A Terrifying Text:
Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah

For Sunday June 29, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 22:1–14 or Jeremiah 28:5–9

Psalm 13 or Psalm 89:1–4, 15–18

Romans 6:12–23

Matthew 10:40–42

           I once had a job interview where I sat at the end of a long table in a big conference room. For ninety long minutes, a dozen professors asked me questions about anything they wanted. Things were rolling along pretty good until one professor tossed me a bomb: "Isn't the idea of God the Father sacrificing his Son a form of divine child abuse?"

           Wow, I remember thinking, that's a zinger. I don't remember what I said, but I didn't get the job.

           That interview question sounds bizarre, but it comes straight from Genesis 22 for this week. " God tested Abraham. He said to him, 'Abraham!' 'Here I am,' he replied. Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.'"

Fresco, catacomb of Priscilla, 4th century.
Fresco, catacomb of Priscilla, 4th century.

           Abraham bound Isaac, but at the last second an angel intervened: "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Abraham then sacrificed a ram that he found in the thicket.

           So, he passed the "test."

           Few Scriptures have provoked more art and anguish, more controversy and commentary, than Abraham's radical obedience to God's improbable command. Particularly interesting is the long history of Jewish interpretation. How should we read this terrifying text?

           For the atheist zealot Richard Dawkins, it's an example of religion's barbaric cruelty. In his book The God Delusion (2007), he writes, "this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ' I was only obeying orders ' Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions."

Wall painting, catacomb of Via Latina, c. 320 AD.
Wall painting, catacomb of Via Latina, c. 320 AD.

           Dawkins gets style points for his rhetoric. But instead of engaging the interpretive history of the story, he imagines that ancient people weren't also shocked by the text. So, he resorts to a cheap shot. But what might the story mean?

           Genesis says that "God tested Abraham." Would he believe that God had really commanded him to sacrifice his son? And if he did believe so, would he act on that conviction?

           In Fear and Trembling (1843), Soren Kierkegaard devoted an entire book to this story. He recalls how he heard this Bible story as a child, and how the older he got the more his enthusiasm for the story grew, while the less and less he understood it. He puts himself in Abraham's shoes, and shudders as he contemplates how Abraham might have thought, felt, and acted. He imagines four different scenarios.

           In version 1, Abraham "protects" God by blaming himself for the atrocious command. Isaac lunges at Abraham's legs and begs for his life. When he looks at Abraham's face, his "gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror." Abraham rebukes Isaac, "Do you think it is God's command?! No, it is my desire." Abraham then prays softly, "Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you."

Floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, 6th century.
Floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, 6th century.

           In version 2, Abraham and Isaac journey in total silence. At Moriah, Abraham builds the altar and wields the knife, then at the last minute God provides a ram in Isaac's place. In fact, this is how the Genesis narrative unfolds. But Kierkegaard ads a twist by imagining the consequences.

           Abraham obeyed and Isaac was saved, but Abraham was deeply traumatized for the rest of his life. "He could not forget that God had ordered him to do this… His eyes were darkened and he saw joy no more." He passed the test, but at what cost? In his act of faith did he lose his faith?

           Version 3 imagines Abraham's agony at having committed child sacrifice. What could he have been thinking? Abraham "threw himself down on his face, he prayed to God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to sacrifice Isaac, that the father had forgotten his duty to his son." Surely it's the universal ethical duty for parents to love their children and not to murder them?! Kierkegaard imagines Abraham concluding that he was mistaken to believe that God had told him to sacrifice Isaac.

           Finally, an entirely different scenario. Abraham suffers a failure of nerve, an explicit act of disobedience, or conversely, he returns to his senses. In this scenario, Abraham believes the command of God but he fails to act. He can't bring himself to slay Isaac, and as a consequence Isaac loses his faith. "Not a word of this is ever said in the world, and Isaac never talked to anyone about what he had seen, and Abraham did not suspect that anyone had seen."

Medieval ivory carving.
Medieval ivory carving.

           Kierkegaard concludes his four imaginary scenarios: "Thus and in many similar ways did the man of whom we speak ponder this event." That's an understatement if ever there was one.

           Abraham would have been entirely reasonable to conclude that he was being deceived by malign influences — sickness, demons, hallucinations, infirmities of his old age, etc., and that the visions and voices that he heard originated not with a loving God but from a temptation of the worst, evil sort. If that was the case, he would have "obeyed" by dismissing the voices as delusions.

           We can also imagine praising Abraham if he had concluded that he had deceived himself through religious zealotry couched in pious platitudes. Today we invoke this rationale to condemn in the harshest terms suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq, or Christians who bomb abortion clinics, all who claim that God told them to commit some atrocity.

           The command of God challenged Abraham to embrace the absurd, the irrational, and the unintelligible. What sense did it make to murder the son of promise through whom God had promised to bless all the earth?

           Abraham had to transcend normal ethical expectations. Good parents love and nourish their children, they don't murder them in religiously-inspired violence and claim that "God told me to do it."

14th century mss. from Iceland.
14th century mss. from Iceland.

           I doubt that any interpretation of this story will fully satisfy us. It provokes too many disturbing questions.

           Abraham could not have known the answers to his many questions in advance, and I take that simple observation as an important theme of the story. He acted wholeheartedly without absolute certainty. He acted as a solitary individual, with no guarantees or clarity, knowing that he might be horribly wrong and deeply deceived by himself or others, knowing that his actions would merit the opprobrium of his family and community, knowing that his act would be irreversible, and contrary to everyday standards of ethics and rationality.

           In his radical obedience, Abraham "worked out his salvation with fear and trembling" before a God who asks everything, absolutely everything, of us (Philippians 2:12–13).

For further reflection:

From last week's gospel reading in Matthew 10:37–39:

37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."

Image credits: (1) ArtBible.net; (2) CatacombSociety.org; (3) Wikipedia.org; (4) St. Louis Community College; and (5) Wikipedia.org.