The binding of Isaac and the tragic God
The most tragic figure in the Bible is God, said the famous talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. Indeed, no one has been more misunderstood than God. But let’s be honest; it’s His own fault. One day He appears in the Torah as the Creator of the universe, full of mercy and love, while the next moment He’s utterly annoyed when He doesn’t get His way – especially when His creations don’t listen to His commands. He splits the Red Sea for the Jews, saving them from their arch-enemies, the Egyptians, and then leaves them without food and drink in the desert until they rebel and ask whether He really exists. The paradoxes abound.
In several instances, He rescues His people who are in Exile, while at other times He refrains from stretching out His hand when the Jews suffer one pogrom after another. He first carries them on His wings in Spain, but then makes them undergo the cruel Inquisition. He helps them find a safe haven in some northern European countries, but subsequently allows a Holocaust of such brutality that one is nearly forced to conclude that He no longer cares and has simply left.
To further confuse His people, He performs miracles during the establishment of the State of Israel, later followed by the astounding victory of the Six Day War, only to make a sudden about-face and throw Israel’s citizens into the disastrous Yom Kippur War, which claims the lives of many Israeli soldiers and traumatizes the entire nation. God seems to yo-yo through history, alternating between fits of anger and offers of mercy. By displaying these many inconsistencies, He becomes downright impossible to handle.
Who else ever had such a track record of the most radical paradoxes? And that’s not all. Things get worse. This God requires unconditional submission to His demands and threatens to wipe out His people if they don’t listen to Him. To add to the confusion, He seems completely surprised when many of His creations start sincerely wondering why they should follow Him. It is especially the Jews, the “apple of His eye,” who constantly experience these devastatingly unsettling inconsistencies. They pay the highest price, and the consequences are too overwhelming to deny: They start asking themselves what they should do with this God. Many feel no longer obligated to observe His commandments. Some deny His existence, but most see this denial as a cop-out and conclude that He is indeed the most tragic figure in history, one needs to show Him mercy and be somewhat obedient.
SUCH IS the history of the first Jew. Abraham is promised by God that he will bear a child who will father a special nation that will promote this God and His ethical demands. It is clear from the beginning that God is more in need of this nation than Abraham is – His prestige depends on it. Through this nation, He and the purpose of His world will be known. Abraham can’t wait to start his grand mission, and once he has a son he will do anything to build up this unique nation for the sake of God. Who would not want to serve such a God and take on this great assignment? Finally, Abraham gets his son, but the blow is not too far off. Not only is it disastrous, but it seems like a set-up to destroy any possible belief that this is a merciful and wonderful God. To his utter shock, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son as a token of his complete commitment to this very God! God, who is in dire need of this nation, and therefore of Abraham’s son, ruins His prestige and undoes his goals in one stroke – no son and no nation! And it is God who undermines Himself by doing so. He appears to be committing spiritual suicide. After all, what will become of Him without this nation?
What is Abraham to do now? Should he rescue God from Himself and refuse to have a hand in this suicide attempt? Or should he perhaps become an atheist? After all, such a God cannot exist! But Abraham chooses neither of these options. His total commitment to this God prompts him to make the greatest mistake of his life. He listens and is prepared to give up his son without a fight, thinking that this is what it means to be really religious – even if it undermines God’s prestige and brings an end to His goals.
Abraham still lives in the world where man submits unconditionally to any god, whatever its demands. He is still a child of his times; subordination is seen as the pinnacle of religious devotion. Only when God, by way of His angel, shouts No! “Do not lay a hand on the boy” (Genesis 22:12) just a second before the knife touches his son’s skin, does Abraham wake up from his so-called religiosity.
Abraham still has to learn that his willingness not to kill his child far surpasses his earlier commitment to make an end to his son’s life. The angelic messenger calls “Abraham, Abraham!” repeating his name twice because the command to desist and not sacrifice is harder to accept than the original commandment to kill. It goes against the trend of what it means to be religious. Yet, not to listen is greater proof of commitment to this “Jewish” God than is the willingness to sacrifice in His honor. The wake-up call is loud and clear! The impact of this message is far more shocking and forceful than that of the earlier call to kill. This God is an entirely different God. Capricious and unpredictable but, strangely enough, also demonstrating that human life is holy and may not be taken except in self-defense.
