Q. Attending Catholic school as a child, I remember being bothered by the story of Abraham being tested by God. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac up to him. Once God saw that Abraham was willing to do what he asked, God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac. It was only when I became an adult that the story made sense to me.
God only asked Abraham to do what God knew he would have to do one day -- namely, to offer up his only son, Jesus, to be killed to save the world from sin. God needed to know that Abraham loved him as much as God loves us. Am I reaching in making this connection or is it a reasonable one?
-- P., via email
A. I think your interpretation is creative, but why, I wonder, did God stop Abraham from killing Isaac, yet did not stop Pilate from killing Jesus? If love is enough, what is the purpose of sacrifice? What I generally believe is that people give up on God way too soon, and the morally problematic story of the sacrifice of Isaac in the 22nd chapter of Genesis is the best example I know of in the Bible of why we should not give up but look deeper into Scripture for clues to the truth, love and hope God has planted in every word.
The main clue in this story comes in the first words: "And so it was that after these things, God tested Abraham." (Genesis 22:1) This retrospective beginning is meant, I believe, to teach us that what happens next had to happen because of what happened before, and what had just happened in the Genesis story.
What happened is told in Genesis 16:1-16 and Genesis 21:1-21. Sarai (she was not yet called Sarah) was the childless wife of Abraham who had given Hagar, her maidservant, to Abraham so that Hagar might bear him a son. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarai became jealous of her and demanded that Abraham choose between them (16:5).
In an act of cowardly favoritism, Abraham surrenders Hagar to the venomous anger of Sarah: "Behold, your maidservant is in your hands. Do to her anything that is pleasing in your eyes."(16:6). Sarah tortures Hagar, who flees into the desert, but returns to camp and delivers Ishmael after God promises to protect her and her son. And Hagar called the God she met in the desert, "the God of seeing." This is another clue. God did see. God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.
The next example of Abraham's moral lassitude occurs in Genesis 21:1-21 following the miraculous birth of a son to the elderly Sarah. She now demands of Abraham that he "Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." (21:10).
Abraham has another chance to pass the test and protect Hagar and Ishmael against what is, this time, a direct demand to kill them by casting them out into the burning desert. Abraham fails again. He's troubled, but not troubled enough to resist Sarah's murderous plan. In the middle of Abraham's vacillations about whether to murder Hagar and Ishmael, God speaks to him in words that drip with irony, disappointment and anger. "Do not let this matter of the boy and your maidservant be bad in your eyes. Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice. For through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed." (21:12-13) So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.
If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mount Moriah. Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.
"After these things," God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.
"After these things," Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.
"After these things," Abraham was free.