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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Friday, September 10

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He 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 22:1-2

It's perhaps the most disturbing story in the Bible: Abraham hears a voice from God telling him to take his son Isaac into the wilderness and sacrifice him as an offering. Shocking as the event would be under any circumstances, it is doubly so in this case because Isaac is the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age; he is the son with whom God promised to establish an “everlasting covenant.” 

But here we are with Abraham, seemingly following God’s command without question, and the young boy Isaac, instinctively going along. Could anything be more startling, more bizarre and abhorrent than this?

Ordinarily we take the edge off this tale by saying, “Well, God was just testing Abraham's faith. He wasn't really expected to kill his own son.” Or, "The event was simply metaphorical, a prophetic representation of God's willingness to sacrifice Christ for our sins."

But does either of these readings suffice? How do we reconcile our image of a loving God with one who, at worst, demands human sacrifice—of a child, no less—or, at best, uses such a demand as a "teaching tool?"

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, offers a third alternative. He begins by citing the Midrash Rabbah’s account of Abraham's life—beginning with Abraham's destruction of his father's idols and his subsequent punishment in a fiery furnace. 

Though he emerges physically unharmed, Abraham is left emotionally scarred, the familiar price of abuse. When he hears the "voice of God" commanding him to sacrifice Isaac, Lerner explains, Abraham is in reality listening to a god of his own making, a god who is vengeful and cruel.

"In this moment Abraham must confront the central problem facing every religion and every historical manifestation of God in the world: the difficulty in separating the voice of God from the legacy of pain and cruelty that dominates the world and is embedded in our psyches," Lerner writes in Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation

"Judaism does not begin with a human being who is the embodiment of love and goodness and full transcendence. It begins with a human being who is conflicted, who hears different voices, who has trouble knowing which really is the voice of God."

In the end, though, Abraham does hear the voice of God, the voice of one who Lerner says is "a God of compassion and justice who does not command the sacrifice of the innocent."

O God, when I hear a voice that counsels anger and hate, remind me that your voice encourages justice and love, and give me the courage to answer.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2005.