Christians, Jews, and Muslims struggle with the story of Abraham. And many who seek to tear down or dissuade others from organized religion, Jehovah worship in particular, use the story of Abraham as an example of an unjust, uncaring God who can neither be loving nor interested in human suffering. Setting aside all of the other intrigue and lessons to be learned from the story of Abraham, I’d like to focus entirely on what for most is the hinge story: offering up Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord.
The biblical account goes like this…
Abram receives the promise of becoming a great nation, and, among other things,
I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. (Genesis 13)
And again in Genesis 15:
And he [the Lord] brought him [Abram] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
According to the biblical record, Abram was already 75 years old when he was receiving these promises. Certainly past what we would consider the normal family years. I think it is reasonable for us to ascribe Abram some human traits and assume that he doubted these promises sometimes. I’m sure he wondered when and how the Lord would fulfill his promise, or if he would fulfill them at all. To his credit, he pressed forward, living as if the promises would be fulfilled, notwithstanding his doubts.
When Abram was 99, according to the record, he was visited by the Lord and received much the same promise:
…thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. (Genesis 17)
The newly minted Abraham, father of many nations, married to Sarai-now-Sarah who had not been able to have any children, were told that they would be the parents of many nations. Even Sarah could hardly believe it.
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (Genesis 18)
And have a son they did, Isaac, who arrived when Abraham was 100 years old. Imagine the joy of waiting 100 years for your son (or for anything you wanted for that matter). The joy of Abraham and Sarah would have been immense. Indeed, they threw parties just to celebrate the little son’s arrival. Finally all the promises of posterity numbering the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky or becoming a great nation or nations have started to come true in the advent of Isaac. The Lord had kept his promises. Abraham had worshiped at the altar of Jehovah for 100 years, had believed His promises, and had continued to act in faith, knowing the Lord to be just and merciful.
Then later, the story goes, the Lord tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, up to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice, a burnt offering. Out the window go all of the promises of posterity and many nations. Out the window goes 100 years of waiting.
It’s true that Abraham had already had posterity through Haggar. As I understand it, Islam teaches that it was Ishmael that was offered as a sacrifice. If you adhere to Islam, substitute Ishmael going forward. In my view, the lesson is the same.
The record doesn’t say that Abraham hesitated in the least. He took his son and some servants and went.
Translations of ancient scriptures used by the church I belong to, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, infer an even more bleak picture of the struggle Abraham must have had. According to this record, Abraham had had a run-in in his own youth with some other religious folk in Egypt who offered human sacrifices to idols of stone. Terah, Abraham’s father, had fallen in with this group, and at some point had sought to offer Abraham as a sacrifice. Abraham’s witness is that he was rescued from the very altar by an angel of the Lord and escaped death only by divine intervention.
The nightmare of being bound and the attempt being made on his life, with the assistance of his own father, must have haunted him for years. Abraham must have struggled against the memory of that time regularly throughout his life, but then being asked to do the same to his own son, his beloved son, the son he’d waited 100 years for…that must have been hell.
The place where Abraham was sent to offer his son wasn’t close by the travel standards of the time, and required at least three days journey to arrive. What was flowing through Abraham’s mind as he rode on? Was he reliving his own brush with human sacrifice, wondering, torturing himself with internal struggles about the rightness or the justness of what he was about to undertake? Or was he convincing himself of the faithfulness of the Lord? Was he reliving being rescued by an angel and wondering if the Lord would do the same for his son? No doubt it was a difficult three days.
Then comes the relief, when just ready to initiate the sacrifice of his son by knife, bound and ready on an altar of stone, an angel appears again and ends the nightmare.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And then even more reassurance that the right thing had been done.
By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
“Stop!” We all cry out. “Why would a loving, just and merciful God require this?”
And my atheist friends reply, “Because there is no loving, just or merciful God in the Bible or the histories. The God you worship is a murderer and a torturer.”
At first glance, with no background or context, this seems to be a pretty horrible tale. A cursory telling and understanding of the story does indeed seem completely incongruent with even the basics of the Golden Rule.
First, let’s assume that the Lord not only knew Abraham, but knew him better than he knew himself. Let’s assume that the Lord knew Abraham before he was born, when he was a spirit child of our Heavenly Father, and that He knew what the ultimate and true destiny of his child Abraham was. Let’s also assume that the Lord’s purpose was to bring a tremendous amount of good to the life of Abraham. And a lion’s share of that good would be in the form of knowledge and experience as they are some of the only things anyone takes with them when they die.
If God knew the long view, the eternal view, the after-death view of the destiny of Abraham, would He be bashful in bringing it about?
Abraham, as a worshiper of Jehovah, looked forward to a time when God would become flesh and take away the sins and condemnation of the world. He had a knowledge of Jesus Christ and some of what would befall Him during his life. He must have known that his own salvation depended entirely on an event that would only be seen by very few in a distant time.
God loved Abraham. It’s clear. He rescued the young Abram from certain death, visited him on more than one occasion, and had guided his life in so many ways.
So why bother with asking his son?
I suggest that the Lord wanted Abraham to understand a little more what was required of His own future sacrifice, the sacrifice that was to come in the garden and on the cross. I suggest that the type and shadow of the sacrifice of Isaac, so similar to the future day when the Lamb of God would be sacrificed, was not lost on Abraham. I suggest that the Lord wanted to test Abraham’s obedience, not for his own sadistic pleasure, but to help Abraham to know whether or not he could be trusted.
So the atheist cries out, “A God that would require that kind of obedience isn’t worthy of adoration!”
Yet, if God, in his mercy, will and does provide a way of escape for every one of us from the ultimate separations, eternal separation from our bodies and to be separated from the goodness and physical presence of God forever, and doesn’t require much of us outside of repentance and obedience, isn’t it absolutely just for the Lord to find out if we can be trusted? And even more, isn’t it a wonderful thing to find out if we can trust ourselves?
Once we have a true understanding of the nature and character of God, and then in our own eternal and immortal destiny, what’s left but to repent and come to know we can trust ourselves to do as we’re asked, not out of blind obedience or a willful misunderstanding of the facts or even an abdication of decision making power, but do God’s will because of our knowledge of who He is and what He is, choosing faith over our doubts?
The Lord has said:
My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.
Abraham, called the Father of the Faithful because of his obedience in the face of such struggle, was clearly prepared for the glory of God.
At the critical point, when Abraham’s arm was lifted, he was rescued. I say he was rescued because Abraham needed to be rescued. Like we all need to be rescued. From ourselves. From our sins. From our darkness. From our stupidity. From the burning memories of our past or present choices. We all need salvation.
When Abraham demonstrated his unwavering faithfulness and obedience to God, even when commanded to sacrifice his son, God rescued him. Similarly, when we demonstrate our faithfulness through obedience, God will ultimately rescue us.