Is God a Moral Monster? 3

Is God a Moral Monster? 3 December 10, 2010

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.

Genesis 22

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.”

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  • Susan N.

    I tend to think that God led Abraham to the “test” of offering his beloved son, Isaac, for two reasons (briefly cited in your post). Because God spared Isaac, Abraham’s faith and trust in God was proven and strengthened. I also believe that the outcome of this test would give Israel a clear sense of God’s will against the child sacrifice to the god Molech common in surrounding pagan culture.

    As I read this, centuries later, and with an awareness of the “whole” story, I see Isaac prefiguring Christ. God is hinting at what He will do in the future through Christ. Even in the suffering and death of Christ on the cross, one could try to make a case for a “monstrous God”. But, again, as I understand the relationship of the Trinity (3 Persons in One), it was God Himself who offered Himself and did what we could not do for ourselves in conquering sin and death. He stooped down, reached out to us, because we couldn’t get to Him on our own merit and resourcefulness.

    Either way, I don’t see this as monstrous or struggle with any moral dilemma here. Seeing the bigger picture has saved me from fearing a perceived God-as-moral-monster, potentially misunderstood in OT scripture alone. New wineskins a must, Jesus said…

  • Tim

    Does anyone have the chapter listing for his book? This is 3 soft-ball questions in a row now. I mean, common, Isaac didn’t even have a hair harmed on his head. Anyway, if anyone has that chapter listing I’d be grateful, as Scot let us know he’s working down the list of them one-by-one. Thanks.

  • Paul

    I agree with Scot that the ancient world context helps us to better understand this story.

    Tim, I wouldn’t dismiss this story so easily. To read the entire story and know the ending is one thing, but to enter into the life of Isaac & almost be murdered by your father because of God’s command is another. (Especially when you learn that your father did intend to kill you, believing that God would just raise you from the dead)

    What must Isaac have thought of this God when he was walking the long journey home with his father? What must Isaac have thought of his father (called faithful by God) after this event?

  • Justin B.

    I think the gentleness factor and the “we will return” statement are stronger indications that Abraham suspected this was a test, but I’m not sure I buy the notion that God would have been justified in asking for Isaac’s death because He had the ability to raise that boy from the dead.

    I’ve also never been comfortable with how this incident might have affected, or even scarred, Isaac.

  • Justin B.

    One more thing: the idea that Isaac might have foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice in some sense doesn’t make this story any easier for me. And the cynical part of me sometimes wonders if people say “This looks forward to Jesus’ death” because they don’t want to dwell on how unsettling and disturbing this account really is.

  • Susan N.

    Tim and Paul, the real issue may rest more on man’s response to our perception of God’s character and will, if I’m reading between the lines of your posts. The problem of theodicy is a real stumbling block to faith in God’s goodness for many, and is something that I personally have wrestled with at times. Why does God allow bad things to happen in this world? Does He in fact command and will us to do monstrous acts in His name? I don’t think this is the point of these OT scriptures.

    Tim, I may be projecting my own experiences onto your comments, but I have a sense that your frustration and anger to these “softball” posts come from the position of man using the OT God of retribution texts to justify their own unjust actions in the world?

  • To rightly discuss the story we have to begin with numerous assumptions. First that it is a factual account of what Abraham did. Second, that God actually said what this story records Him as saying rather than being Abraham’s interpretation of God’s intent based on his cultural milieu. Third, that the later author (Moses?) of the story didn’t take a age-old story and allegorize it for his own people. If we then assume we can take this story literally, then we have, as Origen once wrote, a problem. Both God and Abraham become morally suspect. Yet, if we permit ourselves to look beyond a mere literal reading of the story, seeing only allegory, we capture the divine plan for salvation.

  • Susan N.

    Right-on, Bill! I’m with you. –Although I must now bow out of the discussion, for the day’s duties call 🙂 Will be eager to check back later this evening to see how the discussion unfolds. Iron sharpens iron!

