Monday, March 9, 2009
The Binding of Isaac and the Problem of Happiness
In the first reading for Mass yesterday, God famously puts Abraham to the test (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18). I sat in the pew for a long time after the end of Mass trying to puzzle this one out. Why would God, who abhors human sacrifice, compel Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac -- the child of destiny whose descendants God had promised would be more numerous than the stars of the sky?
We have come to think of Isaac as a young boy, but, according to ancient interpretation, he was in fact a grown man who, along with his father, dutifully obeyed the command of the Lord and allowed himself to be bound and led willingly to the holocaust. As Christians, we see the Abraham-Isaac dyad as a type, a prefiguring, of God's later sacrifice of His only son. We know God's later sacrifice too to be sui generis, unique in history, and yet it happens every day in bloodless form in the Masses that are said upon all the millions of altars throughout the world. Can we understand God's own sacrifice, happening both in time and in eternity, as therefore in some sense coming before Abraham's test, and also as co-existing in time with it?
It has seemed to me in observing the lives of some very holy people that God has sometimes asked them for what they love the most dearly. Again, I have to wonder why. The testimonies of priests and religious whom I know suggests that they are happy; that is, that only after giving up the fulfillments, both real and tenuous, of the wordly life have they been able to find happiness. Does this mean that, after giving up what God wants of us, we will be happy? I've never been convinced that living happily in this life is part of God's divine plan for His people. But if we are not happy, how can we serve Him? As the Psalmist asks, "Can the dust praise you?" How could Abraham fulfill his destiny if God took from him the only thing that had meaning and value for him -- that is, the only thing after God? And it is not any generic taking-away; God told Abraham to slay his son with his own hand.
The Binding of Isaac is a radical, shocking text, and I'm not entirely sure what it means. One thing that strikes me about it, though, is Abraham's attentive listening to the voice of God. When God and "the Lord's messenger" call to him, he answers, "Here I am!" with alacrity. Maimonides suggested that Abraham heard God's command to slaughter Isaac in a prophetic vision -- in this case, an auditory vision -- which suggests that we need to listen for the voice of God in a particular way. But how will we know when we hear it?