Abraham and Isaac – Not a Great Parenting Model

The Bible isn’t always what you think it is…

I was visiting one of our members in the hospital one day when her daughter stopped me to ask a question. “I’ve tried to read the Bible to my Mom. I’m not familiar with it and I am shocked at some of the stories I read. They are horrible stories in there. Is there a part that would be O.K. to read to Mom?”

I understand completely. People who haven’t read the Bible or spent time studying it, often assume it is a book of peace, forgiveness and love.

That is often not the case. Consider the Abraham and Sarah story for example. Most people know that they left their home to journey to an unknown “promised land” which God was going to give to them. Moreover, even in their old age, God promised that the childless couple would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky.

If you have a literal understanding of scripture their son Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 years old. Isaac’s name means laughter and I was taught in the early Bible Studies I had that it was because Sarah laughed to herself when she heard the news. Genesis 18:12. Her laughter was explained to me as a lack of faith or doubt in God’s promise. The story I wasn’t told was about Abraham when he heard the news. He laughed so hard in fell on his face.  It would be interesting to consider why one story is told more often than the other. Perhaps sexism has crept into our understanding of the Bible. But that is a topic for a whole different blog entry.

There are some difficult stories about Abraham’s other family. When Sarah didn’t conceive quickly she brought her maid servant, Hagar, to him that Sarah might “build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2) Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar. Fourteen years later, after Isaac is born, Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the camp and into the wilderness. With nothing more than a promise from God that everything would be all right Abraham casts out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. The desert there was so barren and dangerous that both Hagar and Ishmael almost die. So far this isn’t a story I want to read to children. It certainly isn’t a good example of parenting or family.  Interestingly, Ishmael also becomes the Father of many nations. He is an ancestor to the prophet Muhammed and the Arabic people. So even Islam traces its roots back to Abraham.

The real problem I have with this narrative happens next. God speaks to Abraham and says, Then 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.” (Genesis 22:2) Now most people know that ultimately Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac, but it still raises a host of questions.

At that time, human sacrifice was a common part of other religions. There is a story of a gruesome death of a Moabite King’s son as a human sacrifice. (2 Kings 3:27) But this command from God to Abraham seems so contrary to everything we have learned about God up to this point. The birth of Isaac to a couple who are too old to conceive and the promise that Abraham and Sarah would be “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:5) implies that God has great plans for Isaac.

As a parent I know I would fail this test. Even if God were to ask me to do something like this I would not. As a Pastor I would council anyone who thought this is what God wanted for them that they were wrong.

Still Abraham and Isaac make their way to the land of Moriah and climb the mountain which God showed them. It is interesting to me, because when they start the climb, Abraham takes the knife and the fire and gives Isaac the wood to carry. As a Father I can relate. When hiking with small children never let them carry anything dangerous.

I speculate about how Isaac felt when Abraham tied him up and placed him on the altar. Some Jewish commentary from long ago speculates that Isaac knew this was a command from God and he cooperated in every way. However, human nature tells me it would have terrified Isaac. Rembrandt interprets the story this way when he paints Isaac as a terrified child.The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

We could focus upon the good news that at the last minute an angel from God intercedes and tells Abraham to stop because the whole thing was only a test. Yet, for me irreparable damage has been done to this child’s psyche and probably to Sarah as well. Children who experience that type of trauma today are often psychologically damaged as adults.

This story is more than 3,500 years old. That long ago, there may have been a different understanding of faithfulness and perhaps of human life. When I read it today, I see examples of some of the most horrible ways of parenting. If I am going to learn something from this story I may have to understand it as a lesson in what not to do.

If I had to prove my loyalty to God by sacrificing a child I would fail. I could never rationalize it by saying “God has the right to take human life.” Nor would I want to worship a God who tested me that way.

An Interesting Side Note:

This story still has very much to say in our culture. In 1978, American artist George Segal was commissioned to create a sculpture in commemoration of the Kent State shootings. He chose to make a bronze statue of

Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University.

Princeton Sculpture by Segal

Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. The University rejected the sculpture for being inappropriate. It was eventually installed at Princeton University and titled, Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University.