When God commands an immoral act

UPDATED Wednesday at 7:20 a.m.

I think the following post conveys an important message, but I didn’t succeed in bringing it out. Hence the update.

When I chose the title for the post, “When God commands an immoral act,” I was thinking of current geopolitical events. I was thinking of the terrorist acts which are carried out in the name of Allah.

The rest of us — those who don’t share the terrorists’ ideology — find the rationale incomprehensible. How could God command the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children?, we wonder. How could a holy God will what is plainly an immoral act?

And the problem is not limited to Muslims. Within the Christian community, “pro-life” believers who murder abortionists are in approximately the same position.

I have placed “pro-life” in quotation marks because anyone who carries out a murder has effectively renounced their membership in the truly pro-life community. And, to be fair, this is a very tiny fringe group which is condemned unequivocally and universally within the mainstream Christian community. Nonetheless, the problem is the same. The extremists kill in the name of Jesus.

Which brings us to the text in Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to kill Isaac. If the text is taken at face value, it says that God wills the death of an innocent child. (Though someone will no doubt point out that God doesn’t actually will it, and stops Abraham before he carries out the execution. More on this point below.)

In the end, I pulled my punches, and I suspect I failed to make my point. Now that I’ve added this introduction, I will allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

The subject has a broader application, but the connection to current geopolitical events was in my mind as I was writing.
Q


Yesterday, the pastor of the church I attend did something radical. He challenged the traditional interpretation of Genesis 22.

(OK, maybe it doesn’t seem so radical. But believe me, it’s radical coming from the pastor of a conservative church.)

Genesis 22 is a passage that presents profound moral problems. God commands Abraham to kill his son. God commands Abraham to commit an immoral act. Clearly, Brent (the pastor) has been wrestling with the moral problems raised by the passage.

I don’t know precisely what Brent believes with respect to the inerrancy of scripture. But he isn’t so liberal that he can just dismiss the passage as a big mistake, an immoral text, a text that misrepresents God and cannot possibly edify the Church.

Brent believes that all of scripture is good; but he did feel compelled to challenge the traditional interpretation of the text. According to the traditional interpretation, Abraham did a good thing when he set out to kill Isaac in obedience to God’s command.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he answered.

“Take your son,” He said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

So early in the morning Abraham got up, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the sacrificial knife, and the two of them walked on together.

Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, “My father.”

And he replied, “Here I am, my son.”

Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Then the two of them walked on together.

When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.

But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

He replied, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.”

Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said: “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.”

Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.”

[translation:  the Holman Christian Standard Bible]


This is a very disturbing story. How could a holy God command anyone to commit an unholy act? If God does command such an act, does it become holy merely because God commanded it? How could Abraham meekly agree to obey such a command?

Faithful Christians and Jews will quickly emphasize that God stopped Abraham before he killed Isaac. But this doesn’t eliminate the moral difficulties.

Look at the event from Isaac’s perspective. With no warning, his father seized him. Presumably Isaac cried out and struggled, but was overmastered by his father. Abraham then tied him up, laid him on the altar, and picked up a knife to kill him. God stopped Abraham in time, it’s true; but there is no doubt what he intended to do.

Millions of people in the western world have suffered abuse — physical, sexual, psychological — carried out by a father, a mother, a teacher, a priest, or some other authority figure. When they read this passage, they will identify with Isaac in his abject terror.

To his credit, Brent faced these difficulties squarely. His response was to challenge the surface meaning of the text.

(I should point out that Brent’s interpretation owes a great deal to a book by Leonard Sweet, Out of the Question … Into the Mystery.)

On the face of it, the text is unequivocal:  Abraham did a good thing. He was right to obey; God blessed him for it, and it was no small blessing!

In fact, Abraham is remembered and lauded for his conduct on this occasion, more than for any other event of his life. Abraham’s example became the model of faithful obedience for all subsequent believers. In Christian theology, this story is regarded as prefiguring the Gospel:  Abraham was prepared to offer up Isaac, his only and beloved son (see verse 2); and God did something parallel when he offered up Jesus.

But did Abraham, in fact, do a good thing — despite all of the moral problems we summarized above? Brent called the traditional interpretation into question, based on the following considerations:

  • God never spoke to Abraham again after this occasion. Even on this occasion, after Abraham picked up the knife, God spoke only through an intermediary (an angel).

