Three Notes on Abraham and Isaac

– In the Summa, St. Thomas twice defends Abraham’s intention to kill Isaac, saying that God is the Lord all things, and commands the death of both the just and the unjust. I take the response as definitive- and I wonder whether we might even be able to pull a few corrolaries from it, like

a.) Not only was Abraham righteous, he would have sinned in not intending to kill Isaac. For the same reason, if Isaac’s had no openness to being killed, this ommission would have been materially sinfull and objectively wrong, although Isaac need not be culpable.

b.) God is the common good of all creatures, for he is not diminished by being shared or participated in. If we consider Isaac as a creature, then, we can consider him as to be sacrificed for his own good.

– We are told nothing about what Isaac thought of the prospect of being sacrificed. Many people assume that he was simply horrified by it, others go on to claim- as though it were obvious- that Isaac must have born deep psychological scars from this for the rest of his life. Aside from the fact that we can read about the rest of Isaac’s life in Genesis, and he shows no evidence of such scars, we simply don’t know how he responded to the prospect of being sacrificed and it is presumptive for us to assume we can speak for him. Perhaps he was horrified, or perhaps he thought “Lord, if it be possible, let my Father not do this, nevertheless… Perhaps he was horrified, but later was ashamed of his horror, because he thought is showed a lack of faith. We simply don’t know. If we insist on speaking to what Isaac thought, we have to do so according to what we know about Isaac himself: he was a theist, a religiously observant man (of the same faith his father founded), and a patriarch of a faith that has survived and flourished for thousands of years.

– It struck me this morning that the ram that was substituted for Isaac had it horns caught in brambles. In other words, it was wearing a crown of thorns.


  1. anna said,

    January 14, 2007 at 12:14 am

    this has been one of the more troubling stories to my darkened intellect, so hopefully you can bear with my comment, wherever it may go.
    interested in how you understand Thomas’ definitive take squares with Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, specifically his point against the Muslim view that God can command something contrary to reason, can lie even, can directly command evil to be committed for His greater purposes (child sacrafice being condemned otherwise); Benedict quoting Manuel II: Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God.

    i guess it is that they think God commands the death of the unjust (including children) who are really just, or at least innocent of the particular infidelity ascribed to them by their islamist murderers, but mistakenly, whereas Abraham really was commanded to do so for a completely unique test and foreshadowing apart from God’s other proscriptions, and so responded according to righteousness, while their response in presumed righteousness to God’s perceived command just happens to be delusional, though it too seems contrary to reason — for how is slaying a child not contrary to reason? but then, also i see they are slaying out of hatred on top of what they believe is commanded, whereas Abraham was willing to slay according to command even though he loved Isaac so greatly. and maybe then (probably obviously) the bottom line lies in the love factor. what God commanded of Abraham was truly a great sacrifice of love whereas what they believe is commanded of them is flamed into a perverted, hatred fueled impersonation of joy that has its eye fixated on sensual reward…

    now i’m either entangling myself or answering my own question, because if God Himself sacrificed His Son out of love (a lamb slain “before the foundation of the world”) beyond what fallen human nature/reason would prescribe or fathom of itself, and by faith Abraham was given to assent to such a foreshadowing, though spared of actually having to commit the act, then it really wouldn’t be contrary to reason/logos, as the Logos Itself was to come into the world for precisely such a sacrifice of love…

    sorry for the rambly nature of this, ultimately was just trying to understand how child sacrifice is ever not contrary to reason, which God cannot be incompatible with. i guess perhaps with your #b and what i’ve babbled above it would simply just be transrational, and very specific to Abraham’s scriptural role of foreshadowing, ordered to the unfathomable common good of God that falls short of man’s limited, fallen natural reason, and yet is mysteriously not contrary to, as the sacrifice of Jesus alone can make mysterious sense of… aack. just. going. to. stop. now.

    and thanks for the brambles insight, very beautiful…
    and congratualations on fatherhood : )

  2. thomism said,

    January 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    I thought carefully about this all morning, and prayed about it at Mass, but I think St. Thomas already did most of the intercessory prayer needed, because I think the answer involves explaining the answer he gave to us.

    I read the heart of your argument as saying this:

    Human sacrifice is contrary to reason
    God cannot act contrary to reason
    So God cannot order human sacrifice.

    I say that the premisses are both true, and the conclusion is false, because the middle term is equivocal.

    First, note that human sacrifice is contrary to reason not because it is sacrifice- for sacrifice is good- but because it involves the taking of innocent human life. Human sacrifice is unreasonable, then, insofar as the taking of human life is contrary to reason.

    But the taking of innocent human life is contrary to reason for two reasons: because someone has no authority to take human life at all, and/or because someone has no authority to take the life of innocent human beings. Both reasons apply to any particular person, as a private citizen, but the second reason applies to civil authorities and to all other finite powers. The civil autority exists that it might serve the innocent from those who would harm them, and to serve their needs, and so it is utterly contrary to their nature that they should harm the innocent; and for similar reasons, it is also contrary to the angelic nature. But God does not exist for the sake of anything other than himself, even the innocent. The divine nature is not some slave that we institute to do our bidding and pay off with bribes, like the idols are.

    So I would insist that human sacrifice is contrary to reason, for no creature with reason or even in the entire universe has the authority to take an innocent life. Reason, because of its nature, does not have the authority to do such a thing. The ability to kill the innocent belonged to Abraham only per accidens; not insofar as he was a creature, but insofar as he was an instrument of the divine nature.

    To say this, I am aware, does not answer the particular problem of the Muslims. But I don not obect to a Muslim giving this same argument I gave above. I have a deeper problem with Islam: it claims to be something that cannot exist: sc. the fulfillment of Christianity. For Christianity cannot be fulfilled, regardless of whether one holds it as true or false.

  3. anna said,

    January 15, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    thanks for drawing out those distinctions…

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: