Okay, sit down, grab some popping corn, and get ready for one of the most fucked up stories to appear in the Bible. Enjoy!
Abraham and Sarah, who I have written about here, had a son they dearly loved named Isaac. Abraham was grateful to God for granting his and Sarah’s prayers and allowing them to have a child well past AARP age. But one day, Abraham was busy working in the field when he heard God call to him.
“Yo, Abe,” God said. (I’m paraphrasing.)
“Yes, God,” Abe answered.
“You remember how I gave you a son, that son you wanted so much?”
“Uh, totally. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“Yeah, no problem man. But, uh, I need to ask you to do something for me. I’m going to need you to go ahead and sacrifice Isaac to me.”
Abraham, not quite believing what he was hearing, responded to God, “No way! That’s crazy! Are you insane? I am going to have to go against you on this one, God.” Wait, no. Abraham did not question God because bad shit happens in the Old Testament when you don’t listen to Him.
And the very next day, Abraham grabbed a couple of servants, a donkey loaded with everything one needs for a burnt offering- sticks, stones, and something with which to gut his son- and of course, Isaac. They headed to Mount Moriah for the two-day trek. Once they reached the base of the mountain, Abraham told the servants to wait, conspicuously not adding that only he would return. Abraham then turned to Isaac and said, “Leave the donkey; take the altar.”
On the way up the mountain, in a moment of clarity, poor Isaac asked his father, “Hey dad- we have everything we need for the sacrificial altar, but where is the lamb?”
Abraham answered, “God will provide the lamb.”
“I don’t see any lambs here, dad.”
“It’s okay, God will provide.”
“I don’t mean to question you about God, but aren’t we supposed to give a really good lamb to God?”
“Stop asking questions.”
“Are we there yet?”
Abraham and Isaac arrived at the spot God specified. The two built the altar for the burnt sacrifice, and just when Isaac realized that there was no such thing as a wild mountain lamb in those parts, Abraham tied his hands and put him on top of the wood-covered stone pile.
Suddenly, an angel of God appeared and told Abraham, “Stop! You have made God so happy because you were willing to sacrifice your much loved son but seriously, you don’t have to do that now.” (Insert nervous laughter from Abraham here.)
The most awkward descent down a mountain ever followed, as Abraham explained to his son what his thought process was during that whole fiasco. Isaac followed this up with years of therapy as he tried to overcome the trauma of knowing that his dad was willing to kill him. (Spoiler alert: Isaac’s son pulls his own jackass move.)
So, what was this story really about, besides infanticide?
First, some background on sacrifice: It is a tradition that most religions have practiced in their history one way or another. The Hebrew word for a burnt offering actually means ascend, which is what the flames are supposed to do, ascend to heaven to please God. These types of sacrifices in the Bible go back to Cain and Abel, where Abel (a shepherd) sacrificed a lamb to God while Cain (a farmer) offered vegetables and grains. In a sign that God and Ron Swanson might be the same person, God was more pleased with the lamb. We all know what happened in that first case of familial jealousy.
The point of a burnt offering was not just throwing any old animal onto the fire. One was supposed to present to God only the most perfect or prized one. That is why it was a sacrifice: a sacrifice is giving up a prized possession for the sake of something else. If the best animal isn’t offered for the sacrifice, then it’s really just a BBQ, right? But it wasn’t only animals for some people. Historically, many tribes in the Near East practiced religious sacrifice of their children. This type of sacrifice is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Psalms, as well as in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. To counter that, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, passages denounce burnt offerings and sacrifices of children.
Who was Isaac to Abraham and Sarah? Highly prized, he was the son they waited for (if you choose to ignore the poor Hagar and Ishmael part of the story). To sacrifice this child would have been a major blow to a lineage that traced its ancestry back to Noah. This story of Abraham and Isaac may be the way in which the Jewish people once and for all denounce this practice thereby differentiating themselves from other tribes in the area.
However, this story has certain connotations that I find uncomfortable. According to some biblical scholars, God had no intention of Abraham sacrificing Isaac- this was merely a test. And that is where this story gets me: I don’t like to think about God testing our faith in Him, just to see if we are His true followers. Instead, I like to view this story as one with a more anthropological significance: to set themselves apart from other tribes, the Jewish people did not sacrifice their children to their God. I like knowing that if anything came out of this story- besides the whole “we don’t kill our children thing”- it’s that when Isaac had children of his own, whenever they complained about his parenting, he could answer their whining with a “Yeah? Ask grandpa about the time he almost sacrificed me!”
Here are some paintings depicting the sacrifice of Isaac: