How odd of God…

Around the world there are a large number of different denominations. They vary in their intensity and in their moral principles. Which do you think is the strangest of all? I have come across one which befuddles me. They worship their own god and it’s a pretty odd situation. In order to prove their absolute fidelity they must agree to kill their own children if their god demands it. Can you guess which one it is?

Yes, you’ve got it: it is the Chosen People, and inherited by Christianity. The evidence is clear in chapter 22 of Genesis. Abraham is required by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. It is only about fifty lines, so, if your bible is nearby, you can read it in a few minutes. But you may think about it for rather longer. Certainly, philosophers have argued about it it over and over again. It is particularly associated with Søren Kirkegaard – a 19th century philosopher, who effectively wrote a book about it.

It is only at the very last second when Abraham raised his knife over his son’s body on the pyre that God stops him. Abraham’s fidelity is rewarded by God: he is told of the great blessings he will receive for his fidelity. He will have innumerable descendants. “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants as a reward for your obedience.” (Jerusalem Bible)

There is no suggestion that this is simply a parable – it is an incident in the story. And it is quite realistic and detailed. God’s phrase “…you have not refused me your son, your only son” relates it to the history of Redemption, but the original readers might not have realised that at the time.

The quandary lies in the idea that God’s infinite goodness may somehow be expressed in a wicked act. We must ask ourselves if we would have been prepared to sacrifice our children simply because God demanded it. Even Socrates had a go at this in his  Euthyphro dialogue: does God love the good because the good is lovable? Or is the good lovable because God loves it? Or, if you wish, does God define the good arbitrarily? Or does the good exist independently? In this case we ask whether God is entitled to demand evil action in order to test our faith. Or does it cease to be evil simply because God requires it? If you can get a clear answer to that you’ll do better than Socrates.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Scripture, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to How odd of God…

  1. milliganp says:

    Ultimately we are all engaged in post hoc analysis. My scripture teacher said that the story of Abraham and Isaac put an end to the practice of earlier religions that included human sacrifices just as the lex talens limited retribution rather than demanding it.
    Jesus did not contradict the law relating to adultery but forced those proposing to stone the woman to examine their own consciences.
    A far better question we should ask is why do so few Christians do as Christ taught – particularly with regard to forgiveness.

  2. Molly says:

    I remember reading somewhere that a Jewish commentator said that God asked Abraham, not Sarah, as he knew very well what her response would be!

    • milliganp says:

      Perhaps then it is a good thing that we have Mary, the mother of God, who was willing to do what God asked of her.

  3. ignatius says:

    “If God demands it”
    To put the proposition like this brings in the idea of God as potentially a psychopathic tyrant operating on whimsy… Not an especially good place to begin from.

    Here is the backstory from Genesis ch12:
    6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring[c] I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
    8 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.

    (Offspring can be taken as ‘seed’) I don’t think any person could raise the knife but through either profound trust based upon prior dealings..or abject terror. The relationship between God and Abraham -according to the narrative- was not one of psychopathic tyrant to terror stricken vassal.

    So we need not attribute ‘evil action’ to God in this case, unless we actively wish it so for the sake of the argument alone.

    • ignatius says:

      Perhaps I should expand on that a bit. Quite clearly, from the Genesis narrative, God had promised great things to Abram, not least offspring (also genesis ch13-12 for example) It would be hard for Abram to think that the God he knew and who promised great blessings to him- would have filicide in mind just for the sake of it.

  4. John Candido says:

    The story of God and Jacob is not real, but one potentially spun for the possible justification of occupying land to make it a possession, filling it with people, and eventually turning it into a nation-state.

    Some people are sceptical of such stories any more than upholding either creation stories in Genesis.

    There are two versions of creation in the Old Testament, and both of them cannot be true.

    What are people to conclude when God orders evil?

    Consideration could start with the universal truth that God is love.

    God’s love in all of its significant meanings, as adumbrated throughout scripture.

    The story of the ‘Song of Songs’ in portraying the love between a couple, is a metaphor for God’s love for us.

    The story of Job and his unwavering belief in and love of God, despite his suffering.

    The suffering of Jesus as a sacrificial act of love for the restitution of sinful behaviour in people is a stellar example of the love of God for all.

