And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. Genesis 22:1,2
Every Thursday I conduct a Bible study at a nearby Federal women’s prison. It’s a wonderful part of my week and there’s always so much inspiration given and received among the participants.
We’ve just started an in-depth study on angels. Not all the technical stuff about which layer of hierarchy certain angels belong to. We’re looking at who the angels came to, what their purpose was and how lives were transformed by obedience to the angels’ messages.
Well, very early in the Bible you get the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his only and long waited-for son, Isaac, as proof of his faith.
Abraham is just about to do the deed, when an angel appears and tells him not to sacrifice Isaac. Whew!
I’ve heard lots of explanations over the years about the faithfulness of Abraham in this story. Yes, Abraham is striving to be obedient to God in every detail of his life. But is has always bothered me that people rarely question the idea of God telling Abraham to do something that was against His will: to kill your own child and the heir to God’s unfolding plan. In fact, it was a pagan ritual of the prevailing cultures.
We love to say that God is omniscient–all knowing. If that’s really true, He already knew that Abraham was faithful and did not need to test him.
Was it really God that told Abraham to sacrifice his son?
Why would God tell him to do this? Why would God tell Abraham to revert to a pagan practice to show his faithfulness?
Now if you take the literal meaning of practically any English translation of the Bible, it will say that God tempted/tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his son. But if you look at everything the Bible says about the nature of God and what He tells people to do, there is an enormous incongruity here. James 1:13 makes it clear, “for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.”
God would not nor could not go against His own laws.
The more I have studied and prayed about this passage, the more I have come to the conclusion that it was not actually God telling Abraham to commit this pagan ritual. Hey, I know that goes against the basic surface reading of this story, so don’t throw those rotten tomatoes at me yet. Just hear me out.
Abraham came out of a culture where sacrifice of the first born child was one of highest expressions of devotion in the attempt to please and/or appease certain heathen gods.
Abraham had rejected this polytheistic culture because he heard God’s voice and was coming to know the one, true God.
Years of patient and faithful waiting.
Over many years, Abraham was proving his faithfulness and trust in God. God told him he would be the father of nations. But he had no children. Then came Ishmael. But that was not the fulfillment of God’s plan. More waiting. Are we ever so patient in waiting for God to do His work on His time table?
So finally Isaac arrives on the scene as God has promised. And in a few short years, God tells Abraham to kill this promise of hope? NO. NO. NO.
His old theological beliefs of how to express the highest faith and loyalty by sacrificing the first born son were coming at him. God was calling Abraham to be faithful in all ways, but these old concepts of loyalty were clouding the picture.
Clear communication is sometimes misunderstood.
Have you ever had something really important to tell your kids or your spouse and you communicated the ideas in a clear and concise way, but they still misunderstood?
When I am in the kitchen with the water running at the sink, and my wife tells me something from the dining room, I cannot hear her clearly and usually don’t understand what she is saying. Later she will tell me, “I told you that already.” But I honestly didn’t hear it. Or I completely misunderstood what she meant and did something different.
Occasionally when I tell my kids something important, I think they have heard me. But later it comes out they really didn’t take in the message or misunderstood it because they were preoccupied with something else– either listening to music or following something online while appearing to be listening to me. Or maybe they were worried about an upcoming test and just couldn’t take in what I was saying.
What color of sunglasses are you looking through?
Here’s another analogy. If you put on green-tinted sunglasses, everything will have a green hue. If you look through the proverbial rose colored glasses, everything will look rosy. If you look through the highest-form-of-faithfulness-to-my-God-is-to-offer-my-first-born-son-as-a-sacrifice tinted “sunglasses,” then this is how you will “see” your situation, and it will color how you act.
This is what was happening with Abraham. God was telling him to be loyal. But some of those old cultural practices were garbling the message and putting their own imprint on what Abraham perceived.
A friend recently shared an article by Ken Braiterman which talks about who tempted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Here is an excerpt which throws an interesting light on this whole discussion. You can read the complete article here. (NOTE: This article is no longer on the internet)
Looking at a dozen English translations of the story — Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, from the King James to Revised Standard to the most modern plain English versions — not one of them recognizes that interpretation, said Joseph Baumgarten, Ph.D., professor emeritus. He pointed out that all translations of the Bible are interpretations.
But the original Hebrew version of the story can be read “the gods” tested Abraham, Dr. Baumgarten said.
Elohim is one of the names the Bible uses for God. But it’s an irregular noun. Normally, the suffix im makes masculine Hebrew nouns plural, as in the expression elohim achairim, which means other gods. We know that because achairim is a plural form of the adjective other, which is only used with plural nouns.
When Elohim refers to the one God, it takes singular adjectives and verbs, Dr. Baumgarten said..
In the original Hebrew “Binding of Isaac” story , Elohim is used with singular nouns and verbs, except in Verse 1. There, the Bible uses ha-elohim. The Hebrew prefix ha- means the. So the word can be interpreted as the gods.
After that, there is no question that Elohim refers to the One God of Abraham, who stops the child sacrifice at the last minute. That is much more appropriate behavior for the just, merciful God of the Old Testament.
So how does this apply to you and me?
How many times do you here someone say–or say your self–“God told me ….” I know there are times I have felt that still small voice of God directing me to do something, or not do something, say or not say something. And you’ve probably had the same thing happen to you.
But have you ever heard someone say those words, “God told me…” followed by something that doesn’t sound like what God would say? Like rob a bank or kill someone?
God is talking to us all the time. And we hear Him more clearly sometimes than we do others. But we still say, “God told me…” even if our own mental clutter, our fears, our self will, the man-made theological doctrines we have been taught, etc. have distorted the message. Then we think this garbled message is what God is telling us. And we proceed with word or action that may be the exact opposite of what God actually intended.
How can we tell if what we hear are the pure words of God or not? It’s not always easy.
The simple answer is: Get to know God better. Be willing to let go of any preconceptions you may have as to what God wants you to do.
Study the Scriptures. Search the Scriptures. Don’t just pick out a few favorite verses and use them to justify your actions. We need a full sweep of the Bible’s complete message. Measure your words and actions against the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. That’s a starting place.
But mainly, it’s about working on your relationship with God so you know Him better, understand Him better and can hear His voice more clearly.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.