  • Your last paragraph is key. Abraham is asked to leave the gods of his father. Those are the gods who demand child/human sacrifice. In Hebrew, the beginning of the akedah start by referring to God as Elohim (a generic term for God that literally translates “the gods”). As the story progresses, the name for God changes to the specific God of Israel, Yahweh (the angel of the Lord/Yahweh). This name/identity shift is significant. It is the gods (elohim) of Abraham’s father who demand child sacrifice. God/Yahweh never desires to kill Isaac, but desires to move Abraham away from child sacrifice. The test is whether or not Abraham will really leave the gods of his father and follow the One God (who will become the God of Israel as the Story progresses) who leads humanity away from violent sacrifice. This is a God unlike the other “gods”. This whole Storyline, of course, culminates in the specific God who becomes human in Jesus who refuses violence and lives in sacrificial love-who takes up human violence on the cross and offers divine forgiveness and peace in return.

  • Myron Penner

    Great blog, Scott. There is another, even deeper, deconstructive element to God’s command – one that Kierkegaard understands (and subsequently, Milbank & Zizek too). That is, God’s command is extraneous to the moral order. It accomplishes nothing for society. Unlike other ancient commands, Abraham’s sacrifice is not to atone for anything or save a society from disaster. So God’s undoing of the sacrifice extends not only to the question of child sacrifice, but sublates the efficacy of sacrifice itself. “if you desired a sacrifice, I would bring it”

  • Scot,

    Thanks again for posting on my book.

    Just a quick note on two things:

    First, on expanding on difficult divine commands such as the Aqedah: I do extend the this brief discussion later in the book when addressing the Canaanite question. (As an aside, I also had space limitations to deal with; the book expanded well beyond what the contract allowed. The Baker folks were very gracious!)

    Second, on child sacrifice: I do go into a good bit of detail on child sacrifice later in the book, though not in the present chapter. Excellent points on Gen. 22 deconstructing child sacrifice, Scot!

  • Reading literally, if Abraham knows it’s a test, then I don’t understand what it’s a test *of*. Abraham’s willingness to pretend to sacrifice his son? Abraham’s willingness to almost sacrifice his son? If Abraham already knows the outcome, then doesn’t that lower the stakes to the point of triviality, as if it were a divine game of chicken?

  • Justin B.


    A quick question: Does your book respond to some of the points in “The Christian Delusion” that are devoted to refuting your arguments? Or was your book published before “Delusion”?

  • Justin,

    Yes, I fairly thoroughly respond to that particular chapter. Many of my responses to it are prefaced by the phrase “some critics”!

    I hope you find it a profitable read!



  • Tim,

    You asked for a chapter listing. I don’t know how many of these chapters Scot will cover (believe me, I’m very grateful for the coverage he’s given so far!), but here is the table of contents (whose chapter headings are taken from the New Atheists themselves!).

    Part I: Neo-Atheism
    1. Who Are the New Atheists?
    2. The New Atheists and the Old Testament God

    Part II: God: Gracious Master or Moral Monster?
    3. “Great Appetite for Praise and Sacrifices”? Divine Arrogance or Humility?
    4. “Monumental Rage” and “Kinglike Jealousy”? Understanding the Covenant-Making God
    5. “Child Abuse and Bullying”? God’s Ways and the Binding of Isaac

    Part III: Life in the Ancient Near East and in Israel
    6. “God’s Timeless Wisdom”? Incremental Steps for Hardened Hearts
    7. The Bible’s “Ubiquitous Weirdness”? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws? (I)
    8. The Bible’s “Ubiquitous Weirdness”? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws? (II)
    9. “Barbarisms,” “Crude Laws,” and “Other Imaginary Crimes”? Punishments and Other Harsh Realities in Perspective
    10. “Misogynistic”? Women in Israel
    11. “Bride Price”? Polygamy, Concubinage, and Other Such Questions
    12. “Warrant for Trafficking in Humans” as “Farm Equipment”? (I): Slavery in Israel
    13. “Warrant for Trafficking in Humans” as “Farm Equipment”? (II): Challenging Texts on Slavery
    14. “Warrant for Trafficking in Humans” as “Farm Equipment”? (III): Slavery in the New Testament
    15. “Indiscriminate Massacre” and “Ethnic Cleansing”? The Killing of the Canaanites (I)
    16. “Indiscriminate Massacre” and “Ethnic Cleansing”? The Killing of the Canaanites (II)
    17. “Indiscriminate Massacre” and “Ethnic Cleansing”? The Killing of the Canaanites (III)
    18. “The Root of All Evil”? Does Religion Cause Violence?

