By Vexen Crabtree 2012
In Genesis 22:1-18 and Qur'an 37:99-113 Abraham was tested by God and told to murder his only son. He obeyed and was about to stab Isaac to death on an altar when God changed its mind, and stops him at the last moment. Abraham was given incredible rewards for his loyalty. Abraham is one of the most holy and revered figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, yet he clearly failed this moral test: in going to murder his own son for God, he was displaying the worst signs of religion: insanity, murderous willingness to attempt spiritual gain at any cost, and an inability to question the true worth of his own beliefs. He followed criminal orders without asking why - a trend that in history has had terrible consequences yet is endorsed in the Bible. Not only that, he did not even question the highly likely probability that hearing voices is not a good thing. The Bible should teach that we ought to use our moral compass to decide if we ought to listen to the voices in ours heads! Instead, the Bible teaches we ought to murder even our own son in order to get ourselves into heaven, if it is what we think God wants.
It was said to be a test, a trial, to see if Abraham was loyal. But to say that God needed to do a test contradicts the all-knowing nature of God. The story teaches that morality is less important than obedience - a very dangerous and misguided lesson. The story is immoral, makes no sense, and contradicts scripture in multiple ways. Deut.12:30-31, Lev. 18:21, Jer. 19:4-6 and 2 Kings 16:2-4 all say that child sacrifice is an abomination (so why would God - an embodiment of absolute good - reward Abraham for attempting it?). The story cannot be true or divinely inspired, and it does not deserve the attention of good people or believers in a good god.
The reveal of the test:
“1God tested Abraham. He said [...] "Take your son , your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."
The Sacrifice Attempt:
3Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said 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."
6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?". "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?". 8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
Stop! (A Ram is Substituted):
11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven [...]:
12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."”
New International Version (NIV)
The reveal of the test:
“99 [Abraham] said "Verily, I am going to my Lord. He will guide me! 100 My Lord! Grant me (offspring) from the righteous."
101 So We gave him the glad tidings of a forbearing boy. 102 And, when he (his son) was old enough to walk with him, he said: "O my son! I have seen in a dream that I am slaughtering you (offering you in sacrifice to Allah). So look what you think!" He said: "O my father! Do that which you are commanded, Insha' Allah (if Allah wills), you shall find me of As-Sabirun (the patient)."
The Sacrifice Attempt:
103 Then, when they had both submitted themselves (to the Will of Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (or on the side of his forehead for slaughtering);
Stop! (A Ram is Substituted):
104 We called out to him: "O Abraham! 105 You have fulfilled the dream!" Verily thus do We reward the Muhsinun (good-doers - See 2:112).
106 Verily, that indeed was a manifest trial. 107 And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice (i.e. ??? - a ram);
108 And We left for him (a goodly remembrance) among the later generations. 109 "Salam (peace) be upon Ibrahim (Abraham)!" 110 Thus indeed do We reward the Muhsinun (good-doers - See V.2:112). 111 Verily, he was one of Our believing slaves. 112 And We gave him the glad tidings of Ishaq (Isaac) - a Prophet from the righteous. 113 We blessed him and Ishaq (Isaac). And of their progeny are (some) that do right, and some that plainly wrong themselves.”
Translation by Mohsin Kahn
There are no differences in the basic idea of this story in the Bible and the Qur'an - Abraham either hears a voice from God, or, has a dream, that he is to sacrifice his son. He goes off to do it, and then God stops him, and rewards him for trying. In the Christian version, Abraham is dishonest with Isaac and doesn't tell him his intention. In the Islamic version, Abraham's (noble) son simply submits to the plan. Some debate the identity of the son in the Quranic version, as Abraham might only be given Isaac (Ishaq) after the sacrifice attempt as part of his rewards for trying to murder his fist son. Therefore Muslims sometimes argue the sacrifice was of Ishamael (Ishmail), Abraham's actual first son. But the earliest story, as told by Jews and Christians was universally accepted until the Qur'anic version arose hundreds of years later, so it is probably the Qur'anic version which has been corrupted. But the Quran contains one realistic element that the Bible glosses over: In the Bible, all nations are blessed through Abraham's descendents whereas in the Quran the much more likely state is given: some offspring are righteous, some are wrongful.
Here are the things that this story teaches us:
If your superior(s) tell you to do something horrible, violence, criminal and immoral, then, you have to do it.
If you hear voices, then, you should probably do what the voices say, because it might be God testing you.
Obedience is better than moralizing.
The most holy men do not ask questions, they just do as they're told.
You will be massively rewarded for doing all the above things.
Some Christians point out that this story is a predecessor to the story of God killing its own son, Jesus. But even the most well-worded comparisons cannot escape the immorality of this individual story.
If this was a test of Abraham's morals, then, Abraham utterly failed the test. It is a harrowing thought to think that many Christians claim the Bible as the source of their family morals, not knowing what voices the husband and father of the family might do in God's name.
Richard Dawkins devotes a lot of time to showing that as the Bible contains various immoral and moral aspects, we tend to pick and choose what we fellow. Therefore, we have a criteria for picking - in other words - it is not the Bible that is our moral compass. The story of Abraham's attempt to sacrifice his newborn Son is used as an example:
“[Take t]he infamous tale of the sacrificing of his son Isaac (Muslim scripture tells the same story about Abraham's other son, Ishmael). [...] His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, 'tempting' Abraham, and testing his faith. [...] This disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: 'I was only obeying orders.' Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.
Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. [...] But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not.”
The story of Genesis 22:1-18 is an example of God testing someone by giving them hardship. The Bible and the Qur'an are full of such events. But, there are theological problems with saying that God needs to test people.
God is all-knowing. It knows everything, future and past. This is the omniscient monotheistic God. Such a God exists outside of time, and can see all future and past events as if they've all already happened. This chain of events has all been created by God, from beginning to end. God is immovable, immutable, beyond time. As a result of all this, God clearly knows what tests we will pass and fail. God knows if we are largely moral or largely immoral. It knows why we transgress, and it knows in detail every reason and factor that ultimately causes us to go wrong.
God therefore never needs to test anyone. God knows, even without doing a test, what the results of the test will be. Let's say God wants to test someone by allowing them to stumble across a wallet in the street with money in it. Let's assume that God considers it best if the subject hands the wallet in to the police, and worse if the subject steals the money and throws away the wallet. God knows if the person will pass such a test. God knows it because it created the person and their personality in the first place, so can work out what they will do. It also knows what the person will do because it is all-knowing, and knows all possible future events. God never needs to actually test the person, God already knows if they'll pass. To say that God needs or wants to "test" us is to say that God is not all-knowing.
In Deut. 12:30-31 God specifically says that human sacrifice is an abomination for god, which "he hateth". Leviticus 18:21 and 2 Kings 16:2-4 tells people not to sacrifice their children by burning, and Jer. 19:4-6 also says God does not command human sacrifice. To summarize these verses on human or child sacrifice: God hates it, don't do it, and God doesn't command it.
These condemnations and rejections of child sacrifice are met with three contradictions in the bible. (1) Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, by God itself... a test that you would think Abraham failed because he went ahead to do it, but he was instead rewarded richly for it (Genesis 22:1-18). (2) In Judges 11:30-39 God accepts a deal with Jephthah which results in him offering his daughter, his only child, to God as a burnt sacrifice. God rewards Jephthah with total and violent success in war against Ammon's people. (3) To top this off with the ultimate contradiction, God itself goes on to sacrifice its own son, Jesus.
Current edition: 2012 May 19
Last Modified: 2017 Mar 14
Parent page: Single God Religions (Monotheism)
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