Abraham and Isaac: Deciding About Sacrifice

Easter 2006

Abraham and Isaac: Deciding About Sacrifice


          I start with a quote from Bob Dylan that makes light of a horrible dilemma: 

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run” 

          Well may Abe say What?  How could God make such a demand?  And how should Abraham behave when faced with a choice between his obligation to God and ordinary human decency, a choice that seems to contradict not only God’s explicit and specific promises to Abraham but also God’s nature?  When God acts like a monster, are we supposed to act like monsters too? 

          There seem to be few ways of reading the story in which Abraham and God don’t both turn out to be monsters. And that may be the very reason it has relevance for us today. 

          To be fair, the text may be harder to read because of the way it was obviously assembled. Like other biblical texts from Genesis, the stretch from Chapters 12-25, covering Abraham, appears to be constituted from several different tellings of the tale.  If you try to read it as a coherent story, both God and Abraham seem to suffer from repeated amnesia.  God keeps promising Abraham limitless descendants who will rule the land of Canaan.  This is promised as a reward for different things, first in Chapter 12 as a reward for emigrating from Ur, then as a reward for an animal sacrifice in Chapter 15, then as a reward for entering the covenant of circumcision in Chapter 17, and then again in Chapter 22, apparently as a reward for being willing to sacrifice Isaac.  Likewise, in Chapter 18, Abraham has his famous discourse with God, securing God’s consent to save Sodom if Abraham can find a diminishing number of good folks there, and yet in Chapter 19 God goes ahead and wastes the place anyhow. 

          Moreover, the psychological states of the characters are unfathomable.  How does Abraham feel subjectively about sacrificing his son?  The narrative never says.  It does go to considerable lengths to tell us the objective stakes.  God promises Abraham limitless progeny, and Isaac is the only legitimate child in sight, and the only one likely to emerge from the union of Abraham and the near-barren Sarah.  And only through legitimate progeny can the promise of limitless progeny inhabiting Canaan can be satisfyingly fulfilled.

           So it would seem, if only because God keeps bestowing it, that the promise that Abraham will become the father of a nation is an important one, a promise that Abraham the character in the story and the early Hebrews as an audience listening to the story would have held in great value.  There is no obvious prospect of the great promise being fulfilled if Isaac is removed from the equation.  So God’s directive to do just that, for Abraham to take out Isaac, is a command to destroy someone of huge importance, even if Abraham has no personal feelings for Isaac, and even if we ignore Isaac’s worth and his own personal feelings about being exterminated.

           But Abraham at least seems to have some inkling of the value of and respect to be paid to an individual.  That’s really the ethical given in Abraham’s debate with God in which he tries to save Sodom: that God should not be mowing down the good men even to get to the bad ones.  The good have value, and their lives are to be saved. 

          But taking the tale as a whole, humans per se possess at best inconsistent value, and the same is true with family ties.  The Abraham story is full of accounts of strong affection Abraham feels for Lot, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael.  So again, if we’re trying to see this as a coherent narrative, which it probably isn’t, Abraham is a man capable of feeling family affection. 

          The bottom line on this question, then, is that, taking the narrative at face value, we have at best only a muddy understanding of the full extent of what it would mean to Abraham personally to sacrifice Isaac.  But even setting aside everything questionable, at a bare minimum it would mean that Abraham would be destroying the only apparent means to the fulfillment of a critical promise, to the accomplishment, really of Abraham’s life’s work.  So even stripping away all the nonessentials, it would still be a cataclysm for him. 

          How then would Abraham and the readers of Genesis have viewed God’s demand that Abraham make this cataclysmic sacrifice?  Obviously here we would love to go beyond the mere text to get some context from the civilization from whence it sprang, perhaps 4000 years ago.  Unfortunately, that inquiry is a perilous one.  The Biblical texts are hopelessly conflicted about whether Yahweh ever accepted human sacrifice, and the archaeology about whether the ancients practiced human sacrifice is likewise hopelessly conflicted.  It may have been common, it may have been rare, it may even have been an ancient urban legend – human sacrifice may have been something that everyone accused others of doing but no one actually saw happening.  There are reputable archaeologists who believe each of these hypotheses. 

          And without knowing this elementary fact, we can have no idea what human sacrifice in and of itself would have meant to the first audience of the tale.  Would it have been something that helped the crops grow?  Would it have been a necessary propitiation for sin?  Would it have been a horrifying deviation from the norms of the culture?  We don’t know. 

