Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio c. 1598
How could a good God tell a father to sacrifice his son? I’ve heard it asked several times (mostly by atheists) referring to the biblical story of Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son Isaac. It comes across to me as a smug question, but not a clever one.
Richard Dawkins referred to it as a “disgraceful story” and as “child abuse”. He said “As it turns out God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. 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 following orders.'” 
Let me say first that while Christians often speak of the sacrifice of Isaac, Jews generally refer to this incident as the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (as Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed). To me, there are a couple of really interesting things about the binding of Isaac. First, it portrays Abraham in a bad light and I think it’s significant that the Hebrew Bible portrays its main characters as deeply flawed human beings, not as ‘saints’ or extraordinary people. Second, this story forms part of a book which condemns human sacrifice. So why would a book which condemns child sacrifice include an incident where one of its ‘heroes’ appears to be doing just that?
The Hebrew Bible is incredibly sophisticated literature. Its authors were clearly not stupid. It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t have noticed a glaring ‘contradiction’ like this (if, in fact, it is a contradiction). It seems to me that to dismiss this story as evidence that either (a) there is no god, or (b) if there is a god then he/she/it is ‘immoral’, is to take the lazy way out. I am much more interested in why the authors decided to include a story which portrays their patriarch and their god in such a shockingly confronting way, especially when the same authors condemn the very thing they are reporting.
I think we should take note of the conflicts in the story (call them ‘contradictions’ if you like, although I personally don’t think it’s a good word because they appear to be quite intentional rather than accidental), and there are several of them. Abraham ‘the saint’ is juxtaposed against Abraham ‘the sinner’ on several occasions throughout Genesis and the deliberateness of it has to be saying something. We should also note a couple of ‘contradictions’ within this incident. First, when Abraham arrives at Moriah he tells his servants to wait for them: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” We are meant to take note that both Abraham and Isaac would return. Abraham either didn’t plan to sacrifice Isaac, or he fully expected something to happen (the NT says he expected a resurrection) and Isaac would be coming back. So premeditated murder is a long way from the mind of the author(s).
Second, there is the question of why Abraham was initially told by God to do something, but then accepted God’s directive being overruled by an angel, a lesser spiritual being. That also has to be deliberate and shouldn’t be ignored.
The medieval Jewish rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew text doesn’t actually have God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (although the English translations usually do), and that Abraham ‘misunderstood’. That would go someway further in portraying Abraham as ‘flawed’ and would be consistent with other aspects of the story. It might also explain why the storyteller then has God refusing to speak to the obtuse Abraham, and delivers his next message through his agent instead.
The words “and offer him there for a burnt offering” translate just three words in the Hebrew text (or two actually, because one word is repeated). The Hebrew word translated “offer” was used later in Israel’s history for burnt offerings, but comes from a root which literally means “to go up” (hence it was later used in the evolution of the language for offerings whose smoke ‘went up’). The word is used twice: והעלהו שם לעלה (you may notice the three letters עלה repeated in the first and last word of the phrase – they are just variations of the same word), which might literally mean “offer him there as an offering” (that kind of repetition is not unusual in Hebrew), but could mean, as the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides pointed out, an emphatic “bring him up” (the mountain). There was no further instruction about what to do when they got there – Abraham ‘misunderstood’ the intention.
I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the translators got it wrong. In fact, the Hebrew והעלהו שם לעלה would quite naturally read as “offer him there as an offering”, especially in light of later usage. In pointing out Maimonides’ alternative reading I was trying to make the point that Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have wrestled with the many questions raised by this text for centuries. It doesn’t seem the least bit clever to me that an atheist should raise this incident as some kind of dilemma for believers when believers themselves have been discussing the ethical issues since at least the first century. The point I am making is that the text reads (to me) to be intentionally confronting and that the writer is deliberately raising serious ethical questions. We should note that Genesis is a narrative preamble to a legal document and carefully lays the foundation for why Israel ‘needed’ the law, and why their law should be different to the other ancient near eastern nations (who frequently offered human sacrifices, which Israel’s law denounced). I personally think it is much more enriching to explore the issues that the narrative raises, rather than smugly poking fun at believers as though they hadn’t noticed the problem.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 242
… to be continued