I have always hated the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and even today I shiver whenever I hear it. The story takes place on a remote mountain called Mount Moriah, and even that name has come to have a foreboding, ominous ring for me. Child sacrifice is utterly rejected in the Bible – except in this one place.
As a child, I identified with Isaac in the story. I envisioned my father taking me on a three-day journey far from anyone and anything familiar, and then tying me up and taking an axe to hack open my skull. I loathed the story. Today, as the father of three grown sons and grandfather of six, I identify with Abraham and envision myself compelled by some ghastly power to murder my son or grandson. I still loathe the story. The sacrifice of Isaac also raises a host of troublesome theoretical questions for me. It begins by saying that God was testing Abraham. Why does God test Abraham? Does God test us? Why would God test us? Doesn’t God already know everything? And what are we being tested for? And what kind of a God would test one of his servants by asking him to do such a thing? Did Abraham just say, “So you want me to kill my son. Fine, I’ll get right on it”? Did he never question whether it was really God asking him to do this horrid thing? How did Abraham know it was God and not the devil talking to him?
It doesn’t help to say, “But Abraham didn’t actually have to kill Isaac in the end, so God wasn’t really condoning child sacrifice.” While it would seem to be a cruel God who would require me to sacrifice my son, it would be almost as cruel for God to play games with me, making me travel three days to a lonely, barren mountain thinking I would have to sacrifice my boy there, only to let me off the hook just as I was raising the knife to kill him. Either way, God is a fiend.
I attended a meeting last year where this story was discussed. Others tried to find ways to soften the story, but I would have none of it. I remember saying that if God asked me to kill one of my sons, I’d spit in God’s face and say, “To hell with you! I will not serve you!”
There is no way to soften this story. It is a horrid, hideous tale. But it might help, a little, if we ask not where we see ourselves in the story, but where we see God in the story. As it’s told, God is the one demanding that Abraham sacrifice his boy. But maybe that’s just a dramatic device. Could Abraham represent God in the story? Could Isaac represent God? Could the purpose of the story be to arouse our deepest fears and dreads – and thereby to give us a glimpse inside the heart of God on Good Friday? On that day, God experienced the grief, confusion, and fear of Abraham in the story, and also the grief, confusion, and fear of Isaac.
Seen that way, God is not the perpetrator of horror, but the victim of horror, and the terror and dread that the story arouses in us are the terror and dread felt by God himself. It’s still a horrid story, but one with a touch of grace in it. It means that you and I can never suffer alone. It’s not possible to suffer alone.
Of course we may feel alone in our suffering. Many sufferers do feel that way. But feeling alone and being alone are not the same. People have all kinds of feelings, some of them based on reality and others unrelated to reality. If you feel you’re suffering alone, that’s a feeling unrelated to reality because there is always someone suffering with you. God suffers with you.
Sometimes a would-be comforter will say, “I know just how you feel,” but it has a hollow ring to it and you say to yourself, “That person couldn’t possibly know how I feel.” Most people who say that don’t know how you feel; they just can’t think of anything else to say. But God has been to Mount Moriah. God has been to Golgotha. And regardless of how painful things may be for you, you can’t hurt any worse than God has hurt.
When God says, “Come unto me,” you can know that in coming to God, you will find a heart accustomed to suffering. In fact, what we call suffering is probably, compared to what God has known, a mere mosquito bite.
So when you read or hear this horrid story, it is fine to identify with Abraham or Isaac. But know that God identifies with Abraham and Isaac as well. And that God identifies with you.
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The Rev. Dr. Richard H. Schmidt retired in 2011 as Editor and Director of Forward Movement in Cincinnati. He and his wife, Pam, live in Fairhope, Alabama.