Re-Painting the Disturbing God of Abraham and Isaac

If you look through the art depicting the story of Abraham and Isaac, the images are pretty disturbing. But to be honest, the traditional way of viewing this story paints an even more disturbing picture of God.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)

I think there are few passages of Scripture which are as disturbing and as misused as the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Many people see this passage as a story about a blood thirsty God who asks a horrific thing of one of his people as a pass/fail test of Abraham’s faithfulness.

To me, this interpretation leaves open a lot of questions.

Why does God need to test Abraham? Doesn’t God know his heart?

Why would God asks such a horrible thing of Abraham?

Why would Abraham go along with it?

As a son, how do you recover from an incident like this?

And even if you do, how do you have a shred of respect for the God who asked this of your father?

But probably the big question I most often see people wrestling with based on this passage is:

What if God asks me to do something like that?

This is a disturbing question.

And almost every time I have heard this verse discussed, it centers around how we need to be prepared to do something as horrific as sacrifice a child if God asks it of us.

Which leads me to yet another question:

Do I want to serve a God like that would ask something like that of me?

Yet, I have found so many people who are unable to ask that question because of the very picture of God usually associated with this story.

If God is as demanding enough to demand one of his people to kill their own child, then what would he do to me if I questioned if I wanted to serve a God who demands the blood of children.

So I better avoid those tough questions, and I better at least be able to give lip service to the fact that I would kill my own child if God asked it of me.

But maybe we need to take a look at this passage again.

It is in the Bible, so we can’t just skip over it. But maybe we need fresh eyes so God is not as bloodthirsty as it seems in the traditional use of the story.

And really, when we talk about this story, don’t we always make the subtle shift in this story about being about how amazing Abraham is and not about God? What if the story was really trying to tell us how amazing God was?

In Abraham’s day, a child sacrifice was actually a pretty common thing.

You see sacrifices were made to get the god’s attention and favor. If you wanted good things to happen instead of bad, you made sacrifices. If bad things still happened, you sacrificed more. If good thing happened you sacrificed more to say thank you.

The gods were never really satisfied, and you never knew were you stood so you always had to up the ante. Eventually, human life was all you had left to offer.

So In Abraham’s mind, this is the point he has arrived at with God. God has done so much, it is time to show him how grateful Abraham is.

But at the last moment, God breaks in.

God stops Abraham and rescues him from the never-ending cycle of a demanding God who requires more and more until the humans result to bloodshed. God provides a new way of interaction between God and people.

This God provides new life. This God is concerned with the continuation of the human race. This God sees each human life as precious. This God is paying attention and involved in the life of all people, well before a sacrifice is made.

And God provides God’s own sacrifice.

In the midst of such an awful way to view God, God breaks in and offers a gift. This is a new way to see God. This God does not demand more and more. This God is the source of every good gift.

This story teaches us to get rid of the old ways to look at God. We no longer need to see God as someone who would ask us to sacrifice a child. We should see God as the source of all good gifts – especially our children.

When all the other things in our lives demand more and more and more, this God gives gifts. This God offers new and beautiful ways of living and being in the world.

It presents us with a choice for how we see the world.

Is the world a harsh place where the God at the center of it all wants nothing more than to keep me in line through brute force and violence?

Or is the world ultimately a good and beautiful place with a God at the center who loves and cares for the people God has made?

This story wants us to shed those old ways of fear and power and begin to see every GOOD thing in life as a gift from God.

I have heard people who have gone through terrible suffering say to me: God could have given me a lot worse because it is what we deserve.

This story is the opposite of that sentiment. This story is about God giving people exactly what they do not deserve and reminding us who is at the root and source of all things beautiful, loving, hopeful, and true in the universe.

Our job is to receive these acts of gift and grace and allow them to transform how we see the world.

May we learn to re-learn and re-paint this story and this God to see the beauty and wonder of a God who gives only what is good and beautiful.

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(Note: I heard Rob Bell speak on this in his The Gods Aren’t Angry Tour, but that was several years ago. Over time, I have thought about this and heard other people speak on it and I honestly no longer know how much of this I am stealing and how much of this is actually mine. Take that for what it’s worth)

(Another note: One of my favorite theologians and speakers did a few talks on this idea, I encourage you to check them out here and here. His whole series on Twisted Scripture has been amazing.)

