Re­li­gious scan­dal

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?

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

‘IBRAHIM’S SAC­RI­FICE,’ Timurid An­thol­ogy, 1410-1411.

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