If not as literal fact,
How should we take the story?
As an allegory? Then an allegory for what?
Surely nothing praiseworthy. As a moral lesson?
But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story?
It's a Richard Dawkins quote and a good question. I'm not going to tell anyone how it should be taken but I will offer up how I take it.
I admit it's one of my favourites stories from the bible. I just don't think, for a story of high drama and conflicting values, you can get much better. I think my favourite thing about it is that it never settles. It's not a story that any good, thinking person can ever feel completely comfortable with. Abraham is asked to do something deeply wrong and we're asked to see that as virtuous.
First off, It's myth. This never happened. At the very, very best this is a legend but so steeped in layers that it doesn't reflect anything of the real events or people that may have sparked the story.
Second, It's an ancient Hebrew myth, not a christian one. I don't say this to distance christianity from it but to make it clear who the story is speaking to and who's values it describes. It's a favourites pastime of some christians to go rummaging through the Hebrew Scriptures for prophecies and justifications but that's simply wrong. Read them as a part of our heritage, yes. Appropriate and revise them for our own purposes, no.
So what do I think it is? I think it's a story that shows the defining feature of the relationship between the ancient Hebrews and god and that feature is obedience. Abraham was in almost every way a right sorry bastard but he was still a righteous man and that was because he did what God told him. To understand that puts a lot of the OT in context because so much of it is about how obedient or disobedient the people of YHWH are. The best of the people are the ones who obey. The punishments come when people disobey. Abraham was willing to obey to the point where he would kill not only his son, the one son (well, from Sarah anyway) who YHWH gave him, but any hope of Israel.
I don't think there's much in terms of morality to wring from the story. It's about obedience and that's it.
I did hear another idea over on an atheist message board I frequent (where else do you go when you want to talk to people who know the bible inside and out?). A poster posited that it was an injuction against child sacrifice. When the Abraham story was first being told child sacrifice was likely going on in surrounding cultures and the Hebrews themselves may not have been to far removed from it. The poster thought that the fact that god stopped the sacrifice and made it clear it was not something he wanted may have reflected something about the Hebrew's views on it. I don't really buy that about the version that made the OT but I can see that maybe earlier versions of the myth may have had that as more of a focus and then got obedience tacked on later as the story grew. There have been MANY times I wished I could have been sitting around a fire with ancient hebrews telling these stories because the great shame of writing the stuff down is that we only have one (or two as with Noah) version of the tale preserved and only at one point in it's development.