It would be arrogant to suppose that we could puzzle out the “real” meaning of this, one of the most difficult pieces of scripture, in the short time we have available.
Kierkegaard wrote a whole book on it, after all, and in the end he threw up his hands and said “that’s as good as it gets”. Who are we to say we can go one better?
I say this because an easy interpretation suggests itself, of course.
It would be easy–so easy–to read this story as a parable of having too much faith. Easy to read it with America’s Religious Right cast in the role of Abraham, seemingly too eager to slice up his son when prompted by the Lord. Easy to see in Isaac the American project itself, the precious, hard-won son about to be sacrificed at the altar of dogma and blind faith.
Easy, but wrong.
First of all, it doesn’t do justice to the narrative. The Dane had it right: this is a story about paradox, about what the Germans used to call the “thrownness” of the world.
Without warning or desire, we find ourselves stuck between The Rules, those moral precepts we can seemingly take for granted, and The One who made those rules. Even if we don’t believe in a “One”, there is still the matter of the exceptions to the rules. If our moral systems are to be logical systems as well, there will come the inevitable point where they meet self-contradiction, where they break down under the weight of simple consistency.
That’s the point Abraham confronts on the altar with Isaac.
Does he relish his role as sacrificial priest? Does he approach it with “fear and trembling”? We are not told; there is nothing in the text to describe his emotional state.
Likewise–chillingly–we know nothing of God’s motivation. Is this a test? An earnest request? A terribly misunderstood direction? We simply don’t know.
At least in the case of Abraham, this lack of descriptiveness seems deliberate. It prevents us from the mistake of judging too soon. For Abraham represents no one other than ourselves here.
We are at the altar. We hold the knife. We look into Isaac’s eyes and say, “God will provide”. The story, as Kierkegaard understood, throws us into this role.
Because let’s face it, we’re not perfect. Nobody is. There is none of us capable of getting it right every stinking time, liberal or conservative, young or old, black or white, male or female, whatever or whatever.
The temptation is always there to think otherwise, of course, and that’s exactly what sucks us into situations to which we’d like to suppose ourselves invulnerable. The other temptation, as stakes rise, is to think that this is Too Important a matter for us to be wrong on. If it were my child on the altar, I’d know just what to do, we think.
And then the trouble begins.
So the next time you hear about some rat-faced git standing up and proclaiming the moral superiority of his political party, and declaring that the other side of the aisle is just a bunch of treacherous pansies, think of Father Abraham.
Think of him standing there above his son, knife in hand, looking dazed and confused.
Think of him swallowing hard and saying to himself: “Now what?”
Think of him hoping like hell that something–anything–will come up to set him off the course he’s on.
And then do what you need to do, knowing that you too have been thrown into the paradoxes of this world, and that the only sure way to blow it all is to think you can’t.