The Binding of Isaac and the Power of Choice: A Theodicy

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If a loving God really exists, why does He make our choices so difficult?

It is the dawn of the twentieth century. Perched on the edge of a dock, a boy shivers as the last bit of warmth from his parents’ final embrace escapes his body. Staring into the blue abyss, he cannot help but wonder if the stories he heard are true. Though he knows nothing about this fabled place, he is about to sacrifice everything, including his family who must stay behind, for it. Like the Israelites, the only justifications for his trek are the myths and legends he inherited from his loved ones. Will he brave the journey? If so, will he survive in this foreign land without any family, job, or network in place? Does this place even exist? Weighed down by so many questions and anxieties, his lurch towards the boat is propelled not by his feet but by his faith. This young man is going to his promised land, his heaven, his America.

God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he replied.
Then God said:
“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, 
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust 
on a height that I will point out to you.”

Gn 22:1-2

In many ways, Abraham’s journey was even more difficult than those of European immigrants in the 1800s. Like many of our ancestors, Abraham had to leave behind his family, support system, and career for promises that might not have lived up to his expectations. That said, at least immigrants had some assurance of their promised land’s existence; Abraham had none. In this respect he can be likened to Christopher Columbus, though at even he had monetary incentive to brave his journey. Abraham only had the word of a mysterious being to justify abandoning his home, relatives, and work, a fate considered worse than death in his time. In fact, God promised him the impossible: generations of children despite his wife’s barren condition. Essentially, Abraham had to choose between living comfortably in Ur and risking his life to serve a mysterious voice who promised him the impossible in a foreign, possibly hostile, land. Impressive as the patriarch’s decision was, no choice was as difficult as the one described in the above passage. After fighting several battles, escaping numerous treacheries, and enduring the harsh desert landscape, God asked him to sacrifice his son, the culmination of his life’s struggles, the only glimpse of God’s promise. If Abraham’s journey to Canaan was his voyage to America, then the binding of Isaac was a plunge into the middle of the Atlantic without a life-vest.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, 
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven, 
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God, 
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about, 
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram 
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Gn 22:10-13

The concept of human sacrifice understandably might churn the stomachs of modern readers, but thousands of years ago, it was a standard practice. We might mistakenly ask how God could put young Isaac’s human dignity at risk, when really Abraham’s dignity was on the line. While Western society usually views death as the greatest punishment a person could suffer, this was not the case in the ancient world. Undoubtedly, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his aging self would have been far easier than the alternative because ancient cultures understood children as the immortalization of their parents. They carried their father’s legacy, so their survival was more important than that of their parents. God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was, therefore, not as much a moral question as it was an existential one: Was Abraham willing to sacrifice his legacy, his livelihood, his existence, for this mysterious force that gave him so much hardship and pain throughout his journey?

Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son 
but handed him over for us all, 
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Rom 8:31b-34

Recall the Garden of Gethsemane scene in which Christ struggles to decide if He should sacrifice Himself for the human race. It should comfort us to know that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, faced the same existential decision that Abraham and immigrants faced centuries ago, the same question we face every day: are we willing to abandon everything we know and love to be fulfilled by forces beyond our perception? Remember that Christ is our ultimate role model, and while we might not be tasked with exploring new territories, fighting wars, sacrificing children, or enduring torture, we are still tasked with laying aside our legacies for unity with God. Abraham and Christ both offered up their humanity to God the Father only to have it returned to them ten-fold, the former in descendants and the latter with a resurrected body.

Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote “existence precedes essence.” This revolutionary statement offered an alternative to the classical Christian perspective that human nature is set in stone. Of course, there are certain realities about the human condition that are not impacted by our actions. One cannot self-determine away their necessity of food and water for survival, though I do not think this is what Sartre proposed. On the contrary, I believe that Sartre’s notion speaks to a far more existential understanding of humanity. Rather than our common human nature dictating our choices, it is our choices that determine our individual natures. In the Christian tradition, we believe that our choices leave indelible marks on our souls, but said choices are impossible with some form of angst or even agony. Consider a perfect paradise that completely fulfilled us. Would any choice really be necessary if we were in complete comfort? But this is not our world; we are perpetually prodded and teased by the ever-encroaching shadows of death and despair. We know that if we do not cross the ocean of faith, eventually we will surely die, though such a journey could kill also us much sooner. Even then, there are no guarantees. Unlike America, there is no coming back once people cross into the promised land of Heaven. An existential choice necessitates an existential pain, which means that the greatest decision we could ever make, to leap into the ocean and embrace our Father, requires an equally immense pain. This is manifest through the most difficult moments of our lives. God calls us, through His own example in Gethsemane, to relive the Abrahamic narrative every day. It is often said that crises bring people together. Parents are closest to their children after overcoming a struggle, which always includes tough choices. If God loves us enough to let us choose to love Him in return, then sometimes that choice can and should be the most painful one we can possibly make. Just imagine Christ at your most miserable moment reaching out and asking you, “do you still love me?”

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