    First Corinthians, chapter 13, with its exposition of love.

    The example of parents and their love of their children in raising them as good people.

    Patriotism has a poor press, but it means someone loves their nation-state more than themselves, is bound up with humble service to others, and has direct application to those who risk losing their lives in a just battle such as the storming of Normandy on the 6th June 1944.

    People are free to be good or evil.

    However, doubts arise that even God has such freedom if it means that God can be evil as a free choice.

    God is not known as possessing caprice or egotism.

    This problem is reminiscent of the doctrine of original sin.

    Some people view this as nonsensical as God testing Abraham’s loyalty to God by freely undergoing an immoral test from God to do the unimaginable or the unthinkable.

    A test of this sort would not be allowed by statute law or considered an ethical or moral pathway to ascertain another human being’s loyalty to the author of such barbarism.

    • milliganp says:

      The diminution of scripture by saying it’s just a Jewish book justifying their wars is a dangerous path.
      It may be sacred myth but if so the key word is sacred. The stories all have a purpose and an internal narrative about the holiness of God and the many failings of man. They tell of a long history of formation that leads to Christ.
      If we question and diminish the power of the stories we inevitably loose some knowledge of God and our relationship with Him.

  5. Alasdair says:

    Perhaps human sacrifice was a common element of the religions at that time, and God’s plan was to abolish. Therefore as Milligamp says, “the story of Abraham and Isaac put an end to the practice of earlier religions that included human sacrifices”.
    Likewise Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice puts an end to earlier religions (eg Judaism), requiring the sacrifice of lambs.

  6. Nektarios says:

    Since the Fall occurred sin entered the human race with all its dreadful consequences. God is a thrice Holy God. I sometimes think all this liberal talk of God is love, is sentimental and some think it means God will let that person(s) off the hook no matter what.

    Here in the story of Abram and Issac, we meet with the principle of God’s awesome holiness and character where sin is not excused, and, without sacrifice, shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sin.
    We can have all sorts of machinations why God asked Abram to sacrifice Issac, and all fall short of the whole picture as Abram would have seen it then.

    This stopping of Abram from sacrificing Issac was not that Abram would provide that sacrifice, but God. Looking forward to when the Son of God would come and be our sacrifice.
    Words are insufficient or inadequate to describe what the sacrifice of the Son of God means for the whole of humanity, in a state of spiritual death and to brought to spiritual life again.

    The fact the angel stopped Abram from sacrificing his son, Issac by providing a ram caught in a thicket meant that Issac lived.
    God providing for mankind the only sacrificial lamb, acceptable to God, has depths and heights and widths we have to transverse in faith with wonder and awe.

    • John Nolan says:

      Thanks, Nektarios. Good insights here.

    • ignatius says:

      This is quite clear but misses the thrust of Quentins post.The point is that God instructed Abram to filicide in the first place. If God had just wanted Isaac intact then there was no need to put Abram through the mill, there are other allusions to the lamb of God in scripture as it is. Personally I more or less agree..Gods action was providential not ‘evil’ I also think the original question that Quentin makes doesn’t apply in this case.

      • milliganp says:

        I think the earlier reference to Job might help here; do we have a right to question the mind of God?
        Since we believe in eternal life, any human death is but a transition from a temporary existence to an eternal one. Our modern obsession with trying to evade death and suffering avoids the ultimate purpose of life – to die and be judged worthy of the eternal happiness of heaven.

    • milliganp says:

      I understand the concern that the Holiness omniscience and omnipotence of God are often not emphasised to the same extent as God’s love, and this lack of emphasis can lead people to a lazy, simplified vision of God.
      Just being ‘nice’ is a poor imitation of the Christian vocation.

      However, God is perfect love – that is not a liberal statement. We are taught that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is sufficient recompense for all the sins of humanity. That sacrifice was a perfect act of love by God.

      As a human father I have come to understand that you can love your children even when they defy you, harm themselves and abandon that which you think most precious. I see in this a poor reflection of the perfect love of God who similarly loves us even as we disobey Him.

