On Genesis 22: Give the Story a Little Respect

A few months ago, our Bible classes at church were studying Genesis 22, the story about God testing Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac.

This is, of course, a hard story for modern readers, and even more so for modern progressive readers. Later that evening, during our small group, the text came up again and people shared just how horrified they were by what God asked Abraham to do.

I get the horror, but I said this in defense of the story.

My main argument was this: This is the story that gave birth to our modern moral imagination, and then we use that imagination to judge the story. Instead of being grateful to the story for our moral imagination, we use that imagination to reject the story.

Here's what I mean.

Child sacrifice was the norm during the time of the story. Today it isn't. So, yes, if your neighbor said that God told them to sacrifice their child we'd have this person arrested or committed. But at the time of the story, this was common practice, a normal thing. In fact, we know that the Israelites themselves began to engage in this practice, sacrificing their children to pagan gods. This is one of the main reasons God sends Israel into exile, that they were sacrificing their children.

Given this context, the big moral takeaway from Genesis 22 is that YHWH does not want child sacrifice. At the end of the story a ram is sacrificed in place of the child. And that substitution establishes, in contrast to the demands of the surrounding gods, the "we don't sacrifice our children" norm in Judaism. This is the primal narrative, the testing of Abraham, that introduces and establishes a new moral foundation for the Jewish faith. In distinctive contrast in the midst of the ancient world, the Jews will sacrifice animals to God, but never their children. And that's a moral revolution in the history of the world.

Christianity inherited that moral revolution, and the modern world inherited it as well. The moral revolution inaugurated in Genesis 22 makes us properly horrified by the prospect of child sacrifice, and then we use that horror to judge the story that set the revolution in motion.

Which is, I think, a profoundly ungrateful thing to do.

Genesis 22 gave birth to your horror at the story. So give the story a little respect.

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