Ask Ivor

Joy asks:

"In light of contemporary concern over child abuse and child sacrifice in satanic rituals, what are we to think of the biblical account of God's requirement that Abraham make a blood sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, and of Abraham's acquiescence?"

The Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) also struggled with this question. In Fear and Trembling he wrote: "The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless." Kierkegaard concluded: "What a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God... faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off."

Indeed, faith is bigger than thinking, but it is not divorced from thinking, so let's see if we can come up with some more reasonable conclusions than our Danish friend.

The story of Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah is found in Genesis 22. There are many details we are not told—for example, what did Isaac think and feel when he was bound and laid on the altar? But there are enough details to give us some perspective.

For instance, notice that the episode begins with the explanation, "God tested Abraham." (The Bible relates many incidents wherein God tests his people; see, for example, Dt 8:2; 13:1-3; Jdg 3:1-4; Ps 66:10-12.)

God instructs Abraham: "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering."

What did Abraham think of this command? We don't know. Whatever he thought, though, it was surely colored by the facts that God himself had miraculously acted to bring Isaac into the world (when God had first prophesied a son to the 100-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah, they had laughed in disbelief), and that God had promised Abraham, after Isaac's birth, that, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."

Existentialist thinkers stress the necessity of living free from the constraints of ethical standards. Christian existentialists (like Kierkegaard) argue that God is bigger than ethics. There is much to be said for this philosophy (the apostle Paul makes similar arguments), but Kierkegaard was mistaken when he reasoned that Abraham was going against established social standards in order to obey a direct command of God (he called this "a teleological suspension of the ethical"), precisely because there is no evidence that there were any established taboos against child sacrifice in Abraham's day. There is evidence though that both the Mesopotamians (the culture Abraham grew up in) and the Canaanites (of the region Abraham was now living in) did practice child sacrifice.

How well did Abraham know God? Here again, we don't know. God had spoken to Abraham at least seven times in the preceding forty years, giving various commands, promises, and prophecies, but whether Abraham—or anyone, at this time—understood God's personality, is an open question.

Later, to Moses, God made it clear how he felt about child sacrifice: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire.... Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord" (Dt 18:10,12)—but Abraham, six and a half centuries earlier, did not necessarily know that God was opposed to child sacrifice.

What did Abraham think was going to happen on Mount Moriah? This, too, we don't know, but note that he instructed his two 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." Elsewhere we are told "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead" (Heb 11:19).

Abraham is about to use the knife on Isaac when God intervenes via a voice from heaven saying, "Do not lay a hand on the boy.... Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.... I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore." A ram caught in a thicket is discovered by Abraham and replaces Isaac on the altar.

Why did God test Abraham? Why does God test us? These questions will have to wait. In the meantime, what are we to think of this strange story? Perhaps that, as the French theologian Jacques Ellul says, "Faith is forever placing us on the razor's edge."