  • Nor did Isaac ever speak to Abraham again. The only subsequent interaction between Abraham and Isaac was conducted through an intermediary (Gen. 24). When Isaac’s mother died, Isaac and Abraham did not comfort one another (Gen. 23:2 and 24:67).

  • The nation of Israel was not named after Abraham, contrary to what we might have expected. Abraham is told that he will become a great nation (Gen. 18:18); but the nation is named after his grandson, Jacob (aka Israel).
In other words, Brent argued, God wasn’t as pleased with Abraham as a surface reading of the text would lead us to believe.

Brent (following Leonard Sweet) argued that God does not want us to be blindly obedient. God wants a relationship with us. And relationships involve a healthy give-and-take; friendships, by definition, are bilateral, not unilateral.

Abraham understood this principle. When God set out to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham disputed and negotiated with God (Gen. 18:22ff.). How could he fail to do the same thing when God commanded him to murder Isaac? Brent pointed out that there were lots of things Abraham could have said to God:

  • This can’t be your will, Lord — it’s contrary to everything I know of your character.

  • If this is really your will, confirm it by presenting me with an unmistakable sign.

  • You will break my heart, and the heart of Isaac’s mother, if you insist that I kill him.

  • It will bring your holy name into disrepute if I carry out this command.

  • Take my life, Lord, but spare Isaac.
But Abraham just said, “OK”. And he set out to obey the command.

According to Brent, this was a two-part test. Abraham passed the easy part, the multiple choice part of the examination:  he was obedient to God’s command. But Abraham failed the more rigorous part of the examination, the essay question:  he forgot that God wants friends who walk in relationship with him, not slaves who obey uncritically.

So far I’ve told you what Brent argued. But what do I think? Strictly in terms of exegesis (the formal methodology for interpreting written texts), Brent’s exposition is suspect. His argument is based almost entirely on silence:  that is, it is based on what is missing from the text.

For example, Genesis doesn’t record that Abraham argued with God; but maybe he did. Maybe Abraham argued until he was blue in the face, but God was resolute in his demand. And maybe the author of Genesis thought that Abraham’s initial resistence decreased the impact of the story — it made him appear less than 100% obedient — so he didn’t write it down.

But, in fact, Brent’s case is stronger than that. The argument from silence is offered in support of an argument based on principle. The principle is, God is holy; God does not command people to commit immoral acts. This command, the command to offer a human sacrifice, runs contrary to what we know of God’s character from elsewhere in the Bible. So it is legitimate to raise questions about the text. It is legitimate to present an argument from silence in support of the greater principle.

I am more liberal in my views. I might argue that the whole story is a myth, to teach the people of Israel that human sacrifice is not pleasing to God. I would certainly point out the cultural context:  that neighbouring religions offered human sacrifices, so Abraham might have been under a misconception; and that children were viewed as mere chattel in this era. I would distance myself from the concluding portion of the text, and seek to draw a more appropriate lesson from the story (just as Brent did).

Mostly I want to commend the example set by my pastor. He is not captive to his evangelical presuppositions. He is still able to see moral difficulties for what they are, even if they arise from a biblical passage. While maintaining a biblical faith, he is also attempting to practice a rational and compassionate faith.

I am a liberal, and evangelicals often offend me. But the problem is not with evangelicalism, per se. It is possible to be biblical, rational, and compassionate, all at the same time.

All believers need to embrace this ideal:  evangelical and liberal Christians alike; Jews, Muslims, Sikhs — people of all faiths.

And non-believers — secular humanists et al. — need to hold believers to this standard, instead of merely attacking their faith.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jack's Shack
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 14:40:00

    It is a very interesting story and one that has generated a tremendous amount of commentary.

    Some of it just kind of rubs me raw because the commentary is more garbled than necessary, or so it seems to me.

    One that I have read many times can be found at
    http://www.ohrtorahstone.org.il/parsha/5761/vayera61.htm

    Reply

  2. Jack's Shack
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 14:50:00

    Reply

  3. Bill
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 15:07:00

    I have also heard that there was another lesson being thought to Abraham.

    Though it is more of a stretch and I can’t say I swallow it; The theory is that Abraham is being given a glimpse of what is to come when God himself is called to offer his son (Jesus) as a sacrifice.

