Another interpretation of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac

In a recent posting, I gave my opinion that Soren Kierkegaard’s analysis of the Abraham story of Genesis 22 is designed to teach about “faith” is faulty. I said that the story has nothing to do with “faith.” I understood the story that God did not actually speak to Abraham. It reflects Abraham’s thinking. Abraham looked at the pagans of his generation and saw that they showed their love of God by sacrificing to God what was dearest to them. Either in a dream or day-time thinking, he wondered whether he should do the same. At first he thought the pagans were right and God wanted the sacrifice of Isaac, but he then realized that God is not cruel and would not require that he murder his son to show love. This interpretation sees chapter 22 showing how Abraham rose higher in his understanding of God than his neighbors. In short, my interpretation focused on Abraham understanding that human sacrifices are wrong.

While I sat in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, a wise reader of my essays came and sat by me and suggested another interpretation: the story is not about Abraham discovering that human sacrifice is wrong. It is more than that. It is about Abraham getting a higher concept of God. Abraham looked at his contemporaries and saw that they had enormous fear of their idols and they sacrificed what was dear to them, their oldest child, as a kind of bribe, to placate their god. They hoped that their god would treat them well if they gave the idol what they considered a huge gift, an enormous payoff.

At first, according to this interpretation of the story, Abraham thought that his contemporaries may be right, and he prepared to offer God what was dear to him, his son Isaac. But then Abraham came to realize that God is not what the masses think. God is good, just, merciful, gracious, loving. And with this understanding, Abraham introduced a true concept of God to the world. And with this understanding he introduced the idea that we should act with people as God acts: not with brutality, the way that the pagans thought their gods act, but to treat other people with justice and mercy, and with love.