When does following God become religious fanaticism?


“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred…to the land I will show you.” Gen. 12:1.

A lot of ink goes to Abraham. Not only does his life story occupy almost one-fifth of the entire book of Genesis, Abraham also represents a change in the writing style of the book. While we learn some interesting life tidbits on earlier people, Abraham comes to us fully drawn as a man with his own will and opinions, a man at turns, fearful, passionate, generous, ingenious, kind and faithful. In other words, a man like us; who argues with God, gets deeply disappointed and worries about the future.

He’s also a man who hears God speak to him.

A lot.

Abraham hears words of comfort from God “Do not be afraid! “; he hears words of condemnation “Great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah!” and he hears words that just stick in my throat – words that make my entire body and soul rebel: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…and offer him as a burnt offering.”

Whew. I could do without Genesis 22. These are words I don’t understand, words I don’t like, and words that I can’t imagine obeying under any circumstance.  I know I’m not alone in this. Jewish commentators throughout the ages have understood this Akedah  (“Binding of Isaac”) in various ways.

In traditional Jewish through, the Akedah is used as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom – as people who are ready to give up everything God requests. On Rosh Hashanah, the Akedah is invoked as God is asked to “consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac…in order to perform Thy will…”

Christians have often heard this text preached with the emphasis on the angel stopping the hand of Abraham. This is what we are to remember, we’re told, the Lord didn’t allow Abraham to follow through on this obedience. God doesn’t require human sacrifice! Unlike the Moloch worshippers of Abraham’s time, Yahweh didn’t want the death of the son, he only wanted the obedience of the father.

Hum. “Tell that to Isaac” I want to say.

What the text does tell us is that after Abraham’s hand is stopped by the angel, father Abraham and son Isaac each pack up their things and prepare to leave this horrible mountain.

They leave separately. “Abraham returns to his young men (those who traveled with he and Isaac) and they arose and went to together to Beer-sheba.” (Gen. 22:19).

Isaac presumably leaves by another route. Genesis never records another moment of father and son together. After having cast Ishmael away earlier, it now appears Abraham loses familiar contact with his promised son Isaac, as the son settles in “the Negeb” (Gen. 24:62) and the father settles in Beer-sheba (Gen. 22:19)

If this is true, then truly who can blame Isaac? Perhaps the only thing more frightening than obeying a word like this is to be the victim of that obedience. I envision Isaac leaving the mountain without a backward glance.

The sons come together one last time time: burying their complicated father in a cave with his wife Sarah. That site is now known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, located in Hebron. The site where the American-born Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others as the worshippers knelt for morning prayers.

When asked why he would do such a murderous act, Goldstein’s answer was simple: God told him to.


4 thoughts on “When does following God become religious fanaticism?

  1. Wow – so much to think about here! Appreciate so much your ability to ask the hard questions as you grow deeper in relationship with God, not more cynical.

  2. Laura, I learned of you recently from my renewed acquaintance with Peter Gilmour, a friend from “Loyola days” in ’61-62. He told me of his “Loyola Grad Authors” project/listing, and there I found “UNDONE & you! HAPPY DISCOVERY. I will be following your writings now, checking in
    periodically. Truly impressed by the work you are doing in the world. Very Good writer, too!

    Larry Lippert
    Tucson AZ

    • Hi Larry! So nice to hear from you and build a cyber acquaintance. Peter is so great – I learned a lot about character and godliness from him. Thanks for the common connection!

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