Divine capriciousness in the immolation of Isaac

Obviously, the command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is a challenging text that seems to force on us the fact of divine moral capriciousness or amorality. Though the question of God’s relation to morality is larger than any one story could address, Scripture’s own interpretation of the story is best read as a rejection of divine capriciousness or amorality.

From Hebrews 11:

Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.

The Scriptural narrative leaves no doubt that…

(a) God promised that a great nation would arise through Isaac, and

(b) God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac,

…And so the only point of interpretation seems to be whether God can renege on his promises, but Hebrews seems to be saying that this is precisely the point of difference between Abraham and most of us who are reading about him. We’re the ones tacitly assuming that God could be unfaithful, maybe under some variation on a belief that William of Ockham put so forcefully:

God can command the created will to hate him and the created will can do this, moreover, an act that can be moral in this life can be moral in the next, and since God can command persons in this life to hate him, he can also command it of the blessed.

Relative to this, God breaking promises is small potatoes. God is totally free and omnipotent, and so can be anything he wants, even be unfaithful. Abraham, in contrast, is described as seeing divine infidelity as impossible, so much so that he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” So a story that appears to be an argument for divine capriciousness turns out to be its absolute rejection. The paradigmatic man of faith is the one who would insist on the impossibility of divine infidelity, even when this insistence drives him to deny the finality of death.

To insist on anything in the face of death is also raises the question of what is ultimately real. Things are real to the extent they are certain, and death seems like the limit case of what is certain.  Faith consists in putting one’s esteem of the divine fidelity even beyond that, so much so that even the death’s finality becomes contingent. One can have faith in some sense without having it to this extent, which defines faith as a process of growth on a continuum. Paul seemed to speak from Abrahamic maturity of faith in Romans 8:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On this account of faith, it is growth in the conviction of the reality of divine fidelity is more certain than death. Faith must also reject any element of divine capriciousness even after it accepts  dogmas like original sin, predestination, ‘leading into temptation’, or the toleration of some actual sins and not others.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: