Sunday Study: Abraham and Isaac – Did God Command the Killing of an Innocent?

Perhaps the most infamous passage in the Hebrew scriptures occurs in Genesis 22:2,

Then God said, “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.”

Of course, as anyone who has read the story knows, God intervened before Abraham carried out the command and prevented him from killing Isaac. It is also true that in the Mosaic laws that follow this passage, the Prophets, the Psalms and the historical books, human sacrifice is condemned. Nevertheless, God still, in this instance, commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. For this reason this story looms large in the criticisms of theological morality.[1] The problem can be expounded succinctly; it seems plausible that Christians are committed to an inconsistent triad;

[1] If God commands an action A then A is morally required;
[2] It is wrong to kill innocent human beings;
[3] God commanded Abraham to attempt to kill an innocent human being.

It is worth noting here that the problem in [3] arises only if one takes the patriarchal narrative in Genesis as literally true, if one assumes that these narratives accurately and reliably convey the actual historical events. Some commentators evade the dilemma by denying this; according to one line of interpretation, the story of Gen 22 is a sort of parable instructing Israel, in an age where infant sacrifice was common, that God did not require such sacrifices and instead required that such piety be expressed through the sacrifice of goats.

If this interpretation is correct the problem evaporates. However, I will not pursue this line here because, while I think there are some interesting questions around whether the proto-history of Gen 1-11 should be understood as literal history, I am not convinced that this applies to the patriarchal narratives. Kenneth Kitchen makes a reasonable case that these narratives are historically reliable.[2] Moreover, even if he is mistaken, it seems clear that anyone who raises this objection must assume this (at least for the sake of argument). If not then there would be no basis for asserting [3] and the dilemma would again evaporate. So, in this post I will assume it as a given that the patriarchal narratives are literally true, that what they describe actually occurred.

As I understand the objection, the objector is offering a reductio ad absurdum. He or she starts by assuming, that the patriarchal narratives are literally true and then derives a contradiction from this assumption. The question then is whether, granting this assumption, such a contradiction actually does arise.

Proceeding on this basis, the obvious problem is that [1], [2] and [3] cannot all be true. Kant[3] and Robert Adams[4] have contended Christians should abandon [3] in favour of [2]. While others such as Quinn[5] and Evans[6] have offered defences of the claim that it in certain situations a person (or at least a person in Abraham’s epistemic situation)[7] could rationally deny [2]. While the philosophical questions here are interesting, in this post I will endeavour to solve the dilemma exegetically. I will argue that while [1] is true, a careful examination of the text shows that the events occur in a certain context. I will then argue that when the context is taken into account, [2] is not correct. In essence, while it is true under normal circumstances that killing the innocent is wrong, in certain unusual circumstances it is not wrong. A contextual interpretation of The Torah suggests it affirms that in the case of Abraham unusual circumstances were in play.

The Command in its Context
In Gen 12:1-2 God reveals;

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

Here Abram is told by a 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 Abram will have descendants; he will have a son who will live at least as long enough to have children of his own. The text then implicitly teaches that Abram 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 Abram. In Gen 15 “the word of the LORD” comes to Abram “in a vision.” Abram’s response is, “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.” Abram is told, and hence knows, that his heir will 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.’”

In the New Testament Paul utilises this incident as a paradigm example of salvation by faith. Paul notes that Abram, at this stage a Gentile, is considered righteous because of his response in faith to God’s revelation. What’s important in this context is that again Abram knows that he will, both, have a biological son and that this son will live at least long enough to have children. Obviously, if his son dies early in life, before he is able to have children, then Abram will not have biological descendants yet it is clear that Abram knew that he would. Moreover, the passage continues with God promising, as part of a covenant, that these things will be so; again Abram knows that his son will live into adulthood.

After this incident, Abram makes the mistake of sleeping with Hagar, which results in her giving birth to Ishmael. This leads to various domestic problems including rivalry between Hagar, Ishmael and Abram’s wife Sarah. However, Abram has another encounter with God; in Gen 17:2-14 we read,

I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

God promises that Abram’s descendants will be numerous, again implying, very clearly, that Abram’s son will live to adulthood. This promise was signified by a covenant marked by circumcision; it was reiterated by God changing his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many).

The text goes on however to provide us more specifics in verses 15-19,

God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”

Here it is made crystal clear; the promise will come through the line of a child called Isaac who will be born through his wife. This seems impossible to Abram due to the fact that his wife is barren. God, however, is emphatic, changing his wife’s name from Sarai to Sarah. Abram is again reassured that Isaac will be born and will live at least long enough to have children of his own and will enter into a covenant with God himself. This promise is promised to be confirmed by a seemingly impossible event, a barren woman will bear 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.’” Again the point is made in a crystal clear fashion; Sarah will have a child. Again the strong impression from the surrounding text is that this child will live on to adulthood to have children of his own. Abraham is again reassured that Isaac will survive to adulthood.

