Sunday, December 06, 2015

Who Is Being Tested Here?

Carol Delaney, an anthropologist at Stanford who doesn’t believe in God, is trying to analyze the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.

How might such an endeavour go wrong? Let me count the ways ...

A Prior Note About Motivation

When digging up Delaney’s paper I could not help but notice that nearly everyone else who has published something on this subject starts with the question “Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?” With all respect, that’s grabbing the wrong end of the stick. Or really, asking the unanswerable.

This is God we’re talking about, after all. When he cares to share his thought processes with us, it is our inestimable privilege to know what he has revealed. In this instance he does not. The scriptures are silent on a motive for his command to Abraham. It’s not there in the original Genesis account. It’s not to be found in the great New Testament passages concerning Abraham: not in Romans 4, not in Galatians 3 and not even in Hebrews 11, which deals directly with this story. The only thing we have to suggest intent is the writer’s editorial comment “God tested Abraham”, and that may simply be his own very reasonable characterization of how things appeared to Abraham or to others who have heard the story since. In any case, it does not tell us why.

But the scriptures are also very clear that it is impossible to know what goes through the mind of God without exercising faith. So we may speculate away to our heart’s content, but we are guaranteed to be left wondering about God’s motive at the end of the day.

One thing the New Testament makes very clear is that nobody who is not indwelt by the Spirit of God has the mind of Christ, and therefore any attempt by the unregenerate to comprehend God’s motive here is a brazen exercise in futility.

Professor Delaney is fighting a losing battle if she starts down that road.

The Real Question

A much more sensible question to ask is, “How should Abraham have responded?” To her credit, Delaney seems to have grasped that this is the relevant issue. Her paper is entitled “Was Abraham Ethical? Should We Admire His Willingness to Sacrifice His Son?”

Again, though, she is biting off far more than she is capable of chewing.

Why Didn’t Abraham Do Anything to Try to Save His Son?

Here Delaney points out that Abraham failed to argue with God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son on that mountain in Moriah. I will give her credit for not suggesting that Abraham should simply have refused God’s command outright. A God powerful enough to give Abraham an heir at the age of 100 is surely more than powerful enough to simply take Isaac from him had he refused. I’m not suggesting that sort of fatalism (or perhaps realism) motivated Abraham because we don’t know. But it would certainly have crossed my mind.

Hello, it’s GOD speaking. How exactly do you say no?

But Delaney complains that Abraham did not argue, suggesting that he cared less about his own son and heir than he did about the righteous in Sodom. This is clearly ludicrous. If Abraham loved Ishmael, his son by his wife’s servant, how much more must he have delighted in Isaac, the son of the promise.

In Delaney’s view, the obligation of the parent to protect the child is the highest possible ethic. What she fails entirely to take into consideration is that Abraham had no such ability.

And he most certainly knew it.

The Progress of Faith

Another thing Delaney ignores is that faith grows. We walk with God, we experience his goodness and we mature in our understanding of him. Our level of trust increases. Our capacity for greater leaps and bounds in the life of faith does not remain static. While this is not a process that proceeds in a linear fashion with no hiccups, failures or bumps in the road, it is nevertheless the experience of every true believer, and Abraham was the father of true believers.

Abraham’s faith had grown considerably since he argued for the preservation of the righteous in Sodom; after all, he had a significantly greater direct and personal experience of God with which to feed it.

The Evidence of God’s Character

What had happened?

Well, first, Abraham had seen the destruction of Sodom and the deliverance of Lot entirely by God’s grace. He had seen that God was as good as his word and that his power was unimaginable. He had probably realized that his own advocacy for Sodom had been entirely unnecessary: God was both more powerful and more meticulously fair in his dealings than Abraham could possibly have imagined prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Second, Abraham had seen the birth of Isaac in answer to a promise made fully 25 years earlier. The extent to which Isaac’s birth was both miraculous and the precise, literal fulfillment of God’s promise cannot be overstated. But Abraham had learned that sometimes you get your answer later rather than sooner. Sometimes we don’t see God’s reasons immediately, but he is still infinitely worthy of our trust.

Third, and even more amazingly, Abraham had witnessed God’s faithfulness to him even in the middle of his own failure. In Gerar, Abraham’s faith had temporarily deserted him and he had disappointed his wife by disclaiming her for a second time (the first was in Egypt years earlier). As a result, the king of Gerar had taken Sarah to be his wife. Amazingly, God closed the womb of every woman in Abimelech’s household and appeared to Abimelech in a dream to testify to his relationship to Abraham. Sarah was returned unsullied to her embarrassed husband. Then God enriched Abraham anyway.

There are a couple of lessons to be had from this: One, that our own judgment about the best way to proceed is frequently humiliatingly wrong; and two, that God remains faithful despite our unfaithfulness. Scripture later records these truths plainly, but Abraham learned them from hard personal experience.

All to say, the Abraham who advocated for the preservation of the righteous in Sodom was not the same man God tested in Genesis 22. He had a much deeper and more personal knowledge of God. He was eminently more qualified to pronounce on the ethicality of God’s command than any number of Monday morning quarterbacks assessing his actions from a distance of thousands of years.

