What surprised me most upon re-reading the story of The Sacrifice of Isaac is the lack of hesitation on the part of Abraham—when it came to methodically placing his firstborn on a sacrificial altar and slitting his throat, that is. What if God had said, ‘Ok Abe today we are going to send some jews to the gas ovens’. Would Abraham hesitate?
The question must be asked: what kind of a God would engage in such a cruel joke with his human playthings? The interesting thing is: this story questions the validity of both God and Abraham. Abraham, the founder of the three Abrahamic religions, behaves like the perfect Nazi Bureaucrat here: he will follow orders without blinking an eye. And doesn’t God behave like the classic sociopathic tyrant?
On the surface this is a story about the steadfast faith of Abraham in God. But it begs the question: what should we sacrifice—that is our most precious ‘possession’—and what should we have faith in—the highest principal. And yet the justice of God and the manner of sacrifice here are at least questionable. This is precisely the reason why the story has the quality of literary genius: it doesn’t give us the answer. Rather, it offers a terrible question for us to chew on. What would you do if you were Abraham? And what kind of God is God?
If you believe in the all knowing, all powerful and just God, you might assume that God had a reason for making Abraham do this terrible thing. For example, if the clairvoyant God knew in advance that Isaac would grow up to be Adolph Hitler, perhaps the expedient thing to do would be to kill Isaac—although this may still be questionable. Should we kill even one child to save a nation? The lord works in mysterious ways indeed.
The ‘good soldier’ in battle is presented with the same conundrum. He needs a sort of ‘faith of Abraham’ to make the decision to shoot another human, presumably to protect family, nation and god. This kind of faith could be the most noble or the most heinous thing in the world—it depends. Does the soldier have blind faith in an unjust cause, or is his cause beyond reproach? What if it is not so clear? Perhaps there really are times when we have to give up what is most precious to us — our metaphorical firstborn. However, shouldn’t Abraham have given himself up instead of his son, if he is really were a hero, that is.
Jordan Peterson tells us, in his video series, that life demands that we sacrifice what is most precious to us. For instance, our youth. Youth is always sacrificed on the alter of time, vitality to the God of wisdom. We need to sacrifice our own lives in the end. Moreover, the biggest sacrifice equals the biggest reward. If we are willing to give up everything, everything will be given back to us a hundredfold.
Another message might be: the laws of the world are of secondary importance to divine laws or principles. These higher laws, which are understandably not mere human morality or conscience, often contradict our flawed human laws. And yet it is hard to swallow the totalitarian logic and brutality of these ‘higher laws’ at least as they are presented by the God in Genesis.
So again: what kind of a man is Abraham for submitting to such a terrible God? And what kind of a God is God for such a cruel ‘joke’? Those are the Zen riddles of this story.
Perhaps the answer is something to do do with the first line of the story where God says ‘I am here’. This is what Abraham is asked to believe under all circumstances. This is the same kind of faith demanded of Jesus, as they are nailing him to the cross. However, the difference is that Jesus questions God and asks ‘why have you forsaken me’? Jesus seems to have human doubts, whereas Abraham is the perfect foot-soldier.
When God makes his homicidal command, and Abraham agrees; then comes the plot twist and the ‘joke’ is revealed. God’s angel turns around and says ‘just kidding’ and ‘here I am again’. God wanted to know how deeply Abraham had submitted to him. And yet doesn’t God seem to have the darkest form of humour possible?
Finally, if God orders us to kill an innocent child, should we not clearly say no. Would that not be a real act of faith, instead of blindly obeying orders the way Adolf Eichmann did? Was Abraham just doing his job?And should we just do our job under all circumstances. Obviously not. And yet we are presented with the same question: What kind of a man is Abraham? Is he a man who was closer to God than any other—or is he the perfect symbol of the banality of evil? Or is he both. On the other hand, he could be just a man, like you and me. Subject to the flaws of blind faith and ideological possession.
I tend to feel Jordan Peterson’s interpretation of the story is slightly flawed here—despite his wonderful insights. If you watch his lecture you see that he hesitates a great deal and at one point cannot go on in his discussion of Isaac’s sacrifice. Is it that he is blocked somewhere by this story—perhaps he hasn’t fully grasped the import of this story. To my mind, this is not a story about the necessity of sacrificing what is most dear. It rather shows us the lie, the horror, and the injustice of arbitrary sacrifice.
There are times when we should refuse to follow orders. Even if the orders seem to issue directly from God. That is why the ‘happy ending’ in this story cannot be swallowed or believed.
Note: As an experiment in creating a ‘song-book’, I have included a song which goes with this essay. This is part 4 of a series on biblical stories in Genesis, influenced in part by Jordan Peterson’s biblical commentaries. A painting or a video should accompany it as well, to make it a real Gesamtkunstwerk — Wagners word for a total piece of art — but that is beyond the scope of my talents. Any mixing and mastering, video work, or other collaborators are more than welcome to contact me. Note: this essay (and the song) aims to be an existential and mythopoetic rather than a doctrinal or religious one.
From the Genesis Series:
From the Genesis Series:
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits