Was the Binding of Isaac Child Abuse?

24 Sep
from Google Images

from Google Images

Rabbinic and even pre-rabbinic texts like the book of Jubilees suggest that Abraham successfully navigated a number of trials or tests, including the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, recounted in Genesis 22. However, many contemporary scholars and rabbis have argued that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is proof that Abraham failed the test God had set for him or that Abraham passed the test only when he stopped short of slaughtering his son, Isaac.[1]

“A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”[2]

So, what do you think? Is this an embarrassing story about one of the heroes of the Bible? Is what he did or tried to do really child abuse? However we might answer these questions, one thing is certain, and that is that the Bible makes no apology for what Abraham had done. In fact, it is the basis of God’s promise to him:

“By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:16-18 KJV)[3]

I believe the context of this story reveals that this was as much a test for Isaac as it was for Abraham. Isaac was probably in his twenties, perhaps as old as thirty; for the text’s description of him (lad – H5288, Genesis 22:5) is the same as that used to describe a young man of military age (Genesis 14:24). In other words, Isaac was probably old enough to have resisted his father, had he a mind to do so. Abraham would have been about 120-30 years of age by this time, and would have been considered an old man. Abraham’s old age is further implied in Isaac’s question in Genesis 22:7. Isaac had noticed that Abraham had brought wood upon which the sacrifice would be placed, the fire to burn the wood and a knife to kill the offering, but Isaac didn’t see a lamb. Nevertheless, he didn’t mention it until after both he and his father left the other young men behind. It seems Isaac may have thought his father had forgotten the sacrifice (forgetfulness being a sign of old age), but, out of love and respect for his father, he waited until they were alone to mention it.

At some point, however, the whole affair would have been clear to Isaac. In fact, it is not entirely wrong to think Abraham may have discussed with Isaac what he was about to do with his son, but we don’t know this for certain. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to believe Isaac willingly complied to be the burnt offering, given the strength of his youth verses the declining years of his aged father. Therefore, it seems Isaac was a willing participant in whatever his father would do, because certainly a young military man could have overcome his father, who was old enough for Isaac to think the oversight of the lamb might be due to senility.

Therefore, I submit that Isaac also understood that the Covenant between Abraham and God was to be fulfilled in him, i.e. Isaac. It is because he knew this, that Isaac willingly laid his life down (cf. John 10:17-18). It is irrelevant whether or not he was privy to God’s request of Abraham in Genesis 22:1-2 (although Abraham may have disclosed the whole affair to him; cf. “God will provide” in Genesis 22:8). Isaac believed his father was doing what he thought he should do. Therefore, given Isaac’s apparent age and strength (cf. Genesis 22:6) and his apparent willingness in the whole affair, it would be wrong to presume the act was an example of either “child abuse” or “bullying”.


[1] Joel S. Kaminski, The Akedah in Jewish Tradition, Bible Odessey

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Ealing, Bantam Press, 2006), page 242.

[3] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in apologetics


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