Was Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac Evil?

Public Domain
“Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio (1603)

A common objection from Skeptics and Atheists is that the God of the Bible is immoral–if he exists at all–and there’s no better proof than how he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). I do concede that this is a genuine “problem passage.” It demands some serious consideration. God comes out looking pretty bad, like an amoral sadist who plays deadly games with people and contradicts his own laws while demanding a human sacrifice to himself.

How can Christians respond? Do we have only faith to stand on despite the reasons and logic of skeptics? No, we have a few reasoned responses of our own.

1) Abraham understood that both he and Isaac would be returning
Besides the obvious point that God has an angel stop Abraham’s blade, and provides an animal sacrifice instead, we have other reasons for treating this attempted sacrifice different from any other. For one thing, Genesis 22:5 reports how Abraham knew, in advance, he wasn’t dispatching Isaac forever: “Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (ESV). Abraham was expecting both of them to go worship and both of them to return. The grammar in the Hebrew, as in the English, is straightforward: both of them are included. There’s no shift in grammatical number, from dual/plural to singular. The New Testament author of the book of Hebrews agrees, interpreting this story in the 1st century, as saying,

“By faith Abraham when he was tested offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19, ESV)

Now this chapter in Hebrews is also known as the “Faith” chapter and Abraham is being commended for his faith. Shouldn’t we scorn him for letting his faith lead him to nearly kill his child?

2) Abraham already recognized God’s voice.
Before scolding Abraham, we should remember that God had spoken to Abraham before, as in Genesis 12:1-4; 13:14-17; 15:1-16; 17:1-21; etc. Twice, the text is mundane reporting simply, “Now the LORD said . . .” (12:1; 13:14). From there it builds to a vision, “The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision” (15:1). One time it adds a divine appearance, but without the prophetic “vision,” when it says: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said . . .” (17:1). In chapter 18 Abram hosts Angels (possibly God incarnate), and they manifest as flesh-and-blood people–Abraham’s dealings with God, by now, are concrete-tangible. When they depart to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram intercedes on their behalf. But, make note, he does not give intercessory prayer on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah; he gives intercessory dialogue on their behalf. By the time of the Binding of Isaac, Abram (later Abraham) already had a years-long personal relationship with God. It is no small matter that he is considered the central patriarch uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims as “People of the Book.”

But, surely, hearing voices and seeing visions doesn’t justify attempted murder, right?

3)  Abraham already had miracles happen
The clearest miracle was Isaac’s birth in Sarah’s old age (about 90yrs old). If this really happened (and I think it did), then Isaac is already a miracle, and so we have special confirmation that Abraham really had been hearing from God. Abraham also tended to prosper wherever he went (see Gen 12:10-20; 13:2ff). This providence from God aligns with the Abrahamic covenant. God directly spoke promises of blessing and fertility for Abraham and his family (see Gen 17).

But, neverminding the miracles, it’s still wrong for God to take a human life isn’t it?

4) God can reclaim what’s His
There’s a big difference between a regular pedestrian taking a life, and a firing squad taking a life. The pedestrian has no right to take that life whereas the firing squad is commissioned by rightful authorities to take a life in special circumstances. Now if human beings can have the right to take a life insofar as they act on behalf of a governing body that’s entrusted them with that duty, how much moreso can God rightly reclaim a life he’s given? When God takes a life, he’s reclaiming what is His. One may question God’s methods or manner, but it’s hard to principally question his character on this fact alone. In this way, morally charged issues are often tough for seasoned skeptics since it’s difficult to imagine what kind of a being would have the “right” to take a life.

But doesn’t this point suggest moral chaos; with God all bets are off,  no hold’s barred, He can do anything he wants no matter how evil, right?

5) God Outranks us God relates to morality as the summation of it. He is not above and beyond morality, He’s it’s founder and CEO. Stemming from the last point, God doesn’t supersede morality entire, as some amoral free agent. But He does supersede our place in the moral heirarchy. God’s authority gives him moral privilege that we don’t have. Abraham, as an individual human being, has no right to kill an (otherwise) innocent person. But God does, since, God knows each persons’s heart; He’s the ultimate judge; and his heavenly ethical standards are higher and harder than the earthly standards of “good enough” (. . . for a bunch of born sinners; Rom 3:10-23). God’s higher level of authority is suggested by the titles “King of Kings,” and “Lord of Lords (emphasis mine; Rev 19:16). 

I don’t have a right to direct traffic, but a police man does. I don’t have the right to administer the death penalty, but a judge and jury do. I don’t have the right to determine troop movements which will ensure many lives lost. I don’t have the right to issue international laws, but a counsel of nations can do that. Similarly, God is a higher authority than all that; plus his responsibility extends over all nations across all time. As the supreme governing authority God can administer justice, dole out punishment, rescind his gifts, permit willful misuse and abuse among his delegates–and all people are made in “God’s image” as delegate authorities, to act as stewards, with subordinate authority over creation (Gen 1:26-28)–all so long as ultimate justice is done eventually. God can allow people to incur punishment, inviting the consequences of their actions. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, God has a moral and judicial right to reclaim what he’s given even if no human government would have that right to issue a death penalty to an innocent person.

