Is Genesis 22:2 a Reason to Reject the God of the Bible?
In Genesis 22:2, God instructed Abraham, saying, “Take now 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 of which I shall tell you.” The Telegraph of London highlighted this verse as “No. 8” in its article, “Top 10 Worst Bible Passages.”1 Popular atheist Penn Jillette referred to this passage in his popular video titled, “How Did You Become an Atheist?”2 And, in his 2009 debate with my colleague Kyle Butt, American atheist Dan Barker asked the audience to “remember the thing about when Abraham—he [God] asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. By the way, Abraham should have said, ‘No way, I’m better than you, I’m not going to kill my son.’”3
Is Genesis 22:2 really a good Bible verse to use to spread atheism? Should this passage of Scripture logically lead people away from the Bible and the God of Abraham?
Does Atheism Not Justify the Killing of Humans?
Prior to a discussion of Genesis 22, one is compelled to ask the atheist upon what basis he deems the killing of a child as wrong or evil? As leading unbelievers have admitted, atheism logically implies, “Everything is permitted,”4 including murder. Do atheists not frequently justify the murder of unborn children? Renowned atheist Peter Singer indicated in 2000 that it would not even be wrong to kill a disabled child who had already been born. He wrote: “[K]illing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”5
Thirteen years later, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article by secular bioethicists Dr. Alberto Giubilini6 and Dr. Francesca Minerva7 in which they argued “that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”8 Taking atheism to its logical conclusion, they continued, declaring:
The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality, which someone defends, is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being…. Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) childrequiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of….9
Giubilini and Minerva concluded, saying:
If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy…then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn….
[W]e do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child. In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.
[W]e do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion…. However, if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.10
Yes, some leading atheists have been bold enough to take their earthly, naturalistic, evolutionary ideas to their logical conclusion (at least theoretically), arguing for the killing of healthy, innocent newborns, even when others would love to adopt the children.11
Thus, some of the world’s leading atheists have justified murdering human beings, even when doing so means the taking of the only life that child will have (according to naturalistic atheism). So how exactly can atheists objectively and non-hypocritically condemn God and Abraham in Genesis 22?
It Was a “Test”
Even still, Genesis 22 poses no real problem. Why? Because God did not actually intend for Abraham to kill his son as a burnt offering; God’s command was only a “test” (22:1). When a mother asks her young son (whom she watched from a distance make a mess), “Who did this?” the question is not asked for informational purposes. She is testing her son to see if he will tell the truth and take responsibility for his actions. When a teacher gives her class what appears to be an impossible-to-pass, closed-book test (the contents of which have never been covered in class), the students may initially think their teacher is being terribly unfair. However, the students later learn that the test was actually “a test” of their character: who all would be honest and take their “F” versus who would dishonestly cheat on the test in order to get an “A”? In the end, those who “failed” were actually given a “100,” while those who “passed” were given a “0.” At first, before all the facts were known, the teacher seemed quite unfair; but in the end, the students learned an important life-lesson, while also discovering that their teacher was actually very just and wise.
Scripture reveals that God has occasionally asked questions and made statements that were meant, not in the more normal ways, but as “teaching moments” or “tests.” In John 6, Jesus asked Philip about the great multitude who followed Him, saying, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” (John 6:5). But Jesus asked the question “to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do” (6:6). Would Philip and the apostles recall that Jesus miraculously had furnished more than 100 gallons of a tasty beverage at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (in John 2) and conclude that Jesus alone could just as easily miraculously feed thousands of people on this occasion if He so desired? Or, would the disciples worry themselves with the large number of people and the limited natural resources? Jesus knew they were not going to purchase food for the multitude, but He still asked the question—because it was a test of their faith. He made it a growing moment.
