My (former) favorite Bible story

The Binding of Isaac

As a child, my favorite Bible story, I am ashamed to say, was Genesis 22:1-15, otherwise known as the Binding of Isaac. You know the tale—it’s the one where God tells Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his kid.

If you don’t remember, here’s the full story and here’s the synopsis: God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abe obediently travels to the designated spot, gathers up the wood (and even makes Isaac carry it!), builds the altar, and ties up his boy. He’s got the knife in his hand and is ready to do the deed (and with barely a peep from Isaac, the poor kid) when an angel of the Lord steps in, expresses its approval, and gives Abraham a ram to kill in place of his son.

I used to think this story was a great example of how devoted we should all be to God—that we should be willing to give up what we love the most if God demands it. That’s how I thought about the story because that’s how a grown-up explained it to me.

Granted, I was seven or eight years old at the time. I had no conception of the unique love a parent feels for his or her children. I had no concept that the death of one’s child is about the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Such realizations were far off in my developmental future.

Now that I’m an adult with children of my own, I understand what a horrible tale the Binding of Isaac really is. That’s why I say I’m ashamed that it was once my favorite Bible story.

Why kids believe grown-ups

I saw the story as an admirable one because that’s what a grown-up—in this case, if I recall correctly, the music instructor at a Jewish day camp—told me. And because as kids, the concept of believing what adults tell us is (for lack of a better term) hard-wired into our brains.

Actually, it’s evolution at work. Think about it: Wouldn’t natural selection favor children who accept what grown-ups tell them without question? The kid who freezes when his parent yells “STOP!!” is much less likely to run into the street and get hit by a rapidly-approaching bus, and therefore more likely to survive to breed and pass this trait on to his children. The kid who ignores the shouting grown-up and keeps running? SPLAT.

This ties into why so many of us find it difficult to give up our belief in religion, or to even consider the possibility that our gods are imaginary. We are taught religion at a young age, and our first exposure is often from parents or grandparents. We go to religious classes or church/temple activities when we are young. Religious awareness becomes a fundamental part of our foundational knowledge. These beliefs are set so early that they are difficult to give up.

And that realization was—for me—one of the key elements in giving up my belief in God. I didn’t ask myself what I believed; I asked myself why I believed. And I realized it was largely because I’d been taught to believe.

But as every adult knows, not everything we’re taught as children is correct.

What would I do an Abraham’s place?

A lot of what grown-ups told me was good and right and helpful. I am extremely fortunate in that most of my childhood influences were positive. But the person who told me the Binding of Isaac was a story to admire? She was wrong.

I can say now, unequivocally and without question or hesitation, that if God appeared before me—and keep in mind that by doing so he’d be proving his existence, and therefore I’d no longer be an atheist—and told me to kill my kid, I know what I’d do.

I’d look him square in the eye and tell him to go get stuffed.

I’d tell him if he wants anyone dead, he can do his own damn dirty work, and that if he wants to harm my kid, he’s going to have to go through me first. And if that means going to hell, that’s fine. I can think of no punishment worse than being complicit in the death of one’s own child, and the further I can get from any being who would demand such a thing of a loving parent, the happier I’ll be.

I hope like crazy that you, dear reader, would be more willing to follow my example than Abraham’s.

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