January 3, 2009

What do we learn from Abraham's sacrifice?

You know the story.

Late in his life, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are blessed with a son, whom they name Isaac. The boy is the long-awaited culmination of a divine promise (for his seed is destined to give rise to a vast nation and a chosen people) but then God demands what seems to be an inexplicable and terrible task. He commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and offer the boy as a burnt offering.

Abraham’s reaction, recorded in Genesis, is as follows.

…They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

Clearly, God had been conducting a test, one which Abraham apparently passed with flying colors. Now, I have an admission to make. For most of my life the account seemed to say just one thing: People readily sacrifice what’s most important in order to gain God’s blessings. To me, Abraham’s willingness to offer his son seemed horrific and cruel, not to mention self-absorbed. Then I read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (which, at its core, is an insightful treatise on faith) and was almost convinced to believe otherwise. Kierkegaard begins the work with four vignettes that describe variations to what occurred on Mount Moriah.

  1. Prior to raising his knife, Abraham claims to be a murderer and idolater, so that Isaac will blame Abraham rather than God.

  2. After the event, Abraham never forgives God for putting him through the ordeal.

  3. After the event, Abraham never forgives himself for the anguish he caused Isaac.

  4. At the moment Abraham raises his knife, Isaac sees his father hesitate, which leads the boy to lose his faith.

In comparison to the scenarios above, Kierkegaard shows how Abraham’s attempted sacrifice, as it is recorded in Genesis, was perfect in execution. Rather than second-guess the necessity of the task, Abraham was infinitely resigned to God’s will. In this context, he didn’t waiver. He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t wish the task away.

While I acknowledge the need for faith—and in the absence of certainty, the need to follow our articles of faith perfectly—I part ways with Kierkegaard in one significant respect. If God were to ask me to sacrifice one of my children in return for some blessing, I would refuse without equivocation, because I would rather suffer the eternal consequences of such disobedience (if we must call it disobedience) than hurt someone I love more powerfully than the need to breathe. In other words, my faith is placed in principals based upon Christ’s two great laws, not in conflicting assertions of what constitutes God’s will. Besides, in the final analysis, there is no truly altruistic obedience to a commandment, if the sole objective is to earn divine blessings.

There’s a story from the Bhagavad-gita that summarizes what I mean. Though the following version isn’t true to the original text, it serves its purpose.

Yudistra and his brothers left their homes, accompanied by their family dog, in search of heaven. Along the way, each of the brothers became distracted. Shahadev, who loved learning, saw wise men at the gates of a city and remained behind to discuss the great philosophies of men. Nakul met a beautiful woman and stayed with her to marry and raise a family. Arjun, a great warrior, noticed a gathering army and joined the ensuing battle. Bhim, a connoisseur of delicious foods, left to attend a feast.

Eventually, only Yudistra and the faithful dog pressed on. After a long and arduous journey, they arrived at the top of a mountain, where a chariot waited to take them the remaining distance. Yudistra stepped into the chariot and called the dog to him, but the driver refused it entry, saying, “Such beasts are not welcome in heaven.”

To this Yudistra answered without hesitation, “If heaven will not allow such a loyal friend into it, neither will I enter.”

Thereupon the dog suddenly transformed into Yudistra’s beloved father and the two men joyously entered heaven together.

I believe there are times in life when we are justified in saying: I may be wrong in this instance—after all, life is full of uncertainty—but I would rather be wrong and accept the consequences, than be right and violate the overriding principal to love my neighbor.

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