The Binding of Isaac

The BoCP lectionary prescribes Gen. 22:1-8 for today’s Old Testament lesson. So far as I know, no commentator has fully managed to unravel the knots of this passage. My own thoughts on it are still shaped at a visceral level by the bitter complaint of my psychologist mother, who saw in this text a cruel and heinous account of child abuse, and (so far as I know) still refuses to countenance its inspiration. Kierkegaard and Derrida have each put it to the question; the former uses it to found his theory of “the teleological suspension of the ethical”: faith in God, Kierkegaard argues, calls Abraham to a radical trust that leads beyond the bounds of rational morals in the quest for spiritual encounter.

 The simplest objection, of course, to this juxtaposition of religious teleology and ethics is that it founds itself upon a Kantian notion of the ethical as those precepts which bind all men in all times: Kierkegaard does not seem to consider—as the tradition from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas took for granted—that ethics itself might be teleological (in the case of Christianity, even eschatological), that the cultivation and practice of faith, hope, and love might be internal to a peculiar, parochial way of life sustained through time.

 For Kierkegaard, the binding of Isaac requires Abraham to set aside his moral convictions, trusting in the righteousness of God’s mysterious ends: this is the “leap of faith” which he locates at the beginning of religious experience. By contrast, might we not see Abraham’s fidelity to God’s command as the very core of ethics, as man’s chief calling in the world? To follow where God leads—to follow as pilgrims, exiles, strangers bound for a longed-after homeland—is a fair summary of the burdens of covenant in both the Old and New Testaments.

 But does this reading help us make any better sense of Abraham’s trial? Objectionable though I find Kierkegaard’s reading in general, I have no simple solution to the problem posed by Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The text is oblique: was Isaac thirteen or thirty? What passed through Abraham’s mind? Was he merely lying to Isaac when he said, “God will provide”? The author of Hebrews sees in Abraham’s determination faith in the resurrection: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). God himself seems to evaluate the act simply as a test of faith before irrational horror: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).

 Perhaps, however, this fidelity to God against all odds—terrible though it must have been for father and son—is the essence of faith, which, as the author of Hebrews would have it, is “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). As best I can tell, the fundamental lesson of the Akedah of Isaac is—as Eve Tushnet has put it so often—“the sacrifice God wants isn’t always the sacrifice you wanted to make.” Bonhoeffer’s embellishment of Jesus’ call to take up the cross in Mark 8 springs to mind: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” God calls us to lay down our best held dreams and desires, to accept failure and ignominy and wretchedness, that we might become blessed in him. Apart from that terrible call, we could scarcely imagine men such as Gregory VII, Francis of Assisi, Henri Nouwen, or Theresa of Calcutta.

 I hope I’m not being too hard on Kierkegaard, who is after all always good for laughter or provocation or both. It seems to me that while Kierkegaard saw the nature of faith as luring us from the bright perspicacity of reason out into the unlit wastes of “religion,” the true lesson of Genesis 22 is that faithfulness to God first means abandoning the idols of one’s heart, which are always at bottom distorted projections of narcissism. The looming danger in this passage is not a Kantian categorical imperative, but a (Augustinian) disordered love. In that light, Abraham’s fidelity here is paradoxically a “reasonable service” (logiken latreian, to borrow Paul’s phrase from Romans 12).

 To return, as a final note, to the subject of the effect of all this upon Isaac: while I have a hard time imagining a manner of narrating this episode that does not issue in serious long-term trauma inflicted upon Isaac, I am comforted by the text’s moderate ambitions. There is no psychological speculation here; this is not a Camus novel. The overriding theme worked in the binding of Isaac is that, against all odds, God provides to those who trust him. The lesson carried forward by later Jewish readers (including the author of Hebrews) does not concern a capricious or malicious God who tortures children, but rather a gracious and beneficent God who shelters those in need. There is still a mystery at work here, but (sad to end with such crude phrasing!) God seems to be on the right side of it.

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