I confess that when I first became a Christian, I viewed the story of Abraham and Isaac pretty much in the traditional way. God tested Abraham, and Abraham came through with flying colors.
As I got older, and hopefully, a bit wiser, I became troubled by the text, and that meant I was troubled by God.
God’s desire to test humans has a history in the bible. In fact, the greatest story of all is no doubt that of Job. Here God actually makes a bet with the Devil about how Job will react to the unprecedented misery that God inflicts on poor Job.
But as usual, I digress. I looked upon Abraham as this man who had been promised a son in his old age. And that promise of course took years to fulfill. Yet we are told, Abraham remained faithful, following God at every turn. Finally, of course, the blessed event occurs, and Abraham is given the son by Sarah.
There is no doubt that Isaac was deeply loved and cherished, and that of course is why God would call Abraham to that specific sacrifice. (Muslims I understand disagree, and believe that God called Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael instead.) Yet I cannot help but put the story in the context of today.
Imagine this happening to you. What would you do? Most assuredly, if you attempted to do what Abraham did, you would be arrested and placed in confinement. Your child would be removed from you. We know this of course, because it has in fact happened. A woman in Texas murdered her children, believing that God told her to. We consider her behavior the result of a deep psychological break with reality.
So why do we accept this story so easily? And what does it say about God? For myself, it means I place the story in a particular context. I see it at as the way that primitive Hebrews viewed God at that time. While Abraham’s devotion to God is admirable, that is about all the good that can be said of it.
I picked up a book from our church library Sunday. A little book by S. Kierkegaard called “Fear and Trembling.” It’s an old thing, published in 1941. It relates the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is supposed, I am told by the introduction, to be a metaphor in some sense about Kierkegaard’s relationship with his fiance, Regina. I can’t confirm or deny that, since I have barely begun the read.
But the opening vignette floored me. Such a powerful imagination created this scenario, that it has stayed with me, two days later, and I’m anxious to see what comes next. It is the product of Kierkegaard’s amazing imagination no doubt, and I found it breathtaking. Here it is:
It was early in the morning, Abraham arose betimes, he had the asses saddled, left his tent, and Isaac with him, but Sarah looked out of the window after them until they had passed down the valley and she could see them no more. They rode in silence for three days. On the morning of the fourth day Abraham said never a word, but he lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off. He left the young men behind and went on alone with Isaac beside him up to the mountain. But Abraham said to himself, “I will not conceal from Isaac whither this course leads him.” He stood still, he laid his head upon the head of Isaac in benediction, and Isaac bowed to receive the blessing. And Abraham’s face was fatherliness, his look was mild, his speech encouraging. But Isaac was unable to understand him, his soul could not be exalted; he embraced Abraham’s knees, he fell at his feet imploringly, he begged for his young life, for the fair hope of his future, he called to mind the joy in Abraham’s house, he called to mind the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham lifted up the boy, he walked with him by his side, and his talk was full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. He climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac understood him not. Then for an instant he turned away from him, and when Isaac again saw Abraham’s face it was changed, his glance was wild, his form was horror. He seized Isaac by the throat, threw him on the ground, and said, “Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire.” Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, ” O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be Thou my father!” But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, ” O Lord in heaven, I thank thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in Thee.”
Shocking? Yes I suppose so. But does it not convey an even greater faith in God than the story itself? Abraham not only will sacrifice his son, but his son’s love in the end, so valuable does he find faith in the One true God. More so does he love his son, willing to have his son hate and revile him rather than God. That is truly a father’s love for son.
I understand that some Jewish commentators claim the story has been misunderstood. They claim that Abraham mistakenly thought that God required an actual sacrifice, rather than a symbolic one. In this he had as example pagan practices which did in fact use human sacrifice.
Others argue that Abraham knew or believed that God would relent in the end, and in fact never intended for him to go through with it.
Christians have a different explanation. Since God promised Abraham that through Isaac a nation would be born, then he must have intended to raise him from the dead, should Abraham actually go through with the deed. (Heb. 11: 17-19) Of course, it is also metaphor for God’s offering of Jesus on the cross as substitute for humanity, much as the ram is pro-offered in the end to Abraham as substitute for Isaac.
Yet, I prefer, I think now, the original story and Kierkegaard’s interpretation. It is the more powerful certainly. It speaks to an abiding, overwhelming love, albeit on Abraham’s part, rather than God’s. But that is satisfying as well, since we are made in the image of God, and Abraham thus does a fine job of showing us God’s deep and limitless love for us his creation.