And now the terrible story of the ‘akedah’ the binding of Isaac. I’ve linked to it so you can read it, but I will briefly re-tell it so we are all on the same page, as ‘twere. God (it is not Yahweh here, this is not a Yahwehist story at all) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain top and Abraham sets out to do it. He travels two days, and then leaves the servants and the donkey and he and his son set off for the final climb. Isaac sees there is no sheep. ‘God will provide the sacrifice,’ says Abraham, to whom God gave Isaac. It is only when Isaac is bound ready for sacrifice that God stops Abraham, and points him to a ram caught in a thicket. God does not in fact wish Isaac sacrificed.
It is a terrible story, wonderfully well told. It must be said at once that from quite an early period the people of Israel came to realise that child sacrifice was an abomination, demanded by the Gods of Canaan and abhorred by Yahweh. The Bible as we now have it is loud in condemnation of the idea.
The Rabbis, who made such a thoughtful set of reflections on their traditions, often suggested that Isaac was an adult at the time, and that he consented to the whole thing. It was not a helpless child, horrendously bound and in terror, but an adult, submitting to what he thought was the will of God. It only helps a bit.
Let us concede that Isaac is adult, and that he consents, and that God never intended to go through with the sacrifice. Because he has not withheld ‘his only son’ Abraham is blessed. It is still horrible.
I think it is horrible for this reason: the sacrifice is meaningless. It is only designed to do one thing: to prove that Abraham is willing to give up everything for God. And I do not believe that is how God works.
Oh yes, I do believe that we should always and in all things put God first. But I do not believe he ever would and ever will put us through surrendering things which impoverish us without enriching others. He might well ask us to give up our lives, if by risking them we can save another. He would never ask us to give up a bar of chocolate just to show we loved him more than chocolate. He is not so needy.
Moreover, I believe that thinking God would do such a thing, ask us to give up things just to prove we put him first, leads to a simply terrible view of vocation, in which God asks people to do things which are death to them as people. I believe God only calls us to do things which, however costly they may be, lead to our ultimate health.
I think the story of the akedah only gets it right to a point: because we may have to give up everything, and God does indeed expect us to be ready to do that, but never, ever just to prove we will.
Oh, Rosemary, thank you. This is the God I believe in, but sometimes it can feel like I’m the only one.
Oh dear – at risk of being unkind, it does sound as those who make you feel as though you are the only one, although dear committed people, may need to think a bit more about their theology!
I really do think this could be your next book. It is excellent.
Well, I do need a surprise best-seller -and this would be the ultimate surprise as a best seller – the ultimate! In fact if it got published it would be almost enough of a surprise.
Is there anything to be drawn from a viewpoint that says this was not a historical event, rather, a story (sense=campfire)?
It seems to me that there’s a change in tack between the detail of the first few verses and the summary/”explanation”/analysis of v15ff. Indeed, if one looks backwards at it, one could say the whole story’s an elaborate plant in order to justify the view that “offspring will be numerous”.
Taking what you say about it being a rather gratuitous gesture, is one expected to see that the story overstates the case, and that it’s dedication to God (in a serious way, rather than “if you were told to jump off a cliff, would you?”) that counts? What about Abraham’s rather politically spun half-truth of a response to Isaac (v8, given what he knows from v2)?
I very much doubt that this was an historic event, although I am open to the suggestion that Abraham or somebody very like him was a historic figure. (There is a very strong tradition that the Israelites began as wandering pastoralists, and the idea that one was called or thought of as ‘honourable father’ (Abraham) is perfectly believable.)
There is no doubt that the moment we get to ‘the angel of Yahweh’ we are getting to another, and probably later, intervention into the story. There is a strong school of thought that the the writer of the first bit (where Yahweh is not mentioned and we have ‘God’ instead) intends a real actual sacrifice of Isaac. (I am writing cautiously so as to avoid aligning myself with one or other theory of the composition of these passages for I think the case for any particular one unproven, while it is clear we have more than one voice using more than one set of language, with more than one name for God.) There is no doubt that the majority Hebrew Scriptures voice, which knows God as Yahweh, strongly deplores human sacrifice in all its forms. We have more than enough evidence to state this categorically. It is also interesting to see how this story is changed, ameliorated, so that the author using ‘Yahweh’ can no longer tolerate the suggestion of God asking for a real human sacrifice. I like the fact that the Bible can take on arguing with itself like this – I think it is wholly positive that this should be so – and knowing this gives one a very good way of standing up to those fundamentalists in the church, and atheists outside it, who tell one to swallow the thing whole. There is not a whole to swallow.
However, the view of the last editor of this story is, I think, clear. God/Yahweh approves of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice everything, just because it is a sacrifice of everything. I think that is probably also the belief of the first writer as well. I think it is a good insight that we may need to sacrifice everything, and a bad one that it pleases God to have us give up things just for the sake of it. I would jump off a cliff if I was convinced that would be a useful thing to do.
IIRC, one of the Rabbinic accounts supposes that no-one in the story—God, Abraham or Isaac—actually believed that Isaac would be sacrificed; that the three of them were collaborating in a demonstration that human sacrifice was not what God wanted.