Penn’s Dilemma (for Jason)
A friend of mine from college posted a note on Facebook (which I will not repeat in its entirety) which wondered if there was an answer to the following dilemma, posed by Penn Gillette (of the comic magic act Penn & Teller): “‘If God, however you believe God, communicated to you that you were to kill your child, would you do it?’ And he says if your answer is no, then in his mind you are an atheist. If your answer is yes, in his mind you are dangerous and should stay away from him.”
The obvious allusion here is to Gn 22.1-18. My friend noted that we tend to interpret this text spiritually or typologically, seeing Abraham as a type of the Father and Isaac as a type of Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate. “God did ask Abraham to do this with his son,” my friend writes. “And God the Father essentially did the same to his son.” But he also realized that, taken literally, anyone who tried this today would be incarcerated or institutionalized and his children would be taken away.
First of all, I don’t accept the image of God sacrificing his only son to satisfy his own hurt and bloodthirsty ego. God himself came down and sacrificed himself to free us from death. He subjected himself to this world of pain and want and misery and woe. There is a lot more to say there, but that is the short form. (More sophisticated treatments will, of course, invoke the holy Trinity, but let’s keep it simple for now.) Substitutionary atonement has precedents in Scripture and the fathers, but its formulation since Anselm of Canterbury and Martin Luther is deeply troubling to the theological tradition I work in.
Second, there is a lot going on in the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. I encourage you to read a wide variety of literature on the subject — not just devotional literature, either: Look at some scholarly treatments of this very difficult text. Gillette is not the first or only person — irreligious or pious — to question the morality of this story.
I’m neither a literalist nor an adherent of plenary-verbal inspiration; my thoughts may not resonate with you. To me, the most obvious thing going on is that the story is echoing some very disturbing practices in ancient Mesopotamia, or rather, some religious practices in ancient Mesopotamia (and Israel!) that we rightly find disturbing and difficult to fathom — in large part because of the Western ethical tradition formed by the Christian worldview. The Oxford Study Bible, in its note on Gn 22.2, says, “The earliest form of this story may have been directed against child sacrifice, proposing that the deity desires the substitution of animals.”
In its present form, of course, the play on child sacrifice is only a part of the story. As we have received it in Scripture, it has been recast as a morality play about absolute dependence upon God. The New Jerome Bible Commentary points out that, as with the story of Job, there is dramatic irony from the beginning: “The reader knows from the start what the protagonist does not: God is trying him.” It is the the final and ultimate test of Abraham’s fidelity. In this story, we see that Abraham at last has put aside all of his evading and bargaining. He is silently trusting in the will of God. This is no easy task: His own life is inextricably bound up with his son’s.
However, this story only truly makes sense in a world of sacrifice. And perhaps it only really made sense in a world of child sacrifice. Neither of those realities have any real punch for us today. It’s mystifying now, as literal fact. Which brings us to the other troubling notion: Did God literally ask Abraham to do this? I cannot bring myself to accept that God would ever ask such a thing. Poetically, it makes sense as dramatic irony, knowing that it is a test. But it’s a test I would fail — and I don’t even have kids.
I guess I’m an atheist by Penn’s adjudication. Hopefully his won’t be the final judgement on the matter.
No doubt, these reflections would be deeply unsatisfactory for Gillette — as they would be for most atheists. Gillette is absolutely right to question literal sacrifice of children in Scripture. We would do well to question more things in Scripture; maybe then we would collectively have a better understanding of what’s going on. There is no way to justify the murder of one’s own child — or any child, for that matter. We would do well to remember that we didn’t write Scripture — and God didn’t dictate it: He inspired it. Real men and women with real cultural biases which were very, very different from ours wrote Scripture. Our Scripture is not Koranic. And thank God for that.