Abraham Sacrifices Isaac: What it teaches Christians today

My previous post made an example of why the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac has so many problems. I’d like to share how this story haunted me personally while growing up Christian.

In Genesis 22, God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac, to test Abraham’s obedience. Abraham is blessed for doing whatever God says, no matter how hard it was for him.

This surely tells us something about God’s character. A Christian believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and everything in it is meant to teach us something, to help us grow in Christ. I can nearly type this verse from memory: “All scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (1 Tim. 3:16-17). So the story of Abraham’s sacrifice must be important.

Because of this, I thought God would speak to me and tell me to do something, and I would have to obey unquestioningly. I had no guarantee that what he told me would be reasonable. An unreasonable demand could be a test, and must be followed like a reasonable one. But how do you know if you are hearing from God?

I remember clearly one year in high school when I had a fairly large speaking role in the fall play. I remember praying and reading my Bible, and wondering, “What if God asked me to quit the play right now, as a test? Would I have enough faith to obey him?” This was a few days before the play started. There was no time to find someone who could fill my role. If I told the teacher I had to quit because God told me to, she’d think I was nuts. All my friends would think I was nuts. I would be despised and rejected by both teachers and students, and I sure as heaven wouldn’t get a role in a play ever again in that school.

But thinking of these reasons why I surely couldn’t obey only made it seem more likely that I must obey. After all, this was a much easier thing than killing your promised son, wasn’t it?

I had a sense in my spirit that God was saying, “[Physeter], I want you to quit this play for me.” It was a horrible feeling. Because in the grand scheme of things, pleasing God should be much more important to me than pleasing my friends or teachers. Would I really do what was convenient for me instead of what God wanted? If God was really telling me to quit, he must have a good reason. Or if it was a test, as soon as I went up to the teacher with my announcement, God would tell me at the last minute not to do it, that I had passed and proved my faith. Didn’t I trust God enough to believe he would take care of me?

This can’t be me hearing from God, I reasoned. This is only my own introspective mind playing tricks on me. But isn’t that exactly how I would try to rationalize it if it was God telling me to do something I don’t want to do?

In the end, I believed not enough, but too much. I didn’t believe enough to really quit the play. I kept on going as if nothing was wrong. But I believed too much to really feel good about it. I told myself I probably wasn’t hearing God, but I still thought I might be, and I felt horrible like I had failed a test.

I can’t remember specifics, but I don’t believe this was the only incident where that verse caused me great worry. At any time God could ask me to do something unreasonable, and I’d disobey because it probably wasn’t God but feel horrible about it.

I stopped worrying about this long before I started doubting my faith. I think I finally decided that a loving God would make his voice very clear if he was asking you to do something unreasonable. If you weren’t sure it was God, you go with your best judgment based on the Bible, advice from other Christians, and common sense. But I think I came to those conclusions from talking to pastors and reading other books, not from reading the Bible itself. The Bible prioritizes blind obedience, and that is very dangerous.

I have also heard that the point of the story of Abraham and Isaac is to foreshadow the coming of Jesus Christ. In the Abraham story God provides a lamb to kill instead of Isaac; just like when Jesus came as a “sacrificial lamb” to be killed in our place. But that isn’t clear from reading the Bible. What’s clear is (1) If this story is true, a real live father was willing to kill his real live son based on hearing from God; (2) Obedience is super important, more important than doing what you think is right. A metaphor orchestrated by God for the redemption of all humankind should be easier to interpret than that. It shouldn’t have such damaging implications.

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Comment by Strega on September 13, 2013 at 3:39pm

That is why the morals of the people have outpaced the church.  We have our moral values, and religion has to be manipulated into fitting these ever progressing standards.

The bible talks about how women should be treated, for example.  In those days, that could well have been an improvement on the way they were otherwise treated. Now, however, the instructions are outdated and not aligned with our progress.

However, humanity has progressed, whereas a written text is far less flexible and has to be manipulated and interpreted to be able to keep pace - and it does this badly.  The more dichotomy becomes apparent with biblical teachings and current moral standards, the harder the religious have to clutch to their faith at the cost of reason.  Once upon a time, God was an explanation for many things we didn't understand.  Now, however, we do understand the things we used to attribute to God, and now God itself needs an explanation for existing - and it isn't forthcoming.

Comment by _Robert_ on September 14, 2013 at 7:20am

The bronze age concept of sacrificial  "scapegoating" is the basis for Christianity. This idea does not seem fair, ethical, logical, or even practical to me. I don't accept gifts very well. Especially a  gift of martyrdom I didn't ask for, from someone I don't know, to save me from sin I didn't even commit.

Comment by Physeter on September 14, 2013 at 8:38am

Even if it wasn't scapegoating--even if God just asked Abraham to do something embarrassing--you still have a deity that demands unreasonable things that he doesn't even want you to do, just to prove your worth. And if you believe that God still speaks to people today, this can be a devastating belief.

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