    Part IV: Sharpening the Moral Focus
    19. Morality Without “a Lawgiving God”? The Divine Foundation of Goodness
    20. “We Have Moved Beyond This God (Haven’t We?)”: Jesus as the Fulfiller of the Old Testament

    Discussion/Study Questions

  • dopderbeck

    I agree with the commenters who have suggested that efforts to reconstruct how texts / stories like this developed are important. Critical methods help here.

    This story has never bothered me with respect to God’s character at all. It’s obvious from the story that God never intends for this sacrifice to go forward, and it’s obvious that both Abraham and Isaac have some idea from the get-go that God isn’t going to make Abraham go through with it. I’ve always understood Isaac to have been a willing participant, trusting both Abraham and God to do what is right.

    I tend to agree that the most compelling approach here is the way in which this story deconstructs Canaanite child sacrifice. Excellent points Myron (#10). OTOH, let’s remember that the canonical form of the story probably took shape after the Exile, so perhaps the “faithful Abraham” motif also has merit.

  • Scot, your point about undoing child sacrifice is excellent, and what I find most intellectually satisfying in this post. It’s one thing to say, “Don’t sacrifice your children,” and another thing altogether to pull the child off the altar and replace him with a ram.

  • DRT

    This way of looking at it is new to me and I find it compelling. In the vein of deconstructing child sacrifice, I could easily see Jewish people looking around seeing other cultures sacrificing their children and then think to themselves that they are wimpy for only sacrificing animals. To prove themselves some Jews may have even wanted to sacrifice their children. So this story effectively proves that 1) their Father Abraham, and thereby them, would be willing to do that if their god wanted it and 2) their god does not want it.

  • dopderbeck

    DRT (#18) — and/or think of it this way: after a history of intermingling worship of Yahweh with worship of Canaanite deities, including perhaps child sacrifice and child temple prostitution in some instances, Judah is decimated by Babylon, the Temple is destroyed, and the best and brightest are taken into exile. As they reflect on their cultural stories and experiences, the exiles bring this important story of the Aqedah into the set of texts that will help them retain an identity as a people — with an emphasis on how they must be set apart from Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon if they want to regain God’s blessing. The Aqedah helps them remember that they and their children belong to Yahweh alone, and that Yahweh’s provision for sacrifice — through the system ultimately encoded in the Mosaic Law — is adequate for what He desires — nothing more and nothing less.

  • normbv

    Has any consideration been given to the story of Jephthah sacrificing his only daughter in a vow to God?

    Jdg 11:31 ESV then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

    34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.

    35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.”

  • doperdeck,

    Scripture says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead, isn’t that a little different than knowing he’s not going to go through with it? What leads you to believe Isaac was a willing participant?

    One thing I wonder about this story is what the Christian response to people who claim to hear God telling them to kill their spouse, or children, etc is supposed to be. If this story of Abraham and Isaac is true, then on what basis can I say that God would never command someone to do such a thing?

    To me personally, the issue is what the story says about hearing God’s voice. Maybe I’m just trying to get too much out of it.

  • smcknight

    Bill, I disagree. This story is embedded in sacred scripture as a story, and reconstruction of whether it happened — or what really did happen — won’t change the embededness of the Aqedah in Israel’s self-identifying story.

