The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, "I've had a vision
And you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold. - The Story of Isaac, Leonard Cohen
Atheists always bring up the story of Abraham and Isaac. What kind of God is that?
And they are absolutely right to do so. The story presents a serious moral puzzle.
How could Abraham have known it was God speaking to him? The Bible itself warns us that there are evil spirits. When we think we hear something from a spiritual entity, we are told we must always “test the spirits.”
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4)
What test? Here the passage in John is not obviously helpful. It goes on,
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
This could not have applied to Abraham, living before Christ. But elsewhere, too, we are told how to recognize “false prophets”: “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Which seems to obviously mean a moral test, although it might also be a test of beauty: if the spirit advocates anything obviously immoral, it cannot be God. And Jesus, aside from the particular incarnation, is eternally the way, the truth, and the life. Accordingly, for Abraham, the test is: did the spirit advocate what is morally good, did it tell the truth, and was it on the side of life?
The spirit he hears seems to have failed all three tests.
To begin with, it is obviously immoral to kill his son. And the spirit wants death, not life.
And another thing. God had promised Abraham that he would have many descendants, and that he would have them through Isaac. Now God wants him to kill Isaac, making this impossible. That would mean, if this voice is from God, that God is a liar. Bingo—voice cannot be God. Abraham should not have listened.
And speaking of lies, Abraham is described as lying to his retainers on the way to the sacrifice. He tells then all to wait, they will be right back:
He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Then he lies to Isaac:
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
If he really believes he is about to sacrifice Isaac, that is, he is lying. Now, what would be the sense of telling lies in aid of doing something out of piety? Disobeying God in order to obey God?
But then again Abraham is not actually lying, either, is he? He is predicting exactly what does happen: God himself provides an animal or the sacrifice. He does return with Isaac safe and sound.
The only logical conclusion, so far as I can see, is that Abraham knew all along that he was not going to sacrifice Isaac, and further God must have told him so directly. He was not just guessing or hoping. He knew what was going to happen.
It was all a bit of performance art.
Why? Seems to me there is an obvious explanation. Child sacrifice, specifically the blood sacrifice of a firstborn son, was standard practice among the Canaanite religions thereabouts. If Abraham were advocating a monotheistic faith that rejected these pagan gods in the name of a greater one, observers might easily suspect this was all bogus, done in an attempt to avoid sacrificing his own son. So he needed to demonstrate that he was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own son, but that Yahweh God did not demand it.
You might object, as an atheist friend objected, that this interpretation seems to be a stretch based on what the Bible actually says. But that is exactly wrong: it in fact seems the only possible interpretation based on what the Bible actually says.
Granted, the Bible does not say it all clearly. It is more like a murder mystery.
So the Bible wants us to think, to ponder, to meditate. Is that so surprising? Reading the passage, it is we who are being tested, not Abraham.