Interpreting Sacrifice

Kudos to this pastor for taking a stab at arguably one of the most difficult passages in the Bible – Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22.  I don’t know who this pastor is as his blog site has no personal data.  And I thank him for his post because he helped me to clarify some of my own struggles and responses to this passage, and together, we hopefully can help make sense of what God is doing.

Firstly, I think it’s important to clarify a few points of order.  Genesis 22 begins with the clear word to the reader/hearer that this is a test.  The reader/hearer is never under the assumption that what transpires in the following chapter is a directive of any kind from God regarding human sacrifice.  Nowhere in the Bible does God demand or even permit human sacrifice or child sacrifice.  There are plenty of passages that speak to this implicitly and explicitly (Leviticus 18:21, 27:28-29; Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10, 2 Kings 3:27, 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31).

Secondly, though God does not want child sacrifice, we have nothing in Scripture that clearly indicates Abraham’s spiritual background.  In other words, it would be reasonable to assume that Abraham was not a lifelong follower of the Biblical God.  As such, Abraham would have been very familiar with neighboring religious practices that made use of child or human sacrifice.  The Bible indicates it was a practice among the Ammonites who worshiped Molech.  Scholars have argued that Phoenician Carthage practiced human sacrifice.  The deities from this area have been found in carved sculptures in northern Israel (Hazor), which means that possibly child sacrifice was practiced in those regions by followers of the deities Tanit and Baal Hammon.

A.R.W. Green researched this topic and reported evidence of human sacrifice throughout the Ancient Near East, including  Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syro-Palestine.  In other words, while we today would gasp in horror at this test, it would not have necessarily been such an uncommon test for Abraham.  In other words, Abraham would have been familiar with deities who demanded such things.  So this would actually be a real test – would Abraham be willing to actually give what he actually believed God might actually ask of him?  Or would He refuse?

This test would not have worked in Moses’ day – just a few hundred years later.  Thus the clear indication at the beginning of Genesis 22 that this was only a test.  Moses’ hearers would have been just as aghast and confused at God’s request as you and I, so Moses clearly prefaces the episode with the disclaimer that this is just a test.  Scripture makes it clear that God does not permit or desire such sacrifices, and therefore we don’t need to be concerned that He might ask us to do so.  Even if the “sky opened up and God’s voice boomed down”, we would do right to say no.  It’s clear that such a voice could not be God’s voice.  God might test us in other ways, but not in this one because we already know his clear will in this regard.  I would be far more concerned about the sky opening and the voice of God demanding that I give my entire IRA to someone in need.  That’s not necessarily an impossible (unBiblical) demand.  I can only pray that I would have the faith of Abraham to obey.

There is a confusion about midway in the essay as to the nature of God and his relationship to his rules.  The issue – though not raised this way in the Lutheran Pastor’s essay – centers on what makes something good, and how is God (or the gods) bound in this regard?  It’s an issue that Plato records Socrates dealing with in Euthyphro.  Is good an abstract absolute that the gods must obey, or is good something that the gods determine, and therefore subject to change at the discretion of the gods?  It seems like quite the conundrum.  The Biblical answer to this issue is that neither option is correct.  Good is not an objective absolute – a pre-existing condition to which God is bound.  Nothing pre-exists the Biblical God.  But by the same token, good is not an arbitrarily defined thing.  God doesn’t decide today that the color pink is good and the color green is evil, but then decide thousands of years later to change this.  God doesn’t have to decide what is good because God is good.  It is the definition of God himself.  God could no more command something that was evil than He could create a rock so big He couldn’t lift it.  It’s a matter of philosophical categories and not confusing them.

So God didn’t arbitrarily decide that human sacrifice was demanded of Abraham and then change his mind later.  The preface to Genesis 22 makes it clear that God never intended for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac to him.  But Abraham didn’t know that about God yet.

I like the way the author wraps up his essay.  He acknowledges that most of us have a limit to our faithfulness.  Would I really cash out my IRA and give it to someone else because I thought God was asking me to?  That would require a lot of faith.  I’d like to think that if I was convinced that this was definitely God speaking to me, that I would trust him enough to obey.  That’s the goal, of course.

But we all fail at times as well, so we need to focus first and foremost on what God has sacrificed in his Son Jesus, and that this sacrifice is not a moral example for me to follow, it’s actually atonement for my inability to obediently follow God’s directives in my life.  Maybe I’d be willing to cash in my IRA.  But am I willing and able to allow God to dictate my thoughts and actions every moment of the day?  Hardly.  So rather than debate about whether I could be faithful in the big things, I need to recognize that I’m not even faithful in the little things.  I don’t simply need help to be faithful in epic proportions, I need to be saved from the sin that is so much a part of me that I’m blinded to it.

So if you hear a voice from heaven telling you to sacrifice your child, don’t.  Period.  But if you hear a voice from heaven telling you to sell your house and go to a strange land?  Well, do some serious praying and talk with some brothers and sisters in the faith that you really trust.  If you really believe it’s God calling you to this, and if it doesn’t require you to abandon the vocations He’s already given you (spouse, child, etc.), then I pray you’ll have the faith to follow.  And just as importantly, that I would.

 

 

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