          So appeal to the context isn’t going to help.  All we know is that God promises something important, and then seems to be ordering Abraham to destroy the only evident path toward fulfillment of that promise.  He endows Abraham with a firstborn legitimate son in a culture that placed enormous value on firstborn legitimate sons, and then tells Abraham to kill the son. 

          What kind of a monster does this make of God?  Take your pick. He could be one or more of the following charming things: 

*       a God who wants people to give up the things that are most important to them because he hates us 

*      a God prepared to break promises but subject to changing his mind 

*      a God who likes being obeyed regardless of whether it helps man or devastates him 

*       a God who likes to see people die before he extends benefits like the growth of crops necessary for their livelihood 

*       a God who just wants to test Abraham’s obedience because he values that obedience more than Abraham’s humanity 

*       a God who wants to test Abraham’s humanity because he values that humanity more than Abraham’s obedience 

*       a God who is not perfect but merely a work in progress who realizes he can’t go through with breaking his promises or being bloodthirsty. 

          The first of these I think we can dismiss out of hand.  If we believed that God hated us, we wouldn’t be here.  We might all go off and despair but we wouldn’t be in a church, much less a church informed by the teachings of the Jesus who called God abba.  The same with the God who doesn’t care about his promises to us. 

          The notion of a god or gods who must be propitiated in order to make good things happen is a very ancient one, and to the extent any sacrifices, be they human, animal, vegetable or mineral, were engaged in by the ancients, this seems to have been the animating thought most of the time.  But I can’t say I like this one either.  It makes God into a being we can control.  If we do x, God will do y, goes the thinking.  But that makes us greater than God, or at least puts us on a par with God.  That seems bogus.  

          There’s a more modern approach to sacrifice, which is not that it makes God more pliable but that it is simply good for us in the abstract, the way worship is good for us.  OK, then is the point that slaying your son and all of your hopes is good for you?  If so, why does God stop Abraham? 

          There are those who think God values unquestioning obedience, regardless of consequences.  But this seems rather unloving, and probably not the kind of God this congregation could bring itself to worship either.  We could ameliorate this picture by making up a story in which, if Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, God would have given Abraham a replacement son, the way Job gets a new family to replace the family members God has killed off to test Job.  But the new family material at the end of Job is obviously not part of the original text and added on by what critic Harold Bloom rightly called a pious fool.  Family members aren’t fungible.  As C.S. Lewis observed while grieving the death of his wife: “Is God a clown who whips away your bowl of soup one moment in order to replace it with another bowl of the same soup?  Even nature isn’t such a clown as that.  She never plays exactly the same tune twice.” 

          What then of a God who merely wants to test?  In effect, he would seem to be demanding obedience or at least the readiness to obey, not necessarily a bad thing, but at the expense of family feeling, respect for human life, and reliance upon God’s own promises.  Obedience would then would seem to be sacrificing the greater good at a minimum for the lesser.  Abraham passes if he disobeys.  Well, if so, the biblical Abraham fails the test, and God has to step in and erase the wrong answer and fill in the right one. 

          On the other hand, if it’s a test in which the right answer is to obey, then Abraham passes the test but loses my admiration, and I would suspect the admiration of most of us.  A God who wants to be obeyed at such a cost also loses our admiration for the same reason that a God who truly wants human sacrifice loses our admiration: because he can’t see the value of human life. 

          What about a God who develops in the course of the story and comes to see in the very nick of time that the sacrifice is wrong?  Well, we’re certainly glad to see God come to his senses, but do we really want a God who only wakes up that near to the edge of irretrievable and ruinous folly? 

          Meanwhile, what about Abraham?  What kind of monster does the story make of him?  Take your pick: 

*       A man who trusts in God when God tells him to do something monstrous and utterly self-defeating because he’s certain God will somehow prevent the monstrosity from occurring and is therefore willing to follow God up to the brink. 

*       A man who values obedience more than he does his own son or his obligations to his own family. 

*       A man who’s too scared of God to think through to any consequences when God gives him an order. 

*       A man who grows along with God, or grows in his understanding of God. 

          Now I could run these down the way I ran down the ways the story makes God look, but you get the idea by now.  Either they make Abraham look bad or they make God look bad or both. 

          It would be easy to stop here, draw a line between ourselves and the story, and say that however regrettable it may have been that there were once people who thought this was admirable stuff, we respectfully differ, and conclude that this story has nothing to tell us. 