  • normbv


    If Bill is somewhat correct that it was a form of Hebrew allegory then that has implications for how it should be received. Allegory in this case could imply a thematic implication not to be confused with an over literalness of the story. I believe we find this often in OT stories such as Jonah’s being swallowed by the Great Sea monster, Hosea marrying a prostitute and having offspring that represent Israel and Judah Ezekiel’s use of the two wayward sisters illustrating again Israel and Judah and on it goes. Paul often picks up on Genesis allegory as an essential application such as Hagar and Sara in Gal 4:24 and Eph 5:32-32 concerning Gen 2:24 and the church.

    It indeed does not change the insertion of the story but it may not be as disreputable as literally perceived from our perception. It depends upon the purpose and intent of the author which could very likely have been written from the perspective around the exilic time of the Jews. That in itself brings many questions because it probably would have been very untenable for Jews at this time to have constructed a story about child sacrifice unless there was a greater theological purpose in doing so. Pointing to the messianic implications that were strong during this exilic period may have possibly been a driving influence.

  • Tim

    Paul (#15),

    Thanks for posting the chapter listing! I really appreciate it.

    For me, the only one that really jumps out is the sections on mass indiscriminate slaughter and genocide.

    I was hoping to see something on the forced breaking-up of families if the (usually wife) was a non-believer, as well as forcible sexual/marital taking of virgin women captives after a required “mourning” period. Perhaps this is included in the chapters on misogyny or barbarism?

    I was also hoping to see infanticide focused on. Though perhaps that is treated in more detail in the mass slaughter/genocide chapters?

    Sudden and extreme punishment for not apparently heinous infractions(sometimes followed by quickly changing his mind, after a healthy body count of course) would also be of interest, but I don’t know where I would see this. Perhaps the chapter we already did on Jealousy where “rage” was mentioned, but Scot’s treatment there solely focused on the jealousy aspect and acts of “rage” attributable to violations only in that capacity.

    In any case, thanks Paul for posting those chapter listings. That helps me out a lot.

  • Tim

    OK, I see SEVERAL comments regarding the (apparently) prevalent practice of child sacrifice in the ancient near east, but no real evidence provided to substantiate that claim.

    The picture being painted is so extreme that a reader such as myself almost walks away with the picture that it was more common than not to sacrifice your first-born child to a deity. Now, I’m familiar with the idea of ancient human sacrifice in the region, particularly of children, to deities such as Moloch. But I was never under the impression that it was dominant or so widespread.

    Is this impression wrong? Is anyone here familiar with a scholarly view that argues that humans sacrifice was dominant/pervasive?

  • dopderbeck

    norm (#23) — I agree with you to some extent — see my #21 — but I also agree with Scot (#22). Understanding the purpose of the narrative helps us understand how it should be applied. (I think in some posts on later chapters we’ll get to this, but I personally suspect this is part of how we ought to handle the conquest narratives — though not all will agree). But, regardless of whether “it happened,” this narrative is part of the canonical story of what God did in the life of Israel — and so we can’t say something like “well, God would never really tell Abraham to do that.” Here, in this narrative, God does give these instructions.

  • dopderbeck

    Jordan (#21) — yes I suppose you’re right — so let me amend and say that as Hebrews 11 interprets the story, Abraham thought God would allow Isaac to be killed but would then raise him — and so this is how Abraham expects God to do right. As for Isaac, I don’t see any hint in the story that Isaac resists, particularly when he is “bound” by old man Abraham in verse 9. I’ve often heard it suggested that Isaac could have overpowered Abraham and turned the knife on him. But he doesn’t — he waits for God to provide as Abraham said he would in verse 8.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim: in Richard Hess’ book “Israelite Religions,” there’s an excellent discussion of various Biblical texts that refer to child sacrifice in Israel, as well as the practice of child sacrifice elsewhere in the ANE (e.g., p. 252, 257-258). Apparently it was a pervasive enough and distressing enough problem that it was addressed multiple times in the Hebrew legal and prophetic texts.