    Now this requires two leaps of faith; that you accept the relationship of Jesus to God as father and son, and that Jesus’s death had the magical capacity to cleanse the sins from mankind.

    This all depends on what credence you give to the Gospel of John.

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth on him should not die but have everlasting life. John 3:16 (sorry if it is misquoted I did it from memory – good old Plymouth Brethren memory training)

    I do see this as another great metaphor and my personal beliefs allow me to accept the possibility that this story of Abraham was just a precursor to the Story of Christ. However, this begs the question, was the story of Christ created from the scriptures and therefore history prophesied? (read this somewhere)

    As to the moral question, I think it would require q glimpse into the mind of God to understand this, but I cannot see that Brent was wrong in his assumption that “that God does not want us to be blindly obedient. God wants a relationship with us. And relationships involve a healthy give-and-take; friendships, by definition, are bilateral, not unilateral.” (based on the nature of the relationship between Abraham an God from that point on)

    I don’t know if it is right but it seems reasonable?

    Reply

  4. Bill
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 15:26:00

    Thanks Jack for confirming that history is important. I read the first link you sent and I must admit, I can more easily accept Ibn Kaspi’s interpretation of the act then either Brent’s take or even the prophetic theory of it I mentioned earlier.

    The reason I like Ibn Kaspi’s approach is that it looks at the social history of the time. (see highlighted area below)

    The Torah commentary of Rav Joseph Ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) who maintains that the real test of Abraham lay not in the command of G-d that he sacrifice Isaac but rather in the second command of the angel that he stay his hand from the sacrifice. We must remember, suggests Ibn Kaspi, that the social reality of Abraham is rooted in the blood-drenched days of the god Moloch , where child sacrifice was the normative expression of religious commitment. Hence, Abraham must very well have been expecting his newfound G-d of justice and righteousness to require that same act of devotion.

    As I have a honours BA in history, this only proves to me that without the historical context we miss a great deal of the content. (-:

    Reply

  5. Bill
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 15:33:00

    Just a quick note.

    There is an typo in my first comment.

    When I wrote; “I think it would require q glimpse into the mind of God” It should have read ” I think it would require A glimpse into the mind of God”

    No Q I was not wishing you super the super human ability to glimpse into the mind of God. (much as you might like or be terrified by the idea)

    Q just happens to be above A on the keyboard.

    Reply

  6. Q
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 15:41:00

    Jack:

    Thanks, I appreciate the references to a Jewish interpretation of the text. I found your first source particularly interesting, so I will quote the part that is directly relevant.

    (Bill has already beaten me to it, and quoted part of the text. But here is a bit more of it, including the part quoted by Bill):

    Rav Joseph Ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) maintains that the real test of Abraham lay not in the command of G-d that he sacrifice Isaac but rather in the second command of the angel that he stay his hand from the sacrifice.

    We must remember, suggests Ibn Kaspi, that the social reality of Abraham is rooted in the blood-drenched days of the god Moloch, where child sacrifice was the normative expression of religious commitment. Hence, Abraham must very well have been expecting his newfound G-d of justice and righteousness to require that same act of devotion.

    From this perspective, the true test of Abraham’s dedication was not his willingness to obey G-d and sacrifice but rather in his ability to heed the angel and stop the sacrifice even when the knife was but an inch from Isaac’s throat: “Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him.”(Genesis 22:12)

    Indeed, it is even possible to understand the verse usually translated as, “For now I know that you are a G-d fearing man, seeing you have not WITHHELD (chasachta) your only son from Me. (Genesis 22:12),” to mean “For now I know that you are a G-d fearing man, seeing you have not DONE AWAY WITH (the Hebrew CHASACH can also mean to remove, or cause to be absent) your only son BECAUSE OF MY (My command).”

    In the traditional reading Abraham is praised by the angel for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac; in the alternative reading, Abraham is praised for his willingness not to sacrifice Isaac.

    The Rabbi shows an awareness of the moral issues and, like Brent, he has voiced an alternative perspective on the passage. And the alternative translation of the critical Hebrew word appeals to the exegete in me. (Not that I know Hebrew, I regret to say.)

    Bill:
    What you’re presenting is a standard Christian interpretation of the passage. But I take a very historical approach to the interpretation of the Bible. In this case, it means that we can’t interpret the earlier text by reference to the later text.

