Love Amidst Sacrifice (Gen 22)
If you’ve never had the chance to enjoy Plato’s dialogue called the Euthyphro, it’s well worth reading. In it, Socrates comes across Euthyphro, a leading jurist in Athens, as he’s walking to the courthouse. Euthyphro asks Socrates what he’s doing, and he responds that he’s on trial. After years of embarrassing the leaders of Athens with his unrelenting logic, the authorities want to shut Socrates up. We learn elsewhere that Socrates is accused of having corrupted the young (with his subversive teaching) and for being an atheist (not believing in the gods of the state). Socrates was no atheist, but he could not in good faith believe in the gods of Homer.
Socrates starts a conversation with Euthyphro about piety. Euthyphro thinks piety is about obeying the will of God. But, Socrates points out that the Greek gods are constantly changing their minds (and acting immorally). How could one possibly be pious by imitating gods who are themselves immoral?
According to Peter Kreeft, a popular Christian author at Boston College, the key question in this dialogue is this: is something good because the gods will it? Or, do the gods will something because it’s good?
I think this is also a central question we encounter in Genesis 22 with Abraham and Isaac. In this story, Abraham is told to go to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice his beloved son. The entire promise of blessing to all the nations hangs on Isaac. And, yet, God commands his sacrifice at the hands of his father.
There are all kinds of ways to explain this command from God at the literal sense of the text. We could argue that Abraham had “inside information” and knew he wouldn’t have to go through with it. We could argue that God had a “right” to every first-born male, something which gets dramatically shown at the Passover. We could even argue, with the Jewish Rabbinical tradition, that Isaac was a young man and in on the deal.
Yet none of these answers is terribly satisfactory. Yes, the story has a happy ending. At the last second, when Abraham is about to plunge his knife into Isaac, an angel tells him not to do it. But, still, what are we supposed to make of this? Do we really believe God commanded the sacrifice of an “innocent” human being? Are we serving a vicious and capricious God?
Unfortunately, there are some who teach exactly this. You must do whatever God tells you, no matter how absurd or how much it violates our notions of what is right. God’s justice is not yours. If God commands something, it must be right and you must do it, no matter how repugnant. Don’t ask questions – just obey.
Yet, what would you do, if God commanded you to slay your oldest child? Would you go through with it? I certainly hope not. We rightly think that someone is not well who would do such a thing probably because it offends our most basic notions of justice and who God is.
But, isn’t this a problem? Abraham is supposed to be our great model of faith and obedience. What does it say about us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice what he loved, but we’re not?
Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher and the godfather of twentieth-century existentialism, lauded Abraham because he was willing to go beyond what was ethical. To Kierkegaard, this was what true faith was all about – it’s irrational. It’s all about a leap of faith into the unknown. One must “teleologically suspend the ethical” in order to follow God.
I think Kierkegaard is very much mistaken about this. To show why, let’s return to Plato. The answer to the question we posed above is not that things are good because God wills them but that God wills them because they are good. In theological terms, we confess a God who is love (1 John 4.16).Therefore, God does not and cannot act contrary to his nature. Because God is good, he cannot will things that are not good. Killing an innocent child is certainly not good. This cannot be what God is teaching us in this story.
Yet, as Christians, we believe this story is true. Hence, we should remember how Jesus instructed the apostles to read the Old Testament. John records Jesus as saying, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5.46). Moses, traditionally understood to be the author of the first five books of the Bible, was writing (consciously or unconsciously) about Jesus as he edited this story.
Thus, if you find this story difficult to comprehend, perhaps that’s because we’re supposed to find its fulfillment in Jesus’ greater sacrifice on the cross. Consider all the eerie connections between the two stories. They both take place in the same location (the top of Mt. Moriah is likely the exact spot where Jesus was crucified). Both stories involve hauling wood up a hill. Both involve a kind of ritual sacrifice which employed iron implements (nails in Jesus’ case and a “Makelet” or a “sacrificial knife” in Isaac’s). Both stories employ the imagery of a lamb standing in for others. Both involve great demonstrations of resolve and love for God.
Hence, we should probably come to the exact opposite conclusion that Kierkegaard came to. We rightly find a great deal of mystery in our faith, but we don’t find it necessarily irrational. God is not commanding human sacrifice here. He is instead commending the surpassing love that Jesus showed for us in taking our place on the cross. As Paul writes in Romans, “he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him” (Rom 8.32)?
Thus, far from being a text which commends killing and blind obedience, this is a story which is probably commending self-sacrificial love. The blind obedience that we’re to follow is to try to love all those we encounter with the same love that Christ showed us.
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.