Sacrificing Isaac

The scene is an Anglican or Catholic Sunday school (or some other kind of RE program), and the child, which could be you, or some abstracted metaphorical child, sits at the teacher’s feet. And the teacher reads out a story. The story is the one about Abraham sacrificing, or nearly sacrificing, his son Isaac. It's probably not the text as it appears in Genesis being read out, but some other more child-friendly version, which is less wordy. And then after the child has heard the story, he or she will, at the teacher’s behest, do some cutting out of a prophet, or glue some cotton wool to a sheep, or colour in a picture, something like that, before the class ends. But the idea sticks with the child, that idea that Abraham could come so close to killing his own son, that God would ask something so awful, no less. He or she would probably have lacked the words then to express what disquieted them so much, but that image, the resonance of that whole story, will stick with the child. And when that child has grown up, they’ll remember that lesson, the dispassionate way that story was handled, and quite understandably it will stand out as good cause for them to go off church, religion, and God. I have heard this story, or a version of this story, a number of times since I have become a minister, and again just this week. Abraham binding his son upon that alter is not something easily forgotten. It seems quite simply an act of cruelty, with little redeeming value.

This morning then, I’m going to be thinking about this story. What I am certainly not attempting to do, however, is to sanitise this story for you. I don’t want to explain away the discomfort you feel; your discomfort is an important part of this. The task of the evangelical preacher is to take your intuitively held sense of who God is – this loving, compassionate, omniscient being with your best interests at heart – and reconcile that image with the character of God as he’s presented in this story. Their high view of scripture will mean that they do need to be reconciled - the story cannot simply be dismissed. A surface reading of our text puts God in a pretty bad light, and so the preacher will need to utilise some spin tactics to convince their flock that what appears defamatory, is actually the opposite, that in actual fact, despite first appearances, the story puts God in a good light. And although that may sound like a tall order, keep in mind that the evangelical preacher’s flock wants to be convinced. They don’t want this story to damage their conception of God, they only want stories that confirm or enhance their conception of God. And so, the preacher actually has quite an easy job; any explanation they give will do, it will be embraced, it will enhance the congregation’s faith, and allay any pesky trepidations that some may have had. It will put the whole thing to rest.

Now, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with this. It's not as if the truth of the matter is there behind the text, and whereas the evangelical preacher is out to dupe you, I, the good and faithful servant that I am, will lead you to the truth. There is no truth to be led to. There is only the text, and our interpretations of it. There is no larger picture that we need to reconcile the story with. The Bible itself contains a plethora of competing narratives at odds with one another, and when we add into that maelstrom all the competing narratives within us as well, we have a conceptional field so vast that no single narrative could possibly pull all those threads together into a single coherent tapestry. The evangelicals seek to have God do exactly that – act as that single tapestry into which all else can be woven, but in doing such, in conceptualizing God in this way, you cannot help but diminish God. God becomes nothing more than a creation of our own making. Even for God to inhabit the outer limits of our imaginations, or reside within the conceptional field of us all collectively, is too narrow a space. God can be nothing less than all in all, and thus, nothing, beyond existence, being, and knowledge. Which in an oddly paradoxical way, means that when we encounter and consider a text like the ‘Binding of Isaac’, God has very little to do with it. This must necessarily be a human problem to bear, to wrestle with, and come to terms with.

A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him!
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

So, as I have said, all that is left to us, or left to anyone, is interpretation. And here is the first by Wilfred Owen. Owen was one of the main English World War I poets, and here he uses the horrors of this story to express something of the horrors of war. ‘Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps’ - that’s the conscripted youth of Europe. And they built parapets and trenches, their own alters upon which their own bodies would be offered up. But unlike Isaac, whom God would intervene to spare, these sons of ours would have no intervener. He would not be listened to. And so, they would die. This is made all the more powerful in that Owen himself would die, viewing the war as senseless, only a week prior to the Armistice being signed in 1918. Interestingly, Wilfred Owen also happened to have grown up as an Anglican evangelical himself, but in his university days, just before the outbreak of the war, he did a placement at a church as an assistant, and the hypocrisy of Christianity caused him to turn his back on the church, and evangelicalism, which he believed too narrow, particularly in the light of the nationalistic fervour which seemed to be gripping the church at the time, in the lead up to the war.

Now, that would be a good stopping point to leave Wilfred Owen behind, and move on to my further exploration of the ‘binding of Isaac’ text. But as I was reading some articles about him, and considering my topic this morning, I realised there was something about Wilfred Owen I couldn’t just brush over. Here’s the difficulty. There are several notable WWI poets, but he is probably number one. The most notable of the Great war poets. His poems epitomise the waste and futility of that war, and I think they do so very well. But as we know, people are complicated; we contain within us great contradictions. Wilfred Owen was undoubtedly a paedophile. We have details of a romantic friendship he had with a 13 year-old boy when he was 19, but really that’s just the thin end of the wedge. So, I bring this up for a few reasons. First, in the light of the recent Michael Jackson documentary, this country has been thinking about this issue a lot recently. Secondly, my address this morning is about the multivalent ways in which we can approach a text, and Wilfred Owen, his biography and his poems, are texts. And so, I could have used these texts to simply serve my own purposes this morning, made my point concerning the relationship between the binding of Isaac passage and Owen’s poem, and moved on, but that would have seemed a disingenuous move.

