Abraham and Isaac
When people today read the Old Testament, the focus is on the ethical implications of every story. This provokes difficulties in appreciating the Old Testament, as the acts of God and God’s chosen people so often conflicts with contemporary understanding of morality. The Israelites stoned homosexuals, disobedient children, adulterers, and so forth. Indeed, were one to reflect on the story of Abraham and Isaac, it would seem absurd: Abraham heard the voice of God, telling him to kill his own son, and he was going to do it. Although Abraham had heard God’s call before in his life, if someone were to kill today because Gold told him to, he’d be assumed insane. As Nick recently commented on this blog, just because Abraham was following God’s orders does not excuse the evil he was intending to commit. Abraham was called by Kierkegaard a ‘knight of faith’, but what moral or spiritual lesson could people today learn from Abraham, since God does not talk to people and killing an innocent son would be deemed wrong under any circumstances?
To better understand the story we must examine the context. God had repeatedly promised Abraham that his seed would father whole nations in the land of Canaan, and nothing meant more to Abraham than this promise. Sarah, his wife, was getting extremely old and had not yet produced a son. She was becoming barren, he was becoming impatient, and after God forgave Abraham for fathering a child with one of his concubine’s, Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac. For such an old lady to give birth to Isaac, the child promised by God, it was the miracle of Abraham’s life. Now that God’s promise was fulfilled, Abraham finally felt complete.
God desired to test Abraham’s commitment to God, however, and instructed him to slay Isaac as a sacrifice. The story told in Genesis 22 explicitly mentions how Abraham loves Isaac. All fathers love their children, but Isaac was not only Abraham’s child, he was the miracle child that fulfilled God’s promise. This test wasn’t so much about whether Abraham was willing to kill his son for God (Killing people out of instruction from God was quite common in those times). Rather, it was about whether Abraham would be willing to annul the fulfilled promise that he had waited many years for. Due to numerous reasons Isaac was the most important thing in Abraham’s life, and Abraham had waited most of his life for the promised child. When God asked Isaac back, it was not designed to test Abraham’s willingness to commit an evil to satisfy God, but rather whether he was willing to sacrifice the one thing that meant most to him, the child that God only just gave to him.
For Abraham it would have been quite absurd, God gave the child after many years, and shortly after he wants him back. Since God never used to overturn his own commands, I am sure Abraham was certain that Isaac was going to die, and God’s promise was going to remain unfulfilled to Abraham’s death. Nevertheless, he had an absurd hope, faith, that God would not do this. As Abraham climbed the mountain each step produced a greater conviction that God was not joking. The fact that Abraham had raised the knife, was about to cut the boy’s throat, before the angel stopped him is testament to how resigned Abraham was to the fact that he had to sacrifice everything for God, and yet held faith that the absurd and impossible would occur and Isaac will be saved.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is set in a primitive conception of right and wrong, and yet demonstrates in a most pure fashion a quality of the spirit that is timeless. The story intended to show not Abraham’s moral compromise for God; but rather existential sacrifice and self-inflicted loss. If it was about moral compromise, it would not be much of a test as God often instructed his subjects to commit what we would consider immoral acts. As with most Old Testament stories, to properly appreciate the lessons learned one must overlook the archaic conceptions of morality intertwined through it.
Soren Kierkegaard, in his classic work ‘fear and trembling’, takes this argument one step further and argues that Abraham did nothing immoral in agreeing to kill Isaac. At around 150 pages of beautifully written prose, it goes without saying that if anyone is interested in the story of Abraham and Isaac, it is well worth the read.