The First Question

I have my first question! It came in conversation, so I can’t link to an email or a comment. But the gist is this: what do you do when you come across a passage that you just can’t agree with or see a point to? And the example they gave was the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (Genesis 22.1-14).

This is a real problem, there’s no denying it. And it’s not the only passage that is problematic. So where do we start? First off, I assume that you’ve tried your hardest to apply the study technique I laid out in the “how to” section of the Bible FAQ and Guide. Sometimes that helps with stubbornly problematic passages. We come to realise in the course of studying them that there is something of value in the story after all but that it shows, when taken in isolation, an understanding of God or our relationship with God that is at odds with the overall message of Scripture.

For many people, this is the case with the sacrifice of Isaac. They are able to take from it a positive teaching about trust in God, while recognising that the picture of God is distasteful to a modern reader and doesn’t fit with the progressive revelation of God as the God of mercy and love that we see in the covenant theology of the First Testament or the teaching of the Gospels. Others remain unconvinced.

For them, there are some things that progressive revelation can not explain! There is no way they can accept a picture of God as someone who puts Abraham through the ordeal of believing that God really wants him to commit human sacrifice, all the while planning to substitute a ram at the last minute. And don’t even start on the idea of a God that would do that to Isaac!

To that objection, some theologians find an answer in the very unknowability of God. Yes indeed this way of acting seems wrong to us, and absolutely would be wrong if a human being did it. But (to state the obvious) God is not a human being and, although we may learn morality from God’s indwelling Spirit in our hearts or from God’s revelation, we have to be cautious in applying our rules to God. This is a hard idea to accept or to truly articulate. But there is a point in all our attempts to know God, to understand God, when we must fall silent before the enormity of God Godself and our inability to understand God. As Isaiah prophesied: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55.8)

This suggests that sometimes we can come across problems of understanding and acceptance in reading the Bible for which there are no good answers. Because our difficulty is somehow bound up with our understanding of God, we end up in a situation where we just have to accept our difficulties while also trusting in the God of faithful covenant love, of mercy and justice, that we meet in the Bible and in Jesus. That means holding contradictions in tension: we can’t deny the difficulty we have with the passage but at the same time we can’t deny the God whom we know and in whose fellowship we live.

But in the end I have to confess that I don’t know the answer to this question. I know we must always approach every passage in Scripture with complete honesty, striving to learn from it but also testing it against God’s whole self-revelation, both in Scripture and in Jesus. I know it is OK to say, “I don’t get this” or even “I don’t like this! God is acting horribly”. God will never turn away from us as long as we approach God and the Bible with integrity.

One thought on “The First Question

  1. The only thing that reconciles me to the Abraham and Isaac story is that God wasn’t asking either of them to do anything God was not ready to do. In fact, God had to go through with it, both as Father and Son — there was no ram in the thicket for Jesus. Still a difficult story, though. Some of the more bloodthirsty bits from the Psalms bother me more.

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