But Isaac was innocent, this killing wouldn’t be punitive, so God isn’t justified in killing Isaac, right?

6) Our Lives are not “Ours”
To be sure, the text makes no suggestion that Isaac was about to be sacrificed because of his own sins. There is no normative practice of child sacrifice in Jewish or Christian tradition. So we can’t call (the attemped) sacrifice of Isaac a punitive measure. If there is a justifying cause for the (attempted) sacrifice of Isaac, it would have to be some other than punishment.

As alluded to above, God owns us in the sense that He gave us life. When we forget that our lives are on loan from God, we may get confused about our responsibilities in this life; imaginging ourselves Kings and Queens instead of just stewards for the true King of Kings (Matt. 25:14-30). We are entrusted by God to care for the gifts he’s given us, and that includes our time, energy, property, relationships, and even our very own lives. God knows when a life would be better used in a swift sacrifice versus a long term of service. God knows when a human being can best serve as a symbol of substitutionary atonement. For example, Isaac prefigures the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Crucifixion. This scene is not entirely unlike how parents sacrifice much of their life and livelihood for their children, or a soldier sacrifices his life for his country, or a policeman sacrifices his life in trying to arrest a criminal. Isaac would have been sacrificing his life for obedience to his God and his father–the head of the family and of the tribal government. In the case of Isaac, if we have good reason for believing in the God of the Bible, then we have good reason to trust that He is acting justly even when it seems odd or wrong to us.

But how could we trust such a being? God could be a powerful tyrant instead of a good guy, right?

5) God’s already proven His trustworthiness
To be sure God isn’t bound by our laws, but that doesn’t mean he’s unbound from morality entire. Morality isn’t legality. God respects life, but so do Judges issuing capital punishment, or military Generals calculating for victory with the fewest casualties. God is still bound by goodness as that is His nature (Ps 34:8; 136:1; 106:1; 86:5; 1 Chron 16:35; Matt 7:11; Luke 11:13; Rom 8:28). Now, Abraham didn’t have all that Scripture to lean on–every verse just mentioned was penned after Abraham was long gone. How could Abraham have known God is good and trustworthy?

Occasionally someone will tell me something that sounds suspicious and they win me over eventually by saying–“Have I ever lied to you?” God’s dealings with Abraham have revealed God’s character. Abraham does not just recognize God’s voice, He knows God’s person, God’s character as the two have talked several times, God’s made unconditional promises and He’s kept them so far (according to Genesis 12-21). If Abraham was just “hearing voices,” and those never amounted to any miracles, or fulfilled promises, or the revealed character of God, and they didn’t really line up with what He knew of God so far–then Abraham, and anyone else hearing potentially murderous voices, can safely ignore those voices.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve studied over Abraham’s situation we can still admit that the scene is a challenging one, and the biblical text can still count as a “problem passage,” but we don’t have to lose heart as if this passage is a total failure. What we find is that the relationship between God and Abraham established a context that atheists often ignore when they ask questions like,

“If God commanded you, as he did Abraham, to slaughter your own son, would you do it?” (para. 1)

This question from Andy Norman of the American Humanists Association typifies the prooftexted presumptions typical of many atheists. But he goes on, unpacking his implications.

“If, like Abraham, you’d plunge a knife into his chest, then congratulations!  You’ve passed the test! Your faith is true, your priorities correct, and you understand the kind of unquestioning devotion that God demands of us. That, presumably, is the moral of the story: unthinking obedience above all” (para. 1)

We could spend all day challenging Norman’s wedge between God-belief and moral living, but for this article, we need only show that what he thinks is Abraham’s blind faith is not that at all. Abraham is exercising an intelligent, well-informed, context-laden obedience. He’s trusting a personal God whose revealed himself in miracles and whom He’s come to personally know and love deeply over the years. That said, Norman is guilty of disanalogy, oversimplification, illicit assumption, and prooftexting. Christians (and Jews for that matter) need not be daunted by a Norman’s presumptuous prooftexts. We should still take this passage seriously since, even in Abraham’s situation, the scene is not easy. It’s challenging still. It’s just not nearly as simplistic and foolhardy as atheists may think.

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3 thoughts on “Was Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac Evil?

  1. You appear confused on whetted God is bound by morality or is the sole creator and owner of morality. To my mind, might is not right, and if God thinks he is above morality, then he is simply a powerful entity. No different to the biggest gorilla in the jungle.

    1. I think I understand what you are getting at. Do I smell the euthyphro dilemma in there? If so, then I don’t find the categories you mentioned confusing, nor do I find them applicable to the Christian God. God is bound by his nature which is the basis of morality. He’s neither above morality (inventing goodness and moral absolutes on a whim) nor is he below morality as if answering to some other standard outside himself. God IS good. He’s by nature identical with moral perfection. Now that’s my explanation in terms of Christian theology. If you’d like a defense of theistic ethics, Christian ethics, or my own particular ethical system I have some other articles I can refer you to.

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