Faith and Ethics: Abraham and Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, circa 1601-02. (Credit: Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: Divine Command Theories

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Abraham and Isaac

In Genesis 22 the Bible tells us the story of the “Akedah,” the Binding of Isaac, and God’s command to Abraham that he must sacrifice his only son.[83] Abraham is about to do so when God’s angel intervenes to halt the tragic action. The tragic act is aborted, not because the act is reconsidered, but because of an intervening event: Abraham abandons his initial intent because he hears the Angel.[84] It cannot come as a surprise that this story contains many potential elements of tragedy. It remained a popular dramatic subject well into the sixteenth century, when it was interpreted as a tragedy indeed.[85]

Here is the relevant passage in the Bible. God said to Abraham:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moraiah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar on the top of wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide,” as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:1–13)

Because of this obedience Abraham is praised by the Lord. The angel of the Lord said to Abraham: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15–18).

As the American legal scholar Alan Dershowitz (1938– ) remarked: “Abraham Commits Attempted Murder – and Is Praised.”[86] Abraham proves his faith by obeying God’s command. He supremely exemplifies the meaning of living by the Torah. “He as an individual demonstrates the quality of response to God that should characterize Israel as whole,” as it has been argued.[87]

The story of Abraham and Isaac obliges us to reconsider the relationship between faith and ethics.[88] It also presents us with many theological and hermeneutic questions: how can we explain that Abraham dared to protest and insist that God should not exceed ethical norms in the story of Sodom (the story of Sodom will be treated more extensively in the section Worship in this chapter), but is so compliant in the Akedah?[89]

The Story of Abraham in the Qur’an

The story of the offering of Abraham’s son is – with slight variations – also included in the Qur’an. There, Abraham tells his son: “My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think” (Qur’an 37:91–110). The son is obedient and replies: “Father, do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted to God, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: “Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.” Thus do We reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. “Peace be on Abraham!” (Qur’an, 37:105, translation Dawood)[90]

This is a surprising story, but even more surprising is the way it is sometimes interpreted. By many believers it is not interpreted as a manifestation of God’s irresponsible behavior in requiring this of Abraham, but as a sign of God’s goodness for not requiring the making of the actual offering.

In December 2007 an advertisement in the International Herald Tribune was published and headed with the words: “A Muslim Message of Thanks and of Christmas and New Year Greetings.”[91] The text runs as follows.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
May God bless Muhammed and his kin and bless Abraham and his kin
Al-Salaamu Aleikum; Peace be upon you; Pax Vobiscum.

So far nothing special. But then the text continues in a more ecumenical way:

Peace be upon Jesus Christ who says: Peace is upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am resurrected (Chapter of Mary; the Holy Qur’an, 19:33).

I am particularly interested in the picture of Abraham that is presented in this advertisement. I shall write in italics what is relevant to our theme.

We pray, during these blessed days, which have coincided with the Muslim feast of the Hajj or Pilgrimage, which commemorates the faith of the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), that the New Year may bring healing and peace to our suffering world. God’s refusal to let Abraham (peace be upon him) sacrifice his son – granting him instead a ram – is to this day a Divine warrant and a most powerful social lesson for all the followers of the Abrahamic faiths, to ever do their utmost to save, uphold and treasure every single human life and especially the life of every single child.

The advertisement is followed by some elaborations on the idea of the sanctity of life and signed by a long list of Islamic academics and other intellectuals.

How is it possible that the story of Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son is here presented as a morally uplifting tale? Evolutionary biologist Nicholas Humphrey (1943– ) comments in his Amnesty Lecture 1997 on a remarkable discovery in the high mountains of Peru in 1995.[92] Some climbers came across the frozen mummified body of a young Inca girl, dressed as a princess, presumably thirteen years old. This little girl had been taken alive up the mountain by a party of priests, and then ritually killed as a sacrifice to the mountain’s gods. The discovery was described by anthropologist Johan Reinhard (1943– ) in National Geographic.[93] Humphrey was appalled by the uncritical tone of the article about this horrendous practice. This was even more evident in a documentary film on this discovery transmitted on American television. Humphrey says: “The message of the television programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.”[94] Humphrey castigates the makers of the documentary with the words:

How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men?[95]

How, indeed, can we explain this condoning attitude toward barbarous practices? Is the Canadian political writer and cultural critic Mark Steyn (1959– ) right when he says that “Europe has all but succumbed to the dull opiate of multiculturalism”?[96] Is it because people have no empathy with things that happened long ago? Are they inclined to think that religious practices are something one should not criticize? Are they under the spell of cultural relativism? Or do they consider the biblical and Qur’anic story of Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son as “just a story” without significance for the behavior of present-day believers?

