Abraham, Isaac & God’s Voice

If the Bible is to be our guide in faith and morals, how do we handle the really tough passages? The father of the faith, Abraham, is a case in point. What kind of moral lesson can we draw from his willingness to kill his own son for God?

First of all, let’s blow away the bogus Neo-Atheist rubbish that from the ‘binding of Isaac’ we can conclude to the moral depravity of the Old Testament God.  It is illegitimate to take this one legendary anecdote, in isolation from the rest of the Hebrew moral corpus (the decalogue, the prophets, the proverbs), and make YHWH (or Elohim as the case in point) an arbitrary moral monster.

Having said that, what can we learn about ‘the good and the right’ from the story of Abraham’s willingness to obey a voice that tells him to kill his own son?  Let’s face it, if someone today told us that he is being called by God to kill his child, the very content of that command would be proof positive that this was not God’s voice. We have the ‘insanity defence’ for people who carry out such delusional acts.

So how do we draw moral truth from this Bible story?  Is the answer suggested by Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard satisfactory: that to truly obey in faith is to move beyond the plane of moral universals and to make a leap into the absurd?  His claim is simple: faith is a call to trust in the ‘transcendent’ and this can often be a call to what would seem to us ‘the irrational’.  Abraham was forced by no universal maxim: there is no obligation to kill one’s child in his scenario.  Can the voice of conscience, nagging Abraham with the wrongness of what he is about to do, become a voice of temptation?  Can ethical scruples become a diversion from God’s command? 

Whatever we think of this, Kierkegaard’s ideas remains hugely influential today through the disciples he unwittingly spawned: the Nietzscheans and the Existentialists.