Tell God No

What should you do if God tells you to sacrifice your child? Abraham (according to the story in Genesis) said “Yes Lord” and took Isaac up Mount Moriah. According to the story, he was interrupted before he could go through with it by a voice that said “Now I know that you fear God…”

I think most of us today would be more likely to react by saying “Now we know that Abraham fears God” if he refused to respond to the voice he heard. If someone went through with such an act, we would justifiably view them as insane. It is not just the hearing of voices that would be an issue, but the notion that it would be appropriate because one heard a voice to set aside our concepts of morality.

It doesn’t seem to me to be a viable option for anyone today to say “This story is literally true and teaches values to which I assent”. Those who say they accept the story’s factuality and its moral and theological authority only do so in the certainty (gained to some extent from their exposure to the story itself) that God would never actually ask them to do such a thing. But the story, if treated as factual, requires Abraham to believe God could well ask him to do such a thing.

Personally, I do think there is a better option than either taking the story as “Gospel truth” or discarding it as an abhorrent relic of a morality that we today cannot espouse. We can recognize behind this story an author who is creatively adapting traditions about famous ancestors of the Israelites, in order to subvert the all-too-common ancient practice of child sacrifice. We can then find inspiration in the story to follow the author’s example and rework other stories, in the Bible or in our wider cultural heritage, in similarly subversive ways. We can look to the stories not with the assumption that they will always indicate to us what is right and what is wrong, but with the expectation that we are part of a process of defining what is right. It takes courage to try to change a society’s definition. And keep in mind that it is at least partly thanks to the author of the story in Genesis that it is today taken for granted that killing one’s child is not the way to go about pleasing a deity.

So what should you do if you hear a voice commanding you to sacrifice your child? Simple: TELL GOD NO. Any deity worth worshipping will be pleased by your disobedience to such a command. And then go forth and tell the story. It will make a very appropriately subversive recasting of the Abraham story.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    My conversations with many who want to do what God says seem to indicate that saying No to God is not an option. Maybe they haven’t heard any voice and don’t know who they are hearing or talking to – but also don’t want to acknowledge either such ignorance or the fear such an admission would cause.If it is possible for us to begin to listen, maybe we could begin to say – it seemed good to God and us to do such and such… and we would learn to distinguish things that are different and bind what needs binding and loose what needs loosing – in the name of justice and mercy and recognition that we might actually have been wrong in some of those thoughts that we thought we were right about – especially with what people think God is saying or was supposed to have said. (Or the Bible – that has neither ears, nor eyes, nor voice.)But this would mean we had to actually think past the cultural – i.e. political and religious – inertia we have been overlaid with. And such thinking is not only rare, but dangerous – I am not at all sure we can stand it… Is momentum better then? No. No amount of clothing will make things warm that are due to pass away…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08342566023774158670 Cliff Martin

    Bob, you might well have shortened your last paragraph to just two of your phrases: “But this would mean we had to actually think. I am not at all sure we can.”Thank you, James, for helping us to think through the difficult questions, and finding ways to use our minds without abandoning the essence of faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02376942788228063430 Wieland Willker

    “So what should you do if you hear a voice commanding you to sacrifice your child?”For a long time I struggled with this question. Of course I wouldn’t do it. There are other such stories, where the father actually killed his child (Jephta). Why are these stories in the Bible? I am wondering what Jesus would have said to this, if one would have asked him about it. In my view the Abraham/Isaak story is meant as it is: As pure horror. This is the most unthinkable thing you can do to your child. Realize that! Now think of what God did to his son. That is in my view the lesson of this story. I am sure, we will not be asked this question.

