Abraham and the bread knife

While we’re being all religious & such, a little something to ponder. I bring to your attention one of the stories in the Bible that must surely be of the most critical significance for all Christians: Genesis 22.

For those of you who missed Sunday School the week they covered that (and couldn’t be arsed clicking on the link), it’s the chapter of Genesis that tells of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Let me precis:

In this story, God speaks to Abraham and tells him to take his treasured son Isaac up into the mountains, and there lay him on a stone and sacrifice him. Abraham is nonplussed by this odd1 and bloodthirsty request, but nevertheless does as he’s told and just as he’s about to plunge the knife into Isaac’s chest, an angel appears and reveals the jolly jape – it was all a test to see if Abraham was really truly faithful to God! Everybody laughs, they all have lemonade…

I’ve always had a problem with the morality of God’s test of Abraham – it smacks of insecurity and manipulation on God’s part: “Abraham… if you reeallllly loved me you’d kill Isaac…” It defines love as having measures; there’s love, but then there’s proper love which apparently requires that you do despicable acts to someone who you love a bit less. I’m not comfortable with these ideas – these are very human notions – hardly the kind of superior compassion and empathy you’d expect from a being with godly pedigree.

But the real reason I dislike Genesis 22 is that it is supposed to demonstrate to all Christians why you should put your complete and unquestioning faith in God – the rationale being that if you do, no matter what God requires of you, He will never let you down. That’s a big ask, and you’d expect that kind of lesson to come with a mighty imprimatur – that’s inscription-on-a-stone-tablet stuff. At least.

So, let’s examine the story of Abraham a little more closely. The old man takes his son and a handful of servants (and an ass) up the mountain to perform the dirty deed. He doesn’t tell anyone what’s going on, least of all Isaac, who we may reasonably assume might have had some objections. When the happy campers get close to the top of the hill, Abraham tells the hangers-on to cool their heels while he and Isaac continue to the top alone. The rest of the story happens out of sight of any independent witnesses – a three-hander with Isaac, Abraham, and, at the critical moment, a timely angel.

So who, exactly, related the tale of what happened? It can only have been Abraham or Isaac.2

To clarify: in order to get meaning from the greatest lesson of Faith in the Bible we are expected to accept the word of one of the two men who were involved in the story. Anything could have happened on that hill top – as Abraham stood poised to plunge the dagger into Isaac’s heart there is absolutely nothing to say that he didn’t just change his mind about doing the deed, and then tell everybody that ‘God’ stayed his hand. Or indeed, he could have just made the whole thing up – for all we know, Abraham and Isaac spent the time playing a few hands of Texas Hold ’em and chugging back a brew or two.

See, that’s the problem of attaining faith in supernatural beings – to get it, you always have to put your trust in human beings.

  1. It’s odd because previously God has gone to great lengths to make sure Abraham has Isaac in the first place… []
  2. Or the angel who deflects the knife, I guess, but let’s forgo the concept of supernatural entities providing testament for the existence of other supernatural entities. That just gets everybody giddy. []