    The Abraham passage presumably existed for 1,500-2,000 years prior to Christ’s crucifixion, and it must be viewed as having a meaning apart from later events.

    This is not to say that it isn’t appropriate material for a devotional at the communion table. But, from an exegetical point of view, I would seek clarity on the ancient Hebrew understanding of the verse before I jumped off to consider a Christian application of it.
    Q

    Reply

  7. Bill
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 16:08:00

    That’s true. I guess I didn’t seperate the the theory from my question clearly enough. When I asked “However, this begs the question, was the story of Christ created from the scriptures and therefore history prophesied?” What I meant by “History Prophesied” was, that the Crucifixion of Christ may have been created prophetically. That the Story of Issac and Abraham might have been transposed to Christ. Or simply the crucifixion was just a crucifixion not a sacrifice. (not your standard Christian interpretation)

    I drew this from the book Who Killed Jesus? By John Dominic Crossan. which explores the anti-Semitic roots of Christianity.

    However, I myself am still of the opinion that there was more to the crucifixion than capital punishment.

    Reply

  8. Q
    Jul 19, 2005 @ 21:07:00

    Bill:

    Keep in mind that Crossan is at the radical extreme of biblical scholarship. He’s associated with the Jesus Seminar, which is radical in its own right; and he’s more radical than most of his fellow Jesus Seminar scholars.

    The issue of Christianity feeding antisemitism is real and significant. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about the issue from E.P. Sanders’ writings (though naturally I don’t agree with everything he says).
    Q

    Reply

  9. mayfly
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 18:40:00

    i was raised catholic and know that passage well. i always hated it, as a child. it was actually one of the ones that started me wondering whether the bible was fallible, because it is not just abraham’s behavior that is unethical in this story. god himself’s behavior is cruel. whether it was a test or not, god still commands abraham to do something abhorrent, something that – even though the command is never fully carried through – still caused great suffering. so this was one of the passages that got me wondering (when i was about eleven or twelve): if the bible contains god’s words, transcribed by men, how much of the bible can we really trust as god’s word, instead of man’s misinterpretation of it?

    brent actually approaches this issue when he suggests that perhaps abraham misinterpreted god’s will, when he failed to question his word.
    personally, even if you truly believe that the bible was divinely inspired, it is still worth questioning, and thinking about how much of it might be subject to human error.

    interestingly, i kept thinking of this passage (without even coming here and seeing this post) when we were having that discussion on snaars’ blog. something along the lines of… exactly how good is god’s character, really, according to a literal interpretation of the bible? this was one of the passages i was thinking of as an example. of course, there’s also the issue of sodom and gommorah, and well… i won’t get into the rest of it. anyway, for those reasons, any faith i will ever have will always involve a very loose, metaphorical interpretation of the bible, or other source material entirely.

    Reply

  10. Anonymous
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 20:36:00

    Yes, G-d told Abamham to sacrifice Isaac, but when G-d saw that Abraham would do, He sent an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.

    Reply

  11. Anonymous
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 20:39:00

    I meant to say when He saw that Abraham would do it, an angel told him to give a ram instead.

    Reply

  12. Anonymous
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 21:54:00

    Okay, I read it and actually the angel told him to Not touch him and so he did a ram

    Reply

  13. sml
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 22:06:00

    afterward G-d promised Avraham that he will have a multiply his decendents

    Reply

  14. sml
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 22:08:00

    I mean He will multiply his decendents

    Reply

  15. Q
    Jul 21, 2005 @ 22:23:00

    Mayfly:
    any faith i will ever have will always involve a very loose, metaphorical interpretation of the bible, or other source material entirely.

    Thanks for popping by, Mayfly. I’m in agreement with you.

    There are people who believe that the Bible is without error, while managing to interpret it in a tolerant and life-affirming manner. There’s a lot of tension in that approach, it seems to me, but I have no quarrel with them.

    Anonymous:
    It’s true that God stopped Abraham before he carried out the execution. The question is, does that entirely resolve the moral difficulties of the passage?

    The trauma to Isaac was still severe. And God’s command is still suspect, even if he later said “Don’t do it, it was only a test.”

    SML:
    You’re correct. That’s why the traditional interpretation maintains that Abraham did a good thing, a thing that God approved of.
    Q

    Reply

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