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Biblical moral dilemmas


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Biblical moral dilemmas

  1. 1. RS: A2: Ethics: Religion & Morality Abraham & IsaacAfter these things, God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here Iam’. He said, ‘take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offerhim as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ Genesis 22:1-2In Genesis 22 Abraham takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed as God has commanded (a ram isoffered in Isaac’s place). Abraham and his wife Sarah had waited a long time to have Isaac.God had promised them a child in their old age and yet God asks Abraham to sacrifice him!Even if it does not raise moral questions, it is a least counter-intuitive. But Abraham doesnot falter. He takes Isaac as commanded and it is not until Abraham raises the knife to killhis son that God intervenes. Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac is enough for God to knowthat the patriarch would not ‘withhold his only son’ from him. A ram is conveniently foundin a thicket and offered in Isaac’s place.Kierkegaard struggled with this story: was it ever reasonable for a man to abandon what heunderstands to be intrinsically good in order to fulfil the demands of faith? He reached theconclusion that it was as faith is the highest virtue, which Abraham demonstrated fully.Kierkegaard argued that we should not confuse ethics or morality with doing the will of God,since Abraham was being called to a level of obedience that went beyond humanunderstanding of morality. In this case, being bound to the moral law of society would havebeen a hindrance to his fulfilling God’s will.John Habgood however exposes the ‘nagging doubt’ that remains. ‘If morality is supposed tobe universal, can it really be discounted, even under such extreme pressure from God?’Feminist theologian Daphne Hampson . She suggests that the command is to encouragemoral debate such as: what kind of God do you think you are dealing with? Hampsonsuggests that God is trying to teach Abraham a lesson that you must challenge even thehighest authority on questions of right and wrong. Abraham won’t listen and Sarah is forcedto advise God to send an angel to intervene to prevent a tragic outcome!In God Jokes, Philip Tyler speaks of Abraham interpreting the horror of God’s commands asa joke- what else could it be?God moves in very mysterious ways: strange almost.... God jokes, it’s well known... strangejokes sometimes, but he always knows the joke best and laughs the longest...In the fullnessof time Isaac was born...I blessed the day my God commanded that I should sacrifice mybeloved son upon a pyre. How could I refuse? All that I had and all that I had known flowedfrom God. My son was the gift of God. His to bestow and his to take away... Isaac nevermentions it. Perhaps his new young bride eases any bad memories. I am old. I doubt I shallsee my grandchildren. But my God has promised that grandchildren there will be. He jokessometimes. But he always keeps his word.
  2. 2. RS: A2: Ethics: Religion & Morality Other biblical moral dilemmasThere is another less well-known story in the Old Testament which poses a further moraldilemma. In Judges 11:30, Jephthah the Gileadite vows to God that if he gives him victorythat day over the Ammonites he will sacrifice ‘whoever comes out of the doors of my houseto meet me when I return victorious... to be offered up to me as a burnt offering.’Unfortunately it is Jephthah’s daughter who greets him on his return. She fully accepts thather father must fulfil his obligation to God, asking only for two months recreation with herfriends before the act is carried out. John Gray suggests that the story is only an aetiologicallegend (a story which explains why some long-standing tradition has come about) to explainan annual rite of mourning in the fertility cult. Nevertheless, that such a legend could beadopted suggests an unthinking acceptance of the morality of the tale: it is notunreasonable for God to expect Jephthah to go through with his promise even though hecould not have known what it meant.A further story is of Job. Job is a righteous and wealthy man he is an easy target for Satan:‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and all that he has...?But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face’(Job 1:10-11). Incredibly it seems that God permits Satan to do his worst, stopping shortonly of killing the man. Job’s sufferings are all the more difficult because ultimately herealises he has no one to plead to but the God his friends assure him he must have offendedto be faced with such grief. ‘For now my witness is in heaven; there is One on high ready toanswer for me. My appeal, will some before God, while my eyes turn anxiously to him. Ifonly there were one to arbitrate between man and God, as between a man and hisneighbour!’ (Job 16:19-21).John Habgood observes that Job’s situation is resolved (like Abraham’s) by a new encounterwith God. God’s right to put Abraham under such severe conditions of testing and to handhis servant job over to Satan is justified by his subsequent graciousness: ‘The fact that Godanswered at all, even though he said nothing new, was what made the difference.’‘The God of the Old Testament is arguable the most unpleasant character in all fiction:jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirstyethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,pestilential, meglomanical, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’Dawkins, The God DelusionBut are we really happy with any of the ways in which these cases are explained? Doesn’tGod still face some serious moral questioning? Is it enough for is ‘not merely (morally andwrongly) to tempt but also to entitle us to say “God does not love us” or even “God does notexist”?Anthony Flew, Theology and Falsification
  3. 3. RS: A2: Ethics: Religion & Morality