The Most Difficult Chapter in the Bible
Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham going, at God's request, up onto a mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac. As a modern Christian, I find this chapter to be one of the most problematic in the Bible. What kind of God would ask a man to kill his own son? And do I want to align myself with a God who would do that? The most common interpretation of this story, one I've heard preached from pulpits and asserted within the cozy confines of Sunday School classes, is that God was testing Abraham's loyalty. To that interpretation, as to the story itself, my first response has always been, "Um...what?" Again, why would God ask a man to kill his own son?
Yes, the general consensus is the God never intended for Isaac to die. That the ram trapped in the bushes, which Abraham sacrificed instead, was part of God's plan all along. But still...why make the request in the first place? And the idea that it was a test of loyalty...yeah, I still have some issues with that. Looking at it from Abraham's point of view, I wonder why he would want to follow a God who made such unreasonable demands. And looking at it from God's point of view, I wonder why He would want followers who would even consider killing their own children.
The whole thing has been something of a stumbling block for me for most of my life.
A Quick Story From My Own Life
I'm going to take you into the mind of my teenage self. Get comfortable. You're about to go on one of the strangest journeys through Nerdville you've ever experienced.
I didn't discover Star Trek until the early nineties. I didn't start really enjoying Star Trek until 1994 when Generations was released. When The Undiscovered Country came out a few years earlier, I had been interested in seeing it in the theatre, but I didn't go because I had not seen any of the previous Star Trek movies and could not bring myself to watch them out of order. So I let the opportunity pass me by. The chance to see Generations, however, was not one I was willing to pass up because it was the first movie centering on the characters from The Next Generation, and I had always preferred TNG to the original series. I had to see this movie in the theatre. But I had to watch all the previous installments first.
So my parents and I had a Star Trek marathon. This was one of the first movie marathons I ever had. In the years that followed, many more were to come, but it all started with Star Trek. You could say it was my first binge-watching experience.
I began the marathon with the intention of having a greater understanding of Generations. I was not interested in the movies based on their own merit, but only for the insights they could give me regarding the one I really wanted to watch. Honestly, I didn't give a rip about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I was watching the movies from a strictly intellectual point of view. I thought of it as a type of historical research. But something began to happen as I continued watching. I fell in love with Spock. It's not surprising. I loved Data on The Next Generation, and Spock was really just another version of Data.
My love for Spock became problematic for me because now I was invested in the original series, but all I had were the movies. I had no access to the original show. Netflix didn't exist back then. DVDs didn't exist back then. Yeah, some TV shows were beginning to be released on VHS, but they were not easy to find. And assuming I could find them, what was I going to do? Buy the entire series? With no more than two episodes per cassette, the full collection would likely have taken up a fourth of my bedroom. Assuming the full series was even available on VHS, which I'm not sure it was.
I became so desperate to watch the old Star Trek that I actually picked up the TV Guide one day and read it from beginning to end, looking to see if the series was playing on any of my channels. It wasn't.
I became very depressed about all this. Yes, depressed. What can I say? I was a weird kid. In the diary I kept back then, there are probably thirty pages devoted to my obsession with Star Trek and my despair over the fact that I was unable to watch the original show. Here's an excerpt from one of those entries:
I thought that, surely, someday, everything will even out and we will all be given the things we thought we missed out on. But when? Heaven? Possibly. I held on to this hope happily for a few seconds and then thought, "How can I know what's in heaven? The problems might not actually be resolved. The emotions that go along with them might simply be taken away." This thought bothered me so that I started crying again. I don't yearn and work for something only to forget that I ever wanted it in the end. That would not make me happy. Suddenly I realized that if it could not make me happy, it could not be heaven. Heaven was the main goal, the main thing we work for in life. It is what makes all of life's little trials, and all of the problems and overcome obstacles worth it in the end. And if it really is that, then everything will work itself out, and all of the empty spaces in the heart will be filled, not taken away so that you can no longer feel the pain. My next question was, "is it true? How can I presume to know what is in Heaven?" I had to pray. During this, several images passed through my mind. The first was something from the Bible. "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also." Many things could be considered treasures. A loved one, a poem, even a pet. My fixation on Star Trek could even be considered a treasure. Heaven was the final reward for the hard test of life. It was the treasure. My heart was there, and there my dreams could be fulfilled. I remembered a phrase of my own, "Anyone can make a person laugh, but it takes a lot to make a person cry." We need our tears, we need to feel sorrow in order to feel happiness. It's no use to search for the gold at the end of the rainbow, only to get there and forget that you wanted it to start with. We all need the things that touch our hearts so deeply and make us cry, so that, when we finally find our goals and our happiness, we can look back and be thankful for it. Without sorrow, there can be no happiness, for there is no standard of comparison by which to judge.
Yes, I was creating for myself a vision of heaven as a place where I could binge-watch Star Trek. Are you still there? Have I scared you away? I told you my teenage mind was a strange place.
How Is My Star Trek Experience Related to Abraham and Isaac?
I'm not trying to say that I loved Star Trek in the same way that a father loves his child. The point I'm making is that I wrestled with the question of whether God would ask me to give up this thing that I loved, and I came to the conclusion that he would not. In hindsight, I can see that maybe God wanted me to have a healthier attitude toward Star Trek, and I no longer think of heaven as an eternity of Netflix binging, but I still hold on to the notion that God won't ask us to sacrifice the things we love, the things which form the core of our identities, in the name of loyalty.
I still wrestle with this. I married young and, in my twenties, I chose raising children over having a career. Now I'm in my late thirties and I think a lot about all of the career goals I never achieved because I was busy doing other things. Traditional Christian thought tells us that women should not desire a career. That hearth and home is our domain and we should be content to remain there. And don't get me wrong, I have a deep love for tending the home fires. I like being the one who cooks the meals for my family and who shoulders the primary responsibility for raising the kids. But I do have other dreams, and part of me hopes that one day I can make those dreams come true.
Sometimes, like I did with Star Trek, I let these unrealized dreams take up too much room in my heart. Sometimes I have an unhealthy attitude toward them. I know it's becoming unhealthy when I start moping around the house thinking about all the things I wish I had done with my life rather than enjoying the good things I already have. But developing a healthy attitude about my career goals is not the same thing as giving up on my goals altogether. My love of writing, photography, filmmaking, etc. are part of the fabric from which I was cut. To purge myself of those things completely would be to deny a fundamental part of who I am. Would God ask me to do that? Would He ask me to lay my very identity on the altar the way Abraham did with Isaac? I don't think so.
So What Was God Asking of Abraham?
Again, I'm not a prophet. I don't speak for God. I can't claim that my interpretation of this biblical story is the "correct" one. This is just a thought that has settled in my mind, so I decided to write about it. People may agree with me or disagree, and I'm perfectly fine with that.
I'm also not an expert on ancient history, so take this with a grain of salt and do your own research if you want to know more, but my general understanding of the ancient world is that many religions of the time centered around the notion of an angry god who needed to be appeased with sacrifices. If this was the culture into which Abraham was born, it makes sense that he would feel compelled to offer up his greatest treasure as an act of loyalty to his God. What if...and this is only a what if...God allowed Abraham to believe this in order to show Him that this was not the kind of thing He would ever demand? So the command to sacrifice his son came not from God but from Abraham's preconceived notions of what religion meant. And God played along right up until the moment of truth because that was the only way to show Abraham the nature of his folly.
And we can apply it in our own lives when we wonder if God wants us to give up something that makes us happy, just because the culture from which we came has thrust that image of religious devotion onto us.
It's a new way of looking at it, but one which offers a bit more comfort than the typical interpretation.