General Question

jeff3157's avatar

Biblical question about the story of Abraham?

Asked by jeff3157 (27points) August 2nd, 2009

I’m looking as yet for a better answer as to the “morality” of God asking / commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I’m “not” looking for answers like, God’s ways are not our ways, or other reasons for God to challenge Abraham. I want to better understand how God himself justifies asking a “seemingly” immoral act.

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46 Answers

erniefernandez's avatar

I think you are reading too deeply into an ancient deity, who did whatever the story tellers weaving the mythology thought would make the point they were going for, or make the greater story make sense. There’s many factors involved.

(I’m a Buddhist and I refer to the Pali Canon as philosophy and mythology too, so get off me.)

The God of Abraham is perfectly capable of asking a man to kill his own son. Reading the Old Testament, you’ll see Yahweh killed his children all the time.

It wasn’t until Jesus came along and engaged in a little revisionism that the God of Abraham became more of a loving type. Clearly, you can see why he would have been popular.

tinyfaery's avatar

It’s the suspension of the ethical. Kierkegaard wrote all about it.

God demands ultimate obedience. So even when god asks Abraham to kill his child, an immoral and sinful act, Abraham must obey.

Also, Abraham must trust that god ultimately knows what is good, even if Abraham, and everyone else with a sense of decency, doesn’t see it.

That story is meant to show what true obedience to god is, and to demonstrate the true goodness of god. After all, god saved Isaac.

This is of course, not my personal opinion.

amaris's avatar

In addition to everything @erniefernandez said, the point (or moral, I guess) of the story is that any faithful person should be ready to give up anything should God ask it. The son here, Isaac, was just a literary device used to convey the message, because a son (especially a first-born) was the most valuable thing a man had in the ancient Hebrew tradition.

jeff3157's avatar

. . but what if it’s not just a literary tool? Is there any remote possibility there truly is more to understand than the obvious? In which case . . even in the old testament God is purposeful in every utterance and still ultimately moral without room for confusion.

Zendo's avatar

There could have been mistakes in the original translation to book form. Perhaps this story is not about Abe’s son at all.
Also, this story was handed down word of mouth for hundreds of years. How much do you think got changed in those centuries of the telling?
It is these kind of stories which have given god a bad rap over the years.
That and the silly stories where god has the israelites kill everyone in their way so as to steal Palestine. Sheer and utter nonsense.

tullbejm's avatar

I will start by saying that I am a Christian:

God is holy which is another way of saying he in not immoral . The way he presents himself in the Bible is as a God in whom no evil resides and who does not tolerate evil. He does not command evil things to be done. So when reading the story of Abraham, your question is quite logical. Why did God ask Abraham to kill Isaac, especially since God had said that Isaac would be his heir? God gives us insight into what was going on in Abraham’s mind. “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 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” (Hebrews 11:17–19). We call this story the “testing of Abraham.” But that can be confusing term. God was strengthening the faith of Abraham. He wanted Abraham to become closer to him. God knew all along what was going to occur, but Abraham didn’t. This would have also been an amazing act in the life of Isaac who was probably a late teenager at the time. He too had his faith strengthened.

jeff3157's avatar

. . . hmmmm . . .

I need more . .

filmfann's avatar

@jeff3157 Welcome to fluther. Lurve.

Obviously, and not mentioned (or at least noticed by me) yet, is that God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, which is what God would end up doing with His son, Jesus.

amaris's avatar

@jeff3157 There is obviously room for debate here, and I’m sure a scholar of Abrahamic religions would be much more helpful than me here, lol. The way I see it, this was a story told and re-told over several thousand years to make the point that God expects everything of the faithful. If you can accept the premise that this event never actually happened (or at least, not the way it is explained in the Bible or Torah) then all we are left with is the message the story is trying to convey and that this story was an author’s attempt at conveying that message (that you owe God everything). Now, if you want to take things literally, or believe that these events happened exactly the way portrayed in scripture, then I don’t know what to tell you. That is where the debate over the ‘morality’ here lies. If you don’t think these events had to happen literally then you can examine scripture from a literary standpoint. If you think well it’s in scripture and there’s no possible way an ancient writer could have possibly embellished this for a good read, then you have quite the conundrum on your hands.

se_ven's avatar

In addition to what @tullbejm said this is also a foreshadow of things to come. Both as Isaac (Christ) being the sacrificed son, and the ram who took his place (Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice).

