Last week I maintained that the patriarch Abraham is in certain key ways a paradigmatic figure for today’s Israel. A paradigm, though, would be expected to show some consistency in his conduct. In at least one important regard, Abraham seems to engage in behaviors that radically contradict each other.
When God prepares to leave Abraham’s tent encampment for Sodom, having heard that “sin is very grievous” there and in Gomorrah, Abraham rightly infers that—should the rumors turn out to be true—God intends to do away with these dens of depravity. Yet, at that point, Abraham seems to show incredible chutzpah: he confronts God with a series of questions that seem to challenge the morality of “the Judge of all the earth”—as Abraham, who appears well aware that he’s on shaky ground, takes care to address him.
Yet later in the story, when this same God, whom Abraham has had the audacity to challenge, commands Abraham to “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” and turn him into a burnt offering on a mountain–Abraham meekly, humbly, and unquestioningly sets out to do exactly that.
How can the same Abraham who seemed to stand up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the point of morally accosting the deity, immediately accept the decree to sacrifice his son?
God, in the form of three men, comes to Abraham as he sits “in the tent door in the heat of the day”; Abraham, realizing right away who the three men actually are, rushes to put together some food for them while asking his wife, Sarah, to “make cakes upon the hearth.”
God—speaking either as “they,” a threesome, or “he,” a single figure—informs Abraham that “Sarah thy wife shall have a son.” The hitherto-childless Abraham and Sarah are “old and well stricken in age,” and Sarah—who has overheard from the tent—breaks out in incredulous laughter.
Before setting out for Sodom near the Dead Sea, God—“Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him”—takes the tribal chieftain into his confidence and reveals to him his next mission:
Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
It is at this point that Abraham—his self-assurance apparently boosted by the news about a son—launches into his amazing cross-examination of God, which centers on his blunt question: “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
What Abraham means is this:
Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
This could be called “reminding God of his better nature” except that the words seem almost too bizarre and counterintuitive to type.
And yet God’s response—no less remarkably—is seemingly to accept Abraham as a sort of moral interlocutor, replying:
If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
Abraham proceeds to whittle down the number. While taking care to disparage himself—he calls himself “but dust and ashes” and acknowledges that “I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord”—he asks God what he will do if there are just 45, 40, 30, 20, or finally, 10 “righteous” in the city.
And each time God seems to concede, stating finally: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”
Could it be that God already understands morality and is just—out of tolerance and perhaps affection—giving Abraham the answers he seeks?
Maybe. But even if so, to call this a role reversal appears a great understatement. How can a mere mortal—even a paradigmatic one who is so crucial to God’s plans—subject the Judge of all the earth to such a grilling and not only get away with it but seem to prevail?
Years later the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, is alive and thriving. God again comes to Abraham—though not in any physically perceptible form—and this time gives him a quite explicit command:
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.
The text then simply narrates Abraham’s obedient actions, with no hint of emotion:
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.
Only on the third day, as Abraham and Isaac are approaching the mountain alone, does the text subtly convey what Abraham must be feeling. Isaac asks:
My father.…Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering….
The rest of the story is well known: God rescinds the decree at the last moment and provides a ram to take Isaac’s place; an angel of the Lord calls out from heaven to laud Abraham:
By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Human sacrifice is on the way to being abolished; both Abraham’s own people and humanity at large will benefit greatly from this major step toward civilization.
Why, though, when Abraham originally received the appalling diktat from God, did he not even raise a peep of protest—so unlike his behavior when he boldly confronted God about Sodom and Gomorrah?
After all, Isaac was promised to Abraham by God and was supposed to be the means—the only means—toward the “great nation” for which God seemingly had such plans.
Yet Abraham doesn’t even mention such matters as he sets forth to do God’s bidding.
The apparent paradox can be resolved this way:
When Abraham cross-examines God about Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s not violating any known command. It hasn’t been laid down anywhere that you shouldn’t have the chutzpah to talk to God this way. True, Abraham feels intuitively that he’s treading a thin line, as evident from his apologies and self-deprecation. But he’s not breaking any law, and indeed God never reproves him for his boldness.
But when God tells him to sacrifice his son, Abraham feels himself commanded—and has no choice but to comply. At that moment, the content of God’s command—no matter how horrific and devastating—is not relevant. Abraham, after all, has changed his whole life—leaving his father’s house for Israel, becoming (or so he thought) the patriarch of a nation—because God told him to. Obeying God is who he is. He can do no different than set off for Moriah.
Where does this leave us? So long as no divine command is involved, Abraham has radical intellectual freedom—even to the point of questioning God’s wisdom and justice in running the world. But when a command is involved, Abraham is, indeed, God’s servant; he does his will.
Again, it’s not a bad paradigm—thinking for yourself while being anchored in the divine. And the God of Abraham will never command you to commit murder.