Since 9/11 a choir of commentators have claimed that the willingness to murder innocent people in the name of God stems from the progenator of the Abrahamic faiths. Abraham, the father of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is commended for attempting to kill his own son.
The account of this episode is arguable the most infamous passage in the Hebrew Scriptures:
Then God said, [to Abraham] “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:2)
Now, as anyone who has read the story knows, God intervened and prevented Abraham from killing Isaac. In the Mosaic laws that follow this story, the Prophets, Psalms and the historical books, human sacrifice is unequivocally condemned. Notwithstanding these prohibitions, it appears inescapable that Abraham was acting on God’s commands. For this reason, it is not surprising that this story looms large in the criticisms of theological morality. The passage appears to show that God commanded someone to do something clearly and obviously immoral.
Appearances can be deceiving. There are two issues here: the first is whether the text teaches that God commanded the killing of an innocent child, the second is whether commanding the killing of an innocent child is always immoral. For this objection to have force both these contentions must hold, I will examine each one in turn.
Turning to the first, did God command the killing of an innocent child? I think the answer is yes, but in a specific context. Let me elaborate. In Gen 12:1-2, Abraham is told, by God, that he will be the father of an entire nation, one that will have its own country. An obvious implication of this is that Abraham believed he would have descendants, he would have a son who would live long enough to have children of his own. The text implicitly teaches here that Abraham knew, on the basis of a reliable source, that his son would live to adulthood.
This point is reiterated in several other encounters between God and Abraham. In Gen 15 “the word of the LORD” came to Abraham “in a vision.” Abraham’s response was, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” God’s answer was emphatic, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” Abraham was told and hence knew, that his heir would be a son from his own body, a biological descendant.
The text continues, “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Again, the narrative implies that Abraham knew that he would both, have a biological son and that this son would live at least long enough to have children. Moreover, the passage continues with God promising, as part of a covenant, that these things will be so. Abraham clearly had assurance that God would see that his son lived into adulthood.
After this incident, Abraham made the mistake of sleeping with Hagar, which resulted in her giving birth to Ishmael. This lead to various domestic problems including rivalry between Hagar, Ishmael and Abraham’s wife Sarah. Abraham then had another encounter with God (Gen 17:2-14) and here again God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be numerous, again implying, very clearly, that Abraham’s son would live to adulthood. This promise was signified by a covenant marked by circumcision and it was reiterated by God changing his name from Abram (exalted father) as he was called at that point in the text to Abraham (father of many). God again promised and assured Abraham that his son would grow to adulthood.
More specifics can be found, Gen 17:15-19 makes it crystal-clear that the promise of future descendants came through the line of Isaac who would be born of Sarah. This seemed impossible to Abraham due to the fact that his wife was barren. God, however, was emphatic and changed his wife’s name from Sarai (my princess) to Sarah (mother of nations). So Abraham was again reassured that Isaac would be born and would live at least long enough to have children of his own. This promise is to be confirmed by a seemingly impossible event, a barren woman bearing a child.
In chapter 18 the promise is again reiterated. Abraham is visited by three men who appear to represent God himself. The text records in verse 10, “Then the LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Sarah will have Abraham’s child, this is the child that will live on to adulthood to have children of his own.
If the point has not yet been be-laboured enough, when Isaac is born (Gen 21) God again makes it clear to Abraham on the day Isaac is weaned. Abraham is told in verse 12 “it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Again Abraham is reassured that Isaac will live to adulthood and have children of his own.
This narrative of several chapters is the backdrop to the events described in Gen 22. To the astute reader reading the whole story as one block of text (note that chapter and verse divisions were not present in the original text, these were added centuries later) by the time a we to get to Gen 22 both Abraham and the reader should know that Isaac is not going to die, both the reader and Abraham know that Isaac will live beyond this day to rear children of his own. The text reminds us in verse 5, just before Abraham goes up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac Abraham states to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham expected Isaac to return alive.
Further, the New Testament teaches that this is the correct way to understand this passage,
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
This is significant because Christians, at least, do not accept any and all interpretations of the Old Testament. Christians accept as authoritative the Old Testament as interpreted by the New Testament. If one attacks a different interpretation of the passage, one is attacking an interpretation Christians (should) reject and hence, one is not attacking anything Christians (should) believe or are committed to believing.
The text teaches that God commanded Abraham to kill his son in a context where Abraham knew that his son would not die but would live on after the incident. God commanding killing, in this context, needs to be shown as immoral for the objection to gain traction.
The brings us to the second question, is commanding the killing of an innocent always immoral? Here I think the answer is yes, provided a certain context is assumed.
The applicability of many moral prohibitions depend in part on certain facts about the world. Hitting someone in the head is wrong because doing so causes pain and risks harming another. However, if the physical structure of the world was different, if hitting someone in the head did not harm people but instead advanced their health and improved their quality of life then it may be permissible to hit someone in the head. Of course, this does not show us that hitting people in the actual world is permissible because in the real world hitting people does cause harm but it does show that prohibitions rely on certain background assumptions about the effects of hitting. If these assumptions are not true then the prohibition will not hold.
Yale philosopher John Hare develops this point in an interesting way. Hare asks us to imagine a world in which when people of a certain age are killed they immediately come back to life suffering no injury. He opines, quite plausibly, that if this were to be the case then killing people at this age would not be wrong or at least, not seriously wrong. One of the reasons that killing people is wrong in the world we live in is because people stay dead. If they were only unconscious for a split second and came back to life in full health then arguably killing a person would not be the serious wrong we believe it is. The answer to the question, is it wrong to kill an innocent then is yes, provided a certain context is assumed.
The context where it is plausible to state that killing innocent people is seriously wrong is the very context in which the narrative shows that Abraham knew did not apply to Isaac. God commanded Abraham to kill his son in the highly unusual context where Abraham knew that he would not be deprived of an earthy life but would come down the mountain afterwards and live on to adulthood to father children of his own.
At this stage I am sure some readers will scoff, they will contend that they do not believe these stories could be literally true, they do not think God appeared to Abraham and told him any of this or that he could not know these things for certain. This complaint is beside the point. Whether one believes the story or not, this is what the story says. If one seeks to argue that the text teaches something immoral or portrays God in a certain way then one needs to accurately portray what the text actually says. Misrepresenting what it says and using that distortion as the basis of an argument to a conclusion is not a valid criticism of the text or the faiths that hold to those texts.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the Oct 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
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Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
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Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus