God said to Abraham, kill me a son
Abe said man you must be puttin me on
God said no, Abe said what
God said you can do what you want Abe but
Next time you see me coming you better run
How Big Is God?
Existentialist Paul Tillich spoke of “the God behind God.” He was trying to say something about a spiritual reality that transcended man’s theological concepts. What exactly that something was is impossible to say. That’s the point. For the nutty existentialist theologians, God is “Wholly Other”, too big, too different to be limited by any creedal formulations or propositional descriptions. Arch nut and heretic, Arius said much the same thing in the 4th century, as did the Gnostics before him: God is ineffable, even to Himself. (God could microwave a burrito so big that He couldn’t even finish it.)
There is, of course, a certain comfort in having a “God” who is so big that He can’t even describe Himself or give you any direction. After all, He couldn’t give us commandments to obey, no promises that strain our credulity. We’re on our own without any trouble from above. Yet at the same time, we can imagine that we are in sync with something really big, powerful and transcendent. We can have “God” without theology, spirituality without religion, and meaning without definition.
Christianity, on the other hand is creedal. It is a religion of words, definitions and meaning. It insists that scripture is understandable and that it means what it says. For example, when scripture says that the Ark of the Covenant was two and a half cubits long, it means that the Ark was two and a half cubits long (Ex. 25:10). When it says the Lord made heaven and earth in six days, it means that He made heaven and earth in six calendar days (Ex. 20:11). And when it says Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, it means that on the third day Jesus stopped being dead (1 Cor. 15:4). The propositions of scripture carry ultimate meaning as they tell us the true things about the nature of reality. They tell us true things about God. Faith’s part is to believe the words – to trust what God has said and to do what He commands… no matter what.
But What If God Said…
Abraham waited twenty-five years for the son God had promised. The baby was finally born when Abraham was one hundred. It was an amazing thing, God’s joke on the world, and Abraham named the boy Isaac—“laughter.” But when Isaac was a teen-ager, something strange happened:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen. 22:1-2).
The voice was unmistakably God’s. The instructions were clear and very specific: “Thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest.” And while the Hebrew word here rendered “burnt offering” doesn’t actually contain the idea of fire or burning, God in no uncertain terms, was telling Abraham to kill Isaac and light his dead body aflame.
The divine command would have been naturally abhorrent to Abraham on a number of levels. First, it is unnatural for any father to kill his son. Fathers normally love their sons and take great pride in them. Many fathers (maybe most) would lay down their lives to protect their sons. And Abraham dearly loved Isaac. Second, God’s law requires fathers to nourish and provide for their sons. This is a positive commandment found explicitly and implicitly throughout Scripture. Third, child sacrifice is an abomination to God. Abraham had doubtless spoken against it many times. His neighbors would have known how much he loathed the practice. Fourth, Isaac was the son of the promise. The hope of the world hung on this young man’s life. So did God’s word, His own integrity. Surely, God would not, could not, go back on His own promise. And so, it is incredible to read how Abraham responded to God’s command:
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. (Gen. 22:3)
What exactly was Abraham thinking? Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with God’s command and Abraham’s response for centuries. Many have condemned God. They say that God’s command contradicts His own revealed nature and His own law. He orders Abraham to commit murder, to perform child sacrifice, and He does so without explanation or apology. The command, they say, is obviously wicked and the whole situation irrational and absurd. The God who would give such a command deserves nothing from us, but loathing and revulsion. The fact that God intervenes at the last minute to stop the sacrifice and rescue Isaac is irrelevant.
Søren Kierkegaard and the Leap of Faith
Søren Kierkegaard felt the force of this criticism, and yet he marveled at Abraham’s faith. In Fear and Trembling (1843) he examined the story from several angles and used his discussion to build a whole approach to Christianity.
Kierkegaard argues that we may consider Abraham from the high ground of the ethical and moral, or from the higher ground of faith. If we begin from ethics, we must find Abraham guilty of attempted murder. He intended to kill Isaac, and only God’s intervention held him back. We can’t look at the final happy ending and excuse him because he couldn’t have known in advance that God would intervene. He intended to kill his son, and we indict and convict people who act on such intentions, even if they fail. If, however, we begin from faith, we reach other conclusions. Abraham moved in terms of his individual, existential relationship with God. He leapt beyond social sanction and rationally grounded ethics. He trusted and believed that somehow all would be well. He would lose Isaac, but he would keep Isaac. Kierkegaard explains:
“All that time he believed—he believed that God would not require Isaac of him, whereas he was willing nevertheless to sacrifice him if it was required. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed the absurd that God who required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement. He climbed the mountain; even at the instant when the knife glittered, he believed—that God would not require Isaac.”
