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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Abraham and Isaac





Persian fresco of the sacrifice of Isaac

I was reading the Book of Genesis today with my daughter. And she, being a smart little person, immediately saw the problem with the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

“Wait a minute,” she interrupted, “I thought you weren’t supposed to kill people.”

Yep. Yet Abraham, here and elsewhere, is praised for a human sacrifice of his own son.

As I recall, this has come up on this blog before: it is an atheist objection to the Bible, evidence that religion can lead to immorality.

As Catholics, we believe that morality is an objective absolute, and God is by his nature all-good. Accordingly, he cannot by his nature require an objectively immoral act.

Moreover, not all inner voices are from God. There are other spirits. Even leave aside the devil. Schizophrenics are always hearing commanding voices telling them to kill themselves, for example. Or other strange things.

We are therefore called on, in the Bible, to “test the spirits.”

If a voice called for an objectively immoral act, that would be proof that it was not God, and we would not follow its instructions.

So why did Abraham not follow this advice, and why is he praised for not following it?

There are two possibilities. The first is that he did not accept the Catholic understanding of God as moral. There is a common theological position in both Judaism and Islam that God, being infinitely great, surpasses human understanding utterly, so that we cannot judge or know, what he asks may well violate our human understanding of morality.

That explains, for example, the often objectively immoral actions of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar Muslim groups. Moreover, at the time of Abraham, the pagan gods were certainly not understood as moral beings. And they regularly demanded child sacrifice.

But if this is your position, it seems to me that the atheist objection applies: religion can lead to objective immorality. And, from the Catholic side: how can you ever know that you are worshipping God and not the devil?

In fact, if you put obedience to a spirit voice above morality, from the Catholic view, you are automatically worshiping the devil. God is good; conversely, good is God.

This, it should be pointed out, is also a common Jewish opinion.

Bulgarian fresco of the sacrifice of Isaac

There is a second possibility: that Abraham was indeed a moralist in his understanding of the divine nature. He accepted that God could not command evil.

If God is good, he could not really require Abraham to sacrifice his son. Therefore, the real test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice his son, but that he trusted that God would not, in the end, require this. Technically, after all, the inner voice had not told Abraham to kill. It had told him to offer his son as a burnt sacrifice. So it may be that Abraham was trusting that God would make it possible for him to do so without killing. Which, after all, is just what happened.

It is not just the objective immorality of the act itself; it is also that, earlier, God, or this inner voice, had promised Abraham in solemn covenant that his descendants through Isaac would be a great nation.


Medieval French manuscript image of the sacrifice of Isaac.

If God was now going to require the death of Isaac, that would make him a liar. He would break his own solemn covenant.

And what is the point of having covenants with God—the very essence of the Abrahamic faith--if God himself does not respect them? This would make God immoral by his very nature.

So it might make more sense to see the story of Abraham and Isaac not as a test of Abraham’s obedience to God, but rather a test to determine the real nature of Yahweh. It is a “test of faith” to learn whether our God, Abraham’s inner voice, is trustworthy. Is he, in the end, just another spirit, like the pagan gods, or is he the true Supreme Being?

Isaac asks his father, on the way up the mountain, where the lamb is that they are going to sacrifice. And Abraham says, “Don’t worry. God himself will supply the lamb.”

This is exactly what happens. Does that not imply that this is what Abraham himself expected?

When he leaves his servants, Abraham says, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” A gratuitous lie, unless this is what he himself believed—that both of them would return.

If the ram had not appeared tangled in the bushes at the last minute, on the downward stroke, Abraham still could have stayed his hand. And said, “aha! Now I know! Get behind me, Satan!”





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