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.
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