From a rational standpoint, Abraham’s action was absurd, preposterous. “Abraham acts by virtue of the absurd.” It is absurd to think that one can retain a promise by renouncing it. Yet Abraham received Isaac back again. This is hope against all hope, hope in defiance of human logic and beyond all human calculation. It is most certainly a leap of faith.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
To clarify his point, Kierkegaard reminds us of the story of Iphigenia. Agamemnon, the military commander of the Achaeans, learns from an oracle that the Greek fleet can never sail for Troy unless the goddess Artemis, whom he has offended, is appeased by sacrifice. The sacrifice she demands is Agamemnon’s own daughter, Iphigenia. With great reluctance and some blatant deceit, Agamemnon arranges for Iphigenia to come to the waiting fleet. When his plans are exposed, he relents. But Iphigenia surrenders herself to a sacrificial death nonetheless. She sacrifices herself so that her people can destroy those horrible, wife-snatching Trojans.
Though there is some similarity between the stories, Kierkegaard argues that the motivation of the two fathers is radically different. Agamemnon is taking a rational, calculated step to secure the safety of his whole people. That is, he is operating in terms of the accepted social ethic. Though his situation is tragic, the sacrifice of his daughter is a moral issue, not a religious one. His concern is not his private relationship with the goddess, but a practical moral end. “The tragic hero does not enter into any private relationship with the deity.” As far as Kierkegaard was concerned, the pagans did not understand faith.
Abraham’s motivation, on the other hand, was precisely that of faith. “Abraham is at no time a tragic hero but is something entirely different, either a murderer or a man of faith.” Abraham had no certainty by Kierkegaard’s reckoning. Agamemnon knew he would get what he wanted; Abraham didn’t. And so Abraham’s act is beyond human comprehension: “I can understand the tragic hero, but I cannot understand Abraham.”
P + C = R
The New Testament has a very different take on Abraham, however. The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham offered up his “only begotten son” (notice the allusion!)…
Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. (Heb. 11:19)
Is this merely a New Testament gloss on an impossible situation, an attempt to save face for Abraham and Holy Scripture? Where did the writer get this idea anyway? He read Genesis closely and in faith. For the text says,
And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. (Gen. 22:5)
“I and the lad will go…and come again.” Abraham wasn’t lying. He was sure that Isaac would return from Moriah, alive. He knew this because of the promise of God. God had promised to save the world through Isaac. God can’t lie. If God allowed Abraham to slay his son, then God would raise Isaac from the dead.
Abraham believed that God’s words could be understood rationally. He put together the promise and the command and deduced resurrection. He was not deterred from this faith by his own passions or any society-generated ethic. He believed that the Lord who gave life could, on His own sovereign terms, require it again. After all, He does so everyday. There were no contradictions. There was no leap of faith, nothing by virtue of the absurd. There was only Abraham’s complete confidence in the promises of the God with whom he had walked for twenty-five years.
Of course, God did not permit the sacrifice. That is, God stopped Abraham from killing his son. Instead, He provided a ram, a substitute (Gen. 22:10-14). And through this act of substitution and blood atonement, Abraham received Isaac back as one (figuratively) raised from the dead. And so the whole history becomes a shadow version of the gospel: for one day, in the land of Moriah, the loving Father would offer up His only begotten Son and then raise Him from the dead (John 3:16). Such is the wisdom and strangeness of God.
Today, as during Abraham’s time, our culture rails against the faith of Abraham. When is the last time you read a news piece that had any reference to the ultimate reality? That God is in charge? That we need to be obedient to His Word? The truth is, that despite the Bernankes, the Bushes and the Obamas, God is on the throne and very much ordering the events our times. He is faithful to His promises. Will you be?
For Further Reading See:
Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, Speaking Historic Christianity into the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971).
Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972).