In the same way that our passage this morning can be taken and interpreted, quite rightly, in a number of different ways, so, obviously, can Wilfred Owen’s short life and works. We re-frame things in the light of what we now know. In my view however, and I know this is a controversial point, Owen’s poetry, or even Jackson’s music (though obviously now understood differently, how could it not be?), is not, in and of itself, diminished in the light of what we now know. I just don’t think that’s how art works. I think if we were to read all such texts - Owen’s, Jackson’s, or for that matter any other historical figure’s with a questionable interest in people under the age of 16, whether the evidence has yet come to light or not - if all such people are read and understood in this reductive fashion, weaving their work into this single tapestry of understanding, we would be doing art, at the very least, a great disservice. I wish to resist a cookie-cutter God, just as I wish to resist cookie-cutter social opinion. Embracing either, it seems to me, is a form of idolatry.

Okay, So, from here I need to claw my way back to where I was going… The thing I’m railing against is just the notion, quite simply, that a single narrative, or a single tapestry if you like, would have such ascendancy, such power, that it could and would sweep away any and all nuance. I have a big problem with that, and waves of cultural opinion can carry that kind of force. I have little faith in populist opinion. People are, by nature, too easily swayed by emotive argument. Anyway, having said all that, let’s return to the young Isaac, bound and held down by his father, who is leering over him, knife in hand. The way this story has been traditionally dealt with is simply to say that, even though God asks Abraham to kill his son, of course, it was never God’s intention for Isaac to die, and this whole episode was a test. God was always going to intervene.


Previously, Abraham leaves his hometown, travels towards the promised land with his barren wife Sarah, and along the way he is told by God that he will be blessed, and his kin will become a great nation, despite his great age. And then indeed, Sarah becomes pregnant and has Isaac, so Isaac represents the great promise that God made to Abraham, that he will father a nation. So, for God to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, is for God to ask Abraham to trust that he has the power to bring about what he has promised, that fulfilling such a promise does not hinge upon Abraham’s son; it hinges upon God’s faithfulness. So, Abraham holds up the knife ready to strike. And an angel calls to him, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ In a lot of art depicting the scene the angel reaches down from heaven and stays Abraham’s arm. And then ultimately, we get this short monologue from the angel: ‘Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice’. And Abraham rejoices, and calls God his great provider.

The real stumbling point then is that God would ask Abraham to do this in the first place. This is why people have big a big problem with this text. He very plainly says, “Abraham!” and Abraham said, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  So, that would mean, even if it was not God’s intention to allow Abraham to carry this through, he’s still deceiving Abraham. God is still lying, and it’s a lie which toys with child murder. So, to explain this, you need to step back from the text. By default we tend to treat the text as if it were a faithful record of exactly what transpired, like an historical record. Even if we don’t believe that is how the text came into existence, one can often unintentionally read and talk about it in that way. Rather, of course, the Old Testament, or more specifically the Pentacheuch, which is the first five books of the Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – is the product of an evolving oral tradition, in which a group of people were wrestling with what it means to be the people of God. And in that wrestling, they would tell stories to one another, and over time those stories would change and evolve, to reflect the challenges and pertinent questions that this people were dealing with. Trying to come to terms with it all.

In that context then, in the ancient Middle East, child sacrifice was a normal practice. You’d have tribal nations, semi-nomadic people groups, and each of these groups would have their own god. And when one tribe went up against another tribe, it was as if that god was going up against the god of that other tribe, and one would fall and the other would triumph. And then that story might be remembered, and told to children down the line, less in terms of the actual battle that physically took place on earth, but more in line with what happened mythologically: my god triumphed over their god. And that story could be on one level entirely fanciful, but at a deeper level say something very profound about that tribe’s character and identity.

‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio

‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio

So, what’s happening here then, is the day to day happenings on the earth are being understood and projected into a mythical realm. There is this god, the god of my tribe, and I have to appease him in some way. And so, one year the crop is very good, and we have an abundance of food. We burn up a little of that food as an offering for our God, and all is good. But the next year, the crop is not so good, and the people of the tribe conclude that the reason for the poorer crop is probably the fact that the offering we gave to God last year, despite us having so much, was so measly. We were too greedy, and displeased our god. And so this year, despite us having less food, we will burn up even more for God. And this gets you into a very problematic cycle. In the third year, either the harvest will be better, and they will conclude that they must have been right the previous year, that it was because they were too greedy, and this year, in their abundance they will offer even more, or, if in the third year the harvest is bad again, or even worse, they may conclude that they evidently didn’t go far enough. Maybe we were wrong to even think that god wanted our grain. Maybe he wants something even more precious. Maybe he wants a goat or an ox to be sacrificed to him. Or, as the bar rises higher and higher, maybe God wants us to sacrifice our own sons and daughters – which is a logical end point to this way of thinking.

So, we now obviously think of the God of the Pentacheuch as being the one true God, the God above all else, but he would have started out in this same way, as just being a tribal god. And so, if he is our tribal god we have to establish what he wants from us. One of the distinctive things that the tribal god of Abraham asks for very early on is that he wants his people to be circumcised. So, that’s an identifying marker. And what about child sacrifice? Instead of thinking of this story as transpiring in the way we find it in Genesis, rather, we could think of it in these terms, that this question of child sacrifice, which would have been a very live question (after all, everyone else is doing it), is put into the mouth of god. The wrestling of the tribe is projected into their god. Will god ask, won’t he? The expectation is that he will, and so he does, but unlike all those other gods, God comes down and says, ‘No, I am not like those other gods, I would not ask you to do this’. This doesn’t solve our discomfort with the story as we receive it now in the 21st century. It remains a gruelling and uncomfortable text. But by stepping back, we can appreciate the nuances at play, and the fact that we do not need a single tapestry to explain this. We do not need to weave this story into a triumphant image of God – obfuscating things to prove that God is only ever bringing about the good. And the other single tapestry is equally problematic, the tapestry which uses this story as a proof text to show just how horrendous all things religion, church, and God are, the tapestry which uses this story to askew, avoid, and belittle all else. And so, high nuance, and single tapestry avoidance, is, I believe, the name of the game.


Lewis Connolly