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3 thoughts on “Re-Painting the Disturbing God of Abraham and Isaac

  1. I am not trying to be a contrarian just for the sake of it, but I would love some real dialogue on this issue. If people truly want to know the type of doubt that stories like this create, I will give you the way in which they have affected my own issues with faith.

    I remember being woken up at about 2 AM by my stepfather and marched outside with my sister and mother (we lived in the country). There was a fire going in the burn barrel and we were all kind of confused. My stepfather then informed us that he was burning my sister’s clothes.

    You see earlier my sister had asked my mother to do a load of laundry. It was late and right before bed and my mother said “no”. My sister threw a bit of a tantrum because there was a shirt that she just “had” to wear the next day to school (she was in 6th grade). After being sent to her room and going to bed my mother apparently had a change of heart and did the laundry anyway. This did not sit well with my stepfather who believed that we should let our “no be no, and our yes be yes”. So it was time to teach everyone something about respect and keeping your word.
    My sister went back to bed freaking out and sobbing. The next morning there were her clothes, not a stitch harmed. It had all been faked for the benefit of a lesson. I remember him sort of expecting everyone to be like “Aww…you got us.” Instead, I just remember being scared of what he might do next if I didn’t obey. This Bible story is no different.
    If you want to find a reason to justify God’s request of Abraham, you will find it. You will find a way to justify what happened to the Amalekites, the first born Egyptians, Job’s family and those drowned in the flood, you will. As a Christian I approached every story that gave me pause as a riddle that needed to be solved. It was on me to figure out the correct perspective, apologetics, and context to make the horrible into something righteous.
    In an effort to decrease the doubt, I instead found plenty of reasons to embrace it.

  2. First of all, Phil. Thanks for sharing a story from your life. That is an unfair and manipulative thing that was done to you & your sister. Appreciate your willingness to share. I do not believe, however, that your story is “no different” than this biblical one. I will get to that in a moment.

    Before I go there, an honest confession: There are still quite a number of stories – particularly in the OT, that I’m not sure what to do with. I struggle with both the divine and human nature that I believe to be inherent in the Scriptures. We should talk some day about the concepts of inerrancy and infallibility that we were taught growing up. They are still issues I’m wading through. But those are for another time.

    As far as this particular story, it is one that used to trouble me greatly. I thought it was manipulative and a horrible way for a “father” to act — and I didn’t even have the personal experiences like the one you shared. On the surface it appears to be cruel and God toying with Abraham & Isaac for his own benefit. Something like “Don’t forget what I could require of you. I AM God, you know.” This is the way my modern brain would react to this story because it’s so out of context in 21st Century America.

    But looking at it in its own time and context, I believe Trevor is on to what was really going on. Abraham would not have thought it an unusual request (that seems awful to say, by the way). This was par for the course. What we see — and this appears to be something that Yahweh was doing often in that time and place — was to subvert people’s expectations and show people his vision for how things should be. Why didn’t Abraham throw a fit and complain about what God was asking him to do? Because in the back of his mind, this is what happens with “gods”. They demand and demand and demand from humans because they are all about their own glory.

    And no matter what you think about the method (and there are parts of it that still make me uneasy), the motivation was not to put the “fear of God” in Abraham. Instead it was to show that what you expect of Yahweh because of the reputation of other gods is not what you get. Yahweh cares about human life. He provides the sacrifice. He is a provider and not a taker. The whole exercise was to get Abraham to understand what Yahweh was about, not to make him fearful of what Yahweh could do to him.

    Therein lies the difference in the biblical narrative and your story. I just see no reason for that exercise other than to make you and your sister afraid of what could happen to you if you didn’t toe the proper line. The end goal was in your story is fear. The end goal of the biblical narrative was love and mercy. Your story was about manipulation. I don’t see that in what Yahweh was doing here. I used to believe that was the case, but after understanding how ancient people would have engaged it, my opinion has changed.

    Sorry for the long comment. Appreciate your engagement.

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