Her name escaped me long ago, but her actions will haunt me forever.
The rural Tennessee woman, whose story I covered as a reporter for the Nashville Banner, was a person of faith, who always tried to do what she believed God would have her do, no matter how difficult the task. She believed that God spoke to her, that God looked for ways to strengthen and test her faith.
For a long time she tried to ignore this thing that she believed she heard God telling her to do. But finally the voice became so strong and persistent she could ignore it no longer.
And so she took her infant child, her only son, who she loved, and she bound the boy and she put him in the oven, and she turned it on.
The baby died. The mother was arrested. Eventually she pled not guilty by reason of insanity to her son’s death, and was sentenced to spend many years in a psychiatric hospital.
Surely all of us here today would agree that anyone who hears God telling them to harm or kill a child – or any innocent person – is insane, in need of great psychiatric care.
I think we would all agree that such people need to be removed from the community until a time when we can be assured that they are no longer a danger to others or to themselves.
That is why the Biblical story we hear today is so disturbing – this tale of a man who without question or hesitancy is ready to carry out an order from God to kill his son, who he loved – and to have that man, Abraham, held up not as an example of insanity, but as a paragon of obedience and faithfulness.
Abraham, who waited years and years for God’s promise of a son with his wife Sarah to be fulfilled, now docilely agrees to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command, killing not only his son, but the entire promise of future generations.
Abraham, who pleads with God to save the innocent people of Sodom, who dares say to God then, “Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth be just?,” this same Abraham fails to offer one question or word of protest at the command to kill his own son.
Abraham, who professes love for his wife Sarah, fails to mention to her what God has demanded of him, or why he and her beloved Isaac are making this trek to the mountains.
What kind of father, what kind of husband, what kind of patriarch is this?
And what about God, the creator of the universe, the maker of covenants, the one who hungers for justice and righteousness?
What kind of God demands that a father kill his son? What kind of God plays cat and mouse games with those created in God’s image? What kind of God devises such cruel and sadistic tests of faith?
Why would any person of integrity want to be faithful to such a God?
Those are some of the questions that come to me as I struggle with this story. And as I studied the commentaries about this text, I was amazed at the lengths Biblical scholars would go to justify the actions of both Abraham and God.
Here are a few of their interpretations and explanations:
Abraham knew that God would come though at the last minute, that God wouldn’t really demand he kill his son.
Well, as attorney Alan Dershowitz points out in an excellent commentary on this story, if that is true, if Abraham knew the outcome ahead of time, then it really wasn’t a test. And Dershowitz adds, based on some of God’s past behavior, why would Abraham trust that God wouldn’t carry through with the command?
This, after all, is the same God who a few chapters earlier in Genesis destroyed the whole world in a flood and was ready to kill the innocent along with the guilty in Sodom. “Why would such a God not also expect one of his followers to kill a single child?” Dershowitz asks.
Another argument in the Abraham defense camp is that obedience to God, even in such an horrific matter, is the ultimate value.
Obedience to a superior power is the same argument Nazi soldiers used to defend their actions after World War Two. The Nuremburg trials made it clear that following the orders of a superior is not a defense against an immoral act.
Killing an innocent child is clearly immoral, even if it is ordered by a voice from heaven.
Another commentary claimed that Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, that he was testing God, and that if God had not stopped the order at the last minute, then Abraham would have stopped it himself.
Dershowitz notes that he once had a client who used this defense. The man was accused of attempted murder after the police found him on top of another man, holding a knife over the other man’s body.
Dershowitz’s client argued that he had never intended to hurt the man, he was just trying to scare him, that he would have stopped even if the police had not arrived.
The argument failed to work for Dershowitz’s client, and it fails to get Abraham off the hook, too. The text offers no indication that Abraham was anything but willing to carry out God’s command.
And what about God in this story? What justification can there be for such a cruel test of faith?
This test was necessary, one commentator wrote, because God had to know that Abraham was worthy of the covenant God had made with him; to be the father of an entire nation, the people of Israel, God’s chosen people.
But what makes a man who is willing to kill his own child worthy of being founder of a nation? Is that the kind of moral character we want in a founding father?
Another commentator noted that God did not command Abraham to murder Isaac, but to sacrifice him. “Sacrifice is different from murder,” this Biblical scholar wrote. “You murder those you hate; you sacrifice what you love.”
Somehow I think that ridiculous distinction would be lost on Isaac.
Of course, in the end, God does rescind the order to kill Isaac. And if there is any redemption in this diabolical story, it is that.
Other gods worshipped in Abraham’s time did require the sacrifice of children. In the end, the God of Abraham does not.
If the story had gone the other way, if God had not stepped in at the last moment to stop the killing, then the God of Abraham could not be the God we worship today. There would be little or no difference between Abraham’s God and the Canaanite god or any number of lesser gods.
So although this story, in my eyes, does nothing to redeem Abraham, it does in the end offer at least some redemption for God. The cruelty of the test remains, questions are still there, but so is a glimmer of goodness.
But that glimmer does not redeem the whole story. Dershowitz agrees. At the end of his commentary, he says, “Whatever interpretation the reader ultimately finds meaningful, one conclusion is clear:
“No one can read this story literally and accept it as a clear guide for human action. It cries out for explication, for disagreement, for reflection, and for concern.
“It provides no answers, only eternally unanswerable questions, and in that respect it is the perfect tool for teaching the realities, limitations and imperfections of both divine and human justice.
“The story of Abraham and Isaac is real life writ large, with all of its tragic choices, ambiguities, and uncertainties.”
By far the most faithful, moral reaction I’ve heard to this story comes from the granddaughter of long time St. Dunstan’s member Betty Whittier, who died a few years ago. Betty’s granddaughter, Julia Friederich, wrote this when she was 15. I’ve used this poem before, but it is worth hearing again. There is no ambiguity in her response:
my name is not Abraham i am Julia 15 years two months & three days but even if I were 99 and called upon by God lightning bolts, white robes, and hallelujah chorus to kill the miracle he gave me my son not even then would I do it. it would be a sacrifice to me but my son could feel my son could live to my son it would be murder he is my son, but he is not mine to give away and even if I burn in hell or my family dies out or I lose my red shoes at least I have my son’s love & trust my name is not Abraham i am Julia 15 years two months & three days I don’t know God but I know this: where there is undeniable love keep it