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  • Writer's pictureUriel

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.


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6 commenti


Aglaia Venters
Aglaia Venters
19 feb 2022

Me, again! This is an interesting topic!

I do wonder if G-d were most hurt by the fact that Adam and Eve covered themselves and hid from Him. “Who told you you were naked,” sometimes sounds like “Who told you that you’re not good enough?”


Abraham and Isaac were more vulnerable than two naked people onstage, yet they didn’t run away, nor cover themselves. Whether Abraham thought he were acting through a charade or not, he demonstrated that being naked in front of G-d is not a cause for shame.


That’s why I prefer to believe that we should handle choices between faith and love by letting go of whatever control we think we have and giving the situation completely…

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Uriel
Uriel
19 feb 2022

I think you're right, Aglaia, "Abraham was given a command, and he followed it even though he didn’t know how it would end." Here the line between trust and faith is very thin. Perhaps precisely because Abraham just saw God's willingness to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, that he trusted Him to not go ahead with the sacrifice. But presumably the only way God's test is meaningful is if Abraham actually thought he's about to kill his son. Abraham knew it too, and also knew that God knows everything - including Abraham's own thoughts. If God knew Abraham was thinking that He is (or even just might be) bluffing, what's the point of the test? It's all just a charade. But…

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Aglaia Venters
Aglaia Venters
19 feb 2022
Risposta a

I often wonder if G-d‘s tests for humans are also tests individuals design for themselves. The one who wasn’t sure of Abraham was Abraham; G-d always knew what would happen. G-d did know that Abraham really thought that there was a chance that he would kill Isaac, and he knew that Abraham would go through with it. G-d knew that Abraham trusted that even if he had to kill Isaac, G-d would have commanded him to do so because the sacrifice would be in the best interest of both Isaac and Abraham. G-d also knew that Abraham thought that there was a chance that G-d would provide another solution, and that Abraham would obey when the angel called off the…

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I want to thank you of my heart for the blog posts. For me, each of your posts is an event ... I think that the parallel between Abraham and the representative of Egil is not entirely successful. Our beliefs and ideas are subjective, and blindly following them is madness.

Abraham's position is completely different. This is a person chosen by God - God communicates with him directly. His behavior is not slavish obedience. He fulfills the will of the one who is the embodiment of the highest love and virtue, which means that he could not allow such a sacrifice. Therefore, for me, Kierkegaard is a hundred times right ... and it is a pity that Sarah did not…

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Aglaia Venters
Aglaia Venters
19 feb 2022
Risposta a

I think I might be in the middle position between Uriel and you and Kierkegaard: Abraham knew that there was a possibility that he would kill Isaac, and there was a possibility that G-d would tell him to stop, and there all manners of other ends to the story he wouldn’t have seen coming. Abraham was humble enough to accept that he cannot know nearly what G-d knows, and that G-d’s judgment is infinitely superior to his own. Obeying G-d without any certainty of G-d’s will (that is, giving the situation over to G-d and trusting Him to provide) takes a huge amount of faith. That‘s the kind of vulnerability that Adam and Eve rejected.


Because love requires vulnerability, Abraham…


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Aglaia Venters
Aglaia Venters
17 feb 2022

Hi, Uriel! I enjoy reading your blog posts, and I have to say that I am not sure that I agree with you, here. Don’t get me wrong, I can see your point. My issue is that it’s not hard for people to convince themselves that their own aims actually are divine will. Long before I paid much attention to the binding of Isaac story, let alone Kierkegaard’s interpretation, I too had noticed the contrast between Agamemnon and Abraham. From my POV, Agamemnon‘s choice to sacrifice Iphigenia ultimately reflected his lust for power, rather than any faith in divine will. Militant Christians who throw their children out on the streets because of sexual orientation confuse their desire for comfort with…

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