The Binding of Isaac

(Time Saver: this is not about the Video Game)

Genesis 22:1-12 tells an infamous story called in some circles The Binding of Isaac. In the story, God comes to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him. Abraham takes Isaac to fulfill the command. At the last minute, God stops Abraham and praises him for his obedience. Abraham sacrifices a ram instead.

There has been a lot of thought, criticism, and debate about this story. A mountain of literature and petabytes of blogs and articles have been published about Abrahams’ obsequious display of sanctified obedience to this overt abuse. And modern Evangelicals have been scrambling with re-interpretations to figure out a way to save this horrifying story from being thrown into the trash heap of history to preserve the supposed authority of Scripture. But I’m going to plant into the archives of this vast digital library how it was taught to me and millions of Americans as children. So, when Conservative Evangelicals give you some different interpretation of it while also claiming God’s eternal consistency, remember that it wasn’t always taught this way. We heard this explanation for the story throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s from multiple sources including from several pulpits, churches throughout the Evangelical Midwest, throughout our childhood education, youth pastors, televised evangelists, and even around the dinner table as a youths. And it poured poison into the already tainted pool of American social morality.

Here is the interpretation of the Binding of Isaac as told to me and millions of other Americans as children:

We were told that the story is about obedience and trust. God did not intend for Abraham to sacrifice his son. God does not delight in human sacrifice. God wanted Abraham to show his trust and obedience to God to the world. The obedience and trust of Abraham is shown fully bloomed and his absolute trust that his obedience will serve a greater Divine Will regardless of how much it will cost or hurt him is a testament to his pure faith. My father, a Calvinist minister, also admired Isaac. He pointed out in many sermons and around the dinner table that there is no mention of Isaac resisting or questioning his father’s obedience. My father admired Isaac’s apparent unthinking obedience to his father’s will and his father’s God. As a child, I heard the message loud and clear.

You can find and read many pieces about how abusive this story it. It shows a shallow God in need of mindless adoration and overt displays of loyalty, once again. Many have written about a God who apparently loves blood and death. I won’t rehash those argument but would like to add that I don’t think that using this story to highlight Christianity’s supposed “barbarism” or “lack of compassion” is effective. Even if true, those attributes are not the worst parts of the story. Where the story is the most horrifying is how it twists the needle of a child’s moral compass. And then those children become voting adults.

Our human moral compass is formed by two forces. The first, is our natural, nearly instinctual, empathy and compassion for those we consider “us”. It is emotional and raw. It is also so powerful it can lead a Nazi to risk his life to save the lives of a hated minority. The second force is our ability to reason. Reason allows humanity to widen our view of who shall be considered “us”. Reason has been a major tool in morality and laws throughout the ancient world from Greece to China. It allowed humanity to collaborate and use our minds to formulate moral laws that work for us collectively as a civilization. In modern times, the philosophy of humanism created an overarching foundation for morality and challenged many of our commonly held ideas about “us” and “them”. Humanism makes the bold claim that civilization, and therefore moral philosophy as well, is the product of human imagination or reason, and exists for elevating humanity. This challenged the commonly held idea in the West that civilization and morality exists to please God. Most recently for example, modern humanism has challenged and held strong against the centuries long held Western idea that homosexuals weren’t also “us”. But even putting relatively modern humanism aside, empathy and human reason have been foundational to human morality for as long as humans have tried to cohabitate.

The Conservative Evangelical interpretation of the Binding of Isaac illustrates a very real and persistent rot in the moral DNA of Conservative Evangelicals. Conservative Evangelicals actively sabotage the very tools humanity uses to form moral precepts.

First, they attack our natural empathy. “Take Isaac. Your only son. The one that you love…” How Abraham may have recoiled at this is irrelevant. Obey. This is probably the most abusive and frankly sickening thing Conservative Evangelicals do to children. They teach children from a young age to ignore their inner moral voices. The justification is the puerile belief that humanity is fallen and incapable of moral good because of the Fall of Adam. But it is that same instinctual empathy that makes a person both want to help a wounded dog and recoil at the torture of an innocent person. Conservative Evangelicals hammer that away with mental abuse or even physical punishment. And that is the context you need to understand why so many Conservative Evangelicals literally did not care when confronted with the torture and murder of Matthew Shepherd.

After they strip a child of their natural human empathy, they then attack human reason with the same “fallen nature” theology. Humanity is incapable of thinking for themselves and must rely solely on the commandments of God. After empathy and human reason have been stripped, moral command is replaced with authoritarian decree. It doesn’t matter if it repulses you, it doesn’t matter if it is irrational and arbitrary, you may not question it or think for yourself. You must obey.

 “Take your son,” -spank- “your only son,” -spank- “whom you love” –spank- “and go to the region of Moriah.” -spank- “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering” -spank- “on a mountain that I will show you.” -spank-

 The Conservative Evangelical praise of Abraham’s mindless obedience in the Binding of Isaac is horrifying but for more than just God asking Abraham to commit murder as some narcissistic demand for attention and loyalty. More than the abuse and barbarism of it. The story is an absolute assault on our humanity. It twists and warps everything noble and good about us and creates children who hate this planet and the people on it before they even begin interacting with it. God asking Abraham to murder his son is asking Abraham to fundamentally destroy his own humanity. And what’s even worse than that: Evangelical Conservatives are nodding along in agreement with that statement. This is the worst part of the story: that Evangelical Conservatives perfectly understand how horrifying and abusive it is and yet they still adore it.

 If the Binding of Isaac were an outlier, we could move past it. But this authoritarian view of morality (you may not think for yourself and dissent will be violently punished) is woven throughout Conservative Evangelical thought. I do not level this accusation at Christianity in general. But the Conservative Evangelical mental and physical abuse of a generation of children, rearing and grooming children for the authoritarian lifestyle, is a tragedy of culture shifting proportions and must be rigorously rooted out of society. By the end of the 70s, America had made some headway but the resurgence of the Christian Right in the 80s started a 30 year assault on the foundations of humanistic morality upon which America was founded and replaced it with abuse and superstition.

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