Yesterday at iNVERSION, we reached the account of Abraham and Isaac in our slow journey through the famous eleventh chapter of Hebrews.
You are probably familiar with the story. About 4,000 years ago in the cradle of civilization, an old man named Abram and his barren wife, Sarai, are called by a deity named Yahweh to leave their homeland and live as nomads in the land of Canaan. Yahweh blesses Abram and gives him a stunning promise: he will possess this land, he will have a child by Sarai, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through his innumerable offspring. The two of them believe the promises regarding land and blessing, but are understandably skeptical about the promised child. On separate occasions, both of them burst out in laughter upon hearing it. And yet, after about ten chapters of adventures, ceremonies, mishaps, and significant name changes, Abraham and Sarah have their child, Isaac, whose name means laughter.
And right then, when all seems well and we expect the narrative to pick up with Isaac, Yahweh asks Abraham to do the impossible: to sacrifice his own child (read Genesis 22 for the whole story). Of course, after the three day journey to Mount Moriah, in the final suspense-filled moment, the angel of the Lord cries from heaven for Abraham to drop the knife. A ram is provided for the sacrifice, God reestablishes his covenant with Abraham, and father and son, I’m sure, go home jubilant.
There are a million things to be said, but I want to focus on the immediate, most obvious question for a modern person: How could a good God ask a parent to sacrifice their own child? I’m not alone in having this concern. Here’s the quote from the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, that Pastor Heath shared last night:
“A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only obeying orders.’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”
Now, I’m a pastor, and I like to think I’m a pretty darn orthodox Christian. I believe that humankind is rebellious by nature and by choice, deserving the just wrath of God. If God had decided to have Isaac killed, or Abraham for that matter, both of whom clearly demonstrate themselves to be sinners, He would have been perfectly just in doing so. Furthermore, I know this story typifies (foreshadows) Jesus Christ in a multitude of brilliant ways, as Pastor Heath demonstrated on Sunday. And yet, in full disclosure, I’ve never been comfortable with this story. Even knowing how the story ends and the ultimate end of sacrifice to which it points, doesn’t it still seem a little, I don’t know…messed up? Doesn’t it feel icky for God to just string Abraham and Isaac along like that about something so serious? Isn’t it wrong for God to contradict His own promises like that—even if it’s just for three days?
Not at all. In fact, quite the contrary, and here’s why: during the sermon, Heath pointed out that Abraham heralded from Ur of the Chaldeans (later to become Babylon), and had originally settled short of Canaan, in Haran, with his father Terah (Genesis 11:27-31). Unfortunately, we often miss the profound significance of these seemingly dull, genealogical and geographical details. Joshua 24:2 makes it clear that Abraham’s father Terah and his brother Nahor worshiped other gods, one of which was the moon god, “Sin” (solid name for a god, I know). We even see in Genesis that this sort of polytheism remained in the tents of Abraham for three generations (remember Rachel, Abraham’s granddaughter, stealing the household idols?). What this means is that culturally, Abraham would not have found human sacrifice odd at all. To give just one example, when a king or queen of Ur was buried, their entire staff would willingly (even honorably!) be sacrificed to Sin and buried with them so that they could continue to serve them in the afterlife. Over 2,000 such sacrifices have been found in tombs during archaeological digs.
Are you catching the significance? I am not attempting here in any way to downplay the heartache Abraham must have felt as he embarked with his beloved son on that harrowing journey up the mountain, nor Isaac’s terror as it dawned on him that he wasn’t making the journey back. But doesn’t both of their staggering willingness to obey Yahweh’s command make a bit more sense in this light? This was not Yahweh, God of the universe, showing himself after all to be just the kind of reckless, capricious, blood-thirsty, manipulative deity that the Ancient Near Eastern people had come to expect. This was, as Pastor Heath said last night, Yahweh in essence shouting, illustrating, to the gravely compliant ex-pagan Abraham, “No! I’m not like that! I will not demand the blood of your children. I will provide! (Genesis 22:14)”
Who cares though, right? Good, I guess this Yahweh was stunningly merciful as far as make-believe Mesopotamian gods go, but haven’t we moved on from this child sacrifice stuff? Isn’t blood sacrifice for any reason gross, graceless, regressive, and futile? Why even study this? Aren’t we more enlightened by now? If you are an adult in the Western world like me, you are familiar with this line of questioning. It certainly sounds reasonable.
But I’m not so sure it is. Illustrations always help, so please allow me to briefly retell the story in the way I think it might happen in our own day:
“After these things, God tested Sarah and said to her, ‘Sarah!’ And she said, ‘Here am I.’ So God said, ‘Take your son, Isaac, who is in your womb, and go to the abortion clinic, and abort him there.’ So Sarah rose early in the morning, got into her SUV and drove to the clinic with her boyfriend. At the last moment, the angel of the Lord called to Sarah and said, ‘Sarah!’ ‘Sarah!’ And she said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not kill the child…I’m not like that. I do not demand the blood of your son. I will provide the blood of mine.’
We must be careful lest we become guilty of C.S. Lewis’ “chronological snobbery,” sneering at these poor, backwards, ancient people with their bloodthirsty gods. In reality, our idols, our gods, are even more thirsty for the blood of the innocent. Would it really shock you if in 4,000 years, people were studying our backwards race in horror, learning about our common practice of murdering our unborn children (who could be more innocent?) on sterile, sanitized altars to cruel gods such as Individual Freedom, Choice, Self, Sex, Convenience, and Money? Are we so much more civilized than the ancients? No, we just give our gods names that fit our materialist worldview. Please, disagreeing friends, I implore you to open your eyes.
Illustrations are never perfect and there are of course glaring issues with the one I just provided. But do you see the point? In Abraham’s day, where child sacrifice was the norm, God powerfully illustrated that such practice was at best ineffective, and at worst morally reprehensible. As God says later in His Word, child sacrifice is disgusting to Him (Leviticus 20:2-5, etc.). And though modern men and women have agreed emotionally and intellectually with God on this point and tried desperately to escape from blood sacrifice, we have failed time and time again. There is a simple reason: it’s impossible. Blood sacrifice is a necessity in a moral universe.
From a generation lost to abortion to the bleeding fingers of starving children in other countries building our toys, our cruel gods cannot be satiated. We are hardwired to desire grace, to desire blessing, to desire life and love and peace and joy. Yet we live in a broken world, a world that we have broken. In a broken world, there is always a cost to purchase these unbroken things. And the cost, somehow, is always the blood of the Other.
Only the true God will never demand the blood of our children. We don’t have to settle for Dawkins’ regressive and hypocritical “standards of modern morality.” We have something far better, a God infinitely more progressive. Our God has provided the blood of His own Son, Jesus Christ (also God…we don’t have time) to put an end to all sacrifices and to give us grace, blessing, life, love, joy, and peace in eternal measure. For a three day journey in the grave, it appeared that death had won; it looked like God’s promises were but folly. But the Ultimate Isaac, the promised Son of a miracle birth, the Lamb of God who carried his own wood up Mount Moriah to his own sacrifice, rose from death in glory. All of God’s promises came true. And because of Jesus Christ, we rebels are now God’s sons and daughters. Let’s laugh like Abraham and Sarah did and glory in how wonderful our Heavenly Father is. We could never have made up a myth like this.