  7. GD says:

    Is there not a case for man’s anthropomorphism of God here? Unconditional love IS God. The imperfect actions of anyone (all) trying to come to terms with that is often to justify imperfect actions saying ‘it is of God’ – until accepting a fuller knowledge of what God actually is; and how that can be implemented? (And maybe, as in the case of Abraham, manifesting that ‘growth’ experientially and physically, via spiritual ways ‘unknown’ to physical scrutiny?).

    The man Jesus came to know, and expressed God fully in such a way . For that MAN sacrificed him (as others have been in differing ways) not God. Because they didn’t ‘know’, and couldn’t see or accept unconditional love.

    Do we really believe God – Unconditional Love – would plan, implement & sanction, sacrifice to appease our lack of ability to be perfect?
    If so we will never know any other way because we will manifest that false image continue to scapegoat & sacrifice anything that doesn’t fit our image, and not grow in the image & likeness of God.

  8. Nektarios says:

    GD

    Then GD you have to define as best you can, God as unconditional love? God is Love, yes, but that is not all God is.
    When you talk of a fuller knowledge of God it seems unclear, and rather mystical in an ephemeral sense. One is either born of God, of the Holy Spirit if you prefer or not. One either knows and relates to God or not.

    Concerning Jesus, the Son of God, as a man He learned what it felt like as a man, He was never ignorant of who He was as the Son of God.

    GD, your last paragraph requires a lot of clarification, please? I have already stated, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin, so the Cross is central to ones thinking.

    Regeneration is that which restores the relationship with God and those who have it have the image and likeness of God.

  9. Martha says:

    God the Father required the death of His Son to overcome evil, and through the ages has required Christians to choose Him over all things and people including our own families. Some have been required to witness or cause the deaths of their children as a consequence of refusing to deny their faith, and this is happening now in our own times and must be as searing as doing the deed personally. I can’t say that I really understand the theology or that I would be as brave as these martyrs,

    • David Smith says:

      Martha writes:

      // Some have been required to witness or cause the deaths of their children as a consequence of refusing to deny their faith, and this is happening now in our own times //

      Would you give an example or two of that?

      • Martha says:

        David, I have read a number of such accounts mainly in the Catholic and Christian press but not exclusively. Aid to the Church in Need especially has a lot of detail. One which seemed even more horrendous than most is of a girl in India who was tortured and raped before being killed because her parents would not renounce their faith. God has not asked these parents to kill their child directly by their own hands as He asked Abraham but to my mind the situations are closely related.

  10. Iona says:

    Pleased to read Molly’s comment above, as that’s what I’ve always thought!

    God did not require Abraham to sacrifice his son, as is shown by his stopping Abraham at the very last minute. He gave Abraham to believe that this is what He required. It was not merely a test of Abraham’s obedience (“Are you prepared to sacrifice something most dear to you and irreplaceable because I tell you to?”) but of Abraham’s trust in God despite God apparently contradicting Himself (he has been told by God that he will become the ancestor of many, yet this can only take place through Isaac, his only child and the child of his and his wife’s old age, whom God is now apparently telling him to kill).

  11. galerimo says:

    Well that is odd…

    Quentin you have just blown up any foundation for Natural Law and even Divine law.

    Never again can it be said that we carry this natural inclination within us to do the right thing by protecting life with God ordering murder like that.

    Even God does it! Why cant we?

    And very odd to to see scripture framing God as a predator like that.

    At least the boy in this case was given back his life!

    Though not without suffering the terror that so many of God’s predator ministers and Care Givers inflict on their victims .

    God the predator…. odd indeed.

    Why did we not notice it before you mentioned it?

    Our churches are structured with systems of power designed for predators – no accountability, grooming by discrimination (no women, boys only please!), secrecy.

    The Church as an institution with predatory power to victimize the innocent. How odd is that too.

    And with such structured predation going unspoken of like that – but of course that is how predatory behaviour works.

    And where is the good shepherd when he is needed – the final oddity is the unfortunate ram caught in the brambles.

    It seems you are right they way you describe this God. Determined to make a victim of the innocent.

    Very odd indeed.

    • John Candido says:

      God is never the occasion of immorality.

      God will never demonstrate authority by immoral means.

      God is not an abuser of the innocent, and neither is God a predator!

