Near-Sacrifice of Isaac – A “Killer God” Turns to be a Providing God

Light of truth

Jacob Chanikuzhy

It is with great awe and devotion most Jews and Christians view the readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his own child Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-14). However, the issue is not without its complexities. What kind of God would ask the father to kill his child? Can or should anyone love and trust such a God? How is it that Abraham, who pleaded God for the people of Sodom, and who was greatly distressed by Sarah’s demand to expel Ishmael, neither objects nor is distressed at God’s demand to sacrifice Isaac? What kind of father is he to kill his own child to fulfil a divine command? Should one obey a divine mandate when it definitely contradicts human ethics? Is it not a story of the victimization of the women and children in a patriarchal society?

The existentialist Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has made serious reflections on the event and has tried to reconstruct the event in different imaginative ways. He ponders over the ordeal Abraham must have been undergoing all through the three days of journey towards the Mount Moriah. In his view, if Abraham had doubted God, he would have killed himself by thrusting the knife to his own breast than slitting the throat of his child. On self immolation, Abraham would have prayed to God: “Reject not this sacrifice; it is not the best that I have, I know that very well, for what is an old man compared to the child of promise, but it is the best that I can give you. Let Isaac never find this out so that he can take comfort in his youth.”

Abraham did not do it because he believed in God through and through. But why did God demand such an impossible act of faith from Abraham? May be because, in order to become the father of the believers, Abraham needed to know from experience what it really means to believe and obey God.

Kierkegaard, not fully satisfied with the above interpretation, gives another possible scene of the binding of Isaac: “Abraham turned away from [Isaac] for a moment, but when Isaac saw Abraham’s face again, it had changed: his gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror. He seized Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground, and said, “Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God’s command? No, it is my desire.” Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his anguish: “God of heaven, have mercy on me, God of Abraham, have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then you be my father!” But Abraham said softly to himself, “Lord God in Heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you.”

In this case, Abraham is most painfully sacrificing his own fatherhood of Isaac so that Isaac can accept God as his father and turn to Him in full faith in his most helpless situation. The faith of Isaac is vindicated when God spared him and he can go back with unwavering faith in the God of Israel. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham almost became a murderer for God. It teaches that, to be ethical is good; but to be faithful to God is the best. Abraham is a model thereof. But not all are convinced of the interpretation of Kierkegaard. They don’t find Kierkegaard’s idea of the “suspension” of ethics for religion easy to digest.

Others find the incident an important phase of God’s self revelation. If the contemporary cultures around Abraham practiced child sacrifice, then, God’s demand to sacrifice Isaac was not something strange. But, when Abraham was willing to obey God at the cost of human ethics, at the cost of his most personal and sorrowful loss, at the cost of his family relationships, at the cost of his future, God of Israel revealed himself as a God who is more pleased with obedience than with sacrifice. By preventing the sacrifice of the child and by providing a ram for sacrifice, on Mount Moriah God of Israel revealed Himself as a God who cares and provides for human beings than as one who takes delight in the death and destruction of human beings.

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