Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience

abraham and isaacMy friend Rachel got me thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac again the other day. I think the first time I really gave it any deep thought was in reading Kierkegaard’s famous meditation on the nature of faith in Fear and Trembling. The entire thing is an examination of Abraham’s terrible choice, his decision whether or not to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering to God. (Actually, on a biographical note, that book’s partially responsible for me being married to my wife. But that’s a story for another time.) I took up the text again in seminary, ended up looking at some of the rabbinic treatments of the issue, and wrote a short paper on it.

In any case, upon reading the story the question comes up for many of us, “Would we? Could we ‘pass’ that terrible test of faith that Abraham did that dreadful day?” I don’t have a child yet, so I can’t say I know the full reality of what it is to love a son–let alone an only son. I love my nephew and to even briefly consider his loss fills me with terror. To think that my God could command that I perpetrate the deed is terror upon terror. In good conscience, I don’t think I could do it.

But here’s the thing, if I were Abraham I’m not so sure what I’d do.

What do I mean by that?

All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.

Where does this come in with Abraham? Well, I think it becomes a factor in two ways: cultural distance and revelational distance. These two are bound up with each other.

I Went to Sunday School

First, it’s been said by biblical scholars before, but it bears saying again: child sacrifice was fairly common for a number of Ancient Near Eastern cults of Abraham’s day.* We have archeological digs filled with tiny human skulls and skeletons that were burned in the fire. At least two of early Israel’s neighbor competition deities, Molech and Chemosh both demanded child sacrifice. Abraham was a recovering idolater in this context. He didn’t grow up in church, Sunday school, or youth group. He grew up around idols, sacrifice, and the pagan gods most of his life. He didn’t live in the 21st Century West. I’m not a cultural relativist, but we neglect this reality much to our harm when it comes to these texts.

For Abraham to receive a command from the God he’d been following for some years now was not unintelligible. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, but it wouldn’t be unthinkable to him. In Abraham’s mind, the firstborn does belong to God. In fact, that’s actually a deep truth that runs all through the Bible. The firstborn does belong to God as you can see very clearly in the principle of the Passover (Exodus 12) and the redemption of the firstborn and their replacement with the Levites (Numbers 3). Without this, you can’t understand Jesus’ role as the firstborn who redeems all of creation (Colossians 1).  God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it.

Still, what differed with God was the mode of the offering of the firstborn. Abraham didn’t know God’s character. A few encounters over the years isn’t a full bio of God. Remember, in Genesis 18, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham still thought he had to talk God into being merciful. He didn’t know God’s commitment to life and that he’d only come to judge a once it had become so wicked as to have less than ten righteous people in the whole thing. And so, God “tested” him, and taught him through that haggling experience. In a very similar way, God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it. Did he have as much devotion to YHWH as the idolaters did? As much devotion as he would be willing to offer them?

God tested him, and then revealed himself to Abraham as the gracious Lord, who provides the sacrifice.

I’m a Christian

This is where the second form of distance from this situation comes in: All throughout Israel’s history, the Lord has to reiterate over and over that he does not want child sacrifice to happen. Multiple times in Jeremiah he says something like,

And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)

Israel’s kings even made their children pass through the fire in the valley of Hinnom outside the gates of Jerusalem. The people built high places. Apparently this was the kind of thing that it was very tempting for Israelites, even after Abraham’s day to do–to offer up sacrifices, the fruit of their love, to their gods in the fire.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by the text and presuppositions of Scripture on this, when Abraham did not. Western culture did not place the high value upon human life that we (allegedly) do, except through the influence of the Scriptures on our cultural conscience. In the ancient Greco-Roman Empire, Christians distinguished themselves by forbidding the dangerous and deadly (for both mother and child) abortions at the time. What’s more, they made a practice of rescuing infants who were regularly abandoned to die outside the gates of the city. It is this conscience that we inherit.**

Abraham didn’t have that either. So when I say, couldn’t, I mean it. I’m not an Ancient Near Easterner. I’m also not a recovering idolater (well, not in that sense.) I’m a Christian who has a Bible and knows the revealed character of God. God has strongly commanded that these things are evil and contrary to his purposes. So if God came to me today with these commands, I’d probably think it was a demon because he has clearly forbidden it in Scripture and, contrary to some popular readings, God doesn’t simply contradict himself.

I’m Not a Knight of Faith

There’s one more difference, though, between Abraham and myself: I’m not always sure I have his faith. See, if the New Testament is any help in understanding the story, apparently Abraham didn’t expect to walk back down the mountain alone that day.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

I suppose this is what Kierkegaard was talking about when he spoke of the difference between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Infinite resignation sacrifices the child believing that’s the end of it. Faith believes God’s good and he’ll give the child back. Abraham believed the knife wasn’t the end of the story. He thought, in some mysterious way, he was coming back down the mountain with Isaac.

Binding and Offering Up Our Conscience

There’s always more to say, but I suppose I’ll end with a word about conscience since that’s what provoked some of these meditations. We give ourselves a lot of credit on this one. We think the same thing about Germany and WWII. “I would never participate in that.” But most normal Germans did. At the right time and place, with the right cultural history behind us, many of us would do a lot of things we never would imagine doing now.

I mean, in our own ways, we do. Today there are a great number of men and women who honestly, legitimately think according to their conscience they are doing good by defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Of course, if a certain line of moral reasoning is true, then Abraham’s choice begins to look a bit closer to us in the 21st Century West. And we’re vocal about it. That’s how disoriented a strong conscience can be.

This is why, though Scripture tells us that conscience is important, and we ought not sin against it (Romans 14), we probably shouldn’t make it the final judge of things (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). We need to listen to our conscience, to be sure, but we also ought to submit them to the Word in order that we might be transformed according to the renewing of our minds so that we can know what God’s good and perfect will is (Romans 12:1-2).

That doesn’t mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm. Some more Kierkegaardian wrestling on this point would probably do the church some good. All the same, as Christians we confess that God is God and God is good. And so we will trust his word and wrestle with it until we can his goodness in it. We will struggle until we can offer our consciences up to God and ask him to teach us, trusting that we will receive them back whole and healed.

And thank God, I think he is patient with us in those times.

Soli Deo Gloria

*See Jon D. Levenson’s excellent The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. 
**For more on this, see The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and Atheist Delusions by D.B. Hart.