The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.
Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.
Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?
The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.
The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.
Abraham (almost) sacrificing Isaac seems to be a horrifying act, looking back from our age, where religion went trough a lengthy development from blood-thirsty divinities to the ever-forgiving God concept of Christianity. But in a society practicing everyday human sacrifice (think of the Inca for example) the whole thing is different… Actually it is the first step, towards that God-concept we have today… saying: “Sacrifice is good, keep it, just in an improved form… use surrogate victim!” Today we have to learn a similarly revolutionary lesson: “Do not use victims at all!”
Jesus said to the rich young man that if he would give up all that he had, and follow him, it would be sufficient. Abraham’s all was Isaac – the promise of posterity, the fulfillment of God’s covenant with him. For God to command that he sacrifice this son of his covenant was to command that he, also, give up all that he had. Abraham could not have been saved without that willingness. It seems obvious that the Lord never intended for this to be a child sacrifice (added to which the evidence that points to Isaac being a man of twenty or thirty, not a child), but a test for Abraham. It is also our test – will we give up our desires, our pride and conviction that we know best, for that which God promises? I think we have to believe that “everything God commands is right”, or it’s a little difficult to have real faith and trust in him, don’t you think?
You also seem to believe that actually killing his son would have been wrong on Abraham’s part. this raises the question of whether or not Abraham went through a process of understanding God’s will. Given the child sacrifice in Canaanite culture surrounding Abraham, perhaps it seemed to be the way to give everything to God until God commended the intention but not the actual deed. One can see the Hebrew Bible as gradually educating people into this kind of loving God, culminating in Jesus’ teaching & life. A Christological interpretation of the Isaac story does suggest God the Father being willing to allow his son to die, not because the killing was right, (see other posts on the passion story on my blog) but because only a nonviolent act in the midst of violence could have opened the kingdom of God to us. In a sense, every parent has to give up each child to allow the child to mature and live. However, all this about being willing to give up everything is, according to SK, a movement towards faith but falls short of faith. Not only was Jesus willing to give everything, he had this amazing trust that all the life he gave would be returned at a much deeper level.
Paul does write that Abraham was ready (obviously) to go through with the sacrifice, and that if he had, he knew that God was able to raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19 – “Considering that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead”). I don’t know if that was a possibility; it seems all God needed was for Abraham to get to the point where he knew he would do it; the act itself wasn’t necessary. There are the other symbolisms in it, too – the grace that we receive through Christ’s atonement; the providing of the ram being a ‘type’ for Christ’s sacrifice for us, his suffering in place of ours, etc.; as you’ve mentioned, the Father’s sacrifice of His only begotten Son.
It’s an interesting view to see God’s willingness to allow his son to die being about a nonviolent act in the midst of violence. I think it goes far deeper than that, but I hadn’t thought of that possible aspect.
True – “every parent has to give up each child to allow the child to mature and live”! Really, a lot of life, I suppose, if we look at it closely, is about giving up. But we can only do it if we trust that, like you said, “all the life [we give will] be returned at a much deeper level”.