The story we have from Genesis today, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, is nothing if not a challenge to us 21st century would-be believers. Perhaps the most famous thinker to take on the problem this story conveys was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In his book Fear and Trembling, he praised Abraham’s obedience to God, arguing that, since it was God who decided the difference between good and evil, God could even suspend ethics.
When I read this for the first time I found it nothing less than shocking. And although I’ve learned much from Kierkegaard, I think he misses a key point in his praise of obedience over ethics. It’s this: earlier in the passage, after Isaac has asked where the sheep for the burnt offering is to be found, Abraham answers saying, “son, God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” It’s easy to miss these lines in the drama of imagining the knife poised over the boy, but if we notice them (and even though it took thousands of years) we can see that God has provided—still does provide—another offering: God’s very self in Jesus.
When I am tempted to offer sacrifice to God, it’s then that I must remember this great reversal: we Christians do not worship a God who demands sacrifice, no, we worship a God who sacrifices God’s very self out of love for us. If we (and Kierkegaard) can remember this, the story of Abraham and Isaac takes on a much different—though no less shocking—meaning.
—Fr. Patrick “Paddy” Gilger, SJ, was ordained on June 15, 2013, and is serving as Associate Pastor of St. John’s Parish, Creighton University, Omaha. Click here for an Ignatian News Network video on ordination featuring Fr. Gilger.