On another occasion, Jesus tested a Gentile woman (Matthew 15:21-28). Initially (and superficially), one might conclude that Jesus was rude and unloving to the woman who asked Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (15:22-27). However, many people miss the fact that Jesus was testing this Canaanite woman, while at the same time teaching His disciples (who earlier claimed that the Pharisees were offended at His preaching—15:12) how the tenderhearted respond to potential offensive truths. Unlike the hypocritical Jewish scribes and Pharisees who, earlier in the chapter, responded to Jesus’ “hard preaching” with hard-heartedness (Matthew 15:1-12), a Gentile woman seeking assistance from Jesus acknowledged her unworthiness and persistently pursued the Holy One for help, even in the face of a difficult, divinely orchestrated test. In the end, Jesus did what He knew He was going to do all along—He healed the humble woman’s demon-possessed daughter.12
So what does all of this have to do with Abraham in Genesis 22? Simply that God never actually wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son—anymore than Jesus wanted His disciples to purchase bread to feed thousands of people, or than He wanted to withhold healing from a Gentile woman’s daughter. Abraham’s faith was tested, and He passed the test without ever killing Isaac (Hebrews 11:17).
In fact, had Abraham actually killed Isaac, he would have disobeyed God, since at the moment when Abraham was about to slay his son, “The Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!… Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him’” (Genesis 22:11-12).
Admittedly, God’s test of Abraham was a deep and difficult experience for the patriarch. But keep in mind that God knew all along (1) it was a test, and (2) that the passing of the test did not actually include Abraham killing Isaac. The patriarch demonstrated such great, trusting commitment to God that he would be willing to not withhold (22:12) even his most precious, promised son, if that is what his Master asked of him.
[NOTE: Although Abraham did not know that God was testing him (any more than the disciples and the Gentile woman mentioned earlier knew that Jesus was testing them), Abraham stood firmly upon the promises of God. The Lord had guaranteed him saying, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him…. My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear…. At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 17:19,21; 18:14). “And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac” (21:1-3). Once more God reminded Abraham that “in Isaac your seed shall be called” (21:12). The same God who tested Abraham’s faithfulness only a few verses later (in Genesis 22), is the same God Who had recently promised him that Isaac would have many offspring (Genesis 12:1-3; 13:16; 17:2,4-6,16). Thus, Abraham concluded that, though he might kill his son at God’s trying command, God would virtually immediately raise him from the dead.
Abraham’s insight and confidence is exhibited when he said to the young men who accompanied him and Isaac on part of their journey: “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Notice that Abraham did not say that “I” will come back to you, but “we” (Abraham and Isaac) “will come back to you.” As the Hebrews writer notes, Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac, “concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (11:19). Such complete trust is what God wants from anyone who seeks after Him (Matthew 16:24-25; Philippians 1:21).13]
1 “Top 10 Worst Bible Passages” (2009), Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/6120373/Top-10-worst-Bible-passages.html, emp. added.
4 Jean-Paul Sartre (1989), “Existentialism is Humanism,” in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, trans. Philip Mairet (Meridian Publishing Company), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm, emp. added.
5 Peter Singer (2000), Writings on an Ethical Life (New York: Harper Collins), p. 193, emp. added.
6 Dr. Giubilini is a “Senior Research fellow on the Oxford Martin Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease” (https://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-alberto-giubilini).
7 Dr. Francesca Minerva is currently a research fellow at the University of Milan. Much of her work is in the area of applied ethics. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. For more information, see www.francescaminerva.com.
8 Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (2013), “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Journal of Medical Ethics, 39:261, https://jme.bmj.com/content/medethics/39/5/261.full.pdf, emp. added; https://jme.bmj.com/content/39/5/261.
9 Ibid., 39:263.
10 Ibid., emp. added.
11 Giubilini and Minerva wrote: “What we are suggesting is that, if interests of actual people should prevail, then after-birth abortion should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption” (39:263).
12 For more discussion on this test, see Eric Lyons and Kyle Butt (2011), “Was Jesus Unkind to the Syrophoenician Woman?” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=3797&b=Matthew.
13 For further insight into the biblical teaching on life, death, and eternity, see Eric Lyons (2022), “Making Sense of Life and Death,” Apologetics Press, https://apologeticspress.org/making-sense-of-life-and-death/.
The Anvil Rings
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