The Altar of Love
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
What might we sacrifice love for? Reflections on the Binding of Isaac, and on killing in the name of love (The end of love, Part I)
I will do anything for my kids, most recently dodge my fear of heights to snow-sled down a bunny hill, but I might also lie, steal, and even kill. If a philosophical trolley comes my way, with twenty leading scientists tied to one track, my two kids to the other, the world of science is going to take the hit. Or this, at least, is what I think. And I imagine most parents do too. I still remember the first time my eyes met my first born’s; it was love at first sight, and I can’t imagine what I wouldn’t sacrifice for it, including my own life. So much for familial love, but does doing it all for love include romance? If my life is any indication (and granted, it covers excess watching of film noir), then yes, it does.
All well and good, but what if we flip the coin. What we’d sacrifice for love is one thing – but what might we sacrifice love for? In this opening post of a four-part series let’s examine the first of a few ends we end love for.
God commanded, Abraham obeyed, and Isaac obliged. Why?
Abraham had a clear answer for what’s worth sacrificing love for: Faith. The first of the Old Testament patriarchs was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for the one true God. One key reason this biblical tale grips me is love; it’s the first time the word “love” appears in the bible: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2). God commanded, Abraham obeyed, and Isaac obliged. Why? What do we make of this love triangle and its outcome?
Abraham’s obedience is stunning. He knew well how to haggle with God. Just four chapters ago, Abraham was pleading with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, the sinful cities, if one can find some good people there – fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, just ten people. Abraham failed, but at least he tried, and here God aims for the love of his life, the one he’s been waiting for, for so long. And Abraham silently agrees.
Some thinkers, notably Kierkegaard, argue that Abraham never intended to kill Isaac; his faith was not about blind obedience, but about trusting God to somehow save the day. It’s an understandable take, but inadequate, possibly more of a wishful thinking. There is nothing in the bible to suggest this reading. Equally likely, to my mind, is that Abraham was willing, even wanted, to sacrifice his beloved not just for faith but for love, a greater love – to God.
Abraham is not alone. The forefather of all monotheist religions, over half of humanity, laid the groundwork for scores of fighters in God’s name, who may proudly proclaim: Love is killing in the name of God. ISIS fighters did nothing Abraham wasn’t willing to do. A recent psychological study “provides empirical support for the idea that humans may form their strongest (and potentially most expansive) political and religious ties by subordinating devotion to kin to a more abstract ideal.” And of course, generational roles may flip. Consider the story of an ISIS militant who executed his own father in Mosul, explaining that his father had called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a “dog” and disrespected the group's ideology; another insurgent killed his own mother for the same divine cause.
So much for the loving Abraham, but what about God? Some psychologists extend attachment-theory approach to the psychology of religion. This makes much sense, not least in Abraham’s attachment to God as a father figure, a feeling many believers share. Still I wonder if attachment, even love, is not applicable to God himself. To be a bit blunt, I wonder if God developed some abandonment issues, after that nasty business in Eden – feeling rejected, and punitively enraged, by Adam opting for Eve. Now, with Abraham willing to sacrifice his beloved for Him, I could see God finally happy, at long last feeling fully loved. Perhaps not surprisingly, a moment later He goes on promising all the world’s gifts to Abraham, and his descendants.
Abraham killed his love for his son far before he was about to kill him.
Finally, Isaac: If Abraham loved God more than he loved his son, what about the latter, for whom the bible reserves just one line, a gullible question: “The fire and wood are here… but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s cryptic answer (“God will show us”) does not deter Isaac, who goes ahead besides his father.
We can only imagine what went through Isaac’s mind in the many hours until they reached the summit. Did he realize what was to happen? I believe he did, taking his father’s silence as a sign. His father turned him into a thing, an offering, a means to his own end: a greater love and divine vocation. Abraham killed his love for his son far before he was about to kill him. “What good is life after the death of love?” Isaac may have wondered, as he listened to his silent father.
The dark hour closes in. They are already at the summit. But even when old Abraham “binds Isaac on the altar, on top of the wood,” the son, a grownup man, does not resist. Whatever love Abraham felt for Isaac or God, it is Isaac’s willingness to sacrifice himself that shows what giving it all for love can mean. And so perhaps it is only fitting that Sarah died right after her husband was about to kill their son, and equally illuminating that the second time the Bible mentions “love” is when Isaac fell in love with Rebecca. The end of love is always double-edged.