What would you say if a friend told you they were planning to kill their child because God told them to? I know what I’d do: after calling authorities to make sure the child was safe, I’d seek help for the person’s mental health, and then try to give them a better grasp of God’s character. So what do you do with a text like this?
Genesis 22:1–2 (ESV)
1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
In the next few posts, we’ll approach this problem from several points of view. To us, it’s repulsive, but child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s world. In desperate times, people offered not merely an animal but a child to manipulate the favour of the gods. But how could this be the voice of the true God? Should we read verse 2 as if it said “Abraham thought God said …”?
This is a real problem for anyone who takes the authority of Scripture seriously. If it tells us “God said …” but we question, “Did God really say …” — wasn’t that the serpent’s deception (Genesis 3:1)?
Even if you decide, “Well, God must have said it” you’re not off the hook. Other places in the Torah describe child sacrifice as utterly detestable to God, one of the worst of heathen practices e.g.:
Deuteronomy 12:31 (ESV) (compare Deut 18:10)
You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
Jeremiah insists that God could not and would not order his people to sacrifice his children, for such an evil thought never entered his mind:
Jeremiah 32:35 (ESV) (compare Jer 7:31)
They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
It’s also clear in the Genesis story that God does not want Abraham to kill Isaac. A few verses earlier, God told him, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (21:12). A few verses later, God dispatches a messenger to prevent Abraham carrying through (22:11-12). But even if God never intended the murder to take place, the request still seems macabre.
Some scholars seek novel solutions (e.g. J. Richard Middleton, The Silence of Abraham, The Passion of Job: Explorations in the Theology of Lament, Baker Academic, yet to be published). But it might be wiser to look back at how Israel struggled with this story. Even before the time of Jesus, Jewish people found it incongruous that God would ask Abraham to kill their ancestor, for then they would never have existed. They found a way to hear this story that I must admit sounded strange when I first read it.
The book of Jubilees was written in the second century before Christ. It’s a retelling of the Genesis and Exodus story, so it provides insight into how they thought. Their understanding was that the evil destroyer (effectively Satan) wanted to destroy the Abrahamic family, so he suggested God test Abraham to see how devoted he really was. God authorized the test, so in a sense it came from God, even though the murderous action was motivated by evil. When I first read this ancient text, I struggled to understand their perspective, since we do not conceive of the absolute authority of God in the way they did. In their worldview, anything that happened must have been God, since it couldn’t happen unless God did it.
An analogy with Job may help. According to Job 1, the evil that befell Job came at Satan’s initiative. Nevertheless, because God authorized it, they could say that God was testing Job. In the same way, God could be said to be testing Abraham, even though the initiative came from evil. Here’s how they retold the story:
Jubilees 17.16 And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac, his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.”
[James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 90]
This view turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls too. Lines 9-11 of the second fragment of Scroll 225 from Cave 4 at Qumran (4Q225 frag 2 l9-11) reads like this:
Now the Prince of Malevolence (Mastemah) approached God and displayed his anger against Abraham on account of Isaac. And God said to Abraham, “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up to Me as a burnt offering …”
[Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg Jr., and Edward M. Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 337]
In Greek dualistic thinking, evil and good are polar opposites that battle for supremacy. For many Christians, evil comes from Satan, while good comes from God. This is not how the Hebrews understood things. Their underlying assumption was that everything that happens must be God (otherwise it couldn’t happen). YHWH is the supreme monarch, ruler of all heavenly beings—both those that are good and those that are evil. Within this framework, it makes sense to speak of God sending an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14; 19:9), or a lying spirit (1 Kings 22:22 || 2 Chronicles 18:22).
Prior to the exile, Israel had only a very limited understanding of the powers of evil. So anything that happened—even something as evil as a plague—was attributed to God. Therefore 2 Samuel 24:1 can say that “YHWH … incited David” to conduct a census with terrible consequences. When the Jews retold this story after the exile, they now understood that there were spiritual powers behind their enemies, so they redescribed the same event like this: “Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). So who was it? Was it YHWH or was it Satan? As they later understood it, it was Satan, but Satan is limited by YHWH, so in that sense it was ultimately YHWH.
That’s how the authors of Jubliees and 4Q225 understood Genesis 22:1. It was evil, but it was an evil authorized by God. Jeremiah is right: the evil suggestion could not originate in God’s mind. Deuteronomy is right: child-sacrifice is abominable to God. The evil idea came from God only in the sense that God authorized it, not in the sense that this is what God really wanted. That’s why God blocks Abraham from carrying through.
A brief blog post like this cannot do justice to such a complex hermeneutical point, but it does matter. If we don’t get this, we will struggle with many of things attributed to God in the Old Testament. If we don’t allow a passage like this to illuminate the difference between our mindset and that of the ancient Israelites, we will make very wrong assertions about God and his authority in other passages where it’s less obvious.
The Hebrew mindset viewed God as absolute sovereign, with complete authority over everything that happens, both good and evil. In communicating what Scripture says to people in our own culture, we must be careful not to portray God as the source of evil, for evil cannot be directly attributed to him.
What do you think?
What others are saying
John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 47:
A seminary colleague of mine in England, who (like me) was also a Church of England priest and served a little at a local parish church, on one occasion reenacted the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac in a family service. … Watching the reenactment was horrifying. It brought home the horrific nature of the event (though it doesn’t seem to have done the boy any harm; he grew up to be a fine, balanced adult).
John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 205:
In an episode repulsive to a contemporary audience, God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a whole burnt offering. How could the God who created life and blessed humans with fertility require his faithful servant to offer up his only, beloved, son as a sacrifice? How could God ask Abraham to give up the son of promise for whom he had waited so long? On the other hand, how could Abraham obey God’s command without energetically entreating for Isaac’s life as he had done for Sodom and Gomorrah (18:23–32)? These are hard questions, and the text only hints at answers.
James has one of the most Torah-based mindsets of all the NT authors. James 1:13–17 (ESV):
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Read Genesis 22.