      God will never perpetrate felonies against children through loyalty tests or malevolent stunts.

      God does not employ hollow symbolism or metaphor just to make a point or indulge in childish exhibitions of authority.

      It is not God that is immoral but distinct structures, attitudes, cultures, habits, and individual clergy and religious with particular foibles who act on them that are immoral.

      Tens of thousands of innocent children were prayed upon by thousands of priests and friars around the world.

      Elements of the church’s hierarchy have been found guilty in law courts by abusing their authority through shifting paedophiles from one parish to another, neglecting thousands of families and brutalising children, by callously allowing them to fend for themselves.

      Legal systems and commissions of inquiry have exposed the church and particular clergy as liars, exploiters, abusers of innocent children, predatory paedophiles, and cold-hearted hypocrites.

      Nobody can imagine God’s fury when children are exploited, neglected, or abused.

      Only a suicidal lightweight would allow themselves to abuse children in front of God.

      Jesus mentioned the punishment for harming children by drowning perpetrators with a rope around their neck joined to a millstone in Matthew 18:6.

      • ignatius says:

        It being Pentecost I’m only now from spending a couple of hours laying hands on just such as you both fulminate against… We were asking the Holy spirit to come with forgiveness power, mercy and healing in his wings…. how odd God is.

      • John Nolan says:

        Tens of thousands of innocent children were prayed upon by thousands of priests and friars throughout the world.’

        I hope they were.

      • John Candido says:

        So do I.

  12. Nektarios says:

    John Candido

    Any thoughtful Christian can but agree with you in your answers to Galerimo. But let us be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As St Augustine said, ‘I went looking for the Church in the world and lo I found the world in the Church.’

    The topic is, ‘How odd of God’, more correctly, it should be completely around the other way. It is Christians that are odd. As children of the most high God, behaving like the worst of unregenerated people who are behaving like devils. The question is, are such Christians at all?
    Sinners, we certainly all are and we can all own our own up to our sinnership.

  13. Alasdair says:

    A few minutes ago I was singing the wonderful hymn “How Great Thou Art” in church.

    “And when I think of God, His Son not sparing
    Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in
    That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing
    He bled and died to take away my sin”

    Indeed, I can scarce take it in, but if I didn’t accept it, I would not be a Christian.

  14. Nektarios says:

    Ignatius

    God is not odd. As created beings, we have difficulty comprehending that which is incomprehensible. God is only known completely to Himself and add to that the Holy Trinity existing in one Holy Hypostasis.
    We could add His omnipresence, omnipotence and all His other qualities of Him who we know something of as God, for example, He is a life-giving Spirit, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. upholding it by the power of His word. He is the Lord of All and all things will return to Him. Not odd at all, but other.

    • ignatius says:

      Thanks Nektarios..just in case you hadn’t noticed…we have been thus far using the word ‘odd’ as a pun on the title of the post… a bit of artistic license if you will.

      • Nektarios says:

        Ignatius
        How odd, too much liberal licence methinks.
        If we had but a glimpse of the glory of God, it would dispel such discourse about God being odd to us.
        Yes, we can ask God to show us His glory. Those primitive people as some would refer to them, at least they had the nous to ask for the right sight of Him, yes Lord, show us Thy glory.

  15. Alasdair says:

    With apologies.It does seem to me that responses to this topic show that catholics struggle with fundamental christian concepts – that the history and politics of the RCC, the peripheral philosophies and beliefs which preoccupy them, and the non-scriptural hoops that some believe they have to jump through, have been used by Satan to blind them to the simple message of the Gospel. Not exclusively a Catholic issue, granted.
    For sure, the simple message of the gospel is “odd”, even “foolishness” to non-believers.

    1 Corinthians 1:18
    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”.

    So mature christians, on the other hand (catholic and non), will have understood that God’s ways are so much greater than ours, that the perception of oddness is merely a symptom of our inadequacies. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, mature christians have long since dealt with the “oddness and foolishness” and emerged onto the sunlit uplands. It is not usually productive to descend back to the misty valley of our early struggles with our faith – other than perhaps to help others.

