Abraham and Isaac and why we should value disobedience

A reflection by USPG Theological Adviser Evie Vernon…

Religious societies tend to put a high premium on obedience. It makes for a tidy, stable and well-organised community.

It usually works like this: there is a structured hierarchy, usually male, which derives its authority from the Divine; we then offer unquestioned obedience to the patriarch/father/national leader, who is unquestioningly obedient to the deity – so our obedience to this leader is equivalent to our direct obedience to the deity.

For me, this whole notion of unquestioning obedience is dangerously misguided.

People in authority are merely human. They do not speak with the voice of God. They get things wrong, sometimes very wrong indeed.

The religious and political authorities in Jesus’ time could not comprehend that a simple Galilean, from outside the power structures was the one speaking with the voice of God. So they ordered him to be executed, and the crowds who had loved him thought the authorities might have had a point.

Every human being is created in God’s image. This comes with the responsibility of distinguishing between good and evil, and rejecting evil no matter who commands us that it is actually good.

The So-called ‘Nuremberg defence’ – ‘I was only following orders’ – was not considered a sufficient defence for the Nazi officers accused of carrying out atrocities in the Second World War. It is not a sufficient defence for people of faith.

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In Genesis 22, the patriarch, Abraham attempts to carry out the most heinous of acts. He prepares to cut the throat of an innocent child, his own son, in the name of God.

In the story, he is prevented from doing so only by the intervention of an angel, who provides a ram as a substitute sacrifice.

The spin usually put on this story is that God was testing Abraham’s obedience, while Abraham believed that God would prevent him from doing anything really evil.

Others have chosen to do evil things in God’s name, doubtless confident that God can always intervene to save the innocent. So when there is no miraculous intervention, they feel their actions are justified.

But what if the general spin on this story is entirely wrong? What if the test were not about unquestioned obedience, but about morality? What if Abraham should have said: ‘No God. This order could not have come from you. Only a monster would order me to kill an innocent child. If you are a monster, I cannot serve you, so, no! And if you are not a monster, you do not desire this, so no again!’

We cannot do evil in God’s name. Ever. If we hear a voice, internal or external, calling us to commit heinous acts, then we must disobey in God’s name.


Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of Us.
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3 thoughts on “Abraham and Isaac and why we should value disobedience

  1. When teaching about this in school I always reminded students that this was before
    the 10 commandments had been given but now we know that we should not kill in ordinary circumstances!

  2. Many thanks for this, Evie. I had a mother who valued loyalty – and she stayed loyal to a Tory party which I reckon changed rather over her 80 something years! Yes, we want to obey God (follow the good path) but it’s often not easy to discern the way. Abraham believed he heard the voice of God showing him the way – as have many others that we might think were mistaken. I suppose Abraham would have believed that offering a burnt sacrifice was inherently good and fruitful – but for me, the call to an act of violence would demand a much larger, more abundant vision of good beyond to give it any possible worth. I am reminded of the words of Jesus; ‘Do you love me?’ … ‘Feed my sheep’. The fruit of the love and obedience is there to be seen at the outset.

  3. The penultimate paragraph makes no sense, given the Angel’s response: ‘He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” ‘ Genesis 22:12 Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac testified to his faithfulness to God, only after which, did Abraham recieve instruction in the immorality of child sacrifice (there is no evidence tha Abraham thought human sacrifice was wrong prior to the binding of Isaac). And in his willingness to comply with a divine command, no criticism of Abraham could be made that he worshipped his God because the burden laid upon him was easier to bear than the burden laid upon the pagans.

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