Is Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) different from what the terrorists did on 9-11?

How does someone convince themselves that killing people by flying a plane into a building is a good thing to do? Why would they do this? While it is likely that we will never really know what the terrorists of 9/11 were thinking, we can still ask ourselves why they might have done what they did. Except for a very small minority of people, I would suggest that people have an innate respect for human life. Unless there has been some extraordinary set of circumstances at play, people don’t normally commit mass murder. People develop a basic moral compass early in life. While there are variations in what is considered right and wrong according to culture and time, virtually all societies instill a respect for the value of life in their children. What is powerful enough to motivate someone to set aside this moral compass? We might speculate that the terrorists hated the United States because of its policies and practices. However, many disagree with the policies and deeds of the United States and do not decide to kill innocent people because of it.

So there must be some additional factor involved that moved them from being ideologically opposed to murder, something that caused them to suspend their moral compass. While we can never know for sure, it seems likely that there was a religious motivation. Whatever other reasons might have been present, what the terrorists did was presumably done for the sake of God/Allah. They believed God wanted them to do this terrible thing. A desire to please God, then, can have the power to move people away from their moral compass.

There are two different types of obedience. One is where we comply with that which we believe to be moral and just. This type of obedience can be defended. You can set out a logical explanation for others to consider. To obey in this context corresponds with our best thinking and our moral compasses. The other type of obedience is based upon a hierarchical system in which something is done merely because one in authority demands it. This sort of obedience may be rational if the one in authority issuing the demand was following his/her best thinking. However, from the perspective of the one obeying, it is not necessarily rational. One may obey not because it makes sense and seems like a moral thing to do, but simply because it was demanded. It seems likely this non-rational obedience inspired the terrorists. Their moral reasoning was short-circuited in the name of obedience to something that was not grounded in reason.

“Abraham and Isaac,” (1931) Marc Chagall

In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, something that forces him to turn away from his moral compass. Child sacrifice is roundly denounced in the Torah (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-3 and Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10). Hence, there is no reason to think that either the author, the original audience, or Abraham within the story thought that child sacrifice is a good thing. By obeying God, Abraham does what he believes to be wrong. God asks Abraham to set aside his moral compass for the sake of obedience. Killing Isaac to please God was not something that would have ever emerged from within Abraham’s conscience/mind as a good thing to do. Hence, what God asks Abraham to do makes no sense and is morally repugnant. Imagine Sarah asking Abraham for an explanation. I doubt Abraham could provide one.

We must ask the question, then: What is the difference between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) and those who high-jacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center? How is Abraham’s intent different from the intent of the terrorists of 9-11?

The fact that it was only a test for Abraham and that he did not actually kill Isaac does not substantially change anything. Abraham did not know it was a test. So, this means that Abraham was fully willing to go through with the deed, despite its moral repugnance, merely because he believed God had demanded it of him. His intent was similar to the Terrorists in that he blindly obeyed, even though the outcome was different.

“Abraham and Isaac,” (1635) by Rembrandt

Someone might counter, “Abraham is nothing like the terrorists because God really spoke to Abraham, but did not speak to the terrorists. The terrorists only thought he did!” But wait, doesn’t that simply mean that the Genesis story is worse than 9-11, at least on a theological level? God is authentically asking Abraham to do evil in his name.  Saying that God did not really command the terrorists is a way of rescuing God. It is much easier for us to attribute their actions to some form of delusion or mental illness, because then God is not complicit. The important thing, however, isn’t so much what God did or didn’t say (because, let’s be honest, we can never know that either), but what Abraham and the terrorists believed God said. Both earnestly believed they were doing God’s bidding. So again, what is the difference between Abraham and the terrorists?

Religion is a powerful phenomenon. It has motivated many people to change their lives for the good and has brought much benefit into the world. However, it has also caused much harm. Does it cause more harm or good? In the final analysis, is it even worth it? If there are ways to change lives for the good apart from religion (as I think there are), then why not do away with religion altogether because of the harm that it can and has done? Of course, rejecting religion because of its destructive potentialities will mean losing its positive life-giving possibilities as well. Each person will have to calculate whether they believe the sum value of religion makes it “worth it” or not. For those of us who, for whatever reason, decide to retain religion, Abraham (not to mention the terrorists of 9-11) can function as a reminder that we must do what we can to move our faith traditions towards their life-giving potentialities and away from their death-dealing shadow side. Because in the final analysis, religion isn’t good or bad – it’s what we make it; what we let it become.

Is a non-rational type of obedience inherentlywrong? If the outcome is death, then most likely it is. However, sometimes ourmoral compasses are formed within exploitive systems (families, cultures,economies, etc.) so that they become skewed. The result might be that forms ofsupremacy “feel right,” and acting contrary to such things as racism,homophobia, sexism, etc. might actually “feel wrong.” Hence, to obey a commandto be inclusive of people who are excluded by one’s skewed moral compass mightmean doing something that feels like a non-rational type of obedience. One’sfeelings about what is right and wrong must be either ignored or relevatizedfor a time if one’s skewed moral compass is to be “reset.” Something like thishappens whenever people re-evaluate old accepted prejudices. While anon-rational type of obedience may not be inherently wrong, it is inherentlyrisky!

“Sacrifice of Isaac,” (1603) by Caravaggio

Is it possible that two differing images of God are at play in this narrative? It is “God” (elohim) who tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and it is “angel of the LORD” (The Angel of YHWH) who tells him to stop. The more generic name for God is in the first instance, and the more personal and covenantal name of God in the second. Is the conflict in this story really between rival representations of God? Is Genesis 22 condemning bad “Elohim” theology? Is it saying that true deities, such as YHWH, don’t ask their followers to commit murder? Is this story warning that bad theology is dangerous? Perhaps…

This story has been told as if it were a prime exemplar of what faith is, and yet the more we explore it, the more troubling it becomes, and the less attractive such a faith seems. It has inspired and troubled many people over the years. And perhaps therein lies its power.

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