The Akedah—the Old Testament story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Isaac—has always been one of the most troubling to me. The repugnant violence of the story may no longer be striking to those of us who grew up hearing about Abraham and Isaac's trek to Mount Moriah and what they experienced there. We may long ago have learned to overcome the strong reaction we would have if we heard this story in another context. Yet these twenty-four verses of Genesis raise some of the most difficult and unanswerable questions of scripture: Why would a wise and loving God present such a cruel test to a man already obedient to his covenants? Why would Abraham obey unquestioningly, when he protested against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Does God really demand unquestioning obedience as a higher law than any other, including our most instinctual love and moral reasoning? Can and should we worship a being who would inflict such emotional torture? For Mormons, the story sets up a tension between devotion to God and family that does not sit well with our belief that we serve God best by loving and caring for our families.
Our traditional interpretation of the Akedah can, however, be seen from a markedly different view. In my reinterpretation of this story the themes of sacrifice and obedience remain but in very different forms. Much like the Mormon understanding of the Fall changes Eve from a sinful temptress into a wise and courageous woman, my reinterpretation of the Akedah changes Abraham from an unquestioning, violent patriarch into a man who is seeking God with all the limitations that come from the human experience. I believe that Abraham was a man seeking to do right with the limitations of being acculturated in a damaging tradition that devalued human life and agency. His embedded value system and understanding of God's identity and commandments needed self-conscious realignment. He sought to obey but was not always sure and right about what God wanted.
We know from the Book of Abraham that Abraham had intense personal experience with human sacrifice. Not only was he surrounded by a culture that regularly practiced human sacrifice, he was almost a victim of it himself. The personal encounter becomes a hinge in his life as it initiates his first recorded interaction with Jehovah and propels him out of the land of his fathers. It is interesting to note that it is in the context of human sacrifice that Abraham's relationship with Jehovah begins. It is difficult for us to imagine how this simultaneously traumatic and revelatory event must have figured in Abraham's consciousness as he moved from the polytheistic, idolatrous, sacrificial practices of his community to a monotheistic, covenantal relationship with Jehovah.
After decades of struggle with infertility and the pain of losing Ishmael due to conflict within his family, Abraham finally receives his promised son, Isaac. The text moves quite quickly to the Akedah, seemingly the climax of Abraham's narrative. "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, 'Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'" Importantly, the text does not explicitly state what the temptation (read better in Hebrew as "test") is. The conventional interpretation is, of course, that God commands an unwilling but obedient Abraham, where passing the test consists in carrying out the deed regardless of his feelings. In this interpretation, God seems to be pouring salt in Abraham's wounds by reminding Abraham that Isaac is his son, his only son, whom Abraham loves.
Is there another way to read this? Abraham is a product of a culture that practices human sacrifice: he grew up in it; he was almost a victim of it. While he has personally rejected paganism in favor of a monotheistic God, we can imagine how difficult it would be for him to entirely reject the culture that surrounded him. In addition, he is a survivor of abuse from his father and while he may not have had the language we use today about abuse, the psychological trauma incurred does not need modern scientific vocabulary. (For a good discussion of this issue, read Tresa Edmunds, "Child Abuse and the Sacrifice of Isaac.")
Is it possible that Abraham begins to wonder if Jehovah requires or would approve of human sacrifice? Perhaps he is internally struggling with his personal relationships and with the demands of the Caananite culture. Perhaps, just as members of the LDS church sometimes pay extra tithing in hopes of forgiveness or additional blessings, he is imagining how he could increase his animal sacrifices and give a better offering to God. He is a man as well a prophet and as he searches for God, perhaps he looks in the wrong place.