This is the second in a series on some tricky questions about God that come up when we actually read the Bible, instead of just pretending that we read the Bible.
Is God cruel? As in, sort of, well, a jerk? There’s a lot that could be said about the problem of evil and the reasons a good God would allow suffering. But that isn’t what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about something very specific – something that trips up a whole lot of people reading the Old Testament.
It starts with a guy named Abraham, who is minding his own business one day in Palestine when God shows up.
“Oh, hi God! How have you been?”
“Good. Always good. I’m God, remember?”
“Right. Sorry – forgot. So. What’s up?”
“Hey Abraham. I was thinking about your son, Isaac.”
“Yeah, Isaac! The promised one! The answer to all our prayers! The one you’re using to change the world! I can’t get enough of that kid! He’s the joy of my old age! The blessing of my advanced years! The apple of my eye! Why do you ask?”
“Yeah … about that. I’m thinking you should kill him.”
And we all gasp. Seriously? This is our God of love? Of course Isaac doesn’t end up dead, which is a big relief for everyone involved, except the ram. But the story seems to end with God saying, in effect, “Just kidding! I really had you going, didn’t I??”
Is God a practical joker? Did Abraham just get punk’d?? What’s next – God gives Abraham a swirly in the boys’ restroom?? If you’re like me and you have kids of your own, it’s hard not to put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. It’s hard not to imagine God asking of you what he asked of Abraham, and it’s hard not to conclude that God must be terribly, terribly cruel.
Maybe not always cruel. Maybe he’s also sometimes the loving Jesus-y God of the New Testament. Maybe he’s just – I don’t know – bipolar or something. Because when we put ourselves in Abraham’s position, what God has just done is unspeakably cruel.
And that’s the problem.
“Wait – what’s the problem, Phil? God? Cruelty? A bipolar deity?”
No. The problem is that we draw our conclusions about this story by putting ourselves in the middle of it. By imagining God doing to us exactly what he did to Abraham. As if we’re Abraham, living 4000 years ago. I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over this disturbing story, and there are two big realizations that struck me.
Realization #1 – God would never ask you to kill your child.
“Wait – how can you say that? How can you say what God would or wouldn’t do?” I can say that because child sacrifice is clearly, explicitly against God’s law. God asking me to sacrifice my child would be equivalent to God asking me to cheat on my wife. Whenever we receive what we believe to be a word from God, we test it against what we know of God and his character from Scripture. So if someone in my church stands up on Sunday morning and says, “God just told me to rob a bank,” or “God just told me to mistreat the poor,” we can clearly and with conviction respond, “No he didn’t. That wasn’t God talking.” And likewise, if I hear a voice saying, “Hey Phil – this is God … I’d like you to sacrifice one of your kids to me,” I can clearly say, “Sorry voice. Even though you say you’re God and even sound sort of Charlton Heston-y, you ain’t God.”
“Yeah, but what about Abraham?? God actually DID say that to Abraham!!”
Yes he did. And here is a very important point: This story takes place BEFORE God has revealed his law to Moses. Before the 10 Commandments and the big stack of laws Moses compiles while wandering in the desert. So Abraham doesn’t have God’s law to check with. Abraham, in fact, knows very little about the character of God.
How opposed was God – even the fire-breathing, enemy-smiting God of the Old Testament – to child sacrifice? Well, child sacrifice was explicitly forbidden in the Mosaic Law. But get this. When the word “hell” appears in your New Testament, it is usually a translation of the Greek word Gehenna, which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase “Valley of Hinnom.” Jesus is quite literally saying, “You don’t want to be thrown into the Valley of Hinnom, do you??” The Valley of Hinnom was a cursed valley, good for nothing but burning garbage. And why was the Valley of Hinnom cursed? Because that is where ancient Israelites had practiced child sacrifice, in violation of God’s law. So by the time of Jesus, “hell” was the place children had been sacrificed.
So clearly God had no intention of letting Abraham actually sacrifice Isaac, since that would have been against his character. Of course, Abraham didn’t know that. But we do. Hence, if God DID show up in 2016 and ask us to sacrifice our kids, we could say, “You don’t mean that!” And God would have to say, “You got me! I didn’t really mean that!” Which he wouldn’t do, because it would be A) beneath him and B) kinda pointless.
Okay – that’s realization #1. We’re still faced, though, with God traumatizing Abraham and Isaac until the big surprise ending, which still seems cruel when we put ourselves in their shoes. And here’s realization #2:
Realization #2 – Abraham would not have reacted the same way we would react.
This point cannot be overemphasized. Abraham lived in a different time and place, with very different expectations. Nothing was more important in the ancient world than fertility, because numbers were the key to survival. So whether it was more wheat from your fields, more lambs from your sheep or more kids from your wives, prayers for fertility were top of mind at all times. Hence the abundance of fertility gods and tiny statues archeologists find representing these gods and goddesses with strangely huge, ahem, “fertility” organs.
Ancient people would give up a lot for guaranteed fertility. The first fruits from their fields and flocks often went to the local deity, by way of the local priest. And it was not at all uncommon in the ancient world for a child to be thrown in to sweeten the pot. If you were trying to build a household, you needed as many kids as possible. Especially considering sky-high infant mortality rates. Hence the multiple wives and, if you were really wealthy, assorted concubines well. So if giving up just one kid guaranteed this or that deity would bless you with 15 or 20 more, it was a good deal.
