About a week or so ago, before turning out the lights and putting the boys to bed, I read the story of Abraham and Isaac from their children’s Bible-story book. The story that I’m talking about is where God, after making good on His promise to give the elderly Abraham and his elderly and barren wife Sara a son, tells Abraham to sacrifice the boy…literally; to tie the boy up, place him on an altar and cut his throat the way that was typically done with an animal. Of course, being a children’s book, the gory details are omitted, to my second son’s disappointment I’m sure.
As I opened the book and began to read, I knew that my six-year old son would ask me the obvious question and I dreaded it: Why did God (the Good and Loving) ask Abraham to kill his son? This is a particularly bothersome question for him to ask because his mother and I are in the process of trying to get him to understand why it’s not appropriate for him to look to one of us and say “Kill him!” whenever his younger brothers do something that upsets him. (Where does that come from?) Of course, as kids tend to simplify things, my oldest son abbreviates my admonition against killing people just because they irritate you to “killing is bad”. And now, “Our Father who is in Heaven” is telling Abraham to kill his only child, the same one that He gave to Abraham in order to build a great nation of his descendants. Sure, the kid is confused…and, judging from the look in his eyes, saddened and perhaps even a bit frightened.
Generally, whenever my children ask me a question, particularly a tough one, I make a sincere effort to answer them. I don’t often put them off, but instead I try to make my honest response comprehensible for them. In this case, I really wanted to give my son an answer but, since it was bed time (when he tends to be at his least rational) I didn’t want to get into a long discussion. I mean, I suppose I could have shared with him the conversation between BBC journalist John Humphrys and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in which Sacks explains to Humphrys that the whole affair was a poignant object lesson to teach Abraham that God is not like the pagan gods he had always known, desiring human sacrifice…
I told my son that God wanted Abraham to know just how much that Abraham trusted God. Yes, the proper nouns in the previous sentence are in their correct places. Read it again if you need to and then think about it: God, the All-Knowing, doesn’t need Abraham to prove his love and trust to Him as if He was in doubt. (Yet God does say “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” I wonder why?) No, God knew that Abraham would follow through with the sacrifice if He allowed it. So, what was the point of putting Abraham and poor little Isaac through that?
The writer of the book of Hebrews holds up Abraham as an example of what faith looks like and he focuses on this incident with Isaac. He says that Abraham trusted God so thoroughly that “he reasoned that God could raise the dead”, which is precisely what He was going to have to do in order to keep His promise to multiply Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac. Some might seize this bit of text to say that the point of the whole ordeal was for our benefit, to teach us something about the nature of faith. But I don’t think that’s really it.
Honestly, I don’t know why God tested Abraham in this way. As a result, I took for my answer to my son’s question what I thought was a reasonable outcome on Abraham’s part and made that my answer. Without any Biblical support, I guess that Abraham made the long journey with Isaac to the mountain asking himself repeatedly “Can I go through with this? How can I go through with it?” Without further Biblical support, I imagine that Abraham walked down that mountain with his son with no further questions about his ability to follow through on the commands of his God.
I rushed that answer by my little boy and put him to bed as quickly as I could manage, but I’m sure that the day is coming when we’ll talk about it again. Maybe he’ll want to cross-examine me or maybe the next child in line will bring it up. However it comes about, I’m actually looking forward at getting another shot at giving a better answer to that question. I hope I have one by then.