Really Terrible Bible Stories Excerpt: Burn Your Boy for God

Burn Your Boy for God

(Genesis 22)

Any day of the week, you’ll hear Good ChristianTM people condemn the very idea of child sacrifice. Only savages and heathens and very terrible people would do that. Their God, these fine Christians say, is an awesome god who would neverever require such a thing. And these awful people who murder their children, then claim God told them to – why! They are definitely wicked or insane or satanic, because God would never tell them to kill their kids.

These same Good ChristianTM people hold Abraham up as an exemplary human being, a true man of the Lord. He did everything God asked. Why, he was even willing to sacrifice his own son! He’s an example for us all. We must give everything to the Lord that he demands – even if he requires our own children. Besides, ha ha, he’s just testing us. He’d never actually make us sacrifice our kids, they say, looking mighty uncomfortable. They point to this story as proof.

Thing is, folks, Abraham didn’t know God was just testing him. He was willing to go the distance – just like those ultra-devout parents you call crazy.

I want you, fine upstanding Christians, to imagine you know everything. Literally. Not the slightest thing escapes your notice. Nothing is beyond your power. You’ve got this favorite dude you’ve been watching out for. You like him so much that you’ve picked him as the father of your chosen people. You let him have a son by his wife’s slave, then you decide to let him have a son with his wife, even though they’re both super-duper old by the time you get round to opening her womb. Hey, you know it’ll make ’em happy! Shame about the wife getting jealous over the slave and her son and forcing them out – which, of course, you knew would happen and did nothing to stop – but Abraham’s still got darling little Isaac. And his parents love him to pieces.

One day, even though you know everything, so you know Abraham is completely loyal, you decide to test him anyway. “Psst, Abe,” you say. “You know that kid of yours, who’s pretty much your only child since you had to kick Ishmael out? Yeah, that curly-haired little boy you love beyond reason? I want you to take him into the mountains and burn him to death for me. He’ll smell like barbecue. I love that smell!” (Gen. 22:1-2)

And this guy obeys, just like you knew he would.

You watch him get up early the next morning, and take the little boy away from his old and barren mother. You watch him cut the wood he’ll use to burn that child alive. You watch him travel for three days with his son and two helpers. The kid’s all excited because he’s going to help Daddy worship you! He feels really grown up and special. You feel his dad’s heart breaking twelve times a second, knowing that soon, that childish voice is going to be raised in a piercing scream of incomprehensible terror as he’s lashed to the altar. Those trusting eyes will turn panicked, jerking between Dad’s face and the rising knife. And maybe, Abe thinks, he can kill him quickly and without pain, but maybe he’ll feel the knife rip into his flesh, and shriek in agony, writhing, before the end. Then his soft flesh, his beautiful curls, his adoring eyes will crisp, bubble, and burn. The images replay in his mind, again, again, again, and he can barely swallow a mouthful of water for grief, but he is loyal to you. He continues on (Gen. 22:3-4).

The little group reaches the mountain, and you watch Abe tell his men to wait while he and the child go to worship. Maybe you think it’s a nice touch that he makes Isaac carry the wood that will burn him. You see Abe pick up the firebrand and the knife, and off they go. Oh, that little boy is so happy and proud to be helping. Father, he says, and Abraham, choke-voiced, responds, Here I am, son, for the last time, as his heart cracks and bleeds for his baby. Isaac is so trusting when he asks where the lamb is, never suspecting the truth. Abe tells him you’ll provide yourself a lamb, and thinks, you, my son, my baby boy, you are the lamb (Gen. 22:5-8).

You watch Abe and Isaac build the altar together, which Abe thinks is the last activity they will ever share. You’re staring into the child’s eyes as Abe binds him to the altar. You watch his eagerness turn to confusion. You feel the father’s anguish, and maybe there’s more than a spark of hatred of you, and it spices the determination to carry out your will, whatever the cost. You feel the child’s pride and happiness turn to terror as the wood digs into his back, the ropes cut into his flesh, as he struggles. You see the knife gleam in the sun as Abraham raises it. Perhaps the child is crying. Perhaps he’s too terrified to scream (Gen. 22:9-10).

The knife glints at its apex. It begins to descend. Now Abraham knows what you can make him do. Now he knows he will sacrifice his own son, will bleed out his life and burn his flesh to ash, at your command. He knows he is a helpless and broken thing in your hands.

It’s only now that you end the obscene farce. You send your angel to stop Abraham at the last instant, and feed him a bullshit line about how now you know he’s a god-fearing man – something you’ve known all along. This parent will have to live with the knowledge of what evil he would do for you. The child will spend his life remembering the day his father intended to murder him. And still, that’s not enough to sate you. You want a death. So you provide them a helpless ram for the slaughter (Gen. 22:11-13).

Are you horrified, imagining yourself so sadistic, reveling in suffering?