I’m sure you are asking about other situations in the Bible as well, like how God commanded the Israelites to kill everyone when taking Jericho, or even how only those who believe on Christ will be saved. In part it really comes down to those answers you don’t like. We are not the Judges of God, but God is the Judge of us, and since “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) no one is innocent, all are deserving of the wrath of God. It is only by God’s grace that we live and breath today.

I hope that helps, I know it is difficult to hear and very unpopular…

eponymoushipster's avatar

@filmfann is accurate in that it has a prophetical parallel to Jesus’ death. But, too, it was a test of faith. Abraham was given a son late in life (both he and Sarah were in their 90s, 100s) by divine means. Even from a secular viewpoint, at those times, lineage, etc. was of prime concern. So, to finally have a son, when it seemed impossible, would be extremely valuable. Would Abraham have faith that God could either give him another son or return that one to life?

That was the point.

Afterwards, look at what God says to Abraham, “Now I do see…” (sorry, i forget the chapter/verse).

se_ven's avatar

@eponymoushipster a good quick online Bible reference

AstroChuck's avatar

I’ve never understood why a god who is supposedly all-seeing and all-knowing needs to test someone’s faith and fidelity. Shouldn’t he already know?

eponymoushipster's avatar

@AstroChuck people still have free will. just because someone can know something doesn’t mean they choose to know something. but that’s a different discussion for a different thread.

jeff3157's avatar

. . just to keep on track, I was not asking about other biblical stories at this time, or anything about justification of faith issues. I was though “daring” to ask about descriptive theories on the morality of God in the Abraham story. Believing christians I’ve run this past have come back with many ideas about Abraham’s role in the story. I truly wanted to understand if at all possible God’s command from a morality standpoint however “unpopular” that kind of question may be. Thus far the closest responses here offer that the story can not be taken literally or that there may have been errors in the translations along the way . . I’m wondering rather about the possibility of more literal understandings.

se_ven's avatar

@AstroChuck It is a proof to Abraham of his faith, not a proof to God.

@jeff3157 What do you mean by morality? Is it what society feels at a given time?

jeff3157's avatar

. . ahh just what do we mean by morality . . simple . . but that is a new angle . . does that definition viably change? Hmmmm . . . . I need to consider this a bit . .

jeff3157's avatar

. . suposedly at the time of Abraham, other pagan cultures sacrificed children to their gods. I have thought that God simply used a scenario known at the time. Thus morality then would have been different then in a sense. But since the God of the Bible was to show himself to be the ONE TRUE GOD . . . wouldn’t he have established a universal all time encompassing idea of what we could agree on constituted morality? Hmmmm . .

se_ven's avatar

@jeff3157 Ah, I see you’ve talked quite a bit with your Christian friends. Can we agree on morality? If there is no final judge but ourselves than I would say no. As is often shown on Fluther, how can everyone agree on anything? Everyone would agree that murder is wrong, but what do people consider murder. As you probably could guess I consider abortion murder (and liken it to the sacrificing of children to the gods of comfort and independance) but many people don’t consider a child in the womb to be a person(? I’m not sure if that is what they say).

se_ven's avatar

And yes I do believe that God established a universal all time encompassing idea of morality, which is revealed in the Bible. But, as others have noted in this thread, many believe the Biblical accounts to be full of error, and such. I don’t see why they would believe the Bible is the ultimate authority on morality.

jeff3157's avatar

. . signing off for now . . but still wondering somewhat . ..

Zendo's avatar

Actually, the bible is not the ultimate authority on morality, what with all that warring and mayhem.
Perhaps the new testament is a closer compass for morality, i.e. love your neighbors and love your enemies. That does just about sum it up, eh?

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

I’ve heard the argument made that god wasn’t planning on allowing Abraham to kill his son all along, he just wanted to see if Abraham would obey, which begs the question, wouldn’t God know that already?

To be honest with you, it’s just a story that is told to show total obedience to god, and a poor one at that, it seems like a bad B-movie Thriller. a poorly thought out example of someone listening to god no matter what, and someone of high religious status no less.

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

Our plan B is God’s plan A.

You’ll notice that in this story there just happened to be a ram caught in the bush to use instead. What does that say about God’s plan?

As far as those over-thinking the “wouldn’t God already know” question.. He did… the test wasn’t for God .. it was for Abraham. It wasn’t so much a test as it was a trial for Abraham to overcome.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

I know this isn’t what this thread is about, but when I read stories from the OT in particular, I see how a vast majority of them could be used as a means to extort the commoners for the priesthood. just an observational opinion.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

@NaturalMineralWater tell me where free will is then?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Very nice. You’ve further gained my respect by accurately depicting the most common apologetic for this scenario. Of course you don’t have to agree with the story, but I’m very impressed with your honest comment free of sarcasm, judgment and bias.

