What would you do if you if a man told you that he was ready to kill his own son just because he believed God had told him to do it? First, I hope you try to stop him. Talk him out of it. Restrain him. Call Child Protective Services. Do whatever it takes to keep him from doing something we simply know is wrong, period—and not just wrong but downright deranged.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that most of us today clearly do not believe in a God who demands human sacrifice. Nor do we rest easy with the idea that God would fake a command for human sacrifice just to see if we’d go through with it. And we certainly don’t trust anybody who would take such a perceived command seriously. So why did we just read a story where both God and Abraham seem to behave in untrustworthy ways? What are we supposed to do with a story like that?
Let me suggest what I believe to be a thoroughly biblical answer. What are we supposed to do with a story like this? Don’t just sit back and listen to it. Don’t assume that you’re supposed to like it or agree with it. Don’t treat it as the last word on any subject. It’s not a resting place but a starting point. Don’t ignore it. (That, I confess, is what we usually do.) Instead, argue with it; wrestle with it, and don’t stop wrestling until you find the God of love we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ addressing you, not just through the story, but through your wrestling. That really is the most biblical way to deal with the Bible.
That, in fact, is what the writers of the Bible did with one another. They argued. Proverbs tells us that we’ll live long and prosper if we follow God’s teachings. Ecclesiastes and Job reply “It ain’t necessarily so,” long before George Gershwin. The book of Ezra says that, if you’ve married a foreigner, you’d better get a divorce. The book of Ruth protests that Ruth, a foreigner from Moab, was one of King David’s ancestors, so take that, Ezra. James and Paul can’t agree on what faith means.
The Bible is not a simple collection of final truths about God or about how to live. It was a lively debate from the very beginning, held together by one theme: a fitfully growing vision of God’s common life with us, where we learn to love God by loving one another, treating others as we want to be treated. Jesus and Paul both said: if we’re learning to love one another and God with our whole selves, we already know what the Bible is supposed to teach us before we even open it (1). Rabbi Hillel said that the Bible is basically one big commentary on treating others as you want to be treated (2). St. Augustine said that if a passage in the Bible seems to encourage anything besides love, you should not take it literally (3).
We don’t need to debate whether God longs for us to walk in love as Christ loved us. We know that already. It’s the central message of the Bible. And we’re supposed to remember that when we run into a story like this one. Again, don’t just sit back and listen to it. Don’t assume that you’re supposed to like it or agree with it. Don’t treat it as the last word on any subject. It’s not a resting place but a starting point. Don’t ignore it. Instead, argue with it; wrestle with it, and don’t stop wrestling until you find the God of love we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ addressing you, not just through the story, but through your wrestling.
Oddly enough, most of the time that was Abraham’s practice too. He didn’t have a Bible, yet, but God did come to him in visions (Gen. 15:1). God had shared with him God’s own desire to bless all the families of the earth (12:1-3). And yet most of the time, no matter what God said or promised, Abraham challenged it. God promises offspring, and Abraham replies “Well, you’re certainly taking your good time about that.” Got repeats the promise, and Abraham actually laughs in God’s face (Gen. 17:17).
God mentions plans to destroy an entire city, and Abraham has the nerve to lecture God on how any God worthy of the name should behave: “What about that desire to bless everyone? Did you forget about that? You’d wipe out the innocent along with the guilty? C’mon, you’re supposed to be God. You’re supposed to practice what you preach.” OK, that was a paraphrase. The direct quote is, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Gen. 18:25)? But that’s just a long winded version of, “C’mon, you’re supposed to be God. You’re supposed to practice what you preach.”
Abraham already knows how a God of love ought to behave. He’s not afraid to hold God to God’s own promises. And how does God respond to getting lectured? Basically, “Well, yeah, I guess you’re right.” Abraham actually won the argument, though I do wish he had pressed it further—why not let transformative grace abound even for the wicked (Romans 5:20)? But he still lectured God on how to be a God of love, and he won a concession every time.
Abraham is not the only example of this argumentative sort of faithfulness. Think of Jacob, wrestling with God, insisting “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26), which God does and gives him the name “God-Wrestler,” or in Hebrew, “Israel.” Think of Moses, refusing to cut any private deals and actually shaming God into repenting and being merciful (Ex. 32:10-14). Think of all the Psalms that tell God to wake up and do the right thing. Think of the Canaanite woman, praised for her faith, who by arguing convinces Jesus himself that he has to be as kind to her as to any of his own people (Mt. 15:21-28). Think of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, who eventually wears down an indifferent judge (God?) and gets the justice she deserves (Luke 18:1-8). All of them insisted that a temperamental, vindictive or indifferent God wasn’t worth worshipping, and they didn’t hesitate to lecture even God about that.
