The story of Abraham and Isaac has captivated and horrified a lot of people. Our angry atheist-friend Richard Dawkins is among the horrified. In The God Delusion Dawkins writes:
"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, bulying in two assymetrical relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: "I was only obeying order." Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions." (242)
How can we respond to this? I am thinking this morning about Abraham and Isaac.
One cannot use "modern morals" to understand the Abraham-Isaac story. Instead, one must enter into the culture in which Abraham was situated. Any "interpretation" that refuses to do this must be dismissed. First understand; then evaluate.
Where is Abraham? He has sojourned into the land of Canaan, where child sacrifice is required by the Canaanite deities. Note: The issue of Canaanite child sacrifice is debated. I'm of the opinion that it did occur. For example, last evening at my church biblical scholars Hal and Mirja Ronning of the Home for Bible Translators and Hebrew University stated their opinion that it happened. Old Testament professor Claude Mariottini writes: "Another practice associated with Canaanite holy places was child sacrifice. Children were offered to the Canaanite gods as the supreme sacrifice and as a demonstration of faith by the worshiper." Professor Alan F. Segal of Columbia University, in his Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, writes: "There is... evidence that Canaanite cults included human and infant sacrifice." (108; Segal develops this further here)
If so, note this: When Abraham traveled from Haran south to Canaan he was in a land where a god could command the sacrifice of one's child. Sadly, it happened. But the idea that a god might require this was part of the DNA of Canaanite religion. So, while it might sadden Abraham to think of doing this, it would not, I think, shock Abraham to believe that God would ask him to sacrifice his son. That's the culture he lives in. Abraham is still learning a lot about the God who called him out of Ur and into Canaan. This God who called Abraham is speaking in a language Abraham would understand, in order to communicate to Abraham something new, which is: God hates the sacrifices of the Canaanites.
This intepretation of Abraham and Isaac is a common one among Jewish scholars. Consider, e.g., this basic Judaism website, which states: "Judaism uses this story as evidence that G-d abhors human sacrifice. In fact, I have seen some sources indicating that Abraham failed this test of faith because he did not refuse to sacrifice his son! Judaism has always strongly opposed the practice of human sacrifice, commonplace in many other cultures at that time and place."
I do not believe that God would not command such a thing in these times of "modern morality" because we would find the command, much less the act, abhorrent. But I suggest that the command not abhorrent to Abraham, the act was abhorrent to God, and to think otherwise is to reason anachronistically. God incarnates his voice culturally, I think, all the time, to communicate truths that often are of his heart and not of our culture.
(Note: Dawkins, in God Delusion, proves himself to be the king of anachronistic thinking as he consistently cites historical figures who believed in God or were religious and claims they would not be if they knew what he knew. Which is not much, at least philosophically and hermeneutically, as has been repeatedly shown. See here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and....)