, but for Abraham (and Abraham's time) the abrupt, unexpected event was not a God who asked for a sacrifice (every god did that) but a God who stopped one.
Despite it's uses in later references to Christ's death on the cross, the tale of Abraham is first and foremost a story to and for Abraham. Only once we understand what it meant to the man who lived it can we understand what it can mean for us, and how it truly relates to Christ (if at all).
The story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is about replacing all those old, false ideas of a God who is out to get us, with the true story of a God who cares for us and will go to incredible lengths to make sure we know that. It's a story of a God who tries many ways to convince Abraham that He is, in fact, good, but Abraham just doesn't get it until this God acts out a dramatic reversal of the old, familiar tale of a vindictive deity. Sadly the story has lost its meaning, and instead is used to trench in all those old narratives of a vindictive, angry god who want to punish us.
For a modern fictional retelling of the story of Abraham, please see The old man and the gods.