Christianity from an Existential Perspective..
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.
-- By Timothy Neal