Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making Peace with Abraham

For as long as I can remember, I've had a problem with the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. It has always made me supremely uncomfortable for multiple reasons.
  • First, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that God would command what would in any other context be a premeditated murder.
  • Second, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that God would command something and then basically say "just kidding" at the end. It seems like a really manipulative trick that isn't part of the character of the God I love and worship.
  • Third, I dislike how the story is used to justify all sorts of situational ethics. Basically, people cite the story as precedent for doing all sorts of horrible acts in the name of God.
For a while, I put this concern on the shelf. [1] Over the past few months, though, it's fallen off my shelf. I've been wrestling and struggling with the story, and I think I've come to a resolution.

I was reading in the book of Genesis a few weeks ago, and I came to the familiar story. As I was thinking, I came to the conclusion that the command to sacrifice Isaac came from somewhere other than God. (I'm not sure from where yet, but I don't think it's important to my resolution.) What is important to the resolution of this story is that Abraham thought the command came from God.

Abraham, acting in reliance on what he thought was a divine command, made preparations, took provisions, and headed off with Isaac.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
Genesis 22:9-13
I think we can learn a lot from this story about how God operates, especially in the realm of personal revelation. Personal revelation is a sticky subject. It's sometimes hard to know what comes from God, what comes from ourselves, and what comes from other sources. Abraham received what he believed to be revelation from God, and he acted on it.

God sent an angel to stop Abraham before he could do something irreparably harmful. The timing is interesting. God didn't stop Abraham right after he made the decision. He didn't stop Abraham halfway up the mountain. He didn't stop Abraham when Isaac questioned what was going on. He only stopped Abraham right as he was about to plunge the knife into Isaac. Similarly, God grants us a lot of leeway to make mistakes. He'll let us go down a wrong path, but if we're sincerely desiring to do the right thing, He will intervene before we do something disastrous.

The scriptures say in many places that we will one day be judged on the desires of our hearts. The story of Abraham illustrates this perfectly. If Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, he would have committed a terrible act. However, his intention was to follow God, and he was rewarded for that righteous intention and is held up as an example of great faith. Similarly, if we honestly strive to do the right thing, and we end up doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, God will take that into account on judgment day.

One item has been removed from my shelf. Maybe I should do some spring cleaning and start tackling some of my other spiritual knick-knacks!

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[1] The shelf is a metaphor for dealing with concepts that one has difficulty with by setting them aside to be dealt with later after more perspective has been gained. A good blog post explaining the shelf concept can be found in this post at By Common Consent.

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