So God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. It’s a famous but deeply unsettling story, and we try to take the edge off it: after all, it was a test, not a genuine command. I’m not sure that makes the story any less uncomfortable, but it raises an important question – it was a test, sure, but did Abraham pass?
Traditionally, the answer is yes: he was willing to follow God’s commands, even when those commands were horrific, and revealed Abraham as a man of great faith. Isaac is shown to have not been in real danger – God provides a ram for the sacrifice – and the story becomes an echo of what would happen at Calvary, with Jesus dying in the place of sinful humanity. Certainly that’s the interpretation I grew up with.
But there’s another interpretation, one that draws upon Genesis 18. Here Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed and he immediately starts interceding on behalf of the cities. There’s something of a vested interest here – his nephew Lot is living in Sodom at the time – but nevertheless, Abraham dares to argue with God on behalf of others. So why didn’t he do the same for his son? The theory being that he should have gone to bat for his kid and therefore he failed the test.
I’d like to go with that interpretation because, frankly, it’s more comfortable. Problem is, it’s pretty clear from the text that Abraham does what he needs to do, even receiving a blessing for it. In that sense, it becomes a story about trusting God: after all, Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide” – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice, which seems to have been prevalent at the time, and shows himself to be different to the other gods people worshipped at the time. Certainly the idea of child sacrifice is shown to be detestable throughout the Bible, even being at the root of the word ‘Gehanna’ – child sacrifice leads, almost literally, to Hell.
Whatever interpretation you go with, it’s clear that children aren’t to be sacrificed as part of religious or political power games. We walk away from this story, uncomfortable but glad we don’t live in that kind of world.
Too often the Church – or, more fairly, individual churches – has been complicit in crimes like this; it’s covered up and enabled abuse, it’s failed to be a prophetic voice crying out for the protection of children. And those facts should bother us more than the theology of Abraham’s story because this is our society, the theology of our story. The outcome of Abraham’s story is that children aren’t meant to be sacrificed, that their lives aren’t expendable. We’ve forgotten that lesson: we want someone 3,000 years ago to cry out for Isaac, but that was long ago – we need to be crying out for children now.
Abraham and Isaac left Mount Moriah together a long time ago. But people still walk that path to Gehanna.