Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 22

In this installment we look at the sacrifice of Isaac. I've been fairly reserved thus far in this series, making light of a few things here and there, pointing out anachronisms and discrepancies and joking at the silliness generated by conservative views of Genesis as an inerrant, divinely inspired book. Fair warning for this passage: the gloves are coming off and I won't be pulling punches or tempering things. I think this chapter strikes at the very core of exactly how the traditional expressions of the Abrahamic faiths are able to make otherwise good people do terrible things in the names of their gods.

Genesis 22:1-14
We are told in verse 1 that Elohim tested Abraham by instructing him to slaughter and burn his own son. An omniscient god would not need to do this to prove Abraham’s faith was genuine. It seems we must conclude that either this ruse was purely for the benefit of others or that Elohim is not omniscient. The problem with the former conclusion is that in verse 12 Yahweh's messenger says, “now I know that you fear Elohim” as though he didn’t know before. If this was a test to show the rest of creation Abraham’s faith, why state it like that? Why not be plain about it and say, “Now, Abraham, everybody can see that you fear God even though I knew it all along”?

Note also that in verses 2 and 16 Isaac is referred to by both Elohim and Yahweh's messenger as Abraham’s only son. It would appear that either the writer is reminding us that God had Abraham completely disinherit Ishmael even though it “greatly distressed” Abraham, or God has forgotten that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Of course, there is the third possibility that in the telling of the story recorded in this passage, the writer had no awareness that there was another son. Oddly enough, chapter 25 of Genesis shows Ishmael certainly being regarded as a son.

The command to sacrifice a child to God is supposedly wildly out of character for him. The response is certainly out of character for Abraham given what we’ve seen so far. Abraham haggled with Yahweh quite a bit over the “righteous” inhabitants of Sodom when God made Abraham aware of his intention to destroy the city. Recall that this haggling actually worked. It’s not like Yahweh was always resolute in his decisions.

In the case of Sodom, Yahweh was going to do the killing. Here Abraham is instructed to do the killing. In that instance, Abraham was trying to save Lot, a grown man who had willingly chosen to live among wicked people and even showed the willingness to offer his daughters to be sexually assaulted in the worst ways by an angry mob. In this instance it’s an innocent boy who by all accounts does exactly what he’s told. In the previous case it was his nephew. In this case it’s his son. In the previous case it was an act of judgment on Yahweh’s part. In this case it’s supposed to be an act of worship on Abraham’s part.

And yet, in spite of all this, Abraham never once protests Elohim’s request or tries to plead with him as he did for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are informed in the Gospels that even Jesus pleaded for his own life before resigning himself to his father’s will; and that was for his own life, not the life of another. Are we to believe that Abraham would intercede for damn near everybody in the Middle East, but not for his own son?

What father does this? Abraham doesn’t plead with Elohim. Abraham doesn’t question whether it’s really Elohim or just a demon disguised as Elohim trying to get him to kill the son of promise. Abraham doesn't ask for miraculous confirmation of any kind. No. Abraham doesn’t even show any real hesitation at all as far as we can tell in the story. The writer of Hebrews supposes that Abraham considered that God was able to raise Isaac up from the dead, so no big deal, right?. There are a few of problems with that solution, though.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
First, there are a lot of people who today believe in a literal bodily resurrection, but they don’t take it on faith that because of this, being instructed to slaughter and burn their own children is a command to be unquestioningly obeyed. Resurrection or no resurrection, Abraham would still have to go through the act of slitting his own child’s throat and watching him bleed out while he choked, gasped and gargled on his own blood. Resurrection from the dead only reduces the ultimate consequence of the act; it doesn’t do anything to mitigate the utter horror of the act itself. Belief in the resurrection does not let Abraham off the hook in his unhesitating willingness to commit this atrocity any more than it would let anyone else who believed in a literal resurrection off the hook for murdering an innocent human being. It’s important to remember that Abraham appears to have every intention of going through with this and in his mind Isaac is as good as dead.

Even though the angel of Yahweh intervenes and stops Abraham from actually committing the act of slaughtering his son, the psychological damage was still done. How distressing was this for Isaac? He's not in on God's little ruse. He’s not told about this beforehand. Abraham never gets his consent that we know of. When Isaac suspects something is up and asks about it, he gets a cryptic answer from his father. One supposes he realized what was going on at some point, or at least by the time he was bound and lying on the altar. Did he struggle? We’re never told one way or another. It baffles me how expositors, preachers and children's story Bibles will try to romanticize this whole scene, but it’s really quite disturbing regardless of whether Isaac allowed this to happen willingly or violently struggled like any normal person would.

Isaac’s own father was about to slaughter him and only an angel putting a stop to it kept him from committing that act. This would be absolutely terrifying for Isaac. How could he ever trust his father again? One wonders what Isaac must have thought about his father and his father’s god who asks followers to commit terrible atrocities and at the last minute pops out from behind the bushes like Ashton Kutcher, and says, "Yo, dude, you just got punked!"

