43: Switzerland, Abraham and Obedience

In this episode John and Gregg begin by discussing Gregg’s upcoming trip to Switzerland. Gregg explains that he will be working remotely while he and his family spend the summer at Swiss L’Abri.  L’Abri is a Christian organization where John and Gregg met in 1999.  At the time Gregg was agnostic and John was taking a hard look at what he believed.

John and Gregg go on to discuss the aqedah, the “sacrifice of Isaac” as written in Genesis 22.  John notes that the story is part of his Christian consciousness and is the “gold standard” of trusting God.  John further notes his reservations about Gregg’s perspective on the story.

Specifically, Gregg explains his view along two lines.  First, he notes the importance of understanding God as both sovereign and parent, and how the tension between these perspectives is essential when reading the Bible.  So within the Abraham / Isaac story we need to see how abhorrent a thing it is from a father’s perspective to sacrifice one’s son, and how there are several instances in the Old Testament where God rebukes Israel for (and seems contradictory of) God’s own command to Abraham!

By contrast, John has always understood this account to focus on God’s sovereignty with the idea that God can do whatever God wishes because “God is God” and “God’s ways are not our ways”–the idea that even though God is commanding Abraham to kill his own son, it’s somehow part of God’s bigger plan and must be okay because “God is God and as humans we cannot understand nor question God’s ways because they are beyond us.”

Gregg sees a parallel example with the need to view and relate to God both as sovereign and as parent by considering John Piper’s article How can a sovereign God love? Here Piper, a staunch Calvinist, claims that his faith would not be altered if God condemned his sons, who are ostensibly Christians, to hell.  Gregg demurs: to view God solely as sovereign (and so as “capable” or as “having the right” to condemn whom God chooses, whether by way of sacrifice or hell) is to completely ignore that God is love, and that we are children of God.  It also ignores the larger picture of God’s nature as fleshed out in the biblical texts (for the sake, is it were, of prioritizing the single aspect of “sovereignty” over all others).  But the Bible does not support this.

So Gregg notes that the “call” or “test” of child sacrifice is not a motif–it does not recur anywhere in the Old Testament.  Rather, Gregg speculates that this scenario holds some thematic value related to the founder of a faith that would act both to legitimate Abraham as founder (and so legitimate the Hebrew faith as a faith) and yet to present this faith–and YHWH as its divinity–as distinct from the ancient Near Eastern divinities in important ways.

4 thoughts on “43: Switzerland, Abraham and Obedience

  1. Yoni

    Hi guys. This is the first time that I ever listen to your podcast. And I was moved to want to comment. The discussion here was about whether or not God really commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son a child sacrifice. The point was that it seemed to be a contradiction to God’s own commands found later in Scripture. I’m writing to you from Jerusalem, and I myself am a physical to send of Abraham. Let me give you my thoughts on the subject. I really think that you’ve missed the point that was being made both in Genesis and later on in the prophets. You made child sacrifice the centerpiece of both of those passages. But when you look at those passages again, and you see what is really important to God, it’s not really about child sacrifice. That is a sidebar. What is important to God? In the profits, it’s clear that God is disgusted with idolatry. And he use the example of the people sacrificing their children to the god Moloch to show his other disgust. Be sure, child sacrifice is not something God desires. In the mean passes you were discussing, the centerpiece wasn’t child sacrifice. God gives us a clue when he commands Abraham to “sacrifice your only son”. Not only was Isaac not Abraham’s only son, he was not even the oldest son. The centerpiece of this passage was about God’s own Son who would die in order to establish an everlasting covenant with humanity. Abraham was being put up as a model of that coming sacrifice. Look at what happened immediately after this test. God established an everlasting, unconditional covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Additionally, at one point you said that you’d like to read more material on the subject. Well, I have good news for you. The Bible provides material on this in the book of Hebrews chapter 11. In verses 17-19 God gives us a window into the heart of Abraham. It was indeed about not only God’s love, but Abraham’s love. And God tested Abraham to demonstrate that his love for God surpassed even his love for his most beloved son. But look at verse 19. It’s shows us that this passage was not about child sacrifice or butchery at all. It was about the God of death and resurrection. And Abraham recognized that God had already placed the seal of promise on that beloved son of his. Therefore he would be willing to do anything knowing full well that God would resurrection from the dead. I think that one of your main points is well taken. If God ever came to anyone of us and asked us to do the same thing, I’m not sure that we should just jump up and run to do it. I think that Abraham and Isaac were one of a kind. And that that would be the only test like that the God would ever put on another human being. But the take away from this, is that God is asking us to make these kinds of decisions every day. I challenge you as well as I challenge myself, to view idolatry with as much or even more disgust then we view child sacrifice. Furthermore, we need to always learn to first love God above and beyond anything or anyone else in the world, including our own children. And the love that God overflows from our lives, will flow into the lives of those of the people that we love.

    1. Gregg Monteith Post author

      Hi Yoni,

      Thanks so much for your interesting and thoughtful response. I’ve been a way from home for a while and so my schedule is really upside down but I am nearly through with my response: I’ll post it shortly.


