Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Burning Sons

God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering on a mountain in Moriah. Most of us know the story very well.

And yet over the generations since the account was written down, readers continue to express outrage and doubt, both about the character of a God who would make such a demand, and especially about the character of any man who would comply with it. Even Søren Kierkegaard had great difficulty with the passage, referring to the act as an “ethical rupture”. More recently, James Goodman writes, “Could there be better evidence that God is a tyrant, Abraham a sycophant and Isaac an utterly abused child?”

Medieval Jewish commentators simply refused to believe it really happened. One insisted Abraham misinterpreted God’s command. Another called the very idea “revolting”. Yet another speculated that Abraham never really struggled with God’s command and that no test of his faith really occurred, because Abraham was completely convinced from the beginning that God would not let him go through with the act.

But that is not quite what the writer to the Hebrews says. He tells us Abraham “considered that God was able to raise him from the dead”. That is not the same thing. For Isaac to be raised from the dead, Abraham would indeed have had to finish the job. So there was immense trust there, and a “faith backstop” in place if you like, but I very much doubt the experience was a walk in the park for Isaac’s father.

The Historical Context

If we want to really understand the events of Genesis 22 a little better, we need to put ourselves in their historical context, where our outrage may not disappear entirely, but may be very slightly muted. If God’s command shocked Abraham, it did not shock him for precisely the same reasons it shocks us.

Child sacrifice was actually quite common in the ancient world. The Egyptians practiced it, as did the Etruscans and the Carthaginians. More importantly, the Mesopotamians practiced it. Child sacrifice was not unheard of in Ur of the Chaldees, where Abraham was born. In engaging in this foul practice all over the world, men and women sought to propitiate their deities in hope of receiving positive answers to their requests, whether for an end to a time of famine, for a good harvest, for success in war or for protection from their enemies.

Life being what it is, sometimes they got what they requested and sometimes they did not. But they kept doing it anyway, imagining that giving the very fruit of their bodies was in some way efficacious. Once institutionalized, culturally pervasive habits are hard to break with, no matter how bizarre they are, and even when nobody is quite sure whether they are effective or not. The last year of universal masking and social distancing against mounting scientific evidence that these things are of extremely limited benefit testifies to that.

Child sacrifice is also well attested to in Canaan, the land God gave to Abraham. The book of Deuteronomy states plainly, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way”, which is to say burning their sons and daughters in the fire. Among the Amorite nations, the worship of local deities was commonly associated with child sacrifice.

It was impossible Abraham was unfamiliar with the practice of offering sons on the fire. He had moved from one child-sacrificing nation to another, and this new one was worse.

Take Your Son

Set against that dark and degraded cultural context, the command to “Take your son” was not shocking at all. Every Canaanite who had ever offered a child to Baal, Asherah, Lotan, Dagon or Molech would surely tell you he had “heard” his gods command him in some form or another, if only to excuse his evil acts, when likely he had succumbed to nothing more supernatural than garden variety peer pressure.

So the command to Abraham to offer Isaac to God was not a test because it was shocking or outrageous, or because it required of him something nobody of his day could ever have imagined offering. In fact, it did not. Thousands had gone there before Abraham, and thousands would follow him. Rather, Abraham was tested in this respect: that he was invited to think about his God in the same way all the nations thought about theirs, as bloodthirsty, demanding and unpredictable. It was a test because it might have quite legitimately caused him to sigh and concede that his God was no different in character than the blood-soaked local deities we now know to have been fronts for demons. God’s test invited him to take the Judge of All the Earth, who Abraham to his face had insisted would “do right”, and place him on the same level as Baal or Astarte. It invited him to conceive of his God as banal, petty and trivial instead of holy, loving and transcendent.

In short, it was less a test of Abraham’s capacity to act against his conscience than it was a test of how Abraham thought about his God. If Abraham struggled with anything during those few days between commandment and his act of obedience, it was probably a deep premonition of looming disappointment.

Take My Son

But Abraham didn’t fall for it. He reasoned that God could raise the dead, and that he would, should it be necessary. He reasoned that God, who had kept his promises to Abraham thus far, would continue to keep his promises even in this. In the face of contradiction, he continued to believe in the character of God as he knew it rather than lower his estimate of God.

In the end, God demonstrated he was not the kind of deity who wanted other people’s sons. In fact, it was the precise opposite. Rather than taking the sons of others, he was fully prepared to offer his own on their behalf. Seen in this light, the words “God will provide” take on a marvelous luminosity. Here was no God who could be satisfied by even the most extreme of human acts of devotion. The most sacrificial works of man are wholly inadequate to the task. Rather, to ensure his permanent satisfaction and his ongoing ability to bless his servants while remaining absolutely just, God intended to take care of the job of propitiation himself.

So he brought Abraham to the place where he would understand that was how it had to be. Today, instead of “Take your son”, it is “Take mine.”

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