At first sight this is a terrible story. Abraham is prepared to kill his only son because God has told him too. As SK says: “Abraham enjoys honour and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.” (p 41) It is wrong on every level. “There was many a father who lost his child”: the God that spared Isaac is the same God who destroys the only sons of other men. How is this just? “Is it because Abraham had a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he did is great, and when another does the same it is sin?” How is it just that what would be regarded as appalling in a normal person can be excused in Abraham? Is it because, in the end, Abraham did not kill Isaac even though that outcome was not chosen by Abraham? “Before the result, either Abraham was every minute a murderer” (p 50)
There are four scenarios which could have happened:
- Abraham could have listened to God’s suggestion and refused the call. Me? Kill my son? No way.
- Abraham could have gone along with the idea and then had a last-minute change of heart and spared Isaac.
- As per the Bible story; Abraham could have been prepared to kill his son had God not told him not to at the last moment.
- Abraham could have ‘sacrificed’ Isaac.
In which of these does Abraham do good? I would have suggested Abraham emerges with credit in only scenarios one and two. Three is attempted murder and four is murder. SK points out that there are parallels to child sacrifice, for example when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia to obtain a favourable wind for the Greek fleet sailing to Troy. Agamemnon at least had the excuse that he was doing a bad thing for the greater good. Even then, the myths wreak eventual retribution on Agamemnon, suggesting that the Greeks believed that what Agamemnon did was bad. The morality of the pagan Greeks seems here better than that of the monotheistic Hebrews.
In which of these scenarios does God appear good? Only in scenario three does God not demand the death of an innocent child. Butt even in three he puts both Abraham and Isaac through psychological torture in order to test how fanatical Abraham is prepared to be. This is certainly not a nice God. “He who in demanding a person's love thinks that this love should be proved ... is not only an egoist but stupid as well.” (p 56)
Abraham is applauded because he passed God’s test: he would have killed his son for his faith.The message here seems to be: be a zealot; blind faith is good. As SK asserts: “Faith is the highest passion in a man.” (p 94) Before this is dismissed as just 'Old Testament' something similar is said by Jesus too. SK points out that in Luke 14:26 Jesus says: “If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his whole life also, he cannot be my disciple.” But I suspect that today we see the blind faith of fundamentalists as leading to cruelty and inhumane wickednesses. Rather, it is good to doubt.
But then, this is because I don't believe in an afterlife. Promises of glory or a better world after death have always been used to motivate men to do terrible things. And SK subscribes to the belief that there must be something spiritual that survives death. “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all then they only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all - what then would life be but despair?” (p 13) But this is a silly argument. Something doesn't simply exist because it makes life easier. As he himself says later: “Fools and young men prate about everything being possible for a man. That, however, is a great error. ... in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible.” (p 33) Of course that only applies (for SK) in the world of the finite and for him the spiritual/ethical world is that of the infinite. Nevertheless, until you are convinced that something about us is immortal you cannot argue that anything about the Abraham and Isaac story reflects well on either the fanatical murderer Abraham or the duplicitous tester God.
I just wonder how Isaac felt as he made the long trek back through the desert beside the father who had been about to kill him.
Doubt has to be better than zealotry.
Other interesting and insightful quotes from this book:
- “The thread is spun under tears, the cloth bleached with tears, the shirt sewn with tears ... everyone must sew it for himself.” (p 34)
- “People do not know what they ought to say but only that they must say something.” (p 42)
- “No one thinks that a man became great because he won the great prize in the lottery.” (p 48)
- Know thyself? “Delving deep into oneself one would first of all discover the disposition to evil.” (p 77 fn)
- “From time out of mind people have been pleased to think that witches, hobgoblins, gnomes etc were deformed, and undeniably every man on seeing a deformed person has at once an inclination to associate this with the notion of moral depravity. What a monstrous injustice!” (p 81)
- A genius must be “master of his madness ... since otherwise he would be actually a madman.” (p 82)
June 2018; 95 pages