All-in or Die: A Few Words About Abraham and Sacrifice

abraham-and-isaac-sacrifice-craftWe all know the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, and God’s test of Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his son.  As the story goes, God appeared to Abraham and told him to go to a specific place and sacrifice Isaac, the son that had been conceived and born in miraculous fashion when Sarah was in her 90s.  Abraham obeyed, but at the last instant God stopped his hand, and a ram showed up to be used as a sacrifice instead.

It is one of the most (pick one) shocking, moving, horrifying, glorifying, thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching tales in a Bible that is full of stories that are totally alien to post-Enlightenment sensibilities.  Biblical supporters, Biblical critics, and everyone caught in between have ideas about it, because the story affects us at multiple levels.

The story in the Bible itself can be read here:

Abraham Tested

Also I should add that this post was prompted by an article I read while sipping my coffee this morning, here:

The Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible

In the article, the five most terrifying words are, “But where is the lamb?”, Isaac’s heartbreaking question to his father when everything was made ready for the sacrifice.  Scholars generally believe that Isaac was a young adult at the time of the story.

The tale is an archetype of the story of Jesus, a father sacrificing his beloved son for the sake of humanity.  But I want to look at another aspect of it, one that I rarely see mentioned.  That is, who was testing whom?  Could this have been a rational decision on Abraham’s part?  One that we might understand, regardless of the fact that we could never approve?  Nobody could approve of such a thing, but we might nevertheless glimpse a rationale that might have been going through Abraham’s mind at that point in his life.

God may have been testing Abraham, but for me to understand the story at all, I have to also believe that Abraham was testing God.

Let’s take a look at Abraham’s life up to this moment.

  • Abraham (as “Abram”) is living peaceably among his large, extended family in Ur when God shows up, promises to make a great nation of his descendents, and makes him leave Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and go to Canaan (Israel/Palestine).
  • He’s 70 years old, his wife is 60.  Believing in God’s promise, off they go.
  • Arriving in Canaan, God repeats his promise, and Abraham builds an alter on the spot where he received it.
  • After some misadventures involving a trip to Egypt, Pharaoh’s gerontophilic interest in Sarah, and a return to Canaan, God shows Abraham the stars in the night sky and promises that his own flesh and blood descendents will be as numerous.
  • Abraham receives a dream in which God makes a covenant with him to give him and his descendents the land of Canaan.
  • At Sarah’s urging Abraham sleeps with Sarah’s servant Hagar, thinking that maybe God meant Abraham’s descendents, but not necessarily Sarah’s.
  • This didn’t work out well for any of them, although God did promise Hagar that her descendents would be as numerous as Abraham’s.
  • Finally, when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90, finally God shows up and tells them its showtime.  Three angels drop by and one of them tells Abraham he’ll be back in a year, by which time he will have a son by Sarah.
  • At long last Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And now here’s Abraham with a knife in his hand and his bound son on the rock before him, and he’s got to be thinking, “I left my family in Ur for this voice in my head, I fought battles and maintained my allegiance to something I see in dreams, I’ve believed that wise strangers were angels because they corroborated some of the things this voice in my head is telling me, and now this voice wants me to sacrifice the very son through whom my descendents were to be as numerous as the stars of heaven?!”

Resurrection does have a place in Hebrew tradition, and scripture indicates that that was going through Abraham’s mind.  But its one thing to believe that God can do such things, it is another matter alogether to put it to the test the way Abraham was about to.  I have to believe that what Abraham was testing wasn’t a theological point, or a matter of trusting that God would make it all work out somehow.

No, Abraham was putting his entire life on that rock.  Everything he had ever believed, trusted, and followed through thick and thin, everything he had ever taught and taken comfort in and had hoped for, all of it was on that rock.  If it were me, I’d be thinking, “Fine, let’s do it, I’m done aimlessly wandering the Earth on a promise and on hope, I’ve been listening to this voice and following it everywhere, I’ve given it everything it has asked and everything that I have, and now its demanding this?

Its time to find out once and for all if God is what I believe him to be, or if it has all been a lie.  We’ll see whether or not the next place I put this blade is into my own chest.”

That’s what I would have been thinking.  Abraham was about to test everything he was as a human being, and he was going to do it by testing God himself.

All obedience to what you know is right is a kind of test.  This particular story represents the ultimate test, but it more than just a test of faith.  It was not necessarily even a test of courage or of any principle, it was a test of a relationship, the relationship between God and Man.  Can we trust God with our lives?  Or is this all some kind of sick joke?

If we develop a bond with that ‘other’, that Spirit we all sense to varying degrees, does that result in a better life or a worse one?  A more abundant life or a worse one?

Abraham provided the public archetype, but the questions raised by his story are questions that can only be answered privately, by individuals, within our own rational minds.

3 thoughts on “All-in or Die: A Few Words About Abraham and Sacrifice

  1. Steve Price

    That is a lot to think about and feel. I would suggest that while you are right that the issues raised by this ancient archetype can only be dealt with by individuals, much more than our rational minds are required. This goes to our essential vulnerabilities as mortal, fragile and dependent creatures who must depend on trust of others and of reality itself for our comfort, well being and survival. Since we are by necessity dependent we must sacrifice. What and to whom is something we must wrestle with, and how do we know we are making the right sacrifices? We don’t always know and we are never sure we can know how to judge that. Existential angst is what Camus and Satre called the human condition that results from this demand that we sacrifice without the ability to know if we are making the right choices.

    1. notanist Post author

      I found it on the site Abraham and Isaac Bible Story, but I don’t see who the artist is. I liked the image because it portrayed what I thought was an appropriate mood in both, at lease the mood I think I would have had to be in if I had made Abraham’s decision. Which I doubt I would have. I may be completely confident that consciousness survives the death of the body, but I would still have flunked that particular test.


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