Grappling with Abraham, Isaac and faith

A scene from "The Bible," the 10-hour, five-part docudrama that aired on the History channel in 2012. Above: Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice.
A scene from “The Bible,” the 10-hour, five-part docudrama that aired on the History channel in 2012. Above: Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice.
(Alex Marengo / Lightworkers Media / Hearst)

The story in Genesis of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s command still gets a lot of attention. But it doesn’t get a lot of love.

In every broadside against religion, God’s horrifying demand for a sacrifice and Abraham’s acquiescence is introduced as evidence that God is a tyrant, Abraham a sycophant and both of them abusers of poor Isaac, whom God decides to spare only at the last moment. Trust me when I say that this is not simply the view of professional polemicists. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they first heard the story when they were young and forever afterward swore off religion and God.

What’s more, you don’t have to be an atheist to dislike this story. Sample the sermons posted on the Web during Rosh Hashana (when the story is read in synagogue), or during the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice (which comes in October, at the height of the hajj), or during Holy Week next spring, and you will find that many deeply devout people have grave reservations. I have heard clergy say they wish it were not in the Bible.

But it is, and it recounts a pivotal moment in sacred history: Jews believe Abraham’s obedience brought them God’s special blessing. Christians believe Abraham’s sacrifice prefigured God’s sacrifice of his own son. Muslims believe Abraham demonstrated precisely what it means to submit to God. Not everyone is willing to discard it.


So instead, some choose to analyze the story critically, exploring its history and deleterious half-life, which they see in patriarchy, child abuse, religious extremism and myriad forms of blind faith.

Others look for different meanings, arguing (to take but one widespread reinterpretation) that the story’s essential moment was not the command to sacrifice but the command to stop. God was telling Abraham that he didn’t want Jews to sacrifice children. Others go further, saying that God expected Abraham to protest. It was a test, but a test that Abraham failed. The proof: Abraham lived another 75 years, but God never spoke to him again.

When all else fails, people literally revise the story, adding to and taking away from its famously enigmatic 19 lines. There are versions in which Abraham stalls, giving God time to come to his senses, and versions in which he never intends to harm Isaac. Rather, he just pretends to obey, thereby testing God to see if he will stop the sacrifice and remain true to his own word and law. There are versions in which Isaac’s mother, Sarah, stops the sacrifice, and versions in which Isaac runs away.

Bob Dylan’s Abraham thinks God is putting him on. He isn’t, but Woody Allen’s God is: “See,” Abraham says after God chides him for taking his command seriously, “I never know when you’re kidding.”


That kind of tinkering with the story line is as old as the story itself. Ancient writers struggled with the idea of a test in which God learned something (“Now I know that you fear me.”). Why would an all-knowing God not already know? They added Satan to the story as an instigator, as in the Book of Job. God was not learning; he was demonstrating Abraham’s greatness. Another writer substituted love for fear as the emotion that moved Abraham.

Many other ancients were uncomfortable with a clueless, passive Isaac. They turned him into a knowing and willing victim, sometimes the first Jewish martyr, fully prepared to die for God. First millennium rabbis wrote Sarah into the story, often to explain her death in the next chapter of Genesis. Syriac hymnists made Sarah a type of Mary, equal to Abraham in faith. Islamic exegetes made Ishmael the nearly sacrificed son.

Don’t misunderstand me: There has never been a time when Abraham wasn’t widely celebrated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a knight of obedience and faith. Yet discomfort with his response to God’s command also goes way back. One 7th century poet imagined God’s daughter, the Torah, rejecting Abraham as a suitor because he did not beg to spare his son. Others imagined Abraham taking God to task for promising greatness through Isaac one day and asking for him back in sacrifice the next.

I turned to the story about a decade ago, in the second year of the Iraq war. Both supporters and opponents were hurling the word “sacrifice” around like a grenade. A lot of people were dying in the name of God. I read those 19 lines with a lot of skepticism, and more than a little disgust.


But what I found, when I kept reading, was not just a troubling story but 2,000 years (and counting) of passionate engagement with it. I was in awe of the seriousness and intelligence with which readers and writers, clergy and laypeople, philosophers and artists, grappled with some of the most difficult and enduring questions imaginable — questions about God, authority, obedience, parents, children, sacrifice, love, fear and faith.

I remain in awe, and in the long and rich tradition of deep thinking and rethinking, of creative reimagining and revision, I have found an enormous amount to marvel at, take consolation in, even (dare I say) love.

James Goodman, a professor of history and creative writing at Rutgers University, Newark, is the author of “But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac.” His book “Stories of Scottsboro” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.