As a child, I was obliged to read and memorize the stories of the Old Testament. While I found a good deal of these stories to be boring and even incomprehensible (being written in ancient Hebrew), some did capture my imagination and were quite nerve wrecking and traumatic to read. These stories portrayed harsh relationships between characters that transcended the modern liberal moralism according to which I was raised. One of these memorable traumatic stories is the The Binding of Isaac; a story that demonstrates that Gods (and fathers) are capable of disproportionate, inexplicable and shocking brutalities. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it crossed my mind again. I was thinking that it might be an interesting fable that could be considered in analogy to our current nightmarish ordeal with an unbearable real. So, without further ado, here is the story brought to you straight from the English translation of Genesis, 22 in the Old Testament:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Thinking back, I clearly remember how, when reading this story for the first time, two things profoundly confused my youthful mind. The first is the blind compliance of Abraham—the father—and his capacity to cold bloodily murder his son as a sacrifice to God. Can fathers be so deceptive? so cold hearted? Can a father choose something else over his son’s life? I asked myself. The second is the sheer cruelty and manipulative nature of Abraham’s God. It seemed to me that this God is happy to play with his followers’ lives, tormenting them psychologically and physically (one can also see Job’s story for further reference). In the first instance He brings a man to a psychological state in which he acknowledges and accepts murdering his own flesh and blood—his son Isaac. A few minutes later He tells Abraham: “Just kidding! I just wanted to see if you’ll do it.” This kind of conduct drew in my mind an image of a cruel, perverse, persecutory God who enjoys His followers up to the point of death without reason.
In his Seminar XVI: From an Other to the other (1968-1969), Lacan comes to engage the question of God in Jewish theology and argues that, in the Old Testament, one can discern two distinct Gods. The first is the God of Abraham, the God of The of Binding Isaac: A God who embodies the living presence of an unbearable real, a pre-Semitic force of incomprehensible jouissance that creates but also devours the world. The second is the God of Moses, the God who provides the people of Israel with the ten commandments. This God bestows upon Moses a symbolic solution to an insoluble lack that stirs up his people in the desert and brings them to worship a false god. One might say that the God of Moses first appears following the binding of Isaac. As, after the jig is up, when Abraham’s allegiance is corroborated, He offer’s him a substitution for Isaac’s sacrifice: a ram caught in the thickets. This is the first instance of the Jewish religion, in as much as it entails a symbolic union between a God and His people (the people of the book). That is, a moment when a symbol is offered as a supplement for an unbearable real: where the word signals the murder of the thing. Skip forward 450 years (according to the Jewish calendar) and this graceful merciful God provides Moses at mount Sinai with the ten commandments—the letters of the Law. Like Freud’s totemized primal father, this is a dead God that embodies the symbolic order rather than the real, an Other God that is rendered as an inner voice that dictates the rules of conduct. Therefore, we see that the scene on mount Sinai takes the union between God and his people one step forward from the days of Abraham, as the symbol offered as a supplement to the sacrifice of Isaac is only one sign, a unary trait offered on the backdrop of an initiatory symbolic emptiness, whereas the ten commandments are already a language. They provide God’s people with the Law that pacifies, mediates and handles an unbearable real. Therefore, we might say that the God of Moses is divinity offered in language, in other words, reason.
I am always surprised to hear politicians say that they pray to God for help with events that we call “force majeure.” It seems circular to plea for the help of God with events of such large scale that only a God can stand behind them. And indeed, many have already claimed that today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing an event that will shake the symbolic foundations of reality (or already has). As Žižek notes, the virus itself, not dead but also not a living organism, takes the role of a persecutory undead Other that enjoys our body to death. Like with the God of Abraham, with this unstoppable virus God there is no negotiating, only sacrifice: of our loved ones, of our freedoms. We are its objects, the objects of its persecutory jouissance. But, if this is the face of the 21st century God, one important question remains open: who are our prophets? Who are the those that would carry the words that will render this unbearable real bearable? Will it be the scientists, harboring their charts calling for the flattening of the graph curve? Will it be the opportunist populists, yet again promising that it is the return to the national state order that would keep a raging globalism at bay? Or will it be those offering a new dynamic to our global eco-nomy based on a revitalized form of human universalism?
Moses, descending from mount Sinai, did not provide the people of Israel with mere words. Every letter in the ten commandments was imbued with God’s divinity and expressed the universal ethics of the One. The Israelites carried them wherever they went in what has been called the Ark of the Covenant (אָרוֹן הַבְּרִית), where the presence of God rested from then on—how appropriately, in a coffin. A replica of this ark is kept in every synagogue, over which an illustration of the ten commandments is kept. Accordingly, at this pressing time in which a prophet must be chosen, we ought to remember that our modern day prophecy must be of a similar nature; one that would suffice in making sure that this God stays dead for at least 3650 more years (according to the Jewish calendar).