Even if Isaac was OK with being sacrificed and didn’t struggle, beg or even plead for his own life as Jesus himself did in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s still emotional trauma. Isaac believed that his own father was going to kill him and in the end, he found out that his belief was wholly justified and not at all misplaced. I hope my children never have the fear, either misplaced or justified, that their own father would kill them on the orders of any human or any deity. Ever. Period. Resurrection or no, this is a particularly messed up form of child abuse. There’s no way around it. There's no way to sanitize or sanctify it. Seriously, take your God-goggles off for just one second and recognize this for the horrible, traumatic psychological torture that it so clearly is.

The other side of this problem is that if Abraham really did believe that God was just going to raise Isaac from the dead and that in this resurrected state Isaac was going to produce offspring, then it’s not really a sacrifice in the sense that Abraham isn’t going to actually lose anything. The angel of Yahweh says in verse 16, “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you.” If Abraham believed he was going to get Isaac right back then he’s not really giving him up, he’s just proving that he believes God can raise people from the dead. In that sense, it’s not an offering; it’s presumption. The angel’s commendation either makes no sense or is undeserved if Abraham thought God was going to simply raise Isaac from the dead and give him back to him.

Second, Isaac was to be a whole burnt offering, meaning after Abraham slaughtered Isaac, he was supposed to burn him. The smoke from burnt offerings was to rise up to heaven and be a pleasing aroma. This would point to the totality of the sacrifice and the rising up of the essence of whatever it was toward heaven. There’s not going to be a body, bones or anything else left to be “raised” and the writer of Hebrews doesn’t seem to pay any heed to that little detail.

Resurrection from the dead would not be an easy solution for Abraham to just assume. In every instance of someone being raised from the dead in the Bible there’s a body to work with. Heck, God even had bones to work with in Ezekiel’s vision and that was merely a metaphor for Israel’s restoration and not a literal depiction of resurrection. This is not to say that Christian theology necessitates opposition to cremation on the grounds that cremated people can’t be raised from the dead [although I do find historic Christian opposition to cremation quite telling, even if the official line was that it was merely as a contrast to pagan practices and not because of superstitions about bodily resurrection]. I’m merely pointing out that it would be incredibly unnatural for Abraham to conclude that a pile of ashes would be raised back to life. Such a belief would require a highly developed theology that’s completely foreign to the Old Testament and unprecedented in any Biblical example of resurrection.

Third, and most importantly, there is no mention in the text of Genesis itself that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. We get no insight at all into what was going on in Abraham’s head. All we get is that he was willing to obey God and offer up Isaac. There’s nothing about whether or not Abraham even believed that God would keep his earlier promises to him. The writer of Hebrews is either offering this resurrection belief up as his own supposition or is repeating some other tradition, but it’s nowhere in the text of Genesis.

In fact, there is nothing at all in the entire Old Testament that would give us any indication whatsoever that people in Abraham’s day even had a kind of bodily resurrection theology at all. It’s not until Daniel 12 (after coming in contact with Persian/Zoroastrian theology)[see addendum below]* that we even find a clear, overt reference to the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead following the lapse of any time. In 1 Kings 17 when Elijah raises the widow’s son, the text is clear that his breath was merely returning to his body. Likewise in 2 Kings13:20-21 there is a recently deceased body, not a rotting corpse and certainly not a pile of ashes.

It is astonishing and baffling to me that this act of Abraham’s is so highly regarded in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This “test” would better serve as a means of weeding out psychopaths who unquestioningly obey the voices in their heads, rather than as a way to show how much someone fears God or how much faith they have. Instead, this is supposed to be the epitome of faith and the act which actually justified Abraham. I’m sorry, but if a deity comes to me in a dream, vision, physical manifestation or through some sort of esoteric sensation and communicates to me that he or she wants me to slaughter my son and burn him on an altar, I’m going to assume I’m either crazy, hallucinating, having a nightmare, on a hidden camera show or speaking to an evil spirit. In any case, I’m going to tell that deity to piss off. I would hope that any other sane, loving father would do the same.

Jewish interpreters have picked up on this tension and have tried all means of interpreting this text from supposing Abraham misunderstood God to Abraham never having any real intention of going through with it and instead believing that God would stop him. Muslims try to avoid some of the problems by having Abraham tell his son about it and his son willingly agrees to be sacrificed.

Another point that’s not typically dealt with by most expositors of this passage is that God has given opposing commands. He’s instructed Abraham to kill Isaac and then later commands him not to harm the boy. We can therefore conclude that any command of God might be countermanded. This presents a problem for any moral argument that makes God out to be the “objective standard” of what is right. Under this view, it was morally right for Abraham to desire to kill Isaac in obedience to the command of God and then three days later it was morally wrong. Not because the situation had changed, but simply because God said so.

People who hold to an Abrahamic faith without some seriously nuanced interpretation of this story cannot claim the moral high ground in any religious debate if for no other reason than for what this story illustrates about their god and their faith. When the ideal representation of your faith is someone who completely abandons reason, empathy, conscience and common sense in blind obedience to a supposed deity's rather capricious-looking whims, you've lost the moral argument. Sorry. Thanks for playing.

