The Trial of Abraham

Abraham, the father of Isaac will go on trial at the Beth El Congregation in Akron, Ohio. The charges: attempted murder, child endangerment, and conspiracy to commit murder. The trial will be presided over by retired Summit County Judge Marvin Shapiro. Attorney Martin Belsky, a professor at the University of Akron Law School, will present the case against Abraham and Attorney Kirk Migdal will be Abraham’s attorney. The jury, members of the synagogue, will decide whether Abraham is guilty of the charges against him.

This, of course, is a mock trial. It is part of Beth El Congregation’s celebration of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year which begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 4 and ends in the evening of Friday, September 6.

Although this is a mock trial, Abraham is judged almost every day by people who read Genesis 22 and are appalled at the fact that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and that Abraham did not ask God to spare the life of his son, but without hesitation, decided to sacrifice his son at the request of God.

If Abraham were to be put on trial today for child abuse and attempted murder, would Abraham be found guilty or not guilty? Before I give my answer to this question, let us look at Abraham’s action and what prompted him to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and offer him upon an altar of stones.

First, let us review the story. According to Genesis 22, God came to Abraham and asked him to take his beloved son Isaac and go to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham, Isaac, and Abraham’s servants went on a journey of three days. When he arrived at the place which God had told him, Abraham built an altar, tied Isaac, placed him on the wood, and was about to slay him with a knife when the angel of the Lord told him not to harm the boy or do anything to him. The angel showed Abraham a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of Isaac.

Many people today are highly offended by the ethical and moral questions raised by this story. Some call this the request of a savage God. Others wonder how far one should go in one’s commitment to God. The whole issue about the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, is the issue of faith and obedience to God. How should one understand God’s relationship with his people and how should people respond when God calls and asks something from them?

When reading this story, one must begin by understanding that Abraham had a choice in the matter. What God asked Abraham to do was not a command; it was a request. This fact is obscured because most translations do not translate the particle of entreaty nā’, a Hebrew word that means “please.” This is how the NRSV translates Genesis 22:1: “[God] said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac.’” The Young Literal Translation, taking the particle of entreaty into consideration translates the same verse as follows: “And [God] saith, ‘Take, I pray thee, thy son.’”

It was only a request; this is why God said “please.”Abraham was free to refuse God’s request. However, what was at stake was Abraham’s relationship with God. God had called Abraham to leave his land and his family to go to a place that eventually God would give to Abraham’s children. Abraham believed God’s promise and did what he was asked to do. God also gave Abraham and his wife Sarah a child in their old age. Now, God was asking him to sacrifice his son, the one through whom the promise would be fulfilled.

Was God reneging on his promise? As a man of faith, Abraham believed that the same God who had given him a son and the God who was asking him to sacrifice his son was the same God who could provide another way to fulfill his promise. He told his son when asked about the sacrifice: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8).

The binding of Isaac only makes sense if we look at the story from Abraham’s cultural context, not our own. This story serves partially as a polemic against child sacrifice. In the culture of the ancient Near East, child sacrifice was very common. This story is teaching Israel that child sacrifice should have no place in the religion of Israel. God would not allow Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as the story shows. But God asks his people to make sacrifices, and faithful and believing people are willing to follow God in obedience.

This story makes no sense in the twenty-first century. Most people today live in a secular context, where faith in God and obedience to God’s word is seen with disdain. God does not ask his people to sacrifice their children. We do not live in the second millennium BC. God never asked Israel to offer their children as sacrifice; if some people in ancient Israel did, it was in disobedience to God.

Obeying God and making sacrifices to follow God can be costly. In his book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, Leon Kass speaks about the cost Abraham probably paid because he chose to obey God. Kass writes, “a closer look shows that [Isaac’s] relation to his father is indeed broken as a result: indeed, from the very moment that he is wondrously returned to Abraham, Isaac becomes estranged from him, perhaps forever” (2006:350).

Even the book of Genesis shows that something happened after this event: “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba” (Gen. 22:19). Abraham returns alone; Isaac does not return with his father. According to Kass, in obeying God, Abraham sacrificed his relationship with Isaac: “His supreme act of fatherhood was not the sacrifice of his son but the sacrifice of his natural paternal authority. . . . Though Isaac is spared, Abraham’s fatherhood is not, as the bond of father and son remains broken. Abraham regains his son only to lose him.”