What strikes us, of course, is the interpretation that is given to the story of Abraham. There is no critical note whatsoever that Abraham was willing to offer his son.[97] Neither is there any critical remark about the fact that God required this. The only thing that is stressed in the advertisement is the happy ending of the story. It is true, Abraham did not kill Isaac (or Ishmael in the Islamic tradition), but he is nonetheless portrayed as capable of an intentional violation of the taboo against kindred bloodshed.[98] This is astonishing, because the fact that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son can hardly be seen as a laudable manifestation of respect for the principle of the “right to life,” as indicated in the advertisement, especially not for the right to life of children. As Christopher Hitchens (1949– ) says:

All three monotheisms, just to take the most salient example, praise Abraham for being willing to hear voices and then to take his son Isaac for a long and rather mad and gloomy walk. And then the caprice by which his murderous hand is finally stayed is written down as divine mercy.[99]

The upshot of all this is that neither in the Islamic, nor in the Jewish or Christian sources is there broad sympathy for a critical stance toward Abraham’s fatal choice. This is strange because, as the American philosopher Philip L. Quinn (1940–2004), rightly remarks, there is also the precept of the Decalogue that forbids murder.[100] From the perspective of divine command ethics, however, this is not a serious objection. The reason is that the direct command of God has priority over the Decalogue. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) makes this clear in the following passage:

when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no mur- derer any more than God would.[101]

So Abraham has a duty to obey God’s direct command. If he obeys it, he will be no murderer because he will merely be executing a just sentence of death passed by the lord of life and death, as Quinn summarizes Aquinas’ point of view.[102] And since he is no murderer, the Decalogue’s prohibition of murder does not apply to his case. Abraham simply has no duty not to kill Isaac.

Yet many followers of divine command ethics seem to be ambivalent in their view. We see this also with the signers of the advertisement. They cling to the second angelic voice that keeps Abraham from committing the tragic deed. By doing so, they manage to reinterpret the story as a story that manifests God’s goodness: Abraham was not required to kill his son. This is a strange interpretation that the signers give to the story of the offer of Abraham.[103] Is it perhaps the case that their interpretation testifies to the fact that moral autonomy is unavoidable? That they give an interpretation to the story that conforms to ordinary moral sense?

In the second section of Chapter 2, I have treated the problem of evil and how this relates to the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good god. This is also relevant here. Could the story of Abraham perhaps also be used as a source of inspiration for the rejection of the theistic worldview?

Philip Quinn presents the following argument. (1) Suppose God commands Abraham to kill Isaac; (2) If God commands Abraham to kill Isaac, then God commands Abraham to do something wrong; (3) If God com- mands Abraham to do something wrong, then God himself does wrong; (4) If God himself does wrong, then God is not morally perfect; and so (5) God is not morally perfect.[104]

No less worrying is the fact that St. Paul develops the typology of Isaac as the symbol of Christ. Paul says that Christians, like Isaac, are “children of promise” (Galatians 4:28; Romans 9:7). The German historian and philosopher of religion Hans-Joachim Schoeps (1909–1980) is probably correct when he writes that “The Binding of Isaac” was a Jewish theological concept that must have been familiar to Paul, a former Pharisee, for whom it served as his model when he undertook to develop his soteriology.[105]

In the case of Isaac as of Jesus, there is a divinely commanded sacrifice of a son, although in the second case the victim is a man aware of being the Messiah and regarded as a Son of God, while in the first case a father (not God) is ready to sacrifice his only son in obedience to a divine command – a son ‘on whom’? depends the fate of Israel and the world. Both are central events in sacred history, although Isaac’s sacrifice was not completed.[106]

Also according to Augustine (354–430), the sacrifice of the son by the father was a foreshadowing of God’s willingness to sacrifice His son for the redemption of mankind.[107] Abraham represented God, and Isaac Christ. Therefore the wood carried by Isaac to the sacrificial hill foreshadowed the cross of Calvary, and also the ram caught by his horn in the briers (Genesis 22:3) signified the Christ of the vicarious atonement crowned with thorns.[108] Abraham, as a type of God, necessarily offers his sacrifice willingly, out of faith and love. And Isaac, as a type of Christ, voluntarily endures his suffering out of faith and obedience.

Augustine also dealt with the seeming arbitrariness and immorality of God’s command to Abraham. In his Confessions (397–398) Augustine wrote (apparently with Abraham in mind) that many things which appear worthy of men’s disapproval are approved by God’s command. And who will doubt that it should be done, even though it is opposed to the social conventions of men?[109] In The City of God (413–426) Augustine declares that not for a moment “could Abraham believe that God took delight in human sacrifices, although he knew that, once God’s command rang out, it was his not to reason why, but to obey.”[110]

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part III: The Story of Jephtha

[83] Moberly, R.W.L., “The Earliest Commentary on the Akedah,” Vetus Testamentum, 28 1988), pp. 302–323, p. 302: “Few stories within the Old Testament have received more com- mentary than the story of the testing of Abraham – widely known as the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac – in Genesis 22:1–19.”