  • Bill Seymour

    I’m not a Biblical scholar,so I probably have this wrong;but I think I remember hearingthat there are both E and Jversions of the story. In one,the angel stops Abraham beforedoing the deed, and in the other,the angel brings Isaac back tolife.I’m in a motel as I write this,so I found the Gideon Bible andlooked it up. What I read inChap. 22 is only the angelstopping Abraham. Do I rememberthe bit about two versionsincorrectly?–Bill

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    James – you have raised a subject that has occupied the human since alef declined to the the first letter of the Bible. The ‘life of the world’ is not possible without the cost of creation or without our circumcision in the death of ‘the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world’. These sentences are acts of love in the face of the horror that Wieland notes. Still they are part of what it means to say that Creation is good and that יְהוָה is good. Where else does faith start?

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 benjdm

    It doesn’t seem to me to be a viable option for anyone today to say “This story is literally true and teaches values to which I assent”.That’s exactly what my religious instruction taught. I’m in my thirties and was raised Catholic, so this is both recent and mainstream. Were my instructors contradicting the standard interpretation? Let’s see what the Catholic Encyclopedia says……It was after this that the great trial of the faith of Abraham takes place. God commands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. When Abraham has his arm raised and is in the very act of striking, an angel from heaven stays his hand and makes the most wonderful promises to him of the greatness of his posterity because of his complete trust in God…This trust in God was shown by him when he left Haran and journeyed with his family into the unknown country of Chanaan. It was shown principally when he was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, in obedience to a command from God. It was on that occasion that God said: “Because thou hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake I will bless thee” etc. That certainly reads to me like Abraham passed his trial of faith by being willing to obey the command to kill his own son. What you label as ‘not a viable option’ is a standard Sunday school teaching. Well, at least the second half – ‘the story teaches values to which I assent.’

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    If anyone should ever hear a voice inside your mind identifying itself as Yahveh (or any other god) commanding you to kill your own offspring . . . you are suffereing from an acute case of homocidal schizophraenia . . . . please . . . . for G-sh’s sake . . . do yourself and us a favor and seek psychiatric treatment . . . Will’ ya?:)Ó

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    For so long I thought that this was always the way God would address anything that I liked or desired. After all, Isaac was the child of promise. That meant that I had to destroy anything that meant anything about my future, i.e. goals, desires, plans, hopes dreams to prove to God, my trust “that he would lead” (“Lead On Thou Great Jehovah”). Then, I came across some fundamentalists groups that were all too willing to tell me what God wanted from me. That was not only presumptuous, but very damaging to me psychologically and spiritually. I don’t think I have recovered yet, completely. I am continuing to learn to discern.God cannot ask of us something that goes against the moral law, because it goes against his character. These texts were written within an ancient paradigm that does not apply today. We must not in the “name of God” demand for others to prove their faith. Faith is personal, and cannot be gauged by outward forms of performance. Who, then determines what is performed and how much sacrifice, etc.? It is cultish to do such and it plays into other’s greed, coveteousness, revenge,egotism ETC…our own hearts are the ones that must be right before God. Others can help us to be true to what we think God desires and confirm or challenge what we think we know…But, others cannot walk our journey for us, nor can they tell us what God wants. They are only brothers of faith along the way…of faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    benjdm, I suppose what I should have added is that anyone who says that they take a story in the Bible literally as fact, but complete exclude the possibility that God would speak or act in their own life and time in the way described in the story, the truth is that they don’t actually believe the story in any meaningful sense…

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 benjdm

    nyone who says that they take a story in the Bible literally as fact, but complete exclude the possibility that God would speak or act in their own life and time in the way described in the story, the truth is that they don’t actually believe the story in any meaningful senseI think I would agree with that. Now looking up the Catholic Encyclopedia on ‘communication from God’…http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13001a.htmI think the possibility is not excluded, if I’m reading it correctly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    BTW, These groups were AFTER I had come to “faith in Jesus”, the traditional conservative, believe in Jesus and “be saved”…I no longer believe the afore mentioned, nor the one above. That does not mean that the message above did not have ‘meaning to me” at the time….I had been freed from “religion” by it, at least that was the meaning then…for me…Today, I would agree more with Qiuxie…go to a psychaitrist!

