The “test” of Abraham tests us all. It is a story that strains any confidence we might have in a loving God. Why would a good and gracious God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” the miracle child, the promise, the cherished gift?
Of course, Abraham is spared from carrying out the act by a heavenly angel of the Lord. But that doesn’t make the plot any less troubling. It seems almost perverse that God would play such games with us.
Among the philosophers and theologians who have struggled with the story, Kierkegaard has been something of a beacon for me—even if not entirely illuminating. He reminds us of the utter transcendence and otherness of God, the absolute who enters our life not through rational categories or moral standards, but through a harrowing leap of faith. No wonder the imagery of dread, fear, and trembling haunted Kierkegaard’s mind.
It was another philosopher, however, who opened up new possibilities for me. Professor Eleonore Stump, who holds the Henle Chair in Philosophy at Saint Louis University, has been making innovative forays into scriptural narrative. She is as much at home with the contemporary mind-body problem as she is with medieval thought, and when she accompanies the likes of Aquinas it is at the intersection of philosophy and theology. In a recent lecture she examined the story of Abraham.
Stump situates the sacrifice of Isaac in the context of Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. Sarah, in her seventies, we may recall, had borne no child for Abraham. She then offered Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as his wife. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, a source of joy to Abraham at the ripe age of eighty-six, but an irritating source of jealousy and resentment to Sarai.
Thirteen years later, God, while ensuring a fruitful and happy fate for Hagar’s Ishmael, offers a new covenant to Abraham, with the promise of a son for Sarai, now to be called Sarah, at the age of ninety.
At the time of Isaac’s weaning, however, Sarah’s jealousy gets the better of her, and she insists that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. Abraham is pained, but he easily accepts God’s reassurance that both will survive. Giving them some bread and a skin of water, he casts them out.
Now Stump points out the ambivalence of Abraham’s abandoning his dear son Ishmael to the wilds with little to protect or sustain him. True, Abraham was following God’s will, but with no resistance, confident of the happy result that Sarah would be placated. And the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael could be nothing less than a terrible betrayal of trust, even if mitigated by the presumption that Abraham informed them of God’s promise.
Years later, when Isaac reaches the same age Ishmael had been when he was banished, the ambivalence would be removed.
In words and context much the same as those of the Ishmael incident, we read that Abraham is once again in the situation of dispatching the son he loves. This time, however, there are no beneficial side effects that might alleviate his pain. All Abraham has is his trust that God is good and will keep his promises.
The whole point of the episode is to test whether Abraham believes that God is trustworthy. The issue is Abraham’s state of mind: if he truly believes the word of God, then he knows with utter conviction that “God will provide.” His readiness to sacrifice Isaac is neither moral compromise nor endangerment to his son—if he indeed believes that Isaac is God’s promise of future generations. In faith, Abraham knows, “Even if he die, he shall live.”
Well, we know that Isaac died, but not by the hand of Abraham. It was by the exigence of earthly existence. And yet Isaac fathered generations of grace and abundance.
I cannot be sure of the full accuracy of my account of Professor Stump’s reflections, but I left her lecture with a new appreciation of Abraham’s test. If I believe that God is good and will keep his promises, the test is not as cruel or irrational as I first thought. What is more, I think this story concerns more than Isaac’s death. It is about the death of us all.
Each of us is required to make Abraham’s sacrifice. We all must face the inevitability of letting go our most beloved person, task, accomplishment, joy. Everything dear to us, everything given to us by God is subject to death: its own and our own.
The essence of the story is this: Is God good? And will God keep his promises? Abraham is our father in faith because he embodies the final act of faith that all of us must make. We all face the sacrifice. We all stand before the terrible relinquishment of everything we hold most dear.
And our very God does the same. “This is my beloved Son.” God’s “only begotten,” one of our own kind, will go through our passages—even the passage of death.
God has made the promise not only to Abraham and to us. God has made the promise to God’s very self.
but handed him over for the sake of us all,
will not grant us all things besides?