When it comes to accusations against the God of the Bible, one of the most notable finger pointings concerns the sacrifice of Isaac — called the Aqedah (binding). (After the jump I provide the whole text from Genesis 22. Paul Copan, in Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, examines this text and the common accusations against it.
Copan sketches a few common complaints: that this text records a “monstrous test” (what kind of God would “test” by asking one of his children to slay his own child?), that one has to wonder what kind of man Abraham was to be willing to do such a thing, and then he probes a bit that Kierkegaard explained this text in part by suggesting God suspended typical ethical obligations.
What do you find to be the fundamental moral problem here?
Copan approaches this text and event — the Aqedah — by sketching the big theme of the Pentateuch, by sorting through the immediate context of Genesis 22, by illustrating the kind of God at work in the Aqedah command, and by exploring the conditionality of moral commands. Then he sketches Jesus as the Second Isaac and how this is not an act of divine child abuse.
I begin with the first of his points:
The theme of the Pentateuch, and here he’s using Sailhamer, is that Abraham (pre Law) is faithful while Moses, who has the Torah, is not as faithful. I’m unconvinced of the comprehensiveness of this Abraham vs. Moses theme but no one denies that Abraham is an example of faith. The immediate context is that God is faithful to his promise; that Ishmael will not be the true heir; that Isaac will be.
A feature of Copan’s sketch is the gentleness of the language at work when God commands Abraham to offer Isaac: it’s a test and God says “Take, I beg of you, your only son.” And this “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac” is endearing and covenant promise language. And even the place to which they are to go, Moriah (“provide,” “see,” “show”), evokes the faithfulness of God.
Another feature here is how moral commands work. Moral commands arise in a world of assumptions. If we factor into this that God knows what Abraham doesn’t, that God can raise from the dead, that this is a test … etc… God is both justified in his command and the accusation against God falls. And Abraham’s statement to his servants that “we will return” suggests Abraham somehow knows that God will be faithful to make Isaac his heir.
I’ll stop here. I’m not entirely satisfied, but I think the moral commands point is a serious response. I wish Copan had explored this more.
But there’s one more point I wish to consider before we let go of the chapter. More could be said here about child sacrifice. It was common in the ancient world and, though I don’t often see many discuss this it must be entered into this discussion. My contention is that the Aqedah deconstructs child sacrifice for Israel. Not only does it do what Copan suggests above, but God does three things in the Abraham narrative that undoes child sacrifice: in a context where ancient folks offered the first child to appease the gods, God (1) commands Abraham and Israel only to wound the child with a cut in circumcision and (2) God removes the child, Isaac, from the sacrificial altar, thereby undoing the legitimacy of the ancient mode. In its place, God (3) provides a ram as a substitute for child sacrifice. Sure this is accommodation to the ancient world, but I find this dimension of the text a very important factor and part of the moral problem.
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.”