  • Tim


    I’m aware that the Biblical text speaks to it. But what I am wondering is that if it really was that pervasive, wouldn’t we be hearing about it from non-Hebrew texts as well? Wouldn’t, for instance, Egyptian and Greek sources reference it, and not just passing references to a localized or scattered practice? I mean, we all agree it happened. And even rare/isolated instances would understandably be deemed worthy of including in a text such as the Bible, given their horrendous nature. But what do we have to go on that shoes it was not just practiced here and there, but commonly practiced as an integral aspect of the sacrificial system in the region?

  • Tim

    …should be shows, not shoes.

  • John I.

    It still seems morally troubling for God to command Abraham to do something that God, elsewhere, decries as morally heinous: child sacrifice. Is child sacrifice any better just because God will raise the victim from the dead? Does the knife hurt any less?

    It is, it seems, the same as if God told Abraham to seduce Lot’s daughter and then to kill both Lot and his wife. Abraham then goes to Lot’s tents intending to carry out God’s command, believing that God will raise them from the dead and give Lot’s daughter to him as a wife.

    Abraham appears to believe that morality is whatever God commands it to be, and is not (or is not only) something inherent to God’s nature. Rather like the Moslem view of God and morality. If God commands child sacrifice, then it is moral. Child sacrifice is only moral if done to the wrong God. Moreover, it doesn’t appear that Abraham believes that God will raise Isaac from the dead because child sacrifice is immoral, but rather because he cannot conceive how he will be the father of many nations if God kills his only son (and Abe and Sarah are too old for kids).

    I don’t think that God gets a moral get-out-of-jail-free card just because he turns up at the last minute with a substitute ram.

    John I.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — take a look at Hess’ book (the pages I reference are on Amazon preview). It’s a detailed and scholarly treatment not only of the Biblical sources but of archeological sources. I gather from this that there are a few possible archeological correlations (evidence of charred children’s bones and so on). Apparently there is also some reference in classical sources to child sacrifice in Carthage (e.g. in Pultarch) to a B’aal.

    I also gather that like many things regarding the ancient world, the interpretation of some of this evidence is debated. So I’d probably agree that we ought to be careful of making more of this one issue than the evidence can bear.

    Even so, the Biblical references in themselves are a sort of evidence and are pretty compelling. These are, after all, not just polemics against surrounding nations — they’re indictments of Israel for participating in these practices.

  • dopderbeck

    John I (#31) — good point. I feel a bit in between in this conversation. I think it’s very helpful to pay careful attention to the context, as Copan is trying to do, in order to put the text in perspective. But I think I disagree to a fair extent with Scot about how the critical understanding of the construction of the story can help us — knowing when and why the text was created might help us understand what it was actually saying in its original context. And I ultimately would say that we just can’t neatly tie up all these messy texts. We definitely, IMHO, need a concept of progressive revelation to help us sort things out — but then without becoming Marcionite. I just can’t help but feel there’s just a bit too much rationalizing going on if we don’t let the weirdness and otherness of these texts sit to some extent.

    BTW, there is a far, far more disturbing reference to child sacrifice in the Tanakh: the story in Judges 11 of Jephtha’s daughter. In return for a military victory, Jephthah keeps a vow to the Lord to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door to meet him when he returns home. Unfortunately, the first thing out of his door was his virgin daughter — whom he indeed sacrifices.

    This is a story I truly can’t make heads or tails out of. I’ve seen it argued that the “sacrifice” was really to send his daughter away to a sort of nunnery, but the vow was for a burnt offering. There’s no indication of disapproval for what Jephtha did, and neither God nor any religious leaders steps in to excuse him from his rash vow.

    Anyway — it’s just one of those stories where it seems almost impossible to bring our cultural horizon into contact with that of the text.

  • Luke B

    Abraham’s telling Isaac that the Lord will provide the lamb also suggests that Abraham trusts that God will find a way to be faithful to the very specific promise in Genesis 17 about Isaac and Isaac’s offspring:

    19Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

  • Luke B

    #33 doperdeck, The Jephthah story is indeed disturbing. What did he think was going to come out of his house to greet him? A ram? It was a rash vow with a horrendous consequence. I read it as a warning against rash vows. There is no immediate indication of disapproval (or approval) but ultimately the indication of disapproval is that God does not want child sacrifice..