    2. Gregg Monteith Post author

      Hi Yoni,

      My apologies for the late response: I’m currently out of the country and my schedule is somewhat upside down.
      I appreciate your input about the importance of idolatry in the Hebrew Bible and the necessity of avoiding this. From my perspective both within the podcast and as a result of my own study, however, I do not see avoiding idolatry as an end in itself or even as the chief goal. In other words, God is not primarily looking for humanity to act in this way or that way, as in “following a set of rules.”

      To this end the entire Torah is both summed up and transformed in Jesus’ words in the gospels: the greatest “commandment” is to love God entirely, love oneself rightly, and love one’s neighbour likewise (Mt 19, Mk 10, Lk 10). In other words, God is looking for us to be in right relationship with Godself. In terms of the relationship between Torah (or law generally) and God this is elegantly specified / redefined in Jeremiah 31, where the law “is written upon the heart.” I would then express this as: those who follow Jesus’ words, above, will find that their dispositions and actions—toward God, self, other and the natural world—will be rightly oriented in and through a) understanding God’s truth and b) relating to God in and through love.

      Another point of clarification is that in this podcast I’m not asking whether God “really” asked Abraham to sacrifice his son so much as asserting (because I do not yet have the academic information to argue for it) that there is a particular cultural significance attached to such an act for such a person (i.e., one who is the founder of a faith) within the ancient Near East, as well as arguing from the Bible that God views the act of child sacrifice as particularly abominable (Jer 7, Ez 20). And again, while idolatry is clearly important I do not believe that idolatry per se is the issue. Rather, in keeping with what I’ve written above, idolatry is especially problematic because it amounts to complete rejection of God: it enshrines a non-entity (for God alone is God: all other Gods are false) in place of what should be one’s primary relationship and allegiance, and does so to the most hideous extent.

      So I’m saying two things, one based on an exegetical argument and the other on a hunch (to be confirmed through further research). First, given the portrait that I believe the biblical text paints of God relative to the crucial need for humans to be in right relationship with God (understanding God’s truth and relating to God in and through love), I doubt that there was real intention for God to have Abraham sacrifice Isaac or that Abraham believed that God held such intentions either.
      Now I want to say a few more things about that. To begin, within the Genesis account of Abraham (Gen 12-24/5) we see an evolving relationship with God and an evolving understanding (though not consistent degree of trust) of God by Abraham. So Abraham comes to understand that God is “just” and discriminates between righteous and the unrighteous (Gen 18:22-33). Further, Abraham engages with God in this regard, not so much bargaining with God as upholding God’s perspective to God (which I would take as a trope used by the narrator to help us see to what extent Abraham is progressing in his understanding of God). Yet Abraham’s ability to trust God was not yet where it needed to be (as seen by his deception of Abimelech in Gen 20).

      Next, in the Gen 22 narrative itself we see several remarkable features. Where previously Abraham appears emotionally engaged relative to his family (note Abraham’s attachment to Ishmael in Gen 17:18 or to God’s own justice in 18:22-33) here he is very matter-of-fact, in spite of the gravity of the situation. In 22:5 he is clear that Isaac, whatever happens in the meantime, will be coming back with him from the mountain and in 22:8 he is clear that God will provide the sacrifice (we may argue that this is meant to deceive Isaac / calm Isaac’s concerns, but the gist of the narrative makes this interpretation questionable). Further, for someone whom we are specifically reminded “loves” his son, we see no rejoicing or even reaction from Abraham when Isaac is spared! (Both John Lawlor, “The Test of Abraham: Gen 22:1-19,” Grace Theological Seminary Journal, 1.1: 1980, 19-35 and F. F. Bruce New International Commententary of the N.T.: Hebrews comment on these remarkable features).

      Now interestingly, I think that Hebrews 11:17-19 both supports and expands the perspective that this is not about child sacrifice (i.e., that God had no intention of it being about such—John Lawlor frames the narrator’s characterization of this test as being only a “test,” despite Abraham not knowing this—nor did Abraham have any sense that Isaac would be sacrificed in any traditional sense)! Instead, following from the Genesis text, the author of Hebrews positions Abraham as being caught between God’s promise (which will only come through Isaac) and God’s command (to offer Isaac as a burnt offering). I would highlight two things out of this.

      On the one hand, Hebrews 11 describes Abraham as one who acted “faithfully,” and faith—not obedience—is the key characteristic. Faith in what? Faith that God would fulfill the promise (Gen 12) rather than obedience simply “to do what one has been told to do” (and obedience is exactly what my podcast partner John highlighted during the podcast as being the primary, North American “take-away” from this chapter). The main issue here is that Christians must be wary to validate any claims from God (for example, “God told me to divorce my spouse”) against the promises and character of God as a) found in the biblical text and b) through the history of specific interaction with God (clearly Abraham had no “text” to turn to but instead validated God’s command in light of Abraham’s long history of interaction with God).

