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A Father Sacrifices His Son,
A God Tests His Disciple

For Sunday June 29, 2008

           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

Abraham sacrifices Isaac, marble statue by Donatello (1418).
Abraham sacrifices Isaac,
marble statue by
Donatello (1418).

           The Old Testament reading this week is one of the most important, most famous, and most famously disturbing passages in the entire Bible. "Some time later 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.'" Few Scriptures have provoked more art and anguish, more controversy and commentary, than Abraham's radical obedience to God's improbable command.

           Abraham lied when he told the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister (Genesis 12:10ff). He fathered a proxy son (Ishmael) with his slave girl Hagar (Genesis 16). He laughed with Sarah in disbelief when God promised them a son in their old age (Genesis 17:17; 18:12ff). This nomadic believer who had left the known of Haran for the unknown of Canaan because he believed that God had commanded him to do so in order that He might bless the entire world through him — this same Abraham now faced a preposterous test of faith. Would he believe that God really had commanded him to slit the throat of his son, his only son and the son of promise (Genesis 21:12), and then burn him in an act of child sacrifice? And if he did believe that God so commanded him, would he also act upon that conviction and perform the hideous murder?

           In his book Fear and Trembling (1843), one of the most provocative treatments of this passage, the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) devoted an entire book to this story. Kierkegaard recalls how he heard this Bible story as a child, and how the older he got the more his admiration and enthusiasm for the story grew, while the less and less he understood it. He puts himself in Abraham's shoes, as it were, and shudders as he contemplates how Abraham might have thought, felt, and acted. He imagines four different scenarios.

Abraham sacrifices Isaac, Catholic German Bible (1534).
Abraham sacrifices Isaac,
Catholic German Bible (1534).

           In version 1.0 Isaac lunges at Abraham's legs and begs for his life. When he looks at his father Abraham's face, his "gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror." Abraham rebukes Isaac and screams, "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." Here Abraham "protects" God by blaming himself for the atrocious command. At least this way, he reasons, Isaac won't construe God as a monster.

           In version 2.0 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 and psychologically scarred for the remainder 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." In this scenario we wonder about the lifelong consequences to Abraham's faith, not to mention his very humanity. In his act of faith did he lose his faith?

Abraham and Isaac by Marc Chagall (1931).
Abraham and Isaac by
Marc Chagall (1931).

           In version 3.0 Kierkegaard highlights Abraham's tragic regret, agony and incomprehension at having committed an unthinkable murder. What could he have been thinking to kill his own son? 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 is the universal, ethical duty for parents to love their children and not to murder them?! Kierkegaard imagines Abraham concluding that he was wrong to believe that God had told him to murder Isaac. How could he have ever imagined that he had heard such a command from God?

           Abraham 4.0 concocts an entirely different scenario. In this rendition, Abraham suffers a failure of nerve, an explicit act of disobedience, or conversely a return to his senses and sensibility. In this imagined scenario, Abraham believes the command of God but he fails to act. He cannot 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."

           I love how Kierkegaard then 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.

Icon of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Monastery of Stavroniketa (Greek Orthodox, 16th century).
Icon of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac,
Monastery of Stavroniketa
(Greek Orthodox, 16th century).

           Abraham thus faced at least four inter-related challenges to believing the command of God and then acting upon that belief. First, he 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. Similarly, we can 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. Third, at a simple level, 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? Fourth, 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."

           Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is one of those passages in Scripture that will always remain opaque; I doubt that any interpretation will fully satisfy us. It provokes so many questions. Did God really command child sacrifice? Might God ask me to do something similar today? Does the Bible sanction religious violence? Should we listen to our community when they advise us that we are deceived and deceiving, or trump them by invoking the argument that "God told me so?" What about the divine bait-and-switch in this passage, where God asks Abraham to do the incomprehensible, and then at the last minute provides an alternative? This is Kierkegaard's version 2.0 that smacks of psychic torture (recall Dostoyevsky's last minute reprieve from the firing squad). How could Abraham possibly have known whether Isaac would be spared (as it so happened), whether he might kill Isaac only to have God raise him from the dead (the interpretation of Hebrews 11:17–19), or whether God might have him murder Isaac only to provide him with yet a third son of promise after Ishmael and Isaac?

Abraham sacrifices Isaac, by Rembrandt (1635).
Abraham sacrifices Isaac,
by Rembrandt (1635).

           Abraham could not have known the answers to these 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" (Philippians 2:12–13), with palpable dread and humility, before a God who asks everything, absolutely everything, of us.

Image credits: (1) Web Gallery of Art; (2) Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Emory University; (3) Genesis Reconsidered, Time, Inc.; (4); and (5)

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