The Old Testament’s story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is in many ways unintelligible to modern man. How could God command a father to kill his son? How could God even desire human sacrifice? And how could we believe in such a God?
Read against contemporary mores, the story of Abraham and Isaac seems brutal. But biblical exegesis reminds us that to understand Scripture properly we must read it in the context of its time, its Sitz-im-Leben. Abraham, who is thought to have lived around 1800 BC, dwelled in a brutal world. We look at his world’s lex talionis—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—and consider it vengeful. But the law of retaliation itself represented moral progress: By limiting punishment to mathematical equivalency, it restrained an older custom that took ten of your teeth—or five pairs of your tribes’ eyes—for one of mine.
Abraham’s was a world in which the idea of sacrifice was normal. Sharing a sacrificial meal established bonds of covenant and commitment, essential to survival and to establishing one’s place in that world. It acknowledged dependence. Yet the religion of Abraham never demanded human sacrifice. The fertility cults of Israel’s neighbors, especially those of Baal (https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/fertility-cults-of-canaan), did involve child sacrifice, against which the Old Testament repeatedly railed (see, for instance, Leviticus 20, I Kings 11, and II Kings 21.) Genesis 22, therefore, represents something of an anomaly.
What relevance might the story of Abraham and Isaac have for us today? Some thoughts from Ján Chryzostom Korec, the late Cardinal Archbishop of Nitra, Slovakia, might provide food for thought. In his book Nad starm zákonom (On the Old Testament), Korec writes that “God wanted Abraham to sacrifice himself in complete faith, devotion, and trust. It was not Isaac who was to die, as it seemed at first, but Abraham himself. He himself was to surrender in sacrifice to God the most precious things he has and loves and, in this, he offers his very own heart. . . . The demand to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, was the extreme test of Abraham’s faith. God did not want that sacrifice. He wanted only Abraham’s readiness to give up everything, his true and only son, and by this to trust in the promised future” (pp. 127-28; all translations here are mine). The sacrifice to be made was not Isaac’s life, but Abraham’s attachment to his fatherhood.
* * *
Infertility is indeed a cross for many. In a world where scores of parents are ready to throw away the divine gift of life through abortion, growing numbers of people find themselves incapable of giving life to a child, their desire notwithstanding. Many turn to artificial means of reproduction, particularly in vitro fertilization (IVF). But IVF poses its own problems. As practiced today, IVF creates more lives than are desired, resulting in a kind of Dantean frozen hell for those who are not loved, only used: hundreds of thousands of unborn children condemned to a half-life/half-death existence in cryo-space, awaiting use or destruction.
Even if the issue of “surplus” embryos were overcome, however, IVF would still pose an anthropological threat: Artificial reproduction reduces the creation of human life—hitherto accomplished through an act of human bodily love—to a laboratory technique, and in the process recasts a gift of God as a product of man. As the new Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, trenchantly warned in his 2008 book L’embryon: Quels enjeux? (The Embryo: What Are the Stakes?), “If a child becomes a ‘project,’ it is clear that he ought to correspond to criteria that belong not to his human nature but to his ‘qualities.’” Once we introduce that idea, however, this follows inexorably: “If he presents some anomalies in conflict with the parental qualities project, he will be eliminated.” Put bluntly, “the child is no longer a gift, he is an entitlement.”
Yet when the ethical challenges posed by the artificial reproductive technologies are raised, they are often drowned out by appeals to parental desire: How can we question someone who wants to have a child doing what it takes to make that possible? We cannot deny the heartbreak infertility poses for many people. But emotional appeals do not remove the real human cost that the proposed solutions offer. The subtitle of Dionigi Tettamanzi’s book on ethics at the beginning of life trenchantly captures the issue: Donner la vie: A quel prix?—To Give Life: At What Price?
In a sense, Abraham is the patron of those who suffer from infertility. Bereft of a child through most of his life, he first turned to surrogacy with Hagar. Finally, when he had his own child, born late of Sarah, he was asked to give up everything he had hoped for—his one human guarantee of the future—in order to show his trust in God. God asked Abraham to surrender his own fatherhood in order that he could rediscover it as a gift of God, and understand that God’s ways, not his own, would guarantee the future. Because Abraham shows God how much he trusts him, God multiplies Abraham’s paternity in ways the patriarch never could have imagined—the father of three monotheistic religions, his faith has provided the foundation for millions of believers for over four millennia.
But did God have to exact that lesson at such a cost? The Polish-Jewish writer Roman Brandstaetter considers the events on Mount Moriah from Isaac’s perspective and acknowledges that what happened there left a rift between the boy and his father. When Sarah died, Isaac “felt very alone. All that was left to him was only God, whom he feared like a father, and a father whom he feared like God.” But “God did not have to test anything. He is omniscient. He knew from the start that Abraham would be obedient to the call and his son would be saved. Why, then, did God demand the sacrifice of the only son?” (See his book, Patriarchowie).
And that I would answer in the same way I would explain why we pray. Our prayer is not so much needed by God—who already knows what we need before we ask it (Matthew 6:8)—as it is by us. We need to recognize and express our need, and to acknowledge in humility that our need, sincere as we feel it is, can indeed be mistaken. Which again leads us to the question of trust and the surrender of control which are as much a test for us as they were for Abraham. Because, in the end, we pray not “my will be done” but “Thy will be done.”
—John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was formerly associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.