Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac (ca. 1605), oil on canvas, 116 x 173 cm, Piasecka-Johnson Collection, Princeton
And God said unto Abraham, “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 the of” (Gen. 22:2).
Just a little before this story in the Book of Genesis, Abraham had the temerity to argue with God about whom he, God, intended to kill. The Lord was going to wipe out Sodom and Gomorah because of their sin, and Abraham, sounding a lot like a used car salesman, began to haggle with God. “Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for fifty righteous that are therein?” (18:23,24). Abraham bargained God down to ten, but there were not ten righteous men, “then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (19:24). Only Lot and his children were saved.
Fast forward a bit. Now God tells Abraham to kill his only son, to offer him as a sacrifice. It is tempting for Christians to immediately think of this as divine foreshadowing of God sacrificing his only Son for our sins. In this typology, Abraham becomes God and Isaac, Jesus. But none of that was known to Abraham and Isaac at the time, so let’s stick with the story as we have it in Genesis for a while.
It’s one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture, and it’s too easily explained away. God was testing Abraham. Interestingly enough, this time he didn’t bargain with God. He didn’t say, “Why would you want me to kill a little boy who’s done nothing to deserve death?” Abraham’s earlier conversation with God assumed that God was bound by an idea of justice that precluded him from killing the innocent. But amazingly Abraham doesn’t argue this time; he obeys.
Is something right because God commands it or does God only command what’s right? The story about Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom seems to suggest the latter, his obedience to the command to sacrifice Isaac, the former. It’s a philosophical problem of the first order, which Plato, arguably the most famous philosopher, wrestled with in his dialogue called Euthyphro.
If something is right because God commands it, then morality is arbitrary. Lying is wrong because God condemned it, but God could just as easily have condemned telling the truth. If he had, then telling the truth would be wrong. We are forced to surrender the idea of God’s goodness to God’s power. On the other hand, if God commands only what’s right, then morality is independent of God, and we have to give up any theological basis for morality and we can even judge God’s behavior as right or wrong.
As Abraham reached for the knife to slit his own son’s throat, an angel intervened, saying, “Don’t stretch forth your hand!” Abraham passed the test. He was willing to obey God, even if it meant murdering his own son.
But did God pass the test? Would he allow an innocent boy to die in order to teach Abraham that whatever God says is right or would he stop short of murder because even God is bound by the moral law? Thanks to that angel we will never know.