[84] See: Mleynek, Sherryll, “Abraham, Aristotle, and God: The Poetics of Sacrifice,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62, no. 1 1994, pp. 107–121, p. 109; Delaney, Carol, Abraham on Trial: the Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998, p. 69 ff.

[85] Elliot John R., Jr, “The Sacrifice of Isaac as Comedy and Tragedy,” Studies in Philology, 66, no. 1 1969, pp. 36–59, p. 39.

[86] In: Dershowitz, Alan M., The Genesis of Justice. Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law, Warner Books, New York 2000.

[87] Moberly, R.W.L., “The Earliest Commentary on the Akedah,” Vetus Testamentum, 28 1988, pp. 302–323, p. 305.

[88] Boehm, Omri, “The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on the Question of ‘Disobeying’ a Manifestly Illegal Order,” Vetus Testamentum, 52 2002, pp. 1–12, p. 1.

[89] See: ibid., p. 12. See also: Sandmel, Samuel, “Abraham’s Knowledge of the Existence of God,” The Harvard Theological Review, 44, no. 3 1955, pp. 137–139.

[90] The Qur’an, translated with notes by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Books, London 1999.

[91] A Muslim Message of Thanks and of Christmas and New Year Greetings December 2007,” Advertisement, International Herald Tribune, December 31, 2007, January 1, 2008.

[92] Humphrey, Nicholas, “What Shall We Tell the Children?” in: Nicholas Humphrey, The Mind Made Flesh: Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002, pp. 289–318, p. 305 and Dawkins commentary in: Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 366–372.

[93] Reinhard, Johan, and Alvarez, Stephen, “Peru’s Ice Maidens,” National Geographic, June 1996, 189, no. 6, pp. 62–82.

[94] Humphrey, “What Shall We Tell the Children?”, p. 305.

[95] Ibid., p. 306.

[96] Steyn, Mark, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC 2006, p. xxiv.

[97] See on this: Delaney, Carol, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998.

[98] See: Mleynek, Sherryll, “Abraham, Aristotle, and God: The Poetics of Sacrifice,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62, no. 1 1994, pp. 107–121, p. 118.

[99] Hitchens, Christopher, god is not Great, p. 53. Hitchens’ remarks about what the Ten Commandments do not say are also relevant, see, ibid., p. 100: “Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide?”

[100] Quinn, Philip L., “Agamemnon and Abraham: the Tragic Dilemma of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith,” Journal of Literature and Theology, 4, no. 2, 1990, pp. 181–193, p. 187.

[101] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, 19, 6 ad 3.

[102] Quinn, “Agamemnon and Abraham,” p. 188.

[103] See for other interpretations: Simmons, J. Aaron, “What about Isaac? Rereading Fear and Trembling and Rethinking Kierkegaardian Ethics,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 35, no. 2 2007, pp. 319–345 and Kretzmann, Norman, “Abraham, Isaac, and Euthyphro: God and the Basis of Morality,” in: Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds., Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA 1999, pp. 417–427. This line of argu- ment is elaborated in: Rachels, James, “God and Human Attitudes,” Religious Studies, 7 (1971), pp. 325–37, also in: James Rachels, Can Ethics Provide Answers. And other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham 1997, pp. 109–125.

[104] Quinn, “Agamemnon and Abraham,” p. 191.

[105] Schoeps, Hans Joachim, “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 65, no. 4 1946, pp. 385–392, p. 386.

[106] Ibid., p. 387.

[107] Augustine, The City of God, xvi 32.

[108] Elliott, John, Jr., “The Sacrifice of Isaac as Comedy and Tragedy,” Studies in Philology, 66, no. 1 1969, pp. 36–59, p. 40.

[109] Augustine, The Confessions, iii, 9.

[110] Augustine The City of God, xvi, 32.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

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  1. I tend to see the Bible as a historical record of the spiritual/intellectual development of the Israelites, and so I see this story as a portrayal of a very early conception of morality. Regarding some act deemed good or pious, Socrates would ask, "Is it good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good simply because it is good?" In Abraham's day, apparently it was believed that anything God might command is ipso facto a good thing, and so Abraham assumes he must do something which is in and of itself evil in order to do what is ultimately rightm, namely obey. Although Abraham is praised for his obedient nature, it is significant that God does not allow the killing to happen. God knows it would not be a good thing. As the Israelites develop a more complex culture, referring more often to "the name of the Lord," rather than "The Lord", and prohibiting physical representations of God, they also develop increasingly abstract and general rules to determine what is good and what is not. They go on to adopt a set of ten commandments as guides to behavior, and finally are given a rather Socratic rule which we now refer to as The Golden Rule. So where the focus had been on simple non-rational obedience and little personal responsibility, it comes to a more abstract rule which the individual must apply as he finally accepts total responsibility for his actions.


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