Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bible Readings & Lessons: The Sacrifice of Isaac

"Sacrifice of Isaac"  by Caravaggio
With the new year, I have challenged myself to a year long reading of the Bible.  Following a schedule I found online, I read a passage (usually a chapter) from one of the books of the Bible and ruminate on it for the next twenty-four hours until it is time to read the next passage.  So far, I have followed the schedule religiously (pun intended) and am currently making my way through Numbers.

I had not intended to write about my reading experiences, at least not until I had completed the year-long endeavor, but I find myself compelled to get some thoughts out.  This feeling started when I read Genesis 22: 1 - 24, the chapter in which God instructs Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to Moriah and sacrifice him atop one of the mountains.

Before I get too far along, I should explain that my approach to this Bible examination is attempting to apply a strict Reader-Response standard of text examination in an effort to extrapolate some relevant meaning (for myself at least) that goes beyond the usual banal ideas most religious texts elicit.  This approach first demands that the text be read singularly with no outside reference sources so that the interaction between the reader and the text remains as unencumbered as possible.  This means I have not read what other people have had to say on the matter.  My experience with the text and the meaning I derive from it is based solely on my own thoughts, feelings, and biases.

Also, in case anyone is wondering, the version of the Bible I am reading is the Holman Christian Standard Bible (Digital Text Edition).

I should perhaps start my analysis by saying I do not take the stories in the Bible literally.  The Bible as an historical primary source is at best incomplete, and it would be foolhardy for anyone to approach an examination of the Bible as such.  Instead, I view the Bible, along with other religious texts, as noble failures to understand something too big for the human mind to fully comprehend.  I don't mean to say there aren't lessons to be learned or knowledge to be gained from examining it or other religious texts.  The Bible may not be historically reliable, but it is historically relevant in that it can be a tool to examine what we have been as a human race and, more importantly, what we need to be.

As for the story of Abraham and Isaac, the tale as presented in the Bible is pretty straight forward.  The conventional interpretation is that God wanted to test Abraham's faith by commanding him to do something that would be abhorrent to him as a human being and as a father.  Abraham passes the test, and God rewards him for his faith and obedience.

So, where do I begin with the many issues I have with this story as it is conventionally presented?  I suppose at the forefront is the question what kind of God unnecessarily tests a devoted follower in such a heinous way.  It is unbelievably cruel with the potential of causing lasting psychological damage for those involved.  Besides, wouldn't an omnipotent God already know the limits of Abraham's faith?  Therefore, what would be the point of such a test other than to simply satisfy some sadistic urge?  To believe that God was merely testing Abraham is to believe that God views humans as His playthings, as though He is that proverbial child with the magnifying glass burning ants on the sidewalk.

I can't accept that.  My own personal experience with the Higher Power won't allow it because my whole life  I have known a God who, although mysterious, is kind and loving.  My God is one you turn to for guidance and knowledge, not one who arbitrarily places hurt and despair in your path.  What does it mean that Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son?  What should I take from this story that has relevance and meaning to my life without completely obliterating my experiences up to this point?

In pondering this, I first came to the idea that perhaps the point is that Abraham needs to obtain some self knowledge, a better awareness of the strength of his own faith.  An omnipotent God wouldn't need to know how faithful Abraham is, but He may have desired Abraham to reflect on himself and grow through a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.

This idea works better for me on one level as I have had very similar experiences in that regard.  In my life, I have had to face certain hardships that require me to take a piercing look at myself in order to get through them.  And, when I stop resisting and go through some honest self reflection, I always come out it with the following: knowledge I didn't have before, a feeling of personal growth, and often a course of action to take.

Perhaps this is what God intended for Abraham.  Maybe Abraham needed to learn something about himself that God wanted him to know, that he could only learn by obeying God's command to kill his son.

Maybe.  But, what knowledge does Abraham gain?  That he is capable of putting his own son to death?  What possible use could knowledge like that have?  And, what about Isaac?  He now knows that his father is willing to kill him upon God's command.  I can't imagine the effect that would have on a child who looks to his father for love and protection.  Although easier to swallow than the test-of-faith viewpoint, the search for self knowledge doesn't quite work for me either, so I kept digging.

It was then I decided to look at the story allegorically to see the characters and situations as symbols.  In doing this, Abraham can become an Everyman figure, a stand-in for all of us.  Isaac becomes an object of love and affection, something we would be afraid of losing.  And the demand of a sacrifice - it becomes a situation we can't avoid that threatens to take away that very thing we love - just as Abraham cannot avoid the commands of God.

By taking this angle, I began to understand that the story was not about blind faith, but trust.  What's the difference you might ask?  Blind faith is devoid of reason and logic and implies a lack of choice.  The idea that Abraham was unquestionably willing to kill his son is rooted in this notion of blind faith.  God said for him to kill his son, and Abraham went about doing it.

Trust, on the other hand, requires reason and, most importantly, a conscious choice.  One has to choose to trust.  Abraham saw this horrible thing in his future and had to choose to put aside his own will and trust in God that things would work out for the best.  In that same vein, we need to trust God enough to see us through our own fears and tribulations.  When viewed like this, the Abraham and Isaac story has a much more powerful resonance for me.

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