      On the other hand, the author of Hebrews argues that Abraham’s faith in God’s promise was to the point that Abraham believed that Isaac would not “become” a sacrifice. Thus Abraham’s orientation in following through on God’s command was neither “falling back” into an ancient Near Eastern acceptance of child sacrifice nor misunderstanding God’s nature or character (i.e., he was not equating YWYH with the likes of Baal or Molech). Instead, Abraham believed that even if Isaac were killed, Isaac would be raised from the dead. Thus I would enlarge my reasons for my position to include the reasoning of Hebrews 11:19, but in my view this only reinforces that: a) that Abraham was not approaching this situation as “killing” his son in any traditional sense (as we see from his uncharacteristic demeanor in Gen 22 and as his thinking is explained in Heb 11), and b) Abraham’s actions were not a matter of “blind obedience” but of a “knowing” faith in specific promises. And this is the example that we should be following.

      Second, I’m hunching that there is something particular about the Genesis 22 narrative relative to the ancient Near East just as there is with Genesis 1-3 relative to the Assyriran, Babylonian, and other creation accounts (John Waltham has several excellent books on this interrelation). So I have no doubt that the interaction between God and Abraham took place essentially as it is recorded. Rather I doubt the significance that most North American Christians attach to it.

      However, neither Heb 11 nor James 2 speak in any way to my earlier inquiry about the cultural significance of this command to Abraham (nor are there many references of this nature at all in the biblical canon, as the intended audience is already the very culture to whom the author is writing, and so this audience is already informed about the very things that we, as those external to that culture, need information about)!

      So while I’m happy that you’ve highlighted the relevance of Heb 11, my reference to “outside material” was directed toward scholarly works on this question of the cultural context for the Abraham-Isaac episode in Gen 22.

      Is this then a story about child sacrifice? Yes and no; no and yes. In a way that Hebrews 11:17-19 helps to specify, the story is about Abraham caught (or better, “tested”) between faithfulness to God’s promises and the seemingly contradictory need to be obedient to God’s command. Yet the “test” is not simply a contradiction nor but involves the potential sacrifice both of a son whom Abraham loves (even as he shows his love for Ishmael, in Gen 17:18-21) and who represents the fulfillment of God’s promise—the entire raison d’être of Abraham having continued his involvement with this God in the first place!

      So if the surface nature of the “test” concerns a conflict between God’s promises and God’s command, what is the meaning of how the conflict was resolved? An important point is that the meaning in its Old Testament / Hebrew Bible context could not be a foreshadowing of Jesus death. To claim such is to deny that there was an original meaning to the texts original recipients that made sense to those recipients, and for whom references or attributions to future notions or entities would simply be nonsensical. Can we retrospectively (i.e., in light of Jesus life and death, and of the New Testamental witness to both) read it as such? Yes, in a certain sense, though all of the exegetes I read make fairly little of this: similarity to Jesus’ sacrificial death is interesting but does not seem to be the point here.

      Rather, my view is that the original meaning, in context, was essentially the declaration: “God is trustworthy.” So it was not so much a question of what Abraham would understand at that moment but what Abraham, through his long history of acquaintance with and understanding of God, had come to understand that was at issue (and which serves as a model): God is faithful to God’s purposes as expressed in God’s promises. Thus God is trustworthy and can be counted on.

      You raise a couple of other points that I can touch on briefly. First, I think we’re right to see Isaac’s role as “son” as unique by this point in the narrative: Ishmael and Hagar had already been “cast out” in chapter 21. Second, I don’t think it was a question of which love is greater (for God or for Isaac), although I do think generally that our love for God taking preeminence is important to relating rightly with God. For example, Abraham clearly loves Ishmael deeply as well! (cf., Gen 17:18-21).

      As a third point, concerning what happened after Gen 22:1-18, I think it’s important to note both that God established a covenant with Abraham before this episode (cf. Gen 15) and, indeed, that God promises to bring the essential tenets of the covenant even before making the covenant! (cf. Gen 12:1-3). This has powerful implications for a) who God is, and b) how the relationship between humans and God should be seen.

      Fourth, you note that we should resist if God were to ask us to sacrifice our own children because Abraham and Isaac are “one of a kind.” What does this means, and how would we assess / validate this one-of-a-kindness? I also wonder how uniqueness would exclude them from actually being archetypal (and so being exemplars to all Christians, which the very reference in Hebrews 11 seems to indicate)! In other words, I think that we need a better understanding of what’s happening in the text if we are to substantiate an aversion to such acts of human sacrifice on a basis other than cultural. So we return to my point about the importance of false religion—as the warnings of the prophets—so that we do not confuse our voices (or those of any other) for God’s voice.

      And this indeed is the key issue concerning idolatry. It is no even so much that we do what we know we should not but, more so, that we do wrongly and do so with the thought that God condones our actions because we mistake other voices / directives for God’s.

      (My references in this response include: F. F. Bruce, New International Commententary of the N.T.: Hebrews; Gaebelein ed., Expositor’s Bible commentary, Hebrews, 1985; John Lawlor, “The Test of Abraham: Gen 22:1-19,” Grace Theological Seminary Journal, 1.1: 1980, 19-35; and Hugh Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1987).


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