Someone posted Rachel Held Evan’s post on the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen.22, “I would Fail Abraham’s Test (and I bet you would too).” ( http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/fail-abraham-test ) In her usual winsome and engaging way, Evans asks the wrong questions and gives the wrong answers to the issues raised by this text and other texts in the Old Testament where God is involved in violence of some sort.
Her main target is those who share the sentiment and view of the Bible as John Piper, who she quotes: “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases . . . God is God.”
Even though Evans acknowledges that the Ancient Near Eastern context “makes a bit more sense” of Gen.22, she does not draw on any of it to contest views like Piper’s. Instead she goes on to query whether any of us today would or should heed God’s call to sacrifice our children. She bookends her post with a similar comment: “Maybe the real test isn’t in whether you drive the knife through the heart. Maybe the real test is in whether your refuse.”
Evans is in effect complaining about a flat reading of the text which assumes any and every command of God is applicable to his people anytime and anywhere. Yet she appears to practice the same hermeneutic in assuming that believers today might sometime face the same command to sacrifice our children.
This is a red herring because we will never face such a command. Evan’s failure to read the Bible as a story told as chapters or acts of a play (Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation) and factoring in the difference it makes that we live in the fifth chapter or act, “the Church,” rather than the earlier ones where these texts are found. After Christ, and in the absence of anything remotely similar in the rest of the New Testament, ought to assure us that whatever those earlier stories mean, they no longer hold for the chapter of the story we live in. That doesn’t lessen the difficulty we feel with those earlier stories, but it does mean that things have radically changed since Christ such that no more of that kind of thing is appropriate or should even be thinkable for God’s people today. Yes, some do still think that way, as Evans points out, but that is a misuse or misinterpretation of the Bible and should be treated as such.
Before turning back to Gen.22, it must be noted that Evan’s bolded comment: “If God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?” This is not only a flat reading like I pointed out above, but it is a begging of the question as well. Whether or not God ordered “ethnic cleansing” in the past is what needs to be proved, not assumed, before we ask the question of whether God might order such again in our time and place. “Ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” are not, in my judgment, justified labels for what God was doing in the Old Testament.
The former implies divine intent: that God’s main and primary purpose was to extirpate the Canaanites. The Bible’s own claim is that Israel is enacting God’s own judgment against a forewarned people who had been given four hundred plus years to amend their ways. Given that God frequently uses foreign nations as the rod of his judgment against Israel (e.g. Isa.10), this can hardly be claimed as divine favoritism for Israel over the Canaanites.
Further, God is the Creator of all peoples and nations. How, logically, can we object to the Creator doing whatever he does with his creation. It happens that we know his intent for all is love (and that he is faithful to his purpose) and intends to have a world of creatures with whom he can live in close fellowship on this earth through the ages, so we cannot faithfully imagine him just arbitrarily destroying or “cleansing” peoples and nations or moving them out of the way just to meet Israel’s needs as a nation. Israel, after all, exists to bring God’s blessing to the nations (Gen.12:1-3)! But if in righteous judgment God removes incorrigible nations, there can be, as far as I can see, no logical or theological difficulty with it.
But back to Gen.22. John Howard Yoder offers a perspective informed by the ancient setting of the text (sorry for its length):
“Let us begin the exposition of a different approach with the command addressed to Abraham (Gen. 22) to sacrifice his son Isaac. This passage is consistently and systematically misinterpreted in Western ethical thought because it is measured from the present rather than from the context of the command. We know that for a man to kill his son, especially to sacrifice his son in a bloody ritual, is morally and culturally abhorrent. Thus the question for us as we interpret the story is how a man can deal with a command to do something which is thus abhorrent, and what it says about the absolute sovereignty of God that He reserves the right to command us to do such things.
“But for Abraham in his culture there was nothing morally or culturally abhorrent about sacrificing the life of his firstborn. All the neighbors did the same thing. It was as natural to sacrifice one’s firstborn son, because of the prior claim of God on the fertility of one’s wife and as a way of assuring her future fertility, as it was to sacrifice the firstfruits of the field and the flock for the same reason. Fertility is after all a gift of God, and the firstfruits of the womb, just as of the flock and the fig tree, belong to Him. We thus misunderstand the Abraham story completely if we try to see in it the paradoxical command of a God telling a man to do something awful.
