Today is an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha or the Feast of the Sacrifice. It commemorates the story of when God said to Abraham, kill me a son. In Judaism and Christianity, this is the story of the Akedah — the binding of Isaac. In Islam, it’s the story of the sacrifice of Ishmael (the son we Christians believe Abraham sacrificed earlier, by banishing and abandoning him).
Either way, this is a daunting story — one that tests the reader’s faith just as surely as it tested Abraham’s. And, like Abraham, many readers fail this test of faith. Their failure is evident from the fact that they imagine somehow Abraham didn’t fail here.
In this faithless reading of the story, it’s all about obedience. God is testing Abraham to see if he will blindly obey God’s commands, no matter what. In this reading, Abraham passes the test by demonstrating his willingness to obey no matter what — even if that means playing the part of Renfield when God plays the part of Dracula. (No, thank you.)
The other way of reading it is to see it as a story about God’s faithfulness — a story about how God is trustworthy even when we lose trust. Which is to say it’s a story about how God is good even when we’re willing to believe the opposite — a story that urges us to put our faith in God’s absolute goodness rather than in God’s absolute power.
Some readers combine these two approaches, seeing Abraham’s apparent willingness to bind, kill, and burn his own son as a feint — a stratagem intended to force God’s hand. In this view, Abraham is both bluffing himself and trying to call God’s bluff. He binds Isaac/Ishmael and raises the knife in a game of chicken, forcing God to flinch first by sending an angel to stay his hand. Abraham wins this contest of wills with God, concluding, Jonah-like, that Hah! I knew it! — “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2).
That’s a weird take, but then this is a weird story. And that reading of it is at least possible, where the Abraham-Passes-a-Test-of-Obedience reading is not. That interpretation can’t be made to make sense.
Because obedience is not, and cannot be, in itself, a virtue. The meaning and worth of obedience is always contingent on who and what it is that one is obeying. This is a major theme in all of the Abrahamic religions. They all insist that obedience to the one, true God is good but that obedience to other competing gods is wicked.
If obedience as such were a Good Thing, then it wouldn’t matter who or what it is one is obeying. But obviously that does matter a great deal: “They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination,” the God of Abraham says through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:35).
All of which means that we cannot obey God’s commandments unless we are sure that those commandments really are from God. Or, as I put it here many years ago, “Obedience is always about epistemology“:
No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.
But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.
And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.
The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. …
And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.
And so, as I wrote then, if I heard the voice of God telling me “Take your son, your only son whom you love, and … offer him as a burnt offering,” then I would try to ignore this horrible voice urging me to do this horrible thing and, if it persisted beyond my ability to ignore it, I would check myself into a facility where I could be monitored and treated due to the fact that I would seem to have become a danger to myself and to others.
I think that’s how one ought to respond to such a voice bearing such a command. And I think that’s what the story is telling us that Abraham ought to have done if he were to pass God’s test of his faith in God’s goodness.
It’s sometimes argued that this is anachronistic — that the conventions of ancient biblical stories like this one do not allow for the possibility that “God said to Abraham” could leave any doubt for Abraham that it was, indeed, God and only God speaking to him. But the Hebrew scriptures are filled with stories of “false prophets” and “lying spirits” tricking and deceiving their hearers into imagining that they’re being commanded by God. The question “Did God really say …?” has already been introduced as a motif in this very same book of Genesis.
This is also a fairly large theme throughout the Greek scriptures of the New Testament, where we repeatedly encounter warnings to “test the spirits” and to be on guard against false prophets lest we be tricked into obeying something we mistake for the true commands of God.
How can we be sure that the voice of God we think we’re obeying is really the voice of God?
We can’t be. Such certainty is never an option for mortals like you and me and Abraham. That’s the unnerving message in perhaps the most famous biblical passage on this matter — the little manifesto on epistemology that you’ve heard read aloud a dozen times by various sisters of the bride or step-mothers of the groom:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
We know only in part. Certain knowledge is not available to us and so certain knowledge cannot be the standard for determining what is really the voice of God or the command of God.
The standard, instead, must be love. As Paul writes elsewhere, in a passage we don’t usually read at weddings, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Love is the only thing we are bound to obey — the only way to be sure that what we are obeying is really the voice of God, “for God is love.” (That’s from 1 John 4, another treatise on epistemology and on “testing the spirits” that sometimes also gets read at weddings.)
What can we be sure of? Only love.
This notion — love as the highest standard, love as the only epistemology — is often mocked as squishy, fuzzy, sentimental Hippie nonsense, which is how it appears to those who think of faith as a matter of no-matter-what obedience to God’s absolute power. They see “love” as an infinitely pliable and elastic standard, as though it might be taken to refer to anything. That ignores all of that stuff we read at weddings, the beauty of which sometimes keeps us from appreciating how it defines and clarifies what is and is not meant by “love.” Love is patient; love is kind … love rejoices in the truth … love is joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There can be no law against such things.
There can be no command against such things. If you think “the voice of God” or “the Word of God” is telling you otherwise, then guess what? That ain’t God talking to you.