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 benjdm

    I put up a poll. I’m curious.

  • mairnealach

    This incident reveals things about people. It peels back the respectable veneer which we put over ourselves.About Abraham, it revealed he trusted God to somehow restore his son–against every possible human instinct to the contrary.About modern people, it tends to reveal how condescending they are about those “primitives” and their “myths”. Shock! Horror! At root, these folks aren’t really complaining about a God who would issue such a wicked order.They’re really complaining about a God who would have issued such a mind-boggling promise in the first place.I mean, come on. A 100 year old man fathering a child? That heir going on to bless the population of the entire planet?That’s just crazy talk, man.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    mairnealach,I think the story also reveals the slight of hand of many fundamentalists today. Most of them consider it essential to believe that the things described in the Bible happened exactly as described (even, as Ned Flanders put it, “the stuff that contradicts the other stuff”), with the convenient proviso that you’ll never be confronted with the dilemma of a voice asking you to do such a thing today, and having to ask whether it is a test by the Devil, a command from God, a sign or mental illness, or your neighbor playing a joke on you with a megaphone.Have you ever thought about how odd it is to believe that there was a time in which God restored limbs, struck blasphemers dead on the spot, and spoke to people in an audible voice, and yet so many Christians (and others) claim that God is “the same yesterday, today and forever” and yet also only seems to speak and act in ways that are visible to the “eyes of faith”?What I’m suggesting is simply that we Christians be consistent, that if are convinced that it is problematic to suggest that God does something today, then we admit that we don’t believe God did them in the past either. Is that asking too much?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    JamesIt is too hard to be consistent. I recall a story told to a speaker about to speak. There are two kinds of people in your audience – those who believe the earth is flat and those who don’t. Same people.Does HaShem do today what is written of as having been accomplished in canonical times? Listen to the fear or confidence (or both – same people) on the blogs or in the news and make your own decision.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    What I fear and it makes me mad as ….is that thsoe who are enlightened will ‘take advantage” of the gullible or naive…We see this all the time internationally. Those who are uneducated are at the mercy of those who have the education, power, money and posiiton to “use” them for economice advantages…and justfy it in the name of progress…maybe I am too idealistic, as if ther parties agree then there is no damage, is there…or is there innately damage done to the one who takes advantage of another…what kind of character is that….the market driven one…

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 benjdm

    Poll results:8 Christians responded3 considered the story NOT literally true, do NOT think Abraham acted correctly in trying to follow God’s command, and DO exclude the possibility that God could ask them to do the same.5 consider the story literally true and think Abraham acted correctly. Of these, 2 do NOT exclude the possibility of God asking them to do the same and 3 DO exclude it.Limited poll results, of course. But the majority do believe that the story is literally true and that Abraham did the right thing to try and kill his son.

  • http://anxiousmofo.wordpress.com Anxious Mo-Fo

    Nice post. And gagging this post with “Euthyphro” provides an interesting angle from which to look at the story.

  • http://anxiousmofo.wordpress.com Anxious Mo-Fo

    Er, “tagging”, not “gagging”. Oops.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18033376629000540153 David A.M. Wilensky

    This all plays into a previous, total recasting of the story. The story is not about obedience. Rather, God is making a point.A little research into ancient Canaanite religions will show us that it was very common for the chief deity of a town or a region to demand the life of firstborn male children as a sacrifice.That being the case, Avraham certainly considered the possibility of God asking for the life of Yitzchak to be a likelihood. When God finally asked for it, Avraham, though certianly not thrilled, would not have been altogether surprised.Once on Mt. Moriah, as we all know, God stops Avraham from what he is about to do and provides a ram to be slaughtered in Yitzchak’s place.The charade was necessary to jar Avraham loose of his peer-influenced presuppositions about his relationship with God. The story is God saying, “This is something new. I don’t want your own blood, like the gods your peers worship.” This revelation may have been a shock to Avraham, but finally, now, he knows exactly what his God is all about.


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