Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Abraham's Willingness to Sacrifice Isaac (Spirituality, Religion, and Philosophy Entry 1)

The story of Abraham and Isaac always bothered me.  Abraham was ready to kill his son because a being he believed was God told him to.  That always seemed wrong to me.  If killing is wrong, how does it become okay just because at that particular moment God said it was okay?  And how did Abraham know that was God?  It would seem like if God is asking you to do something wrong, the first thing you might wonder is if the entity talking to you is really God.
We talked about this in my writer’s group once, in connection with a scene I’d written, and one of the guys said that in the Old Testament God didn’t give people the ten commandments yet at the time of Abraham.  So Thou Shalt Not Kill was not a commandment yet.  That seemed like a poor way to get out of the moral dilemma.  It might give Abraham an excuse, but not God.  I grew up being taught that God existed for all time, that God basically had no time, had always been, would always be.  So surely the rules didn’t change?  Just because in the human world God hadn’t handed down the stone tablets yet didn’t mean that before that time, killing, committing adultery, and lying were all just fine, did it?
And then there is the question of whether God is the source of what is good and bad or whether there is an objective standard.  Or a greater source, so to speak.  Even when I was a believer, it didn’t seem to me to mean much if someone did what he or she thought was right out of fear of hell or hope of heaven.  I guess it’s better than doing things you believe are wrong, but it doesn’t make a person a moral person, just a practical one.  It seems to me there is more value in doing what is right because it’s right.
Going back to Abraham, I always thought the test ought to have been whether Abraham stuck with what was right regardless that someone he thought was God was telling him otherwise. 
An interesting book on this topic is Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth by Carol Delaney.

Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening


  1. As someone who grew up with that as sort of the hallmark story of my then religion I totally agree. I always thought Abraham failed rather than passed the test. An interesting question is what would have happened had he done what you and I thought would be the right thing. No doubt he'd have been turned into a pillar of salt or something equally awful.

  2. This post was interesting to me.... I just finished taking a class on existentialism. It was my first philosophy class ever and it yielded, for me, some surprising result. Walking away from that class, I realized I am probably an existentialist or rather an agnostic existentialist if there is such a thing. I was raised in a "Christian" home (my parents sort of had their own version of Christianity), but since then have moved into more of a middle of the road stance when it comes to religion. I have always been the type that pondered the meaning of life and what it means to be a human being. In that existential class, I discovered a whole bunch of philosophers who pondered the same things I did. Keirdegaard, who is regarded as a Christian existentialist, would be one that you might be interested in. He was an influential philosopher that lived around the early 1800's and his work influenced several important philosophers that came after him. In particular, his writings titled "Fear and Trembling" offers a very different take on Abraham. He feels that the story on Abraham and Isaac is actually a story on a type of faith that not many humans can achieve. In the religious sense it is about humans being able to enter into private relationships with God that transcends the ethical. After getting the gist of 'Fear and Trembling' it made me wonder if there ever is a time when a human can be asked by the God that they believe in, to transcend the ethical for the good of the greater mankind. And, according to Kierkegaard, it is possible, however one has to have a very unusual faith to be able to do this, case in point, Abraham. Anyway, if you decide to check his writings out, be forewarned his writing style is not easy to understand (as seems to be the case with many philosophers, which is a pity since they have some really good things to say) so, I would recommend using sparknotes or taking a class to help with understanding. I know its a little deep, but I found it to be interesting considering I always thought that Abraham and Isaac's story to be a bit on the alarming side. silvia r-w

    1. Thanks for commenting on this. Kierkegaard sounds very interesting. I took only a basic philosophy course in college, and I remember the professor saying you couldn't believe in God and be an existentialist. From what little I understood, I disagreed, so now I'm particularly curious that there was a Christian existentialist. University of Chicago has some great evening non-credit courses. I plan to see if there are any that might cover this subject matter. Not sure what I think about the private relationship with God idea. On the one hand, that has a certain resonance. On the other, how to draw the line between a belief that you have that kind of relationship and insanity? Or, on a less extreme scale, how to keep yourself from becoming judge, jury, and executioner in certain instances.