This meme panel has been floating around the internet forever. I captures an amazement at the cruel absurdity of antique religious concepts. Lately, though, I've been reading history and have become astonished at how different their ideas were. Through most of Western history, God was real, and not real in the sense of a vague ubiquity, and a fