Today, I will talk about one of the foundational stories of all three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
God tells Abram to offer up his son as a human sacrifice one day. He does so with much obedience and trust, maybe even prophetic insight. God, at the last minute, keeps him from killing Isaac and provides a ram as a sacrifice instead.
While Islam replaces Isaac with Ishmael, the story remains the same.
This is the main storyline, but there is much more to it. You can read it in Genesis 22. I will give you a few hints about what to reflect on:
- Can God command somebody to do evil? He does in this story. How does that correspond with your image of God being a loving father?
- Abram expects a lamb for sacrifice but is given a ram, a fully grown animal, a father. Could the father give his life on our behalf?
- Depending on your translation, but certainly, in Hebrew, you will notice that Abram descends alone to the servants waiting. What happened with Isaac?
- Looking even a bit further, we never see Sara talking to Abram again from that day on. She dies in a place other than Abram lives, and Isaac and Abram are not mentioned together anymore. What happened?
The story has been explained as necessary enactment of the death of Jesus, a father sacrificing his son. Necessary because God could not and would not do anything here on earth but through man. The type was permission for the real thing.
That explanation is profoundly Christian and depends on the story’s historicity. But what if that story is archetypal?
What if that story portrays a multitude of similar stories that have happened all over time and place and in some form still do? What if it was aimed at establishing a new thought, embedding it in a storyline that showed the consequences and effects of what was happening?
Imagine what would happen if you were to sacrifice your firstborn son or son of promise? At that time, this was culturally accepted and done to ensure further futility or good standing with the gods and even God.
But I can imagine that the outcome has been traumatic at any time. Does the story portray the reaction of Sara on how Abram handled this? Does it tell the story of thousands of mothers and families torn by their husbands and fathers killing their children and siblings in the name of religion?
If your spouse were to kill your child in the name of religion, would you ever talk to them again? Would you share the bed and spend your days with them?
What if your father prepared for it, up to the point of swinging the knife to kill you, but did not follow through? If there ever was a traumatic moment, I think that counts as one.
Not only was your father willing to kill you, and your God commanded him to do so, but this God, an external force, later seemingly changed his mind and prevented it. It was not your father coming to his senses. Would you ever trust your father or that God again? Would you talk to them again?
This would leave a family shattered to pieces. In addition, their image of God would be shaken to the core and need a careful rebuild without guaranteed success.
I can see the story of Abram and Isaac as a condensed retelling of an awakening, a reformation. Many people, stirred by their hearts and experiences, but also the Holy Spirit, recognized that their image of God was flawed, inhumane, so to speak, cruel, and downright wrong.
God would not demand human sacrifice. Period.
Today, we would tell the story this way: I thought we were all right. I felt God wanted us to sacrifice our children to soothe his anger when we experienced harsh times. Our obedience was paramount to restoring our relationship with God. But we were wrong, so we stopped.
Makes sense. But that topic was settled a long time ago, and it is easy for us to discuss that as we already live on the other side.
Let’s assume this story was about gender or abortion. Would you still frame it the same way if you were to bring about change?
Today, we might reason with historical findings and a better understanding of language, higher moral standards, and such.
But remember, back then, they lived in a different time. Science and reason were not at their disposal. They argued with “God’s will.” You can see this still today in churches all over the world. With prophetic insights, interpretations of the Bible, and proof-texting, we have a plethora of tools to proclaim God’s will and teach or manipulate people in the desired direction.
The story seems to tell us how devastating child sacrifice but also changing your belief system is for a family. It also tells us that child sacrifice is out of God’s will.
The question remains why God commanded it in the first place? The answer to that may be that he did not.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find God commanding human sacrifice. Even more, there is no command for sacrifice at all.
But we find God bringing order to the sacrificial system that man instantiated. Dealing with human sacrifice first to get the worst out of the way, then focusing on animal sacrifice. He always went as far as was possible for people to accept, projecting them forward into a time free of sacrifice to appease him.
To establish the countercultural truth in people’s heads, the writers of Genesis condensed the process of changing belief systems into a stark story of a few hundred words.
This interpretation is in line with Jesus: you have been told, but I tell you. He corrects Old Testament pretty directly in the sermon of the mount.
Jesus also said he did not come to do away with the law but fulfill it. That is a Hebrew colloquialism. People were doing away with the law when they misinterpreted it, but they fulfilled it by giving a valid interpretation.
The writers of Genesis penned down a pre-scriptural story that corrected the belief system of the past, following the same patterns.
I am not saying that Abram did not live. Neither do I say that he has not lived through an experience as recorded in the story. All I say is this: this story might as well be like a poem, even truer than a single account, combining the experience of many during a shift of awareness of the spiritual.
Can we learn from the story how to teach new revelation to those in traditional settings? We can. And can we know how to teach people of any worldview from it? I think so too. We have to adjust the pattern.
Maybe we replace “sacrificing a child on an altar to God” with “neglecting your family on the altar of your career” to give one example.
There is much more to this story. Right now, the most needed thing we can learn from it is this: how can we talk to people when our worldview is shifting?