Matthew Flannagan, respected analytic theologian, Christian apologist and faithful blogger, has taken issue with my argument that God would not ask a parent to sacrifice their child. Matt asks us to consider why it is that killing a human being is wrong. It is wrong, he avers, because it deprives one of their future life. So if God were to restore the life immediately (e.g. to resurrect Isaac) then there is no wrong done:
“when a person has been killed and their life has been restored, they have not been subjected to a great wrong — yes they have for a split second been killed but the act occurs in a context where the properties which make killing a great wrong were not present.”
I countered Matt’s claim. The motivation for killing Isaac would have been to demonstrate Abraham’s faith and God’s sovereign power as one who is faithful to his promises and able to resurrect a person once dead. Thus, it would be on this reasoning possible for God to ask more of Abraham than merely to kill his son. God could also have decided to let Isaac stay dead for a week and let the corpse rot in the desert sun. This would, after all, further demonstrate Abraham’s faith as well as God’s faithfulness and sovereign power in resurrecting Isaac after the body had partially decomposed.
Would it be wrong for God to do this given that it would deprive Isaac of a week of life? This seems very dubious to me but if it is the case then God can simply tag on an extra week at the end of his life to compensate for it. So to sum up, it would neither be wrong for God to command Abraham to kill Isaac or to leave the corpse to decompose for a week. Indeed, the latter could intensify Abraham’s understanding of God’s faithfulness and thus be a good.
Let’s go further. Isaac is decomposing in the desert sun. Is it possible that God could command Abraham to mutilate the corpse to illustrate further Abraham’s faith and God’s faithfulness and sovereign power? Matt’s response surprised me here. He declares that actions such as mutilation and dismemberment “have their own wrong-making properties and they are different to the wrong-making properties of killing.” Later he explains further:
“The reason one cannot coherently claim that God had commanded these things is because in the case you [Randal] sketch, in addition to killing, there are a whole lot of other actions – dismembering, disrespect for a corpse and so on. Like I noted, these actions have different wrong-making properties to the act of killing. While resurrecting Isaac means that the properties that make killing wrong are not present, it does not mean that the properties that make these other actions horrendously wrong are not present.”
Let’s take stock of what Matt is claiming here. First, he is claiming that it would be morally permissible (or morally good) for Abraham to press a knife into Isaac’s neck and slit his throat to kill him. But it would be absolutely immoral for him to cut the neck a second time after Isaac had died. And the reason, apparently, is because this involves “disrespect for a corpse.”
But of course it wouldn’t be disrespecting a corpse if God commanded it. Rather, it would be the way that the sovereign giver and sustainer of all life had decided to illustrate Abraham’s faith and God’s own faithfulness and sovereign power. So I find this rejoinder to be without merit. As I wrote at Matt’s blog: “Your position sounds about as perplexing as somebody claiming it is fine to slaughter Wilbur the pig for Christmas dinner but it would be unspeakably immoral to put an apple in the pig’s mouth and present it on a platter.”
One final word from Matt before I wrap this up. He writes:
“Reflection on what makes mutilation wrong leads us to think that its highly implausible that what makes mutilating a corpse wrong is that it deprives people of their life. Hence, we conclude the fact a person comes back to life gives us no reason for thinking that the wrong making property for mutilation is absent.”
Yeah, sure. But whatever the wrongness of mutilating a corpse, Matt has provided no reason to think God could not have commanded Abraham to mutilate the corpse of Isaac given that he could already have commanded Abraham to kill Isaac.
In fact, mutilation is actually implied in the text itself. Here is a standard definition of the word “mutilate”: “to injure, disfigure, or make imperfect by removing or irreparably damaging parts.” Now look at the text. Isaac was to be a burnt sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). And so Abraham immediately went out to cut enough wood for the burnt sacrifice. In other words, the plan never was to kill Isaac and have him immediately pop back into existence. Rather, the plan was to kill him and burn the corpse – that is mutilate or cause irreparable damage to the parts of his body – on an altar.
And if the text states that God could command this, then it is also possible, as I pointed out at the beginning of my conversation with Matt, that God could have commanded Abraham to mutilate Isaac’s body irreparably over a number of days, decapitate the corpse and place the head on a pike in the family compound while awaiting the resurrection that Abraham knew would occur, thereby illustrating God’s faithfulness and sovereign power.
If something appears askew in this picture. If you think God could not have commanded Abraham to mutilate the corpse of his son, then you need to rethink the assumption that he would have commanded Abraham to kill his own son to begin with.
And now for a final word I want to stress that these issues matter. This is not just a technical discussion about an ancient near eastern text. It is a question of what could, and could not, possibly be the right thing to do. In July 1995 a man pulled over on the side of the interstate in New Mexico and decapitated one of his sons because God told him to. Was it possible that this was a command of God? Not in my moral universe.