          Then why does the story continue to resonate?  Why does that reaction feel so incomplete?  I think it’s because, one way or another, we know a little bit about sacrificing our sons and daughters in this society. 

          Of course you can’t find – or at least I hope you can’t find – altars anywhere where fathers take the knife to their sons in honor of their gods.  No one believes any more that God demands human sacrifice.  So we are never confronted with Abraham’s dilemma: human decency and family love versus compliance with divine will. 

          But sometimes we are still asked to sacrifice our children.  God knows; God the Father did that very thing.  This is of course the stuff of nightmares.  Children should bury their parents, not the other way around; that is the way it is supposed to be.  But we all know that sometimes there are times when someone must sacrifice not merely himself or herself (which would be comparatively easy), for the good of the rest of us.  Instead, one is called upon to sacrifice someone else.  And for someone with a proper moral sense, that is far more excruciating; for a parent with family ties, it is almost unimaginable.  And yet it happens.  These dreadful situations may arise in emergencies – floods or fires or 9/11 situations.  And typically it is the young who are called upon there.  They may be first responders or they may just be the people who can do good at the risk of their own lives. 

          Bad as this is for the parents, this usually provokes all the grief afterwards; Abraham’s dilemma occurred before Isaac nearly died.  And we do have an analogy to that, too, unfortunately, one which is occurring with greater frequency all the time: when we as a nation and as individual parents contemplate sending our children off to war.  This is very much a generational thing.  As folksinger Phil Ochs sang back during Vietnam: “It’s always the old who lead us to the war/ Always the young to fall.” 

          Of course, nowadays in this country, we sanitize the process by having a volunteer army.  That means that every potential Isaac is partly complicit in what happens to him or her – just what our pastor theorized a few Sundays ago was true in the near-sacrifice of the biblical Isaac.  We dress them up in striking uniforms and we make much of their growth and their maturity, and we usher them into the machinery of possible death with respect.  And their wishes for themselves and our wishes for them grow too mixed up to say where the one ends and the other begins. 

          And it provides every Abraham among us with plausible deniability.  And it also presents a more reasonable dilemma. 

          The choice is not between God’s will and the love of our families, it is between national security, justice, the international order, democracy, freedom – what have you – and the love of our families.  And most of us would agree that sacrifices of that sort are indeed indispensable at times.  The fathers and mothers who grieved over their children who fell in the Revolution or World War II, for instance, could at least look back and say that the sacrifice had been worth it, and that the assent they may have given to their children’s decision to put themselves in harm’s way had been justified and remained justified.  Sometimes it is fitting and proper for Abraham and Sarah to assent to the potential sacrifice of their son. 

          The agonizing dilemma for today’s Abrahams and Sarahs is that we don’t have assurances going into a war.  Mary my wife was at a conference with an acquaintance the very day that woman’s son fell in Iraq.  A year later, Tracy, the acquaintance, spoke to Mary of the fog of grief that descended over her.  The only time anyone should ever have to face that fog of grief is in a war that is well-justified.

          This gets us into the just-war doctrine.  The summaries all run like this: 

•        There must be rigorous consideration of the moral legitimacy of the proposed war;

•        the damage inflicted by the other side upon us must be lasting, grave, and certain;

•        all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

•        there must be serious prospects of success;

•        the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. 

          And right now, every day, we sacrifice our Isaacs in another land.  And the question we Abrahams and Sarahs must ask ourselves is: did we and our leaders satisfy ourselves up front that the war we sent them off to met these criteria? 

          Was there rigorous consideration of the moral legitimacy of the war?  Was there rigorous consideration of anything at all? 

          Had the other side committed lasting, grave or certain damage upon us? 

          Were the other means of putting an end to that damage really impractical or ineffective? 

          How reasonable were our expectations of success? 

          How likely was it, given our strategies, that the evils and disorders we would produce would not dwarf the evils we sought to suppress? 

          These are the questions.  And they are rendered the more agonizing because they require foresight, and foresight is always blurred.  We don’t even have the luxury, the definiteness, of God telling us, “kill me a son.”  Which actually intensifies the agony of the choices we as parents make, typically in collaboration with our children, in this regard.  We may all be acting like monsters.  Or like heroes.  We must choose very, very carefully. 

          I want to end up showing you some photos of some local Isaacs: youngsters from Maryland who have perished in our current war.  Whatever we may think of the war in which they fell, we can have nothing but admiration and respect for their sacrifice.  But what of us?  We are all of us Abraham.  In sacrificing them, did we choose aright?