SomeMusician, Oscar, has written a response of his own to Sifting Reality‘s post entitled “What a Relief.” At the end of his post, Oscar has Christopher Hitchens, by the means of a YouTube Video, attack the notion of faith’s reliability in God’s commands via the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s an emphatic conclusion to both Oscar’s argument and post. I’ll grant rhetorically it’s effective, but obviously I don’t find it logically convincing.
Before I go any further, please take note of two things: I plan to do a response to the Euthyphro Dilemma Oscar brings up in a followup post because Socrates’ ole riddle deserves a lot of attention, and secondly, I won’t deny that I struggle with God’s order to sacrifice Isaac. I’m not some automaton devoid of an immediate emotional response of disgust to something as morally depraved as child sacrifice.
Certainly, at face value, Hitchens’ proclamation intuitively seems justified even to me, someone who disagrees with him almost on everything. But let me fight YouTube with Vimeo:
Granted, the video addresses more the Problem of Evil, but I think Swinburne’s point about the importance of context in the interpretation of Christianity is most pertinent here. So yes, sorry, it all comes down to context, which I know atheists think is just a cop out response. However, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t falsify it.
Like I’ve argued previously, if someone’s to criticize one of the most influential and pervasive ideologies in humanity, it seems sensible to understand the hermeneutics applied to its authoritative text. Many atheists aren’t this studious and neither are tons of fundy Christians. That’s why the Westboro Baptist Church and its antics seems so asinine. I’ll admit there are a vast number of Christians who don’t understand their own religion. I’ll also concede this is a monstrous failure and a dereliction of spiritual duty of the Church. And while I’m digressing, I’ll grant that atheists aren’t unjustified in thinking that Christian fundamentalism is the consensus of mainstream Christianity because in some places it seems to be everywhere. But there are also numerous Christians who hold to the historical and intellectually robust teachings of the early Church. It’s unfortunate yet not unsurprising so many atheists are more content than a cucumber to ignite fundy straw men than tackling real Christian doctrine, which is significantly more fire resistant. In the conduct of debate, you want to grant your opposition the most charitable position because if you can take down the ideology at its strongest, then all the weaker positions fall with it. So, just saying…
…CONTEXT IS PIVOTAL. Now, I don’t intend to imply Oscar was intellectually dishonest or lazy with his critique of faith or the story of Abraham and Isaac. Oscar is by no means an unfair or militant atheist because that’s the furthest claim from the truth. He, however, despite what I frankly believe was his most honest effort, took the story of Abraham and Isaac out of context.
Biblical stories and their implications to the whole of Christianity are hardly ever as simple as atheists will portray, and the case of Abraham and Isaac is no exception. The story doesn’t start at Genesis 22:1. with God’s command to Abraham. It also doesn’t begin with Isaac’s birth at Genesis 21:1. Instead, our story commences at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Genesis with the call of Abram.
The LORD said to Abram: “Go out from your land, you relatives and your father’s house to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
For our purposes, God promised the then Abram tons of descendants despite the fact Abram and his wife Sarai had been trying for years and were now well beyond child-rearing age. This promise would be formalized into a covenant between God and Abram later in chapter 15 in which Abram sacrifices a cow, a female goat and a ram all of which are three years old, plus a turtle dove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:9). Now, what happens a few verses down in the chapter is crucial.
17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates River: 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:17-21)
God manifesting himself as a fire pot and a flaming torch passing through the sacrificed carcasses is significant. In ancient Mesopotamian culture, this act essentially meant may I be torn a part and roasted like these animals if I don’t keep the covenant we just established. In today’s online vernacular, God was telling Abram that He was serious and wasn’t trolling him.
God did fulfill his promise to Abram turned Abraham in Genesis 22 with Isaac’s birth, and God’s good will wasn’t solely exemplified by that covenant. He also promised Abraham in Genesis 18:32-33 he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 righteous people could be found. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many. Only Abraham’s cousin Lot and his two daughters were saved from the destruction (Genesis 19:29). God also took care of Ishmael and Hagar upon Abraham’s request (Genesis 21:11-21) despite the fact Abraham’s union with Hagar was a sign of mistrust in God’s covenant.
Therefore, we have multiple instances of God being gracious and faithful to Abraham. Now, when this evidence is taken into account with God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, we have a much different picture than what Hitchens or other atheists would have us believe. The order for Isaac’s sacrifice wasn’t some capricious, arbitrary fiat from out of the blue. God had clearly demonstrated his favor to Abraham earlier, which means Abraham did have some reason to trust and reciprocate with faith of his own. It simply did not make sense for God to suddenly pull the rug from under Abraham’s feet. God had promised Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars. Killing Isaac would be drastically contrary to that covenant.
Now, it’s impossible to know what was going through Abraham’s head at the time. I’ve heard some theologians speculate he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. Whatever thoughts he had, Abraham obeyed and make no mistake, showed extraordinary faith. Was his faith unwarranted, a complete shot in the dark? No. He had reason to think things would play out right, and they did.
Interestingly, here’s a biblical case for faith that is not blind or stubborn. It was an act of trust, which make me wonder…
…from where did we get this concept of blind faith?