James asks, “I’m pretty sure I just missed this and you’ve talked about it somewhere (if so, just point me to it), but how do you interpret the story in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son if you believe that God would never ask someone to sacrifice their son? Or do you just mean God would never ask someone to do it, and mean it?”
Obviously from a Christian canonical-critical point of view this story fits into THE story as a sort of foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice in Jesus Christ. But whether the death of Christ is the culmination of the violence of the sacrificial system or, as I would view it, as the final negation and unmasking of that violence, is an issue on which Christians disagree deeply. Consequently, readings of the Isaac/sacrifice story will differ based on these different interpretive frameworks.
While I think it is important as a goal to work toward understanding these texts correctly, my primary focus here is comparatively modest. It is to open up space for Christians to retain certain core moral convictions such as the conviction that it is always wrong to sacrifice and mutilate your child, and to do so even when you are not exactly sure just how this text is to be read. Surely that’s okay. We need to resist the temptation to have an easy answer for everything. Sometimes it is better to live with the tension, at least for a time. Put another way, better to be unsure of how a text is to be read than to read it incorrectly.
Here’s an analogy. Picture yourself taking an intro ethics class at university. Dr. Tabbath delivers a lecture on the importance of the cardinal virtues. He then concludes the class by telling a story of an individual who became a self-destructive rock star like the one satirized in Joe Walsh’s classic song “Life’s Been Good“. After narrating for some time the rock star’s drunkenness, his trashing of hotel rooms, his philandering with eighteen year old groupies, Dr. Tabbath looks squarely at the class and says “Now class, isn’t it clear from what we have seen that the rock star’s actions were profoundly good?” And with that he walks out the door. Class dismissed apparently.
Imagine going out to Starbucks with your classmates afterward. And they spend all their time trying to understand how Dr. Tabbath’s final statement fits with his lecture on the cardinal virtues. You find this misguided and so retort: “No it doesn’t. It can’t!”
They in turn reply: “Well if the rock star wasn’t embodying the cardinal virtues then what is Dr. Tabbath saying wise guy?”
I’d say it is fair for you to reply: “I don’t know what he was meaning to say, but I know it wasn’t that.”