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.