Until this incident, Abraham believed that it was permitted to object to God only if He was about to damage His reputation by doing a great injustice such as destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that sense, he surpassed Noah, whose reticence prevented him from protesting even when God told him that He would destroy all of mankind with the flood. Abraham had already realized that the Jewish God is different from all the other gods among whose followers he lived. To let the world perish is not what this God desires. So Abraham fights back. But once he loses the battle and is unable to convince God to leave these cities of Sodom and Gomorrah intact, he concludes that Noah must have been right after all. There is no point in fighting God’s will.
What Abraham fails to see is that while he loses this battle, God clearly encourages Him to give it a sincere try so as to win. Indeed, God listens to his arguments. When Abraham contends that if there were to be 50, 40, 30, 20, even 10 tzaddikim (righteous people), then these cities should be spared, God does not respond by telling him to mind his own business. On the contrary, He clearly indicates that He might be convinced, if Abraham’s arguments were better or the circumstances different. But Abraham apparently fails to
This God, however, Who is the Creator of heaven and earth, teaches Abraham not to give up
get this point. He seems to conclude that since he didn’t succeed, there is no point in arguing with God any longer. Why would God listen to man’s subjective arguments? What could man possibly know about God’s reasoning?
So Abraham doesn’t argue with God when He asks him to sacrifice his son. God may be incomprehensible, but He is consistent. He knows what He’s doing. Who am I to argue?
This God, however, Who is the Creator of heaven and earth, teaches Abraham not to give up. He shows him that He is open to discussion and would have listened to his arguments reasoning in favor of his son. Now that Abraham is silent, God takes up the argument that Abraham ought to have made but didn’t. What he should have done for God, God now does for him. He tells Abraham, You ought to have fought Me. You should have told Me, “Far be it from You! Shall the whole world’s Judge not do justice?” (ibid. 18:25.) God now needs to save Himself and His mission, despite Abraham’s religiosity! He must ensure that the Jewish people will come into being, notwithstanding Abraham’s readiness to forgo that possibility.
Abraham is thus exposed to an aspect of God that is both blasphemous and ethical. This God appears to be unstable, but He is also a God of incomprehensible magnitude, power and moral supremacy: prepared to listen to man, take him seriously, and even be defeated by him! Who can make sense of this God? Abraham begins to learn that this God is tragic because He makes Himself appear as a God Who lacks all qualities of a real god, but in truth is greater than all idols.
GOD APPEARS to experience all the human emotions: love, anger, involvement, indignation, regret, sadness and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity. (Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image.
Suddenly, Abraham learns that to be religious is to live with a God Who carries contradictions and incongruities. Consistent gods are idols because they don’t teach man how to live in a world that is full of dichotomies. To be religious means to know how to navigate unresolvable conflicts, to be bold enough to negotiate, and to stand upright even when failing. It is in the unresolved that real life is lived. Only that can lead man to true religiosity. Abraham learns that a God that one fully understands is only half a God, because a life without dichotomies is a life not lived. The overwhelming paradoxes are what portray life in its full force and reality.
Indeed, this God of many contradictions is the only God man can really worship: tragic, yet sublime. To serve Him means not only to obey, but also to protest.
At Mount Sinai, Moses warned the Israelites, “Be careful not to climb the mountain and touch its edge.” (Exodus 19:12.) How true is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation – be careful when you climb the mountain, not to touch just its edge. Go all the way!
Questions to ponder from the David Cardozo think tank:
1. If God disapproves of Abraham’s obedient religiosity, as argued here, what do you make of Genesis 22:16-17, where following the Binding of Isaac, the angel praises Abraham for what he did by conveying God’s blessings that his descendants will multiply and overcome their enemies?
2. According to most classic commentators, Abraham did pass the test of the Binding of Isaac. The essay claims not. Is there a way to reconcile religious obedience and moral rebellion? Do you believe we should argue with God, and if so under what circumstances? Do you personally do so?
3. Is your conception of God also one of a Being full of inconsistencies and incongruities? If so, how does that impact your faith? If not, why not?
4. Since we are created in the image of God, then we too are tragic beings, replete with contradictions – in which case, is it possible that Abraham simultaneously failed and passed the test of the Binding of Isaac?
5. Are you willing to climb the mountain all the way, not just to the edge?
‘IBRAHIM’S SACRIFICE,’ Timurid Anthology, 1410-1411.