Murder as a “Holy Act”

Delaney scrapes the bottom of a lot of barrels, pursues a number of rabbit trails and dances her way through both Kant and Kierkegaard, quoting the latter to the effect that:
“Faith is a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act, well-pleasing to God,”
which gives Delaney a convenient straw man to flail at. In doing so, she neglects, along with every other unbelieving commentator, to note the following:



Arguing the ethicality of a command never intended to be carried through to its conclusion is tilting at the biggest windmill in the universe. Because while Delaney claims her target is Abraham’s ethics, her use of Kierkegaard demonstrates her real purpose is to discredit the God who gave him his instructions in the first place.

Making It Personal

Delaney bounces back and forth between her love for her own child and Kierkegaard’s breaking of his engagement with his fiancĂ©e Regina. For the good Professor, this is all very personal indeed.

So let’s make it personal too. We all want to protect our children. Abraham did as much and probably more than any of us. But he rightly recognized that such a thing is impossible. We age and we die, and they go on without us. We must all, at some level, commit our children to the God we trust. Or not.

I note that Isaac was no toddler when Abraham took him to Moriah. He was sturdy enough to carry the wood for the burnt offering up the mountainside. There was an element of choice in Isaac’s near-sacrifice that is not envisioned by many commentators. It is hardly likely that a man more than a decade past his hundredth birthday could have overpowered a fit youth and laid him on the altar against his will.

Our kids grow up too. Who will protect them then?

Cutting to the Chase

Let’s cut to the chase: the issue is actually a simple one. Abraham reasoned that God is able to raise the dead. In this he was and is correct. Professor Delaney reasons that God is not able to raise the dead, either because he does not exist or because he is not as ethical as Professor Delaney.

It is not a matter of legitimate scholarly analysis of Abraham’s motives or ethics. It is plain and simply unbelief. The righteousness of God has withstood the assault of millions over thousands of years and will continue to do so when Carol Delaney is in the grave and unable to protect and care for her own offspring.

As Professor Delaney should know, by definition a test exists to evaluate its subject. It is not an evaluation of the teacher.


  1. Your arguments carry value but nevertheless will not convince those not leaving an opening for wanting to be convinced by even sound or the best argument. But that's life. Personally I have come across many people who simply can not relate to the old testament and the God described therein because of the perceived cruelty of some of the material. They would for example also have pointed out that God threatened not only to kill king Abimelech (the potentially guilty party) but also everyone in his household if necessary (who are presumably innocent people). This offends today's sensibilities (and frankly I also do not know what to make of that). That would represent another reason why some people will claim they have difficulty to belief in the benevolence of such a being. Did such a point perhaps also come up in Ms. Delaney's paper?

  2. No, as far as I remember Prof. Delaney didn't get into the previous chapter of Genesis.

    I find people fail to relate to the (very much perceived but not actual) cruelty of the Old Testament God largely because they have read no history of the period and don't grasp that everything done or commanded by God was considerably kinder than what was being done commonly in the nations, and also because they don't read the OT text carefully.

    For instance, I can find nothing in Genesis 20 to suggest that God threatened to kill everyone in Abimelech's household. I'm not sure where that is coming from. Rather, God "closed the womb" of every woman in Abimelech's household that Abimelech could possibly have impregnated, thus cutting off Abimelech's royal line and, in effect, making him a "dead man" (compare Gen. 20:17,18 with v3). There was no immediate "threat" to Abimelech's life per se, simply God acknowledging what the consequences would have been had Abimelech taken Sarah to wife. There was no threat to the men in Abimelech's household at all, and there was no genuine danger to the women, who were only temporarily prevented from conceiving.

    Then God says this: "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her."

    In other words, Abimelech, being innocent, was never in any danger at all, but God required that a very clear point be made. There could be no suggestion whatsoever, either in Egypt or Gerar, at ANY point, that Isaac, who is born in the next chapter, was not the natural son of Abraham and Sarah. He was the heir of the promise, and through Isaac ultimately came the Lord Jesus himself. There could be no compromise on God's part about that, which is why Abraham left Gerar, despite his cowardice, a rich man. The riches were proof that Sarah was untouched by Abimelech.

    The problem with God's critics, Q, is that they've already made up their minds and they are too lazy or uninterested to read and meditate on the actual accounts as written. Instead, they rely on their own imaginations to supply the evidence they claim condemns God.

    1. Hmm, Tom, looking at it again, this is what I get,

      Abimelech said in his dream -

      "Lord, will you kill an innocent people?"

      God responded with -

      "But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

      That sounds pretty explicit to me and to the ordinary person it might be difficult to interpret this strictly in terms of punishment through infertility instead of actual death.

      So the problem may also be in who interprets the texts, which can result in different conclusions making it difficult for the run-of-the-mill person.

    2. Fair comment, Q. I think you've got the general statement of intent in the verses you cite, and the specific mechanics of how that was being accomplished in the verses I've cited.

      But I agree that it is not instantly obvious, and others may disagree with my reading of it.

      Much depends on whether you start from the proposition that God is the source of all genuine human ethicality, or from the proposition that God's actions are subject to the judgment of the ethical systems we have constructed in our society.

      Most people start with the latter. Logic impels me to start from the former.