Another example of sacrifice for the sake of faithfulness to God is found in a recent event that became costly to someone who wants to be faithful to God. Below is an excerpt from a story about religious commitment:

A family-owned Christian bakery, under investigation for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, has been forced to close its doors after a vicious boycott by militant homosexual activists. Sweet Cakes By Melissa posted a message on its Facebook page alerting customers that their Gresham, Ore. retail store would be shut down after months of harassment from pro-gay marriage forces.

Last January, Aaron and Melissa Klein made national headlines when they refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Klein tells me he has nothing against homosexuals — but because of their religious faith, the family simply cannot take part in gay wedding events.

“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said. “I don’t want to help somebody celebrate a commitment to a lifetime of sin.” The lesbian couple filed a discrimination (sic) with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and told their story to local newspapers and television statements (sic).

Within days, militant homosexual groups launched protests and boycotts. Klein told me he received messages threatening to kill his family. They hoped his children would die. The LGBT protestors then turned on other wedding vendors around the community. They threatened to boycott any florists, wedding planners or other vendors that did business with Sweet Cakes By Melissa.

“That tipped the scales,” Klein said. “The LGBT activists inundated them with phone calls and threatened them. They would tell our vendors, `If you don’t stop doing business with Sweet Cakes By Melissa, we will shut you down.'”

To make matters worse, the Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries announced last month they had launched a formal discrimination investigation against the Christian family. Commissioner Brad Avakian told The Oregonian that he was committed to a fair and thorough investigation to determine whether the bakery discriminated against the lesbians.

“Everybody is entitled to their own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that folks have the right to discriminate,” he told the newspaper. “The goal is to rehabilitate. For those who do violate the law, we want them to learn from that experience and have a good, successful business in Oregon.”

In other words, Christians who live and work in Oregon must follow man’s law instead of God’s law. But in a show of benevolence, the state is willing to rehabilitate and reeducate Christian business owners like the Kleins.

Klein said the closing of their retail store was a small price to pay for standing up for their religious beliefs. “As a man of faith, I am in good spirits,” he said. “I’m happy to be serving the Lord and standing up for what’s right.”

That is what happens when people try to be faithful to God in the twenty-first century. They pay a heavy price for doing what their faith teaches them.

Back to the trial of Abraham. There is no doubt that if Abraham was tried in America today, Abraham would be found guilty of all the charges against him. Many people in our society do not understand the kind of religious commitment shown by Abraham.

The book of Hebrews gives a different verdict: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son” (Heb. 11:17).

Guilty or not guilty? You decide!

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

 

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

 

This entry was posted in Abraham, Akedah, Book of Genesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Trial of Abraham

  1. J.J. says:

    The horrifying nature of this episode became poignantly real to me years ago when my children were young. We were visiting a relative’s church during the holidays. They had a children’s church time for the kids while the adults stayed in “big church.” Afterward when we picked up our kids, my young son was very upset, cowering near the wall, and crying uncontrollably, and he wouldn’t tell us what was wrong. Finally, we learned that the children’s church Bible lesson was on Gen 22, and he kept asking through his tears, Why would that dad want to kill his son? Why would God want him to do that? Of course, he was wondering if God would ever expect me to do the same to him. I’ve never been able to read that story the same way since.

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    • Claude Mariottini says:

      J.J.,

      Thank you for sharing this story about your son. There are many stories in the Bible that can be frightening to children, and the story in Genesis 22 is one of them. Although I tried to explain the story in terms of commitment to God, the story is still a difficult one to understand. If we adults have problems with this story, little children (and even some of us) will struggle in understanding the full implication of the story.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. SQ says:

    As someone who recently became a father, I used to find this story frightening to parents too, but thank you for pointing out that it was more of a request then an order from God.

    I have heard pastors preach that Isaac himself chose to be tied up, being of age enough that he should have been able to resist his father’s attempt at binding him. Would this be accurate?

    Also, is there any significance to the fact that when Abraham responded to Isaac’s question, he said *lamb*, but yet after the angel intervened he saw a *ram*?

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    • Claude Mariottini says:

      Samuel,

      Thank you for your comment. And congratulations for becoming a father.

      We do not know how old Isaac was, but he was old enough to have resisted his father. If Isaac went his way after the ordeal, then he was old enough to live his life away from his father.

      I believe there is a symbolism in the animal, which I did not mention in my post. A ram is a father of a lamb. Thus, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, it was the father, the ram, who was sacrificed and not the lamb, the son. In my post I said that in gaining his son back, Abraham lost his son. This was the sacrifice Abraham had to make in order to obey God.

      Welcome to my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

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