If the point has not yet been belaboured enough by the narrative, in Gen 21, when Isaac is born, God again makes it clear to Abraham on the day Isaac is weaned. Abraham is told in verse 12, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Again Abraham is reassured that Isaac will live for at least long enough to have children of his own.

This then, is the backdrop to the events described in Gen 22. It is worth remembering that this is all one narrative, the division into chapters and verses that occurs in our modern English version were added centuries later. In the original narrative and in the canonically authoritative forms, the division does not occur. Hence by the time we get to Gen 22 both Abraham and the astute reader 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. This is actually pointed out in the text; just before Abraham goes up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham states to his servants in verse 5, “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.

Just to clinch this point, let me note a final line of evidence; the New Testament teaches that this is the correct way to understand the passage. In Hebrews 11:17-19 it states,

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.

Earlier in the same chapter, verses 11-12, the reader is reminded of the promise that Isaac would live to have many descendants. This is significant because Christians do not accept any and all interpretations of the Old Testament, Christians accept as authoritative, the Old Testament as interpreted by the New Testament. One can think whatever they like about Christianity, but this is how Christians are supposed to accept and interpret the story. If one attacks a different interpretation of the passage, one is attacking an interpretation Christians (should) reject, and hence, are not attacking anything Christians (should) believe or are committed to believing. In light of this, I think we can establish the following point, that premise [3] is true provided that a certain context or qualification is understood to apply; namely, God commanded Abraham to attempt to kill his son in a context where Abraham knew that his son would not die but live on after the incident.

At this stage, no doubt, some 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 did know these things. However, this complaint is beside the point, whether a person believes the story or not, this is what the story says. If a person is to argue that the text, taken literally, is immoral or portrays God a certain way then he or she needs to accurately portray what the text says. Not believing what a text says is one thing, however, misrepresenting what it says and using that distortion as the basis of an argument to a conclusion is another.

In the context of this discussion we are asking, if one takes the text to be literally true then what does it teach? Does it teach that God commanded Abraham to kill his son? The answer here, is that God commanded Abraham to kill his son, in a context where Abraham knew his son would not die but live on after the incident. Commanding killing, in this context needs to be shown as immoral for the objection to gain traction.

Is This Immoral?
I have argued that [3] is true only if a certain context is assumed. I will now ask if [2] is correct, the claim that “It is wrong to kill innocent human beings.” Here again, I think the answer is yes provided a certain context is assumed. Many people will find this answer a little shocking; I think some reflection, however, will show that it is not.

Many of the ethical prohibitions that hold in the actual world do so because of certain facts about the world. Hitting someone in the head, for example, is wrong because, in the world we actually live in, doing so causes pain and harms people. However, if the physical structure of the world was different, if hitting someone in the head actually advanced their health and improved their quality of life, then it would be permissible and possibly even commendable, to hit someone in the head. Of course, none of this shows us that in the actual world hitting people in this way is not wrong, this is because in the actual world hitting people in the head usually cause harm. However, it does show that the prohibition relies on certain background assumptions about the effects of hitting. If these assumptions were not true then the prohibition would not hold.

In a critique of deductivist natural law theory, John Hare develops this point showing that slight alterations in the way God set the world up could lead to quite different moral rules applying than in fact do. One example Hare notes, is particularly interesting, “Perhaps (to get more bizarre) God could have willed that we kill each other at the age of 18, at which point God would bring us immediately back to life.”[8] Hare asks us to imagine a world, in which, when people of a certain age are killed they immediately come back to life. 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.

Once this is realised, I think it is evident that [1], [2] and [3] are consistent. If one assumes, for the sake of argument, that the Patriarchal Narratives are literally true then it follows that [3] is true only if a certain context is assumed. God commanded Abraham to kill his son in the highly unusual context where Abraham knew that his son would not stay dead but would come down the mountain afterwards and live on to adulthood to father children of his own. Proposition [2] is defensible only in a context where people do not know these sorts of things; the rule to not kill the innocent applies to a world where people do not come back to life after they have been killed. Hence, the story of Abraham and Isaac, if taken literally, does not entail that God commanded something immoral or contradictory.

[1] See for example, Louise Anthony “Atheism as Perfect Piety” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics Eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 77-79.
[2] Kenneth Kitchens On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 313-372.
[3] Immanuel Kant The Conflict of the Faculties (Ak. VI1, 63) 115; similar statements can be found in Kant’s
Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Ak, VI,87, 186f).

[4] Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) Chapter 12.
[5] Philip Quinn Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); also “Obligation, Divine Commands and Abraham’s Dilemma” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64(2) 459-466.
[6] C Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[7] Ibid.
[8] John E Hare God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001) 68-69.


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