Continuing with the narrative of the Old Testament story, Abraham and Abimilech make peace, the elderly Sarah gives birth to Isaac and promptly becomes too jealous of Hagar to bear having her around, and Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s firstborn) out on their own into the wilderness, with God’s blessing. Which brings us to Genesis 22, in which Abraham takes his son Isaac to a mountaintop with the intention of sacrificing him to God. He reportedly does this because God told him to, and thus Abraham is willing to go through with it. At the last minute, a ram caught in a nearby bush (seen to be provided by God) is substituted for the boy, and God makes a promise about the future of Abraham’s bloodline.
Supposedly, the promise God makes to Abraham at the end of this horrifying story is the seventh promise God has made to him, but the promises are all strikingly similar: God grants Abraham a stretch of land (although he doesn’t provide any legal documentation that anyone else would honor), he promises Abraham lots of “children”, and he makes promises about how mighty and prosperous those children are going to be. Since the Jewish people are the ones who scribed all of this after passing it down through word of mouth for generations, one would expect them to be the heroes of the story. The promise by God is obviously intended to be indisputable, except that this story calls into question God’s morality and trustworthiness.
First of all, why did God find this test to be necessary? Abraham had already made a pact with God involving sacrificing animals, and then he made a further pact with God requiring physical mutilation, for which Abraham and his descendents really didn’t get anything further from God for the additional requirements. It is as if an insurance company decided to add an enormous fee onto the premium while offering no additional benefits, simply because they don’t quite trust their customers. Even though Abraham is faithful with the requirements of previous agreements, God decides he needs to be tested. The primary reasons to test people are either because you want to verify they know the material or because you don’t trust them. Abraham obviously knew the content and requirements of the previous arrangements, because he did what God had requested of him. So, this test can only be about God not trusting Abraham, which seems remarkably insecure for an all-powerful deity, but there it is.
Readers of this story may see spiritual lessons about trusting God in difficult times or about God providing what one needs or about God honoring the faithful. Such lessons are much easier to accept if one doesn’t think too much about the motivations of God in the matter. It’s one thing to think of a being as all-powerful and deserving of respect, but the all-powerful being’s behavior in this story is petty and manipulative. Who challenges someone to see if he will kill his own son, just to prove a point about divine might? Later on, Christians would see this story as a mirror of God’s own sacrifice of his son, which is an obvious narrative parallel, except that the God of this story in Genesis seems to have some psychological issues, not the least of which is a profound insecurity that leads him to require further evidence of Abraham’s faithfulness, just so God can renew a promise that wasn’t made with an expiration date.
So, apparently to satisfy his own ego, God commands something immoral, confirms that Abraham is willing to do this immoral thing without question, and then steps in and saves the day. Say what you will about God’s provision or trustworthiness, but the entire situation wouldn’t have existed unless God had contrived it and the sacrifice wouldn’t have needed to be provided if God hadn’t required it. Certainly, there were other gods worshiped in the area at the time, and there are reports of other people sacrificing children. The archaeological evidence of any widespread culture of child sacrifice in the area is scarce, but the Jews certainly accused some neighboring peoples of the practice. To the casual observer, the willingness to sacrifice one’s child is evidence of equal moral depravity, whether a ram gets substituted in the end or not.
It comes down to a matter of blind obedience. Trust without thought can be dangerous, even dangerous enough to put people’s lives at risk. If one believes in a Creator, then surely one must assume that the Creator provided human beings with brains for a purpose. Not to use those brains for rational thought seems like an insult. Beyond that, trusting in an external source to provide a way out of difficult situations abdicates personal responsibility. If one knows that killing a child is wrong, it is ludicrous to lose one’s moral compass for the sake of trusting something outside of oneself. The concept of an omnipotent and all-loving external divine being opens the door for people to stop reasoning for themselves. And if they can pin any horrific behavior on that omnipotent and all-loving divine being, then the mindless faithful and the god are both beyond reproach.
The entire concept of trusting God, even when what he asks seems suspect, opens the door to rampant justification for bad behavior. On top of that, people often wind up with different ideas about what God wants. How does one determine who is right? It would makes sense for believers to rely on their own internal awareness of what interpretation respects other people and acknowledges the innate beauty and value of every human being. Instead, the deciding factor is often which interpretation is expressed with the greatest amount of outrage and conviction. Plenty of horrific acts throughout the course of humanity have been pinned on God, because no one can legitimately argue against God. The truly horrific part is that God did not swoop down and stop any of those actions with a ram caught in a bush. Nor will he. The conclusions believers choose to draw from that observation are likely to be different from the conclusions I come to, but the fact remains that God does not intervene when people do immoral things in his name.
Reading or hearing the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac may convince you of God’s trustworthiness and the value of faithfulness, but the God of this story behaves in such a petty, manipulative, and insecure manner that I would find him difficult to trust if I believed in him. But where do we turn in the absence of an all-loving, omnipotent divine being? Some people are happy to believe in an external divine being, even one which displays symptoms of severe psychosis, just because there seems to be such a void without such a belief. I would suggest that human beings have value, and that we all possess the means to acknowledge and respect that value, should we choose to be thoughtful and aware. I have written these words before, but they bear repeating: Every person embodies an innate truth, beauty, and creativity, and every functional adult is capable of taking personal responsibility for honoring and respecting that innate truth, beauty, and creativity. That is the divine nature. It is not outside of us, driving us to do immoral things so that it can swoop in and save the day and gain our eternal gratitude and adoration. The divine is that truth and beauty and creativity within us, and we have the power to acknowledge it in ourselves and in every other person.