  • normbv

    David #26

    Here is one of the problems with remaining too entrenched in reading Genesis literalistically.

    It’s been highlighted by several Genesis Commentators that the Death ages of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph have the appearance of Hebrew numerology in their meaning and application. Here is an example from Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis. Notice that from Abraham to Joseph is a systematic progression of 7, 5, 3, 1 multiplied by a reversed progression of 5, 6, 7 squared. Then for Joseph his death age 110 is the culmination of 5, 6, 7 squared or the summation of his three forefathers.

    Mathematically this is not probable especially with the recognition that the Jews used these ages to illustrate theological points especially in Gen chapter 5. We also know that Joseph is considered to represent Christ in much of the Genesis typological story line and this ties in with the directional pointing of him as the culmination of his forefathers. Another tidbit is to recognize that age 110 has Egyptian King Overtones concerning immortality. Joseph reigning in Egypt is carrying on that idea of immortality except it is appropriated by a Hebrew and not Pharaoh.

    Abraham 175 years =7 X 25 = 5 (squared)
    Isaac 180 years = 5 X 36 = 6 (squared)
    Jacob 147 years = 3 X 49 = 7 (squared)
    Joseph 110 years = 1 X 25+36+49

    What this helps demonstrate is that the stories are simply not entirely literal as the above demonstration reveals. If the death ages bear theological statements through Hebrew numerology in their literature then what else is used as typological applications. I believe it tells us to read Genesis very carefully and try to understand it from the motifs that often carry the underlying message. It’s a Jewish literature form and we need to be aware of its pervasiveness. I believe more work needs to be performed by scholars in delving into these background ramifications and it would very likely help us in the long run in dealing with some difficult sections.

    For those interested here is an online article that delves into Hebrew numerology with the above scenario mentioned.

  • DRT

    Is there anything in the bible about cat sacrifice….? We have these, well, nevermind….

  • Murph

    This very readable piece by New Zealand analytic theologian Matthew Flannagan is excellent: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents.

  • Howard Burgoyne

    I’m drawn by the insights of Paul Borgman in his book, Genesis: The Story We’ve Never Heard – he reflects on the testing of Abraham/binding of Isaac from within the whole Abram narrative, and finds it the compelling capstone to Abram’s entire journey with God to overcome fear, to commit to the path that will bless all the nations of the world, and surrender completely to the God he has come to trust to be good and the source of all blessing. If God could have matured Abraham in any other way, he would have – this is not capricious, but the crucial necessity of grace at work in Abraham’s own deliverance from the fear that leads to a self-serving “making a name for myself” style of living. That’s what’s being countered after Babel in the way of Yahweh with Abraham.

  • Derek

    The Church has wrestled with the story of Jephthah daughter for a long time. An interesting book that explores the history of exegesis of this text along with others is John Thompson’s
    “Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone”

    Thompson has a website with further resources including a sermon on the text of Judges 11. You can find it here:

  • Jeremy

    I had someone point out to me that part of the problem may be in the way we approach the text. We always refer to Genesis 22 as a self-contained passage, but what about the last line of 21? Genesis 21:34 “And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

    Philistine religion, as I understand it, was chock full of horrific sacrificial practices. Abraham would have been far prior to Judaism, so would have had no sacrificial system apart from the surrounding cultures. Could it be that YHWH asked Abraham to do exactly what the Philistinian culture would have expected with the express intent of interfering? Abraham’s context would have been “Child sacrifice is normal” and God could have played along long enough to say “About that, no.”

    I’m not entirely sure I’m convinced by the argument, but it’s a possibility.

  • Jeremy

    Oh, to add – We often think of Abraham inside of the Jewish/Christian context, but really, he was probably a polytheist and for sure, would have had no scriptural or traditional references to fall back on. YHWH was a being that had revealed Himself to him directly, and it was only through relationship, demonstration and conversation that Abraham would have learned just what He was and what He was like.