For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking lately about the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis. I don’t know why, but that story bothers me like none other. Part of it, I’m sure, is being a father, having the experience of watching a child grow from a newborn baby into an aware, sentient, thinking and feeling human being. Watching my children discover their world, and seeing it new again, through their eyes, has been the great joy of my life.
I’ve read all the apologists’ explanations of the Abraham story. I still find it deeply creepy. But I was having trouble expressing what troubled me so much.
Then I thought of Huck Finn.
I recently finished (for probably the 7th or 8th time) possibly my favorite book ever, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And it struck me. The crucial scene in my favorite book is a near-exact recreation of the Abraham and Isaac tale. With one crucial difference. Huck makes the right decision.
Think about the similarities. God knows that Isaac won’t be harmed. It’s all just a test. But Abraham doesn’t know.
Jim won’t go back into slavery, no matter what, because Miss Watson freed him. But Huck doesn’t know.
Huck knows the “right” thing to do, what God and society tell him to do, is to turn Jim in.
Abraham knows the “right” thing to do, what God has told him to do, is to kill Isaac.
But Huck has changed during his trip down the Mississippi. He’s discovered something he never suspected. Jim is a man. Jim loves his family. Jim gets lonely. Jim even loves Huck, cares for him, looks out for him, like no one has ever done before – certainly not Huck’s own father. Does Huck love Jim? I don’t know, but certainly Huck has learned something that has shaken him. Jim is a man.
And what about Abraham? Hasn’t he watched Isaac grow, learn, discover the world? Hasn’t he had even a piece of the experience that I and billions of other parents have had? There’s little to go on in the text, but God does say “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . .” which I read as an admission (the only admission anywhere in the text) that this is going to be a hard thing for Abraham. Abraham loves Isaac. Huck may love Jim. But Abraham definitely loves Isaac.
Huck is faced with a choice. He has the letter, the letter he’s just written, which might seal Jim’s fate. He could send it, and save himself from damnation. Or he could decide to steal Jim back out of slavery. What comes next is the most beautiful statement of individual choice I know:
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.”
Abraham had a choice, too. Here is Isaac, the son he’s been told to sacrifice, the son he loves. It was a close place. But we never find out what, if anything Abraham was thinking. Instead, we learn only that Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
Now we know what happened in both cases. Jim was already free, though Huck didn’t find out until the world’s first frat boy, Tom Sawyer, let him in on the joke. Isaac was never in any danger, though Abraham didn’t find out until the knife was in his hand. And yet the choices make all the difference in the world to the readers.
Huck chose against what the world and God had told him was right, and instead chose to follow his own experience. Abraham chose against his own experience of raising a child, watching that child grow, and growing himself to love that child, and instead chose to follow what he’d been told. Huck knew his choice would be scorned, knew he’d be dispised and hated by everyone who encountered him. Everyone except Jim, of course.
Abraham was praised by God and the angel, and given great blessings and rewards. Everyone would praise his name – except, I have a sneaking suspicion, Isaac, who would forever know where he really stood with the old man.
Huck Finn, surely everyone would agree, is a hero for his act of courage. If you doubt me, consider this. What if Huck had mailed the letter? Miss Watson was dead, Jim was already free. EXACTLY the same result would have occurred. But if Huck had mailed the letter, would he have been a hero for following the dictates of God and society? Of course not. His act of heroism was in trusting his experience. Jim was a man.
Huck is a hero precisely because he turned his back on God and trusted himself. Huck took the hero’s path. Abraham simply obeyed. Huck is a hero. What, then, I ask you, is Abraham?