We need more reasonable people like you to explain the issues at hand with all the fair and balanced reporting that Fox news only pretends to have. A grand future awaits you. I’m sure of it.

Well done tinyfaery!

madcapper's avatar

I think that Abraham’s kid was probably a little fucker and God was sick of his shit so he took it to him in a pretty shitty way…

se_ven's avatar

@jeff3157 I thought of an example that I think might help.

Suppose I see a man rob a bank and I grab him and imprison him in my basement. I would be in the wrong would I not? But suppose a police officer were to see the man rob the bank and arrest him, and a judge sentences him to prison. They would both be justified because they have the authority to do so.

Since God is the ultimate authority, and all are guilty of sin, God is justified in punishing the guilty ones. That is what makes this story such a beautiful example of God’s grace. He would have been fully justified in letting Abraham sacrifice his son, but instead he provided the sacrifice to take the place of Isaac. Which is exactly what Christianity is about. We all have sinned and are under the wrath of God, but he has provided a sacrifice (Jesus Christ) to take the place for all who would believe in him as both Lord and Savior.

erniefernandez's avatar

@jeff3157 God is always what? Moral? God is only moral if you define moral as “What God says.”, which some people do.

But destroying two cities full of people harmlessly banging each other’s brains out with no real offense against them other than it offended Yahweh’s Puritanical sensibilities in a fiery inferno of death—and turning a woman who dared to glance back as people died in said holocaust into a pillar of salt just be-feakin-cuz God said not to is not, by any reasonable standard, “moral”.

Or maybe tormenting one of his most faithful to make a point to the Devil, who Yahweh knew (if he was All Knowing) didn’t give a shit regardless is a better example of his profound compassion.

Old Testament Yahweh was frankly a dick most of the time.

Jack79's avatar

1. The story is not necessarily a real one, and could be symbolic. The moral behind it is not that God asks you to kill, but that you should obey God’s command, even when it sounds unreasonable. So a literal explanation does not apply. God never actually asked Abraham (assuming Abraham is a real person) to kill anyone. The story just teaches us obedience.
2. You cannot answer such a moral question without accepting that “God knows best”. The given facts are that there is a God, and that this God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent etc, but above all intrinsically good. He never actually planned for Isaak to die, he was just testing Abraham. So double-guessing God doesn’t work in the way you’d double-guess your boss at work or your teacher at school.
3. Similarly, morality under such circumstances is relative. If God says it’s ok to kill your son, then it becomes moral. It’s His 10 commandments you’re following, and He can change them any time. He can add an 11th one saying “Thou shallt kill every child whose name is Isaak”. And if you’re a true believer, you have to do it and it would automatically be moral.

All I mean is we cannot apply our own mortal logic to the story, which above all is not a desciption of an actual event, but merely another parabole with a moral (the moral being “you should always trust and obey your God, because He knows what he’s doing”).

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

@ABoyNamedBoobs03 Let me ask you this: If someone doesn’t brush their teeth, you know they will have problems with their teeth.. does this knowledge of yours in and of itself effect that person’s choice whether or not to brush? No.

Parents raising their children try to teach them lessons because throughout their lives they have learned the consequences and benefits of certain actions. They know what’s going to happen in certain situations. They can teach all they want and know all they want.. it’s not going to erase the ability for their children to make their own decisions.

Nowhere in the definition of free will is there any condition relating to the knowledge of others.

erniefernandez's avatar


That argument for free will and God’s omniscience was made by Augustine. Thing is, since God created the world, he set into motion each and every circumstance leading to the present moment. That is, he didn’t know what you were going to do the moment you came into existence, he knew what you were going to do before anything in the Universe existed.

He would of had to, or else he would not have been God. Really, the “first cause”, “unmoved mover” argument is extremely weak and simple-minded, not to be insulting to anyone, so trying to make it rationally pan out is sort of a frivolous use of time.

But technically speaking, if Yahweh made this Universe, he decided everything we were going to do, instead of making an almost identical Universe where we made slightly different decisions.

Think of it this way: Your Father knows you gross out when you see cockroaches. He plants a cockaroach for you to see, but he also gave you a roach phobia when you were a child. Oh, and he created everything you’ve ever experienced in exactly the way it appears to you in your lifetime.

