How could God traumatize Isaac by having Abraham nearly sacrifice him?

isaacsacrifice
Anton Losenko, “Abraham Sacrifices His Son Isaac”

Q. One of the things I struggle with most is God requesting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I get the dynamic between God and Abraham on this, but why wouldn’t God at least have done it when Isaac was a baby and couldn’t remember it? It just seems cruel to me to inflict lifelong psychological damage on someone from the terror and other emotions that your father tying you up, ready to sacrifice you, would cause. I’m not sure any level of faith in God would compensate for the damage that would do to a person.

In these study guides, I often ask groups to envision particular biblical stories through the eyes of one of their characters. Your question is a sensitive and compassionate one that arises from a perceptive reading of this story through Isaac’s eyes.

We typically interpret this story from God’s perspective and see in it a foreshadowing of the substitutionary atonement: “God himself will provide the lamb.”  Or, we see it from Abraham’s perspective and read it as an object lesson in faith and difficult obedience.  (Charles Spurgeon preached a famous sermon on this passage, using Abraham as a positive example, about the kind of obedience that faith produces: immediate, unconditional, complete, etc.)

But when we see the story through Isaac’s eyes, it is pretty terrifying. It would be bad enough to be tied up and nearly sacrificed by anybody, but for your father to do this, when he’s supposed to be your protector, would be devastating.

One possibility to consider is that Isaac might have experienced this event somewhat differently from the way a person would today. This story is, among other things, about Abraham and his family coming to understand better the character of the God who has called them into a covenant relationship in order to make them a blessing to the whole world. Considered in that light, it’s actually a polemic against human sacrifice, which was widely practiced in this place and time.

It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.

But going into the story, Abraham and Isaac don’t yet realize how different God is from the other so-called gods in this respect. This is why neither one of them balks when they realize that a human sacrifice is in view (Abraham at the beginning, Isaac later on): if you didn’t do what the gods expected of you, they would bring disaster on you and your family. In effect, Isaac may not have expected his father to protect him from a demand like this from the gods–no one was able to defy them, and trying to do so would only expose the family to greater danger and damage.  Children today don’t have issues with their parents for not keeping a tornado from hitting their house.

But I think this is only a secondary answer.  I agree with you that, whatever the cultural differences, for Isaac to be tied up by his own father and nearly turned into a human sacrifice must have been terrifying and traumatic on some level. So the primary answer must be that coming to know God deeply and truly as our Heavenly Father can and does bring healing from the psychological damage we suffer through things our parents do. If they fail to protect us, or if they actively harm us, this does more damage than almost any other person could cause. But even when this has happened, coming to know God, in a deep relational sense, as our Heavenly Father brings emotional and psychological healing by reassuring us of our infinite worth in his eyes and giving us renewed confidence in his love and protection. And this is what I hope all readers of this story from Isaac’s life will experience.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “How could God traumatize Isaac by having Abraham nearly sacrifice him?”

  1. I was just thinking about this as I tried to write a poem the other night.
    This is a helpful post.
    No wonder Jacob called God ” The Fear of Isaac” ! [Genesis 31:42]

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