As I have been studying for my series on James, I’ve been tethered to both a theological and philosophical examination of the book. I am fascinated with various themes that run through James’s letter that provoke me to tensions of thought and practice.
I find these matters reflect the issues addressed in some of the great philosophical debates in the works of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). I am no expert on the works of these philosophers, but I am familiar with some of the profound existential themes, ideas and conclusions that are presented by these great minds. The nature of life, death, meaning, morals, ethics, faith and practice are themes that James wrestles with in his book as well.
One of the shocking stories that James center’s some of his teaching(James 2:20-24) around is the story of Abraham and the near sacrificing of Isaac(Genesis 22:1-19), which is described in the first verse of the story as “God tested Abraham”.
James 2:20-24: “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
I am not sure how anyone can read the Abraham/Isaac story and not be profoundly disturbed by the whole series of events. I would think that any sincere thinker or fairly healthy adult would wrestle with the implications of the mere idea of sacrificing one’s child in response to any supposed Divine command. Most christian circles I have been in avoided serious contemplation about this story, they either offer it up with a sidestep allegorization or avoid it as much as possible.
The horrors of the possibility of Divine sanctioned sacrifice are at the roots of much of the terrorist ideology that we see in the world and to even contemplate the possibility of God asking such things, can sour one’s stomach in revulsion. For some their minds slam shut like a sharp toothed trap, unrelenting in it’s grip, preventing them the allowance to even contemplate the story. But it’s in sacred scripture, and for that matter, I believe there has to be more to it all than just some kind of barbaric, tribal, desert God’s test of one’s ability to submit to the will of the gods over the rights, ethics and conscience of the human.
If God continually forbade and condemned the act of human sacrifice in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 18:10, Leviticus 18:21,Psalm 106:37-41, Jeremiah 7:31), how could He compel Abraham to engage in the potential act? Jame’s himself pushes back against this idea in 1:13: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
This confusing apparent moral contradiction can easily compel someone to throw up their hands in frustration and want to pull away from trusting a God who would ask such a thing of any person. How could the death of a son or any child for that matter, bring about any good?
But we find a similar cataclysmic, conscience conundrum in the ancient Greek story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, in various works like those of Euripides and others. There are variations of the story, and even Homer in the Iliad doesn’t mention it with any detail. But others have provided us with a similar Abraham/Isaac situation. The fact that the ancients were willing to write, read and extrapolate it in various ways leads me to believe that there is more to this story than just primitive, uncivilized history.
The story goes that Agamemnon offended the goddess Artemis and as a result the winds ceased to blow, leaving the great fleet dead in the water. It was amassed to sail to Troy and rescue or return Helen who was captured or ran off with Paris. But now the gods have them stuck in the harbor and one of the seers tells Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter to appease the god. So a great plan of deceit and dismay unfolds that eventually ends in the good of the State and of the honor of Menelaus, the husband of Helen, to be considered greater than the loss of the life of one daughter. It’s a horrific tale that various authors reworked or provided alternate endings, like Iphigenia offering herself as an act of national heroism as she surrenders her life for the greater good of the many.
“That any god is evil, I do not believe.” (Iphigenia. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris).
“If Artemis has decided to take my body, am I, a mortal, to thwart the goddess?” (Iphigenia to Clytaemnestra. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis).
“O my father, here I am; willingly I offer my body for my country and all Hellas, that you may lead me to the altar of the goddess and sacrifice me, since this is Heaven’s ordinance. May good luck be yours for any help that I afford! and may you obtain the victor’s gift and come again to the land of your fathers. So then let none of the Argives lay hands on me, for I will bravely yield my neck without a word.” (Iphigenia to Agamemnon. Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis).
As to her end, others write that she was rescued by the gods just at the moment of the knife and was replaced with a sacrificial deer. Whatever the case, there are some deep and profound issues that must be wrestled with in such a tale, of which countless authors, sages, theologians and philosophers have engaged since such stories were told.
Even in Christian scripture, the idea that one life sacrificed for the multitudes is at the heart of the gospel story of redemption through the death of Christ on the cross.
Jesus said: “The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again.No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” When he said these things, the people were again divided in their opinions about him.” (John 10:17-19)
Our justification, being made right with God ,was accomplished by Christ’s self giving, sacrificial act. He was not tricked like Iphigenia or left in the ominous dark like Isaac. Jesus, the son, chose to lay down his life for humanity.
It is this Christological act that captures me as I wrestle with James’s use of the story in apologetic regarding the weddedness of faith and action.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?”
I do not want to twist the whole story into some more easily handled analogy that softens the horror and the edge of the actions into some proverbial idea of faith that requires something of us. This tale, these stories, are profoundly more shocking and compelling than a mere faith encouraging moralism can contain. We cannot reduce the cataclysmic complexity of these matters into some nice little Bible story with moral takeaways for a three point message.
This is a story of utter existential torment and decision at the very end of a very sharp knife! One can’t turn away from the demanding attention that this unthinkable situation forces us to face. It is in my estimation one of those stories in the bible that determine those who will walk away and who will stay. There is no doubt that it “divides opinions about Jesus” as John highlighted in the above passage.
Kierkegaard has his own take on the stories of Abraham and Agamemnon’s sacrifices in his book: ‘Fear and Trembling’, a good resource that you could find more light on this subject. He has some profound thoughts about moving from the aesthetic, to the ethical to the religious that are well worth the read. But I warn you, they are not easy matters to unravel, but the work of it, bears it’s own fruit.
Is there a difference between Abraham, Agamemnon and Jesus’s sacrifice? I think there are many, but a few of my own thoughts center around that ending of sacrifice hinted at in the Abrahamic account with God staying his slaying hand and providing a ram in the thicket. Ultimately Christ is the end of sacrifice:
“When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” -Hebrews 10:8-10
These are just some of the paths of thought I travel in preparing for a sermon series. They demand rigorous thinking, a prayerful listening heart and a commitment to not shy away from the real provocations of Scripture.
These matters are the ending and starting of worlds and one should handle them with…fear and trembling.