The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
“And the Lord God said all mankind will suffer greatly for me, and suffer they did. Greatly!” The Blessed Atheist’s brief summary of the entire Old Testament.
Before we leave Abraham for the last time, we need to take a hard look at God’s test, the infamous demand for human sacrifice. Of all the the stories in the bible, this is the one which bothers me the most. Even decades ago, as a born again teen, this was the story that always pulled against my grain. The horror of a god taking his most loyal worshipper and testing him in such a manner upset me even when I was burdened under the full yoke of superstition. My sense of justice rebelled against such a demand. This tale started my path towards a true salvation, a salvation from superstition an escape to reason. It makes me very sad for humanity if this is the god they choose to worship, one who asks for too much, one who waits to punish the unfaithful, one who by a preponderance of evidence, wants us to fail.
We all know the story, but I urge you to read it again, carefully and without bias. Genesis, Chapter 22, or try here. God orders Abraham to take his best loved son, Isaac, and sacrifice him. The story does makes clear that Yahweh ordered this atrocity to test Abraham, to see if he would be completely obedient. Of course, God’s right hand suck up is fully up to the task. He’s quite ready to plunge his knife into the chest of his beloved little boy when God finally decides that he’s loyal enough and stays the murderous hand.
But the question any rational human have to ask themselves is, “Does God ever have to right to demand such a sacrifice?” Does he have the moral authority to demand us to murder those which we love? For the sake of argument, let’s assume there really is the creator of all that we know, a god. Would he have the right to treat his creation with whatever whim strikes him? Does he have the right the demand total obedience and to offer destruction for the multitudes who fail his unreasonable demands?
Hell no! No one ever has the right to demand such things. Obedience to any god is not the same as goodness or righteousness or morality. The sheer demand of such terrible loyalty makes him unworthy of it. One cannot issue such a demand without losing the ethical leadership of the human race. Just because some one is bigger and stronger than we are, does not give them the authority to demand we suffer for our weakness, particularly one who supposedly made us with those weaknesses. Might does not make right. Not now! Not ever!. An omnipotent creator may have a right to lead his creation into some glorious sunlit upland of existence, but never to make these terrible demands on his creation, never to demand blind obedience, never to order infanticide.
I cannot read this story without remembering all the more recent news stories where a woman drowns her children because God told her to, or a raving psychotic tortures his children because he thinks the devil’s in them, or when a suicide bomber, hoping for his 72 virgins, walks into a marketplace and murders dozens. The examples are endless. It’s true, Abraham didn’t go through with his murder, but he was ready to. He was on the verge of sheathing his knife in the heart of his son. The only difference between these other acts and the demand for Isaac’s sacrifice is one of perspective. We react with horror to similar murders today, but exult Abraham for his willingness to murder. Yet, do not all these people have “Faith”? How do you commit any of these crimes without having faith in something other than cold hard reality? How do you do these things without thinking that there is some supernatural escape clause? The very root of these crimes is faith, faith in a God who demands complete and utter obedience, regardless of what is asked. Rigid obedience to voices in your head will always lead down horrid paths. No exceptions! These are paths which humanity, either singly or en masse have traveled many times. Paths where we have done terrible things. Lead by unreasoning faith we have traveled the road to murder, torture and genocide. This blind faith can be in religion, in a demagogue, or in idealism. The faithful blind will lead us nowhere good. Watchful reason must be the rule not the exception. It’s time for us to stop being a mere pet to an imaginary but cruel god.
There may be another way of looking at this event. One I favor far more than the traditional interpretation. Perhaps a test was administered to the human race, a test of readiness to take our rightful place in this universe. This would have to be a place for people willing to assume responsibility for their own lives, to give up excuses, to use our reason, to become, finally, an adult.
By all accounts Abraham failed that test. He was willing to commit horrors for his religion. By a simple command, he was ready to murder his dear boy. If there is a merciful god, I do hope he would be disappointed with that decision.
The correct answer, as we all know, would have been to tell God to go get fucked.