You didn’t really have a choice in grossing out; it was forced.

mattbrowne's avatar

Here’s a good summary of the theological debate (Jewish, Christian and Muslim view as well as modern day interpretations):

Søren Kierkegaard was already mentioned earlier.

jeff3157's avatar

That was very helpful . . mattbrowne . . I hadn’t thought of Wikipedia for such a question. It was very intriguing to read so much debate about that story amongst scholars. Tells me that not everyone just accepts conventional wisdom on the topic at face value. Now the only question left is, do I want to dedicate part of my life to sorting through the ideas offered, or just accept the tension that exists with such passages. A close “christian” friend of mine, rather put the whole thing on me, with the statement “which is more important, to have a definitive answer or simply trust that ultimately the passage conveys an idea of the omnipotence of God and our position in submission and awe”.
For me I thought by pressing the question and effort to seek an acceptable interpretation, that I might ultimately put aside another irritation I have with biblical and or religious thought. That otherwise would cause me to sound more like a few of the other respondants here, who obviously have built up a disposition of aggitation with “all” things religious. I’ve been moving in that direction of late. .

fireside's avatar

“The Bahá’ís believe what is in the Bible to be true in substance. This does not mean that every word recorded in that Book is to be taken literally and treated as the authentic saying of a Prophet. A striking example is given in the account of the sacrifice which Abraham was called upon to make. The Guardian of the Faith confirms that the record in the Qur’án and the Writings of Bahá‘u’lláh, namely that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac as stated in the Old Testament, whom Abraham was to sacrifice, is to be upheld. In one of His Tablets ‘Abdu’l-Bahá refers to this discrepancy, and explains that, from a spiritual point of view, it is irrelevant which son was involved. The essential part of the story is that Abraham was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice His son. Thus, although the account in the Torah is inaccurate in detail, it is true in substance….”

”...The Bahá’ís believe that God’s Revelation is under His care and protection and that the essence, or essential elements, of what His Manifestations intended to convey has been recorded and preserved in Their Holy Books. However, as the sayings of the ancient Prophets were written down some time later, we cannot categorically state, as we do in the case of the Writings of Bahá‘u’lláh, that the words and phrases attributed to Them are Their exact words.”

(9 August 1984 letter to an individual believer)

(The Universal House of Justice, 1987 Sept 14, Resurrection of Christ)

jeff3157's avatar

fireside . . what’s helpful in your response is the notion you offer that in essence the truth or intention of God’s will is discernable and trustworthy . . paraphrasing. However it’s not very helpful to just proclaim one religion’s view is “the” authority” unless one could know absolutely. To assume that position is difficult at best, and dangerous at worst. Thus the role of the scholars. I guess I’m left with the idea that the heart of a true receptive pilgrim will get what is needed from the story, the details or disection of the passages are for another audience.

fireside's avatar

@jeff3157 – the basic belief is that any Manifestation of God is understanding of the truth. Unfortunately, there are no writings directly from the other Manifestations. Second or third hand stories have a definite issue of translation as they are passed down orally over decades and especially centuries. To presume to know the exact scenario that happened 4,000 years ago is beyond anyone alive today.

filmfann's avatar

Okay, we’ve heard from Kierkegaard, The Bahá’ís, and many jellys.
Here is the definitive word on this story:

God said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe said man you must be puttin me on
God said no, Abe said what
God say you can do what you wanna but
The next time you see me comin you better run
Well Abe said where’d you want this killin done
God said out on Highway 61

mattbrowne's avatar

The Bahai approach is very valuable in my opinion.

Again from Wikipedia: Religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and others, including most recently Bahá‘u’lláh.

The three Bahai core principles are the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humankind. From these postulates stems the belief that God periodically reveals his will through divine educators, whose purpose is to transform the character of humankind and develop, within those who respond, moral and spiritual qualities. Religion is thus seen as orderly, unified, and progressive from age to age.

A Christian equivalent would be a true ecumenical approach which to this day seems work in progress to me. It would mean that everyone who contributed to Christianity significantly after Jesus crucifixion is seen as a messenger. The apostles, the evangelists, the women in the first Christian communities, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Pope Leo X, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kueng and others. Science findings have to have an influence on new Christian messengers.

See also my Fluther question

hartford3's avatar

We still do this with war.

Val123's avatar

Part of it may be that the concept of “murder” was different then than it is now. There was a lot more violence and death in those days.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Val123 – Good point!

Hibernate's avatar

I believe someone before me explained it better [I haven’t read the replies because they are many]. That particular situation is a test of faith. While Abraham had his faith tested a few more times before he didn’t take them to seriously .. he laughed with his wife when the angels told them they will have their own son. He was supposed to sacrifice his son to prove ultimate loyalty and see if he puts his faith in God even if the promise of being the father of many can’t fulfill easy and fast in Isaac.

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