Yesterday’s reading at Mass was one of the most famous in Scripture: the commanded sacrifice of Isaac. Here’s a thought experiment I wrote over fifteen years ago, when I was still in college.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
So begins one of the most extraordinary stories in literature. The story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is undoubtedly one of the best known Biblical stories. Soren Kierkegaard says, “The story of Abraham is remarkable in that it is always glorious no matter how poorly it is understood.” Indeed, it is an amazing story of faith and an incredible testament of ultimate trust in God.
One wonders, though, how the story might have changed had Abraham said, “No” to God’s command. The possibilities are endless, for there are so many variables. God might simply have accept the answer and go off in search of someone else to become the Father of the Faithful. He could roar, “How dare you defy me!” and strike down Abraham in fiery wrath. God might take a more human approach and beg: “Ah, come on. Trust me; I know what I’m doing!”
However, before pondering God’s response, one would have to take into account Abraham’s reason for refusing to follow God’s command. Perhaps it would be for selfish reasons. After all, Isaac is Abraham’s only offspring, a miracle child born when Sarah was well beyond child-bearing years. It is only natural for Abraham to cling stubbornly to his only child; certainly old age would prevent Abraham and Sarah from having another. Possibly it would spring from incredible love for Isaac: “I’ll not do that to my son!”
Or it could be because Abraham feels homicide is wrong. He could shake a fist at God, declaring, “No! I will not kill, for any reason. I will not violate my conscience for any reason, not even divine command.”
This produces an entirely new possibility in the historical story of Abraham: God’s test of Abraham is open ended. When God commands, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . . Sacrifice him . . . as a burnt offering” God might be willing to accept either answer, “Yes” or “No.”
Once Abraham submits to God’s injunction, then there is no change from the actual account found in Genesis. Abraham is still regarded as the Father of the Faithful and the Bible remains in its present form.
If, however, Abraham refused on the grounds that the commanded act — murder — violates his conscience, God could respond, “I swear by myself that because you have done this and have not compromised your conscience for any reason, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Abraham would then become the Father of the Morally Steadfast. The entire Bible might be radically and totally different. Wholly different lessons would be learned from the story of Abraham. James 4.17 might read, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. For Abraham did what he knew to be right in his heart, even when God commanded otherwise.”
A series of questions then arises: If it was an open-ended test, what was God hoping it would reveal about Abraham’s character? If either obedience or disobedience was acceptable in this particular instance, what was God looking for in Abraham’s response? The only answer is passion. God was simply looking for someone who would act vigorously, someone who was zealous and complete in his actions. Whether or not Abraham was obeyed would not have mattered, for obedience could be learned more easily than zeal.
God has a way of changing people’s minds, but usually they are already zealous in their activities, such as the apostle Paul or Jonah. Both men lived lives violently opposed to what God ultimately desired of them but both were dynamic and spirited in what they did. Jonah ran from God and his destiny and Nineveh with all the strength he could muster, and Paul persecuted the early Christians mercilessly, with every ounce of his strength. In both cases, God turned the men around and put them to his work, which they accomplished with even greater vigor, for they were now working toward a goal instead of running away from one.
This kind of passion could be exactly what God was looking for in Abraham. What God sought was a man who would be decisive and would back up the choices made with all his energy, ready and willing to accept the consequences of each action. God didn’t want someone apathetic, someone lukewarm.
Of course Abraham did not say, “No.” He obeyed God even when it made no sense to him, even though God was asking him to do something from which there seemed to be nothing good that could arise, something ridiculously absurd. Some would label it blind devotion. Others call it faith. It is a kind of faith that to most of us in the twentieth century find alien, for there would be few — if any — people today willing to commit himself so fully to God’s will. Many people are not able — or willing — to understand why Abraham did what he did. Antagonists of Christianity point to this story as evidence of the absurd cruelty represented in the Bible, in an attempt to discredit the Bible as barbarous and antiquated. Yet the story records Abraham’s faith to the disbelief and astonishment of readers throughout the centuries.
The fact that Abraham did not disobey God makes the story even greater, adding immeasurably to its authority and puissance. It is a story of strength, of a strong man passing a test offered by an infinitely mighty God. Even the most fervent Christian must sometimes feel a little apprehensive about serving a God who would ask so much of one person, and this apprehension leads to a great respect of Abraham and his faith. Underlying all of this is the question, “How could God ask such a thing, and how could Abraham obey such a ludicrously evil command?” It is the same question that antagonists of the Bible ask in an attempt to discredit the Bible. There must be an answer that glorifies the Bible and God. Yet it is sometimes difficult to get beyond the command itself and to understand the motivation of it’s charge and the power of Abraham’s obedience.
While talking to a friend about the magnificence of the story of Abraham and Isaac I was presented with a startlingly beautiful answer to this delimit. The test was not supposed to prove anything to God — the test was simply for Abraham to realize the power of his own faith. As God is spirit and outside of time, he would have been able to know exactly what Abraham’s response would be. Not only that, but God’s omnipotence would allow him to see inside Abraham’s heart to behold the energy of faithful obedience pulsing deep within Abraham’s being, out of even Abraham’s knowledge. It took such a powerful test as God gave to bring into fruition such a powerful force as Abraham’s faithful obedience.
Both Biblical precedence and common since underscore the logic of this position. God commands obedience and the Bible is the story of those who obeyed and those who disobeyed. Always God rewards those who submit to his will and do what he commands. He didn’t reward Jonah for running. He didn’t reward Paul for persecuting. Yet he did reward Abraham for his obedience.
From a common sense position, to say that the test was for God’s sake is ridiculous, for God knows everything. He is outside of time, therefore knows the future, present and past all simultaneously. God is omnipotent, all knowing — there was nothing that he could learn from Abraham’s response that he didn’t already know from the beginning of time.
On the other hand, to say that the test was for the sake of Abraham works either way — God wanted to prove to Abraham his own moral fortitude of his own powerful faith. God, being outside of time, knew Abraham’s reaction long before Abraham was even born. God therefore knew the quality his test was to exemplify for as equally long. Accordingly, God knowing Abraham’s reaction does not disqualify the submission that the test was open-ended.