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Aren’t you supposed to practice what you preach? Would you ask me to slay the innocent? These are the questions Abraham never hesitated to ask the God he encountered. So when God tells Abraham to do something Abraham already knows is wrong, period, why, especially this time, does he hold his tongue? It’s so out of character.
That’s why I’ve begun to read this story in a way that’s very different from how I used to read it. Here’s how I used to read it: It tells us that the only way to live life is to give it up, give it away, only to get it back on terms beyond our imagining. Abraham thinks he has to give Isaac back to God, and God shows him—quite dramatically—that Isaac’s future, and Abraham’s too, are already in God’s hands. The sacrifice has already happened. And after we see God giving up even God’s own life on the cross, we realize that we too find our lives by giving them to God’s common life with us in Jesus Christ. We and God become “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1), because we belong to one another.
That is one way to read this story. It’s one way that I still read it, for that matter. But there’s never just one way to read any story. That’s what makes stories so powerful and enduring while interpretations come and go (4). And today I’d like to suggest another way to read the story, one that fits Abraham’s character better.
Abraham hears God saying something that doesn’t seem worthy of the God who promised to bless everybody. This isn’t the first time he’s caught God acting like that. In the past he argued with God, and he actually got some concessions. This time (maybe?) he decides not to argue but to call God’s bluff. You could say that he plays a game of chicken with God, or at least with the God he heard speaking. We’re told that God was testing Abraham, but maybe Abraham was testing God (5).
The way the story unfolds, Abraham never actually agrees to go along with God’s command. To God all he says is, “Here I am.” He told his men that he and Isaac would both return after they’d made the sacrifice. He told Isaac that God, not Isaac, would provide the sacrifice. In the past, I’ve assumed that he says these things because he doesn’t want anybody to know what he’s planning to do. But maybe it’s because he thought he could get God to back down. He’d done it before by arguing, now he does it by playing chicken.
That’s my hunch. And if the hunch is right, it seems Abraham won again. He made God blink first, or so it seemed to him. Instead of objecting to what he’d heard from God, he went through the motions of obeying until he heard God raise the objection. He forced the God he had heard to admit that there are some things the judge of all the earth could not command, after all.
So, is this a story about letting go and letting God, as I’ve often read it? Or is it a story about not letting our flawed impressions of God get in the way of the only God who ever deserved the name—the judge of all the earth who is not only just but generous beyond imagining, the God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ? It could be a story about both. We give our very lives to God because, like Abraham, we know that God can’t be anything like those ancient gods who commanded human sacrifice. We know that God can’t be anything like the hateful, vindictive God too many people preach about today.
But today the point is not to find the right interpretation. The point is to start recovering what I truly believe is the most biblical way to deal with the Bible. Whatever passage you might hear, don’t just sit back and listen to it. Don’t assume that you’re supposed to like it or agree with it. Don’t treat it as the last word on any subject. It’s not a resting place but a starting point. Don’t ignore it. Instead, argue with it; wrestle with it, and don’t stop wrestling until you find the God of love we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ addressing you, not just through the story, but through your wrestling.
We’re entitled to treat the Bible like that because, like Abraham, Paul, Rabbi Hillel, St. Augustine, and of course, Jesus himself, we already know what it had better teach us before we even open it. We’re called to be a God-filled, Christ-like community that’s safe enough for that sort of wrestling.
1 Matthew 7:12, 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10.
2 Tractate Shabbat, 31a.
3 On Christian Doctrine, 3.10.14.
4 This is what David Tracy observes about the stories that endure as classics, “those texts that bear an excess and permanence of meaning, yet always resist definitive interpretation” (Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope [New York: Harper & Row, 1987], p. 12). After over thirty years I’m still apparently his student.
5 “Abraham resists even after he goes through the motions of compliance. At the end of the test, as at the beginning, his only statement to God is the ostensibly willing but ultimately opaque, ‘Here I am.’ Thus, when God declares that Abraham has passed the test … it is as much God who concedes defeat as Abraham.” Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 59. Also see: Bodofff, Lippman (1993). “God Tests Abraham – Abraham Tests God”. Bible Review IX (5): 52.