By Kyle Henderson
I remember reading the words, “God told me to do it.” The young mother was explaining her decision to kill her children. Then she mentioned something about Abraham. I felt a little sick. I was a little angry. I was tired of people laying stuff at God’s feet. I couldn’t get it out of my mind as I began flipping through the Abraham story.
At the same time, I was preparing to take a group to the Holy Land and had been plotting events on a map. I would read a story and find the spots. I was creating lists, identifying special places and marking a Bible to take with me. I slowed down on the Abraham story.
I started from the beginning of his call from Ur (Gen. 11:31) and made a little mark at his stopping spot in Haran. I found his feet first in Shechem and the land God was giving to him (Gen. 12:4-7). Then I read with dismay his charge — “Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land” — and his response — “Abram moved his tents and went to live” near Hebron (Gen. 13:14-18). He never did what God told him to do. He didn’t wander around influencing the people; he did the opposite. He went and stayed.
I read the story over and over again. I had so many funny ideas about Abraham — mostly, that he was a hero and did it right. I think I had it all wrong. Abraham mostly got it wrong. He stopped for a long time in Haran and almost didn’t make it. He didn’t trust God and immorally traded his wife for safety, not once, but twice (Gen. 12, 20).
I went back to my map. I plotted the land God gave to Abraham. Then I read this note: “Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time” (Gen. 21:34).
I began to wonder if punctuation and tradition was getting in the way of the most important sentence in the Abraham story. What if this was the lead sentence for the whole Isaac incident? What if this was the real question? Why was he not in the Promised Land? What could be the consequences of being in the wrong place? What happens if he is more Philistine than follower?
I dug back though to what God asks of Abraham: “Some time later God tested Abraham. … ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering’” (Gen. 22:1-2, NIV). I got out reference books and took the text apart piece by piece until I came to the realization that the sentence could as easily be translated as a question. My amplified translation now reads: “Abraham, would you take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah, because that’s where Philistines go. And would you sacrifice him there as a burnt offering? (Translation and amplification mine).”
God was not testing Abraham’s faith, but his purity. God didn’t need to know the answer to the question, Abraham did. God was asking Abraham, “Are you a Philistine?” This is what happens when we stay in the foreign land too long; we adopt the foreign ways.
Abraham hops up and rushes to be obedient. He does not argue with God, which was his first instinct in Sodom (Gen. 18:16ff). He does not quote the Noahide law (Gen. 9:6). He does not offer to trade his own life for his son. He acts just like a Philistine.
The story unfolds with his unloving, horrific choices to lie and manipulate his son on to a stack of sticks. Then God steps in to clarify the situation, for isn’t this a story about God first and foremost? God is the one who will provide the sacrifices (Gen. 22:14). This issue has to be settled once and for all for a people who will live around child sacrifice. God will never ask a parent to sacrifice a child — ever. Child sacrifice is condemned in every instance it is mentioned in the Bible. God says it is detestable, evil and must be eradicated (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, Deut. 12:31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3, 17:17, 21:6, 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; Jer. 7:31; Ezek. 20:31, 23:36-39). God says, “I never commanded [child sacrifice], nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 32:35). If God is unchanging, then it was never the case that God was asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
What am I to make of God’s seeming approval of Abraham (Gen. 16ff)? God was trying to create a follower. This broken, flawed person had faith. He believed that God could raise the dead (Heb. 11:19). God praised him for what he got right but dramatically stopped him from doing what was wrong.
Abraham and Isaac leave the mountain together. Abraham goes back to Beersheba, but Isaac disappears from the story, appearing next living with his mother (Gen. 24:67). Abraham and Sarah live the rest of their lives separated by over 90 miles (Gen. 22:19, 23: 1-2). Abraham arranges a wife for Isaac, but they never appear together in the story until Abraham’s burial, where it’s noted that Isaac lives far away from Abraham (Gen. 25:11). Isn’t the most reasonable conclusion to reach is that his family wanted noting more to do with a man who could do such a thing to a son? Who would want to follow him or his God?
The Abraham story has been twisted into the wrong lesson. It is not a story about us. It is a story about a God who sacrifices, a God who protects, a God who creates. It is not about how Abraham got it right but how he got it wrong.
In a world where children are sacrificed and lost by neglect, abuse, and systemic evil, may we never say, “God told us to do it that way.” It is not on God. It’s on us.