“The other modern misunderstanding is to build in a parallel way upon the emotional attachment of a man to his child. Modern Western personalism has equipped us for a deep sentimental attachment of the father to the son; so that for a modern father to take the life of his son, in any state of mind except a drunken rage, is unthinkable. Thus we ask traditionally what it is supposed to tell us about the awfulness or the sovereignty or the paradoxical character of God that He would ask man to do something so contrary to his deepest nature and drives. But again we modernize. This kind of sentimental attachment of father to son, if it existed at all in the patriarchal age, can hardly have been viscerally as powerful as it is for us.
“(By challenging these interpretations of the command to Abraham, we also challenge the Protestant sermonizing à Kierkegaard or à Bonhoeffer which have tried to make of this ancient story a proof that God is sovereignly unaccountable, or irrationally self-contradictory, or that His power is most clearly seen where our good sense and our sensitivity are summoned to bow blindly before Him.)
“What then was the test put to Abraham? Why was it that it was a testing of his obedience to be ready to sacrifice his son, if the test was not to his ethics or to his fatherly sentiments? The wider story itself makes clear, as does the analysis of Hebrews (ch. 11), that the issue for Abraham was whether to trust his God for his survival. Isaac was his only legitimate son, and God had promised that Abraham would have a great posterity. How then could Abraham have posterity if his son were killed? Thus it was the promise of God Himself, the achievement of God’s proclaimed purposes, and not simply the tastes or the interests of Abraham, which were at stake. The question was not “can I sacrifice my interest to God?” but rather, “Can I obey God when He seems to be willing to jeopardize His own purposes?” The answer, “God will provide,” is thus a reassurance not of our own survival or comfort, but of the rationality of obedience which seems ready to jeopardize God’s own purposes.”
(Yoder, John Howard (2012-11-21). The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Christian Peace Shelf Series) (Kindle Locations 1252-1278). MennoMedia. Kindle Edition.)
Literarily, the equanimity of Abraham in carrying out God’s command foreshadows his obedience which was the point of the whole thing. Previously Abraham has proven erratic and selfish. His actions in Gen.22 show him finally to have become the man God wanted and need him to be (Gen.22:15ff.)!
Further, God never intended for Isaac to die. Either Abraham would have obeyed, and God would have stopped him and provided the lamb (as he did). Or Abraham would have refused and the boy would have lived. Either way, Isaac was in no danger.
Yet, having said all that, I still think it proper as a Christian to ask whether we still practice child sacrifice. But in a way that recognizes its real hermeneutical significance. And I think we do! We call it baptism. Parents hand their children over to God to “die with Christ” in baptism to “rise with him to new life” here and now. Henceforth, our children belong to God and to his purposes for them (whether we parents like it or not)!
Much of Rachel’s complaints about the misuse of the Bible are right on target. And her Reformed pastors advice to her are terrible and rightly rejected. However, this comment below is very misleading.
“While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love. If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.”
While she says she doesn’t want to make God over into her own image, that’s just what she does in the underlined portion above. God must meet her standards (or all human standards) of love in ways acknowledged by all. Of course love “can” look like abuse, genocide, rape, eternal conscious torture. It depends on the perspective and assumptions one brings to their interpretation. Who saw Jesus’ death on a Roman cross as God’s love towards him or us? Apart from the Spirit’s inspiring a true understanding of it, now one would have arrived at it on their own!
Yes, it is true, as Evans says, “It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong.” We all use the resources she mentions in our decision-making. However, Christians, are supposed (I believe) to make Scripture normative. That is we assess the insight we receive from all other sources in light of what the Bible tells us. And that brings us full circle back to my original concerns about Evans’ interpretation of our normative source.
She is right, on her reading, to conclude that we should refuse God’s command to Abraham should it come to us. However, it will not come to us (as I argued above) and what it meant for Abraham and means for us is a very different matter. To refuse to consider to whom or what we sacrifice our children (God? The American Dream? The free market? Education? A certain Lifestyle? . . .) is something we definitely should not do.