The Problem of the Akedah
In Genesis 22 we find the story of the Binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akedah. It is the part of the saga of Abraham in which God tests Abraham and says to him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” It is a masterful narrative, as seen in the way in which the author builds up the intensity of Abraham’s attachment to Isaac: “Take your son . . . your only son . . . Isaac . . . whom you love . . .” But it is also one of those readings which the Biblical scholar Phylis Trible calls a “text of terror.” The original audience just as much as we do should recoil in horror from the story. After all, what kind of God asks a man to sacrifice his son?
Admittedly, in the time of the patriarchs, such a thing was not unthinkable. The ancient Israelites believed that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed children to Moloch. Human sacrifice in ancient Rome was rare but documented. If we were feeling humorous, we might say that as parents we have sometimes thought of sacrificing a child. But the fact is, this is a very serious matter, and its really hard to make fun of it. The problem with this story is that it is not simply the story of a deity some 4000 years ago, but it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (who tell the story with some differences) a story about our God. How do we deal with this story?
To wrestle with this text I am going to consider the comments of three Jewish authors and one Danish Christian philosopher.
The 12th Century Spanish Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, known as Maimonedes, emphasized the faithfulness of Abraham. The faith of Abraham is stronger than anything else. Despite hoping for a son through Sarah, and despite receiving Isaac in his old age, Abraham is willing to submit himself to God’s command and lose it all, perhaps hoping beyond all evidence that God would somehow redeem the situation.
The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book which was published in 1843 called Fear and Trembling. He focused not only on the faithfulness of Abraham, but also the anxiety that he felt that Abraham must have experienced. Kierkegaard was well aware that the killing of a son could only be considered murder by any standard of ethics, but in the face of a subjective experience of God commanding one to act in contravention of the rules, one has a choice to be faithful to God, that profound, inward calling to which one responds, “Here I am” or to deny that God and submit to what the world calls moral and ethical. In this choice is the meaning of existence. Kierkegaard wrote, “Therefore, though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” The tension of this faithfulness with anxiety is characteristic of any life, in his opinion. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the wrong thing? Where do we find truth, inwardly or outwardly? But we need to make that choice, and act.
The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig who lived and wrote in the first four decades of the 20the century believed that God tempted human beings in order to ensure that humans were free. Thus the Binding of Isaac is about people being free to make decisions, and not mindless automatons acting out of timidity and fear.
The 20th century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was quite horrified by Kierkegaard’s approach. He found that Kierkegaard’s description of subjectivity and the truth it produced was formless and amoral. He was shocked by the violence that Kierkegaard seems to celebrate, as a precursor to Nietzsche will to power that was beyond all ethics, any sense of good and evil. Levinas located God in the ethical relationship one has with another person – that you, right here and now, in all of your individual need, has an ethical claim upon me that is infinite. When looking at this story Levinas points out that God, having tempted Abraham, realizes that Abraham’s conception of God is indeed amoral, unethical, and monstrous, which is why God intervenes to provide the ram, and Abraham again responds, “Here I am.” He was not so set upon the first command that he could not hear the second. Kierkegaard makes the mistake in finding the transcendent in the claim that goes against ethics, whereas Levinas finds it in the persecuted humility of the obedience to the other.
The Akedah and the Cross
Christians have long seen the parallels between the Binding of Isaac and the passion of Christ. In each a father is seemingly sacrificing his som in obedience to a divine command. The differences is that in the Akedah human death is avoided, whereas Jes us did die, and in the Genesis account God and Abraham are distinct, but in the New Testament narrative God the Father requires Jesus to sacrifice himself. Some have thus claimed that the death of Jesus is thus the murder of the son by the father. But perhaps these differences are critical. As Christians we celebrate a man who was obedient unto death, even death upon the cross, butperhaps in this broken, fallen world being true to the compassionate self-emptying love of God inevitably leads to death. Perhaps the death of Christ is not the forensic substitutionary atonement so beloved of conservative evangelical theology, but an act which reveals the extremes to which God goes in the identification and sanctification of humanity, remade in resurrection. Jesus’s obedience, then, was not the Kierkegaardian type. Rather, Jesus offers himself in this broken world for others, serving others, forgiving them and setting them free from the oppression of society.
But We Would Never Sacrifice our Children, Would We?
Now, all of this is rather highfalutin and abstract. So let’s make it real.
One hundred years ago on June 28 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo. A century seems like a long time, but perhaps not. It is hard to talk about those events dispassionately. I naively think that a century might have allowed us some distance, but the fact is my grandfather fought in World War I, and many of us have similar connections. The effects of the war continue to reverberate in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Israel and Palestine, and the Balkans. On Remembrance Day we honour the dead of the war, and quite appropriately suspend historical critical investigation. We surround the memories of the dead and our grandfathers and forebears who survived with prayers and great hymns.
But what was it all about? Ten million military personnel and about seven million civilians died in this Great War. Some 64,000 Canadians died in the conflict. Most of those who died were young, in their late teens and twenties. What did they fight for? In some cases it was a war about national pride – a powerful motivator in Germany and Russia.If Russia did not act in support of Serbia, it was thought at the time, no one would take the Empire seriously as a first rank power. In Germany the feeling was that Britain had kept their Empire from its proper place in the son, and that if it did not act to win a war now it would be permanently restrained. France fought to regain the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Prussia in 1870. Some fought for King and Country, as was the motto of the British recruiting posters. Some fought in response to atrocities. Some saw it as a God given crusade, as the Bishop of London proclaimed it. Some saw it as an opportunity for territorial expansion. Many saw war as a good thing in a time when many had become well off and soft – something that would stiffen the backbone of the nation. When it came down to the men in the trenches, they did it from duty and because they owed it to the fellow beside them. As the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has made it clear in her recent book, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, the various leaders did not fall into this war by accident, but made calculated decisions, knowing full well that once war began no one really knows how it might end. They nevertheless, repeatedly, chose to roll the dice over the summer months and into the autumn of 1914.
In MacMillan’s opinion it was all a terrible waste. Regardless of the virtuous motives of politicians the end result was a Europe in incomparably worse shape than when the war began. Four empires fell, the British Empire was close to being bankrupted, and economic development in Russia and eastern Europe was set back a decade or more. The regimes that succeeded the old Entente powers were unstable, such as the Weimar Republic or the weak post-war government of Italy, and gave way to Fascism in Germany and Italy, or Communism in Russia. And the nations were bled dry.
Europe in 1914 heard their gods – nation, king, old grudges, fear – and went ahead and sacrificed their sons upon a much bloodier altar than any Abraham built. Unlike Abraham they did not hear the voice of God calling them to another sacrifice. They did not hear the words of Jesus calling them to peace.
And now, 100 years later, what are the gods that call to us to sacrifice?
Let us hear God speak to us in the life and witness of Jesus, and present our members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. Let us offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God.
This was preached as a sermon at St. Matthias Anglican Church, Victoria BC Canada, on June 29, 2014.