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Is God a Child Abuser?

This post originally appeared in May 2009 as What Does the Story of Abraham and Isaac Tell Us About Protecting Children?  If you are not familiar with the allegorical narrative from Genesis you can read it here. 

We would be appalled at anyone who suggested that a loving father should kill his own child. Photo by Tim Graves

When we read this story we typically emphasize Abraham’s faith. We gloss over God’s seeming command to abuse Isaac, to kill his own child. We do this because it is difficult to accept a God who would ask Abraham to commit child abuse. However, to remove from the story the nature of what God is asking of Abraham is to remove the power of the story.

This sequence of events within the broader context of God’s relationship with God’s children, the Israelites, tells us about the nature of God. Despite their repeated misbehavior, despite God’s frustration with their actions, God continually cares for and protects them. Within the multi-generations of the Israelites we find the nature of a protective and loving God who desires obedience. Made in the image of God, our relationship with children reflects the relationship of God with the Israelites.

He said “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2 NRSV

When God tells Abraham to commit child abuse in Genesis 22:2 our literal nature squirms. Our God-created biological nature struggles against the words that ask our brother Abraham to kill his only child. Here the level of obedience God expects of us is revealed. Obedience to God is required above all else, even above our very God-created natures.

As Isaac and Abraham journey up the mountain and as Abraham prepares the altar for sacrifice, he does not abdicate his parental responsibilities. In the exchange between Isaac and Abraham we see a father’s love that avoids frightening his beloved son. Isaac places his trust in his loving, protecting Daddy. Abraham places his trust in our loving, protecting God. We are shocked by Abraham’s obedience as he binds his son, lays him on the altar on top of the wood and reaches “out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22: 9a-10 NRSV) But our God will not allow child abuse even if it means a literal contradiction of Godself:

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22: 12 NRSV

In this story we not only learn about Abraham’s faithfulness to God but when viewed through the teachings of Jesus, we learn about the nature of God’s expectations of our relationships with children. In our emotional response to the heinousness of potentially burning a child alive we learn about our own God-reflected nature. We learn about our relationship with our children, the children of humanity. The only thing that trumps our God-created nature to protect, care for, and love our children is our faith and trust in God.

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