How is having this kind of capricious, arbitrary, unsubstantiated and unverifiable nonsense as a basis for morality any better than some “subjective” or “relativistic” secular moral philosophy? Under morality that’s based on divine command, literally any act could be justified simply by believing that God commanded it; even acts that would appear to run counter to prior commands that God has given. This point cannot be emphasized enough. This is how you get good people to do bad things. This is how Christianity's second greatest commandment, for all its good intentions and moral excellence, gets completely undermined by the greatest commandment.

The oft-used excuse that, "well, see, God didn't allow Abraham to actually go through with it so he wasn't really approving of human sacrifice" is beside the point and doesn't escape the problem at all. Incidentally, the god of the Bible does approve of human sacrifice in other places. For examples, see 2 Sam. 21:1-10 where the angry deity brings a drought because of a broken covenant and several innocent people have to be slaughtered and hanged on poles in order for the rains to return. Read Judges 11:29-40 where the deity accepts a vow based on human sacrifice and read Lev. 27:28-29 to understand why Jephthah couldn't get out of it. Look at Numbers 21:1-3 and note a similar vow in which an entire group of conquered people including women, children and animals are burned as an offering to this deity. Read Num. 25:4 where people are slaughtered and "hanged up before Yahweh in broad daylight" to turn away his wrath. Read Ezekiel 20:25-26 where the deity admits that he gave the horrible command to commit child sacrifice just to "horrify them" so they'll know his name is Yahweh.

Old Testament aside, to an outside observer, it's pretty clear that human sacrifice is undeniably central to much of Christian theology, given that its most important figure is thought by many of its adherents to have been sacrificed to appease its god's wrath. Try to nuance it all you want. It's simply inescapable when the main symbol of a religion is the very instrument of death its founder was supposedly sacrificed upon. Call it what you want, but blood magic is all over the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments and is celebrated all over Christianity's traditional hymnody (e.g. "Power in the Blood", "Nothing but the Blood", "Are You Washed in the Blood", "The Blood Will Never Lose its Power", etc.) and blood magic is either ritualistically performed or memorialized every time participants drink their shot of wine/grape juice or have a priest do it for them.

It's fitting that human sacrifice plays such a central role in Christianity. When certain Christian doctrines are taken seriously – doctrines that proclaim an individual's depravity, uncleanness, corrupt reason, unworthiness of anything good, worthiness of eternal torture and utter inability to do anything about those things apart from the divine intervention that only comes when one blindly surrenders in faith – it leads to exactly that. It leads to the sacrifice of one's own humanity.

When I was a Christian I used to play up the comparisons of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I would point out how God, like Abraham, was going to sacrifice his son, only he was actually going to go through with it. I'd point out things like Isaac carrying the wood and Jesus carrying his cross. I'd point out how the Temple was probably built on this same mountain and how all the sacrifices performed in the Temple were pointing to Jesus. I was always sure to point out how Abraham's response to Isaac that, "God will provide for himself the lamb" was a profound prophetic allusion to Jesus Christ.

Question begging aside, this was astounding confirmation for me as a Christian and, like all the other things I seized upon to strengthen my faith, completely glossed over just how obviously screwed-up this story is on its face. But that's exactly how confirmation bias works. Expositors, theologians and even philosophers like Kierkegaard can look at this account and find any number ways of interpreting, explaining and softening it, but as long as they begin with the assumption that the god of the Bible is always right, they'll never see just how utterly contemptible this version of a deity is.  

Genesis 22:15-18
Because Abraham has done this, Yahweh is now going to reward him with pretty much the same things he promised he was going to do before on several occasions. Great. Let's continue to reward the psychopath that listens to the voices in his head when he's told to kill his child and never misses an opportunity to pimp out his hot wife. At this point we should expect nothing less from this deity.

*This parenthetical remark was originally intended to suggest that Jewish views of the afterlife regarding a bodily resurrection may have been picked up through Zoroastrian influence. It has since come to my attention that while this seems to have been a consensus view at one time, it no longer is. As Bart Ehrman pointed out on his blog, the dates for Persian influence are still much too early, given this notion doesn't appear until the Maccabean period and there is too little information available regarding Zoroastrian beliefs at that time to draw a clear line. Scholarly consensus now appears to be that bodily resurrection may have emerged within Judaism some time in the second century BCE on its own. My original point remains. This kind of bodily resurrection from the dead was not on the mind of the writer(s) of Genesis, and certainly not on the mind of Abraham, as either a real or legendary figure. -The Apostate 09/10/2019


  1. BRILLIANT. Feel free to take the gloves off any time you want.

    Funny thing--yesterday a Christian told me that his god abhorred human sacrifice because that's what pagans did. I told him that only showed how little he had read in his own Bible.

  2. Making my way through this series, great job; appreciate the effort to compile this.