Everyone in the western world has heard of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is iconic. Even people who didn’t hear the story in Sunday school as a child have heard the story somewhere along the way in their lives. The story is a commonly referenced in literature and art, and often with negative connotations in our modern world.
Dare I say that most people have a shallow understanding of the story – even Christians? I would include myself in that category for most of my life, though I had the fortune of hearing the story and considering it for the first time, not in Sunday school, but in a college World Religion class.
The “fortune” of hearing the story for the first time in the context of an academic environment is that that I approached it first intellectually with an open mind. I approached it critically – not as in being critical of it, but as in being thoughtful about it.
Those discussions have stuck with me. We learned about the Mesopotamian world in which the story arose, including the theory that monotheism was born in that time and region (not necessarily of Hebrew origin).
I have since spent many hours thinking and writing about those things I first learned in that class about the Ancient Near Eastern world in which Abraham would have lived. I have learned other things as well, such as the apparently universal practice of child sacrifice to the gods that dominated the religious thought in that culture.
The story of Abraham and Isaac must be read in that context to understand how it fits in. We learn through the story that the God of Abraham was radically different from the gods of the Ancient Near East culture in which Abraham lived.
In Abraham’s world, every people group and community had their own gods. While each community of people had their own gods, and each god was different from the next, one thing those gods all had in common: they were unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious.
Everyone Abraham knew assumed that the gods had to be appeased, and appeasing the gods often meant sacrificing your own children to them if necessary. Abraham would not have recoiled in moral horror at the thought that God was insisting he sacrifice his son. As difficult as it might be, you didn’t argue with the gods.
We tend to focus only on Abraham’s faith, as if that is the sum and substance of the story. Faith is the Sunday school lesson, but it’s only a shallow understanding if we see nothing else in the story. Faith is merely the beginning of understanding:
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”Hebrews 11:6
Without Abraham’s faith in God, he would not have learned that God was different than other gods. Abraham’s faith was the key to learning that God was different, and Abraham’s discovery of the unique character of God is the real gem of this story – that He is not unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious like the other gods.
Abraham was a man of faith. He believed God exists, and he believed that his God was the God of gods. He believed that God could be approached; God could be trusted; and God rewards those who seek Him. Abraham was a man who sought to draw near to God, but that is only the beginning.
In the story, we see that Abraham expected God to be like the other gods he knew, but we also see that Abraham sensed something different about God. God used Abraham’s cultural understanding of the gods to show Abraham that He was different.
God is not arbitrary and capricious. He has plans for His creation. He desires to bless His creation. He desires relationship with His creation, and we (like Abraham) can engage God in that purpose by faith – by trust in God’s benevolence and good intentions toward us.
This understanding of the story will become more evident as we dig deeper in the next article: The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am. While the Sunday School version is all about Abraham’s faith, and the secular, cynical version fixates of the savage notion that a god might demand child sacrifice, the real gem of the story is that God is not like the other gods Abraham knew.