When I wrote this, I had been reading some student assignments that discussed the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, and was struck by how many are ready to say that Abraham did the right thing in being willing to kill his son. They said this, presumably, because the story is in the Bible, and so Abraham must have been right.
What is missing from such readings of the story is any attempt to put themselves in Abraham’s shoes (or Isaac’s, for that matter), and ask what it would have been like to be part of this story at a time when no Bible existed.
An important question that readers of the story ought to ask is how, if they had been Abraham, they would have known for sure that God was commanding them to kill their son. Did Abraham really hear a voice, or was he simply following a common cultural practice? If you were in Abraham’s situation and indeed heard a voice telling you to sacrifice your son, how would you know it wasn’t a lying spirit that spoke to you? How would you know that the voice you heard wasn’t simply an indication of the onset of mental illness? Of course, the latter might seem like too modern a notion to apply to an ancient text. But perhaps noticing that divergence between explanations that we might give today, and ones available in antiquity, would itself be a helpful outcome of reading the story and situating yourself in it.
Readers of the story ought to also place themselves in Isaac’s shoes, and perhaps should read the story alongside an account of what Andrea Yates
did to her children, and to what little we’ve been able to find out about what her children said to her before she drowned them.
The Bible both condemns child sacrifice and suggests that God demanded it on at least some occasions. The Bible also calls upon us to do to others what we’d want them to do to us. I don’t think any of us would want to be in the situation of being a child and having a parent try to kill us. Isn’t it time to stop attempting to harmonize what’s in the Bible, and allow that greatest of Biblical principles, the Golden Rule, to trump, invalidate, and expose as wrong those parts of the Bible that run counter to it? If we ask “What would Jesus do?”, surely the evidence from the sayings attributed to him in the New Testament suggest that he would allow one passage to override another, just as he allowed humanitarian concerns to take priority over the command to rest on the sabbath. Shouldn’t those who wish to call themselves Jesus’ followers approach the Bible in the same way?