  16. ignatius says:

    Nektarios,

    How odd, too much liberal licence methinks.
    If we had but a glimpse of the glory of God, it would dispel such discourse about God being odd to us.
    Yes, we can ask God to show us His glory. Those primitive people as some would refer to them, at least they had the nous to ask for the right sight of Him, yes Lord, show us Thy glory.

    Soapbox dear boy, soapbox… best get off it before you trip and fall 🙂

    • Alasdair says:

      “If we had but a glimpse of the glory of God, it would dispel such discourse about God being odd to us”. Yes, but almost certainly we won’t, even if we have the nous to ask.
      Hence: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

    • Nektarios says:

      Ignatius

      The people of God asked to see His glory when they were deprived of it.
      There are many more questions one should ask about the glory of God and what it means for us before you accuse me of standing on a soapbox. In ignorance, you are dismissing what I say, ah well there it is!

      • ignatius says:

        Gosh Nektarios…what a mighty visionary of God you are… all alone and dreaming among the heavenly throng are we…Having completely misunderstood the entire drift of the thread you resort to windbagging as usual …ah well, there it is dear boy.

  17. John Thomas says:

    Of course I couldn’t claim to have an answer, but here are some points:
    This appearance of God, and God speaking directly to us, demanding things, is not the experience of most people – no one I know, anyway. I would not like to say how I would react if God appeared to me right now, and spoke things, with direct commands, specific requirements, etc.
    Secondly, the idea of the Good being absolutely anything God does is, for me, too close to the idea which I think Islam has, and which I reject: ‘everything that happens God causes to happen, that which does not happen, God causes not to happen, and all is good because God is good’. We may say that God is the original creator of the Good (and of other things), but that once created they are not subject to any whims or arbitrary actions.
    Oh, and No, God did not appear to me, with specific requirements, while I have been writing this second bit, in case anyone was wondering.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Thomas

      You missed out an important matter, namely Satan and the Fall that not only affected all humanity but planet earth and the whole cosmos, reaching as far as heaven and the spiritual realms.

      God has made His demands if you want to call it that, but laws on humanity for his happiness and well-being. Mankind has failed to live up to His commandments.
      Mankind has erected a god of the mind and just like mankind, subject to whims and arbitrary actions.

  18. milliganp says:

    I wonder if we could have a discussion of Pope Francis’ decision to change the Lord’s prayer? He obviously thinks it’s “odd of God” to compose such a prayer.

    • ignatius says:

      Milliganp
      “I think the earlier reference to Job might help here; do we have a right to question the mind of God?”

      Yes of course we do..Job did, Paul did, Peter did, even Jesus did at Gethsemane… we all do! Of course we do, we are human beings, fallen ones at that. Not only did we question God but we, comparatively recently, put nails into his hands and feet. Human beings find their way by question and challenge so we are bound to question God. Doesn’t mean very
      all our much our whinging and whining though..its just what we do. Then again some of the things that happen make us question God because they seem outrageous. I had to go all the way to Auschwitz/ Birkenau one winter and pray my way round it because the problem of suffering was so bothering my understanding of things..Why shouldn’t we question God?

  19. Nektarios says:

    The issue of Abram told to sacrifice his son by God, some have pointed out from our human sensibilities that it was an outrageous demand on Abram.
    Some of the comments cast aspersions on God, and many want to ask God questions, but from the nature of some of the questions, they were more like putting God on trial subjected to our somewhat human and limited understanding of God’s actions.

    To get some perspective concerning God, I quote from Ven. John of Damascus + 749A.D.

    “Concerning God, it is impossible for us to say what He is in His essence; it is more fitting rather to discuss how He is different from everything else. For He does not belong among things that exist, not because He does not exist, but because He is beyond all existing things and beyond existence itself. For all modes of knowledge are concerned with what exists, that which is beyond knowledge must be beyond existence, and likewise what is beyond existence must also be beyond knowledge.”

    • GD says:

      Thank you John of Damascus!! ….. And so, thinking what we know of, and all we claim is God, is our own feeble interpretation. (Including Abraham’s claim of orders to sacrifice his son?). When realising this, God can manifest, because we choose to allow God to Be as God IS – other than our ‘knowledge’. ………. Reread my earlier post (GD says:
      June 8) in this light, then reread your response. … Cake & eat it comes to mind ….

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