And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. — Gen. 22:12 (KJV)
Here we deal with one of the most well known, and by that I mean notorious, verses in the whole Old Testament.
The passage in Genesis 22 begins with God deciding, for whatever capricious reason God decides to do anything, to test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering to him:
Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Of course, God gets it wrong here. Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, since in Abraham (then known as Abram) had copulated with Sarah’s maid:
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. … And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
Of course, we learned in the last edition of this series that God was going to give Sarah a son in Chapter 18. Why then, only two verses before that did God allow Abraham to impregnate Hagar when he knew that he was going to wind up intervening in the first place and giving Sarah a baby? In any case, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, but then again, maybe God doesn’t count children born through surrogate mothers.
But back to the story. God tells Abraham to take Isaac up to a mountain — we aren’t told which mountain — and to sacrifice his son in order to prove his faith. Abraham and Isaac then start on a surely woeful march up the mountain when Isaac asks his dad:
Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?
Abraham said not to worry, that God would provide. As an aside, Isaac is forced to carry the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain, much like Jesus would later carry his own cross up to the hill for his sacrifice in John 19. Of course, since much of the gospels are embellishments on the others or directly contradictory (here, here, here, here, here, here ), John, the most embellished of them all, can hardly be trusted, and this detail may have been added later to further connect the story in Genesis with Jesus, since other comparisons can be made (Isaac’s reference to the sacrificial lamb, for instance, as opposed to a goat or some other hoofed animal).
While we are told in only five words that Abraham bound up his son, it would have been interesting for the writer to have included more detail here. For instance, I wonder how that conversation would have gone:
Abe: Isaac, you are the sacrifice. There is no lamb.
Abe: Yes. I’m sorry.
Isaac: But … (begins crying now)
Abe: I believe God will provide, my son, in his own time.
Isaac (screaming): You can’t be serious!
Abe: I’m afraid so. I’m sorry. I love you. But I love Yahweh more, so … Tough break, kiddo. Now help me with the rope.
I wonder if at some point there might have been a struggle. Isaac, of course, could have outrun his father since Abraham was an old man by now. Apparently, Isaac didn’t put up much of a fight, and Abraham then tied his son up like an animal on the sacrificial pit, raised the blade and was poised to strike when an angel appeared and stopped the action. A ram then appeared caught up in some brush, which Abraham then proceeded to sacrifice instead. The place was hereafter called “The Lord Will Provide,” which is a funny-sounding place name. In any case, God then appears and said he would bless and multiply Abe’s descendants as “the stars of the heaven” and said that from his seed, all nations will be blessed and that all his descendants would come to “possess the gates of their enemies.”
If you know anything at all about Israel’s history, you know that that last part never happened. Israel could have enjoyed some conquering successes on a local scale, if those parts of the Old Testament are true (doubtful), but the nation of Israel has been conquered territory in some form or another for more than 2,000 years now, beginning in 63 BCE with the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. And from there:
In 635 CE, the region, including Jerusalem, was conquered by the Arabs and was to remain under Muslim control for the next 1300 years. Control of the region transferred between the Umayyads,Abbasids, and Crusaders throughout the next six centuries, before being conquered by the Mamluk Sultanate, in 1260. In 1516, the region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and remained under Turkish rule until the 20th century.
Christians, and Jews presumably, view the Abraham and Isaac passage as one of the most important in the Bible because they say it shows how important faith in God is and that God is trustworthy to follow through on his promises. Of course, other than the localized battles that may or may not have happened that I just mentioned, the ultimate promise was not kept, and one can make the argument that if we assume for a moment that he actually exists and actually cares about the protection of Israel, he is also a monster for sitting back silently while his precious nation has been ransacked for centuries, not the least of which was the slaughter of 6 million Jews in Nazi death camps.
What about God, or Abraham for that matter, as revered paternal figures? Not so much. What father would send his son to slaughter in the first place, much less in the brutal way that Yahweh ordained Jesus to be tortured and killed. Moreover, if God wanted to test Abraham’s faith, he could have easily done it by something other than a blood sacrifice. He could have made Abraham run laps around the mountain at his old age or made him climb a tree and then fast up there for three days and three nights, as the biblical parlance goes. That God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son places this sinister little story firmly in the context of the time in which it was written. No one but a sadist would ask a loving father to kill his son and put him through the emotional stress of actually contemplating such a heinous act, regardless of whether he was actually going to make Abraham go through with it.
We will no doubt revisit this sadistic side of Yahweh’s nature in future editions. Until then: