The story of the testing of Abraham is among the most famous tales of scripture, but we might well wonder what it reveals. Does it give us insight into God? This is the traditional understanding. And because in the story God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Jews and Christians have struggled for centuries to discern what that tells us about God.
But the story might also be read as offering insight into our human tendency to project our desires and fears onto God. The story of the testing of Abraham was written at a time when human sacrifice was a common way of trying to appease a god thought to be angry for some reason, and as a way of demonstrating devotion. If, however, the story is read as revealing our tendency to ascribe to God what we fear and desire for ourselves, then it represents an effort to end human sacrifice. For in the story God does not require that Abraham sacrifice his son, but only that Abraham sacrifice an animal to demonstrate his fear and loyalty to God.
The traditional interpretation requires that we find some meaning in God’s demand for human sacrifice, and so those sermonizing on this text generally argue that a life of small sacrifices, or perhaps even some great sacrifice, is God’s will and the way of faith. Down this path is the dreadful but common conclusion, when misery befalls us or others, that it must be “God’s will.” Or, in more secular language, we speak of a “silver lining” in the midst of a disastrous event that is conceived as a very dark cloud.
The alternative interpretation, however, allows us to conclude that God does not require human sacrifice, which is a significant step forward in human history. It also allows us to draw the inference that sacrifice may often not have any redeeming purpose or value, but may simply be a fact of nature and history.
The recent earthquake in Haiti killed tens of thousands of people for no good reason and has imposed sacrifice on many more, who will be years without adequate shelter or schools or health care facilities. It is a natural fact that earthquakes appear along geological fault lines, such as the one underneath Haiti. It is a now a tragic fact of history that the buildings constructed along this particular fault line were not designed to withstand the tremors of an earthquake that was known to be inevitable.
Earthquakes and other natural disasters have long been identified as “Acts of God,” but this misleading. Natural disasters reveal a great deal about the laws of nature and our success in understanding these laws and preparing ourselves accordingly Because we can identify the natural forces that cause such disasters, we know these natural events are not acts of God, but rather the way that the natural world is.
It is the suffering of humans in such a natural disaster that raises questions about God among those who are convinced that some purpose must be found in such events. We are, however, free to see both what is right and wrong with this quest.
It is right for us to create meaning out of our experience, whether it is good or bad. We can learn from our mistakes and from experiences of loss. We can be humbled by our survival and the world can be enriched by the compassion that survivors have for each other and for all those whose lives have been devastated.
It is wrong, however, to conclude that the suffering and sacrifice was good, because we can choose to be better people for having lived through it. Every natural disaster is terrible and tragic, and we should not blind ourselves to this harsh fact by mouthing the phrase, “It was God’s will.”
If nature reveals anything about God, it is that God has created a natural world filled with danger and death. But this same natural world has enabled our species to understand the dangers of life and to intervene to reduce both our physical and mental suffering.
These human skills not only help us avoid disasters, but allow us to interpret scripture in the light of our knowledge of the laws of nature. We can see, in a way that the people of Abraham’s era could not, that the threats of nature are not punishments or the result of a divine being withholding his or her favor.
Therefore, we need not interpret the Genesis story of Abraham as revealing a God who demands sacrifice. Instead, we may see in this tale, as in much of scripture, our human propensity to attribute what we do not understand to the will of God.