I got asked about this story today on Facebook and after 1000 words fell out of my keyboard on the subject, I thought I would publish them here as well.
Challenging question. Clearly the idea that God today would order such a sacrifice is appalling, and so there’s a big problem here. There’s an interesting passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to this, and for me it helps makes sense of it:
17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
So the point here seems to be that Abraham, having seen God do amazing things with him in the past and knowing that God was going to use Isaac as the means to give him descendants, is confident that God will pick up the pieces – that the sacrifice isn’t going to result in his being deprived of Isaac permanently. It is thus by way of the ultimate test of Abraham’s trust in God: is he prepared to obey what he believes God to be saying however hard that is.
Much of the problem with the religion that we see most of the time is that it not expecting God to turn up. The Catholic tradition has this most blatantly; yes, that wafer IS God. Yes I know you can’t see it, but it is, honest. The Reformation Protestant tradition focuses on the bible: hear it read and you are hearing from God – even when it makes no sense. Modern Pentecostalism – as seen in a wide variety of churches today – presents the ‘worship experience’ as engagement with God; the fact that the experience is remarkably similar to that going on in the average rock concert is an embarrassing detail they’d prefer to ignore.
But just sometimes God does break through all the ‘noise’; whether that’s the smells and bells, preaching or literal noise of worship songs and speaks. That’s when a real encounter with God has happened – and it can be life changing. And of course sometimes we get it wrong; we misheard – it wasn’t God but some powerful personality bullying us into thinking it was.
One of the many challenges of the New Testament is how Jesus AND the disciples in Acts are shown as performing miracles ‘on demand’. They know what is going to happen, and it happens. This story from Acts 3 is an example:
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
This appears to be the ideal; hear God, speak it out and God does the work. Most of the stories in the bible are occasions when this works out, though there are hints that at times things do go wrong; following the story of Paul’s return to Jerusalem before he is finally arrested shows ‘prophets’ telling him he’s going to be arrested – and concluding that therefore he should go to Jerusalem. He’s convinced it’s the right thing to do – despite the warnings. Interesting!
So – back to Abraham. He’s heard God promise Isaac will the means of his having descendants – and now he’s told to sacrifice him. One of the frustrations of the story is that we don’t know HOW God told him to do the sacrifice; there’s no description of an angel turning up or anything obvious. Yet Abraham goes ahead and does it – and it works out. At the risk of offering a cop out here, that’s a good test; if someone says ‘I’ve heard X from God’, it’s great practice to see what happens in the medium term. In my own life I was convinced God wanted me to buy the flat next to the one I live in. It was up for sale at the bottom of the post credit crash slump. I really really didn’t want the hassle, but the idea didn’t go away. So I asked God for the price to offer – and offered that and ended up with the flat. It has subsequently proved to be a great investment. Can I ‘prove’ God spoke to me? Of course not. But the outcome suggests that I got it right.
So we have Abraham hearing God tell him to do something outrageous. This isn’t flat buying territory; it’s killing HIS ONLY SON. Yet God has told him that that Isaac will give him grandchildren etc. So he concludes he’s got to do it – AND IT WORKS OUT. So why did God do this? To strengthen Abraham’s faith. And perhaps to provide a story for us for the future. Which is NOT to suggest we should be sacrificing children, but that we can trust God to sort things out in the long term.
I offer that for your consideration. Perhaps it makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. I tend to be a hardliner on this; if God is the creator of the universe and so the true measure of what is right, then ultimately we have to adjust our attitudes to what He says is right, rather than claim to know better than Him. Or perhaps I’m totally deluded. All I can say is that I’ve seen enough small miracles in my life and am certain enough of the truth of the Resurrection to make the Christian hypothesis about the world the most convincing.