Now consider having this story passed down for thousands of years as behavior you approve of. You want everyone to know that they should fear you enough to sacrifice their own children to keep you happy. And you know that some parents will use these verses to justify the murder of their offspring. You know children will die because of you.

You don’t care. You got your point across. So what if children perish because you let their parents misunderstand?

That’s your God, folks. Is it good? Will you tuck your children in tonight with the story of how you’d draw a knife across their tiny throats and burn them all up if God asked it of you?

Is that love?


Image is a painting of Abraham, holding a knife to a screaming Isaac's throat, looking incomprehendingly at the cherub that's trying to get his attention. Above is the title Really Terrible Bible Stories. Below is vol. I Genesis, Dana Hunter.

Copyright © 2015 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.


Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. I: Genesis is now available at Amazon! Worldwide, even! To order outside the United States, visit your country’s Amazon website and search for “Really Terrible Bible Stories” by Dana Hunter. Thanks for reading!

Really Terrible Bible Stories Excerpt: Burn Your Boy for God

15 thoughts on “Really Terrible Bible Stories Excerpt: Burn Your Boy for God

  1. rq

    You know what’s weird? I never felt sorry for Abraham in this story. I never, ever pictured him in anguish, or having any sort of inner conflict about sacrificing his son.
    And I think it’s part of the way it was always presented, as the ultimate trust in god – that he’s so trusting, he doesn’t even bother to question the order in any way. Isaac’s confusion and distress, sure – but never Abraham, because god is telling him what to do.
    Huh. So you certainly put a new spin on that for me with this telling.

  2. 2

    The only good thing about that story (apart from the usual ‘probably not true’) is that it was used so effectively by Wilfrid Owen in Parable of the Old Man and the Young and brilliantly set by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, and then only because of the changed ending:
    “Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. / But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” and Britten’s setting with its repeated ‘…one by one…’ gives me goose bumps and I’m not even listening to it.

  3. 3

    I’ve read that in some Jewish traditions Abraham failed the test, which is why it is an angel who stops him and only angels speak to him afterwards, never God.

  4. 4

    And let’s be clear, that this story is not just an Old Testament aberration. It was taught also in the New Testament, in the worst possible interpretation. Here is what James writes: “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.” [James 2:21]

  5. 6

    If so, I can make a good guess as to why he failed. Intent to go through with the sacrifice demonstrated only that Abraham was willing to follow the orders of rival gods, like Molech.

  6. 7

    Farbeit from me to be an apologist, but I’ve heard a somewhat more positive spin on the Isaac story. In this interpretation, Abraham lived in a time when human sacrifice was not uncommon. This episode, then, is a parable to illustrate that YHWH isn’t as bloodthirsty as the other gods, that human sacrifice would never again be demanded of the Hebrews.

    Just animal sacrifice… so, maybe not so enlightened after all, I guess.

  7. 8

    One day, even though you know everything, so you know Abraham is completely loyal, you decide to test him anyway.

    As shown in other parts of the Bible, Yahweh is a sadistic bully. Abraham is about to slit Isaac’s throat when Ol’ Yahweh says: “Ha ha, Abe, just kidding. You don’t have to kill your kid. Man, you should have seen yourself. You were so feeling so piteous that I almost peed myself since I was laughing so hard.”

  8. 9

    There have been many Jewish views of this story, some were mentioned above. The midrash has several fanfic versions, including one in which the satan appears to Sarah to tell her that Abraham is killing Isaac, leading to her death in the following chapter (which makes Isaac a 36 year old man rather than the boy he is often depicted as).

    In the middle ages, at times of severe persecution of Jews, some came up with a version in which Isaac in fact died and his ashes had protective power for Jews. (Don’t ask where the next generation of Yahweh-worshippers came from.)

    The story of sacrificing one’s son for one’s beliefs resonates with contemporary Israelis who worry that this is what Israeli existence is about.

    Yehudah Amihai has several poems about the binding of Isaac.

    One is Abraham Had Three Sons

    And here are 3 poems about Abraham by 3 Israeli poets (Amihai, Carmi and Wieseltier).

    And what about Isaac? How was he affected by his experience? Tradition says tears of angels fell into his eyes, leading to his eventual blindness in old age.

    here are 5 poems, by Gouri, Amihai, Carmi, Gilboa, and Greenberg, mostly from Isaac’s POV.

  9. 11

    I like to ask Xians arguing for the existence of god from morality why god told Andrea Yates to kill her 5 children. They invariably reply that god didn’t tell her that, she was just crazy. Then they get all sputtery when I ask them to explain how they know Abraham wasn’t mentally ill when he reported that god told him to kill HIS kid.

  10. 12

    Lauren, that’s because Yahweh himself wrote the story down, in Elizabethan English, of course, so we know that’s how it really happened.

Comments are closed.