By Bob Allen
The story of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering in Genesis 22 makes sense only if it is literally true, a Southern Baptist seminary president said at a recent preaching conference.
“If this is merely a story, if this is just a literary artifact of ancient Israel, if this is to be interpreted as some sort of parabolic account, if this did not happen in space and time and history, if God did not do exactly what it says in this text that he did, and if Abraham did not do exactly what this text says that he did, if this is just a narrative, then it is an immoral, horrifying narrative,” Albert Mohler said in an audio message posted on his website Nov. 3. “If it is, however, the truth, then we are saved.”
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., preached on the same subject on campus at an “Expositors Summit” Oct. 28-30 featuring John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif. A seminary news release Nov. 5 said audio and video from the summit will be soon be posted online.
In an abbreviated version preached at a local church on Sunday, Mohler described the chapter, which has long troubled both Jewish and Christian theologians, as a test of biblical authority. “This is one of those tests of whether we believe this is genuinely the word of God,” he said.
After delivering the second Spurgeon Lecture on Preaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Nov. 5, Mohler said in a video interview that he regards his Oct. 28 sermon on “The Binding of Isaac” as “one of the pinnacle messages of my life and ministry.”
“There’s certain texts of Scripture that I have reserved — even as I have taught them at some level — I’ve reserved them for some great homiletical project in which I’m just going to pour a year of my life,” Mohler told Midwestern President Jason Allen. “So I basically poured a year of my life into that message.”
The passage is historically significant for Midwestern, established in 1958 in Kansas City, Mo., and one of six seminaries owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. Ralph Elliott, the first member elected to join Midwestern’s first faculty as professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, wrote a 1961 book The Message of Genesis, arguing for a historical-literary approach to interpreting the first book of the Bible.
Elliott argued that the Moses did not write Genesis, that the first 11 chapters are parables, Noah’s Flood was local and that God did not command Abraham to sacrifice his son. “God does not test a man of faith with a command to do something that is morally wrong and contrary to the character of God,” he said of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Elliott said such stores have value for religion but are not to be taken as literally true. While Elliott described his argument as a moderate view, it upset conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The controversy eventually led to Elliott’s dismissal, prompted revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963 and is often mentioned as a precursor to the full-blown “conservative resurgence” that exploded in denominational life in 1979.
Mohler said there have been many attempts to dismiss or soften a story viewed as morally troubling, where God instructs Abraham in Gen. 22:2 of the King James Version to: “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.”
“Richard Dawkins, one of the four horsemen of the New Atheism, refers to this text as the classic example of theistic child abuse and bullying,” Mohler said. “Feminist interpreters refer to this as a text of terror.”
“Immanuel Kant in the Enlightenment said the problem with this text is that here Abraham becomes the paradigm, he becomes the indicator, of every madman who claims he has heard from God,” he continued. “As Immanuel Kant said, the problem is that Abraham here has no assurance that he’s actually hearing from God. How does he know he’s not hearing from a demon? How does he know he’s not hearing from some tortured internal voice? How does he know this is the voice of God?
“Franz Kafka said this is just an example of Jewish self-loathing. Kierkegaard called this the temporary suspension of the ethical, saying that this is just a demonstration of the fact that God is above ethics, so that whatever God does is simply a suspension of normal ethical norms.”
Mohler said some more recent liberal biblical scholars have argued it is really nothing more than a warning against child sacrifice. “Well, it that’s all it is, it’s a horrible story,” he responded. “It’s immoral. That’s not what is at stake here.”
Mohler said there are clues in the text itself that there is more going on than meets the eye. At the beginning of Chapter 22, readers are told that God “tested” Abraham.
“It’s a very good thing we’re told this up front,” Mohler said. “This is a divine gift. God is giving us a clue. The Holy Spirit is inspiring Moses as he is writing Genesis to warn us in advance that we are to understand this text in terms of God testing Abraham. We need to know that.”
Mohler said Abraham also hints that he believes everything will turn out OK when he promises his servants that both he and the boy will return after worship and tells Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”
Mohler said the message is clearer in New Testament passages like James 2: 21-24 explaining that Abraham demonstrated his faith through obedience and Hebrews 11: 19, which adds, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”
“In other words, Abraham knew that even if he did what the Lord had commanded him to do, even if he took that knife and he slaughtered his son, even if he offered him up as a burnt offering, the Lord would bring him back,” he said. “Because Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, the Lord who called him and the Lord who renamed him, and the Lord who gave him this promise, the Lord who declared him justified by the fact that he believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, that God will be faithful to his promises, and his promise was that the nations would be blessed and that a great nation would come through this boy.”
“If this boy is sacrificed and this boy is even burned, the Lord will bring him back, because the Lord will be faithful to his promise,” Mohler said. “And Abraham knew, as he said to those servants, ‘the lad and I will go and we will worship and we will return.’ Abraham didn’t know exactly how he was going to return with this boy, but he knew he was going to return with this boy.”
Mohler said in reading the story of Abraham and Isaac modern disciples are “being trained” to expect things later revealed like Jesus’ miraculous birth and his sacrificial death on the cross.
Mohler said the story points to the limits of literary interpretations of Scripture. “Scripture is literature, but it is never merely literature,” he said. “In Scripture are narrative accounts, but they’re never merely narratives.”
“This is salvation history,” he said. “We are being told, here, how it is that we are saved.”