“If god commanded you to kill your children or loved ones, would you do it?” It is a pretty common question to be asked when talking to atheists online.

No, because I would assume I am a kook if I heard that or the Dark Side of the Force was tempting me.

However, if I had the one on one relationship Abraham is portrayed as having with God, trusted in His promise to bless the world through my son when he was grown, knew that God was the Author of Life and able to raise the dead, etc. I might feel differently. Abraham’s choice has to be contextualized; virtually none of us live within that context.

The ancient interpreters wrestled with this story just as we do. Interestingly, they saw this event as equally a test for Isaac to be a willing sacrifice as for Abraham to prefer faithfulness to God over the natural affections:

Abraham and Isaac“Remember what things he did to Abraham, and how he tried Isaac, and what happened to Jacob in Mesopotamia of Syria, when he kept the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother.
For he hath not tried us in the fire, as he did them, for the examination of their hearts, neither hath he taken vengeance on us: but the Lord doth scourge them that come near unto him, to admonish them.” (Judith 8:26-27)

And, “Remember… the father by whose hand Isaac would have submitted to being slain for the sake of religion.” (4 Macc. 7:12-14).

Both Jewish and Christian tradition have consistently held that God testing Abraham and Isaac like this was a one time event which further deflates the skeptic’s contention that passages like this are free to be taken as a precedent for violence in the name of religion.

The ancient Jewish commentators see this as saying something special about the Chosen People and its Patriarchal founder. From Pseudo-Philo’s “Biblical Antiquities” we have Isaac speaking to us, “… Why if not that I was indeed born in this world in order to be offered as a sacrifice to Him who made me? Indeed, this (sacrifice) will be (the mark of) my blessedness over other men- FOR NO SUCH THING WILL EVER BE AGAIN- and in me the generations will be proclaimed and through me nations will understand how God made a human soul worthy for sacrifice.”

The ancient Christian commentators built on this idea and saw a special sign-value of Jesus Christ in Isaac’s sacrifice. From the Epistle of Barnabas (written between 70-131 AD) we have, “(Jesus was the fulfillment of) that which was foreshadowed in Isaac, who was offered upon the altar.” (Epistle of Barnabas 7.3)

I won’t further bore anyone with the details of the ancient exegesis but there is much more to the text than a capricious God, a cold-hearted father, and a witless son.

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