Abraham, the father of three faiths, venerated by billions, breaks dad rule number 1. Don’t sacrifice your child. I know it should be easy to follow, but we all do it. Because we all fail to re-examine our beliefs, our families often carry the cost of that failure.
When I think of all the dads of the Bible, especially the numerous bad ones, the first one in this series had to be Abraham. He is the Father of the Faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is through Abraham that the adherents come to worship Yahweh or God. So let’s see what we can learn from this, the first bad dad of the Bible.
For those unfamiliar with Abraham, the short version is that he leaves his homeland of Ur (think Babylon) with his father, Terah, and heads north to Harran. Later Abraham is called by Yahweh into the land of Canaan. Yahweh makes Abraham (then Abram) several promises to make him into a great nation throughout his journey. The problem is that Sarai (later Sarah) can’t have children. So finally, after decades of schlepping around Canaan, Sarah conceives when she is 90 years old and later gives birth to Isaac. That catches you up to the story Abraham is perhaps most infamous for, the sacrifice of Isaac. The full version can be found in Genesis 12-25.
The Binding of Isaac
The story (Gen 22) goes that Yahweh asks Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah as a burnt offering. This is the only time in humanity’s relationship with Yahweh that Yahweh asks for a child sacrifice or really any sacrifice of humans. If anything, it is pretty out of character for God to ask this of Abraham. Well, Abraham intends to go through with it, unquestioning. He gets all the way to a constructed altar and a bound up Isaac, with the knife taken out, when an angel stops Abraham. They end up sacrificing a ram found caught in a thicket nearby. God then goes on to confirm his covenant with Abraham.
The fallout from this act is what we, Christians at least, never talk about. Sarah rolls out from where Abraham is staying, and presumably, Isaac goes with her.
Gen 22:19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
Gen 24:67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death
They don’t just move to a different part of the tent compound but are nearly 26 miles away (Gen 23:2). 26 miles away is significant because it is literally as far as they can get from Abraham and still be 1 day away. So if they are attacked or need Abraham, they are close but as far away as possible.
Looking At This Story As A Dad
While many, especially Christians, do some mental gymnastics to explain the importance of this moment for the faith that Abraham founds. It’s actually a really shitty parent moment. As far as we know, Isaac doesn’t see Abraham again until Abraham dies when he hangs out with the almost equally messed up and disowned older half-brother, Ishmael. Forget about him in the story? Muslims don’t.
What I find most interesting in this story of Abraham’s faith is what God has to say about all this. Found in Genesis 22:12:
“Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld your son, your only son.”
Next, the angel confirms the covenant with Abraham, which I have always glossed over, but is a little weird. Everyone has always taught me that because Abraham took Isaac up there and was willing to go through with his son’s sacrifice, God confirmed the covenant again. But that is only one reading of the story because the sacrifice or lack of withholding is not necessarily equated with the obedience that God actually desires. It could be that the obedience to Yahweh was that Abraham didn’t go through the sacrifice.
After reading through this story and considering the character of God, I read this reaffirming of the covenant differently. Instead, I read it more like this, “even though you did this thing, not withholding your only son, I will surely bless you… because you obeyed me in the end.”
Check out the original text, and you can even look-up the Hebrew. While I am no expert, it is a possible reading from the Rabbinical sources I have encountered. When you consider the aftermath and the character of God, forgiveness is a better tone for this passage rather than triumph.
The Fear of Abraham
But where I like to dive right back into this onion of the story is that odd word of fear. Ok, so that word “fear” there is interesting. Because Abraham is credited righteousness early in the story when he believes that God will come through for him and make him into a great nation. But here is the deal. In every other part of the story, Abraham is constantly choosing fear over faith.
All of his terrible husband and father moments are fear-based decision-making. Getting rid of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:10), he was afraid of Sarah (and he should have been). Having Sarah join not one but two harems (Gen 12), the second one is so much worse too (Gen 20), were fear moments. Basically, Abraham is afraid of everything except God.
There are two moments when Abraham doesn’t act out of fear, and they both involve his nephew, Lot. So when his nephew is in trouble, he gathers up a few hundred men to crush a few kings and their armies in battle (Gen 14). Then there’s that moment where Abraham bargains for the people’s lives found in Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot lives (Gen 18). Stand up to Sarah, not a chance. But the Almighty God, no problem.
When you put these events together in Abraham’s life, you get a different picture than a patriarch of faith. Instead, a man stumbled into success by lying and hiding behind his wife and ultimately God. That’s what makes that word fear so piercing. Abraham has been operating out of fear his whole life except when he stepped out on to faith to go to Canaan and when he believed that God would make him into a great nation.
What’s so sad is the thing he used, faith, to chase family; he used his fear to ruin. Abraham was afraid of God enough to sacrifice his own child. He didn’t even bargain for him like he did the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or rally the troops to have a conversation with God. No, he was just afraid, and that’s what Yahweh tells him.
Don’t Be Afraid to Rethink
Fear is a powerful motivator. Chances are you found yourself on this Substack out of fear. Maybe you are afraid of an empty life, being a terrible father, afraid of where your faith might take you, or any number of things. Perhaps you even got caught by the headline and are afraid of religions like Christianity. Fear certainly motivated Abraham. But let’s dig a little deeper past the fear and overcome it with bravery.
It is easy to go with the crowd. It is easy to double down. Even our neurobiology supports strengthening connections within our brains rather than re-wiring them. Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, addresses our proclivity for staying within the lane and encourages us to rethink our long-held positions and beliefs. Likewise, I encourage you to do the same.
Abraham failed to consider his faith when he received the call to Mount Moriah. Instead, he simply chose the road his brain had most traveled, fear. The transformative power of faith comes from re-wiring our brains to choose differently, more in line with our values.
Who Do I Want to Be?
Instead of beginning the Bad Dads of the Bible with a call to increased faith, it is essential to start with rethinking our faith. We must reflect on what we want and where we want to end up. Perhaps the most crucial question I reflect on ever so often is, “who do I want to be in X years?” For example, I think about my kids all grown up, who do I want to be? What kinds of skills do I have? What type of relationships do I have?
Once I have decided on those objectives, I can look at my faith and determine if it will get me there. Maybe you want to be a top CEO in the tech sector. Well, a belief in hard work and the innovative qualities of the technology might serve you really well. But, that faith might also cost you other things that might be more important in ten or twenty years. If you pour yourself into work because that is your primary belief, what will your children’s lives look like? Is it worth the cost? Maybe. We get no indication that Abraham thought the price was too high. But that price was certainly steep for his family, Isaac, Sarah, and Ishmael.
Faithful Fatherhood – Bravely Rethink
You could read the story of Abraham traditionally. Double down on faith, and it will all work out. I offer you the chance to step back and rethink your beliefs. Instead of viewing this story as a triumphal moment of faith, what if it is a cautionary tale of trauma.
Start a journey of Faithful Fatherhood by taking stock and thinking about where you want to end up. Because you could end up a lot more lonely than you think. Abraham did, perhaps that is why he remarried.
Faithful Fatherhood is an act of bravery. No one does this. No one stops to reflect on his faith. It is too hard. But I believe in you. You can learn from the failures and successes in my life and the Bad Dads of the Bible. And when we succeed, we replicate faithful fatherhood. Transforming father by father until we stand not as the butt of parenting jokes but as the pillars of our families and communities. Hard to get there? Yeah, but we begin by choosing faith over fear. We start by bravely asking the questions our fathers and their fathers were too afraid to ask.
So what are your questions? What do you need to get off your chest?
If you need some more help clarifying your faith or beliefs, I have an upcoming post discussing just that.