As a result, child sacrifice was a common practice in the ancient world. Abraham knew this. So when his new God – this “Yahweh” fellow – shows up and says, “I need you to sacrifice Isaac,” our modern reaction is “WHAT??? SACRIFICE A CHILD???” Abraham’s reaction, though, would have been more along the line of – “WHAT?? Sacrifice THIS child?”
This is the point. Abraham wouldn’t have been stunned by a demand of child sacrifice anymore than we’re stunned when the IRS shows up and asks for 25% of our wages. Disappointed, yes. Stunned, no. Other gods demanded kids, so why wouldn’t this new one? What stunned Abraham was the specific child God asked for. The child of the promise. THAT was the stunner. And this is what God was getting at with this little test: Would Abraham trust God enough to give up the child of the promise? To, in essence, give the promise back to God and trust that God could and would fulfill it nonetheless? How much did Abraham really trust God?
Far from traumatizing Abraham and Isaac, seeing this test play out would have impacted them in two profound ways: First, they would have experienced the great relief that this new God did not – and would not – demand child sacrifice. In this regard he was very different than the other gods. And second, Abraham and Isaac would have walked forward with the confidence that whatever this new God said he would do, he would do. They could trust him completely.
So here’s the bottom line:
If God showed up in 2016 and demanded a child sacrifice, would that be cruel? Yes it would. But he wouldn’t do that, because child sacrifice is a violation of his character and his law. Was it cruel for God to make this demand 4000 years ago to a nomadic tribesman in Palestine? No it was not. In fact, it was expected. What wasn’t expected was the specific child God had in mind, and the remarkable ending to this amazing story that revealed to Abraham and Isaac a God unlike any other they had ever heard of. A God they could trust – quite literally – with their lives.
Note for teaching kids: This story has the potential to be profoundly disturbing for younger kids. What is key is emphasizing the point that God never intended any harm to befall Isaac. Instead, God was showing Abraham and Isaac how different he was than the gods of their neighbors, while also showing us all that we can trust him with our lives.
Want More Tricky Questions?
IS GOD SELFISH? (TRICKY QUESTION #1)
IS GOD CRUEL? (TRICKY QUESTION #2)
IS GOD “AN OLD MAN IN THE SKY?” (TRICKY QUESTION #3)
IS GOD LIKE SANTA CLAUS? (TRICKY QUESTION #4)
IS GOD A GENOCIDAL BULLY? (TRICKY QUESTION #5)
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Exactly! I love the literacy here in reading the story with our whole brain, and in the light of our understanding of God.
No, god did not say that to abraham. The English is mistranslated. Learn Hebrew and you will see that the story you refer to is stating that local kings were the ones telling abraham to sacrifice issac, not yahovah
You people are insane. The excuses you make for God’s bad behaviour, just because He is God, is breathtaking. Funny how you never hear this story in school, or the story about the gang-raped concubine in the book of Judges who took the place of the Angels whom the men really wanted to rape. Or the thousands of Ethiopians whom God caused to kill each other.
I hadn’t thought of that!
Great blog. I never thought of child sacrifice as being “normal”. Most youth/children’s teachers avoid this story. Either they’re afraid the kids will go home and sacrifice their brother, or they’re afraid of being asked “is God cruel?” Great job…keep it up!
You are missing a VERY IMPORTANT piece of information. The New Testament’s interpretation of this story. God promised Isaac would be the heir of the covenant. Looking at the life of Abraham God tests him a good number of times. And he doesn’t so much test Abraham as much as he’s showing his own character. Like protecting him and his wife from the Egyptians and showing him he doesn’t need to trust in a lie. And then showing him provision and his ability to miraculously give him a child. So this test is “What have you learned about me?” Abraham knows God provides and continually tells that to his son. He also knows God is not able to lie, so he believes God will bring Isaac back from the dead. When God sees that Abraham trusts God and believes in the resurrection it’s a mile stone for humanity. He’s the first to do this. So God promises that he will always look after Abraham’s children and chooses Israel for his inheritance because of the love and faith of their father, Abraham. And of course this is also prophetic of God’s promise through Christ and our own resurrection from the dead. We have a new and greater hope than that of Abraham.
I hear you. I’m writing with the skeptic in mind – the one who confronts a Christian with this story as an example of “child abuse” in the OT sanctioned by God. (Which is how this story is used in some circles.) So the big picture theological view isn’t as compelling to those who find this story simply unacceptably cruel from beginning to end, regardless of what the NT writers bring out of it. Make sense?
you are an idiot for thinking that god knew Abraham wouldn’t kill his son and here’s why: FREE WILL YOU (Expletive Edited)!!! don’t tell me god is good since he doesn’t care about us. god is an evil bully and megalomaniac who only wants us around for entertainment and to rub his ego. (Expletive Edited) you god
Abraham was not told by Yahweh to kill issac. Read the hebrew and you’ll see it was the local authorities who told abraham. Look at the prefix attached to elohiym in the hebrew. You only see yahweh show up in the story to stop abraham.
It’s disconcerting to read the kind of mental gymnastics performed in this article, especially if you consider it might well be representative of how many Christians think about this stuff. This article is so crass in its divorce from modern ethics, you could pretty much use this line of reasoning to justify any behaviour on God’s part (as long as the people subjected to it don’t know any better). What I find most terrifying though is what it means about the risk of religion in modern society more broadly. If God asking a father to murder his child is an act that is believed to be committed by a moral entity, the beholder of that belief could be convinced that just about anything is just (and I mean literally anything, since asking a father to murder his own child must be close to the worst thing you could ask someone to do).
I know the author was doing their best here, and I thank him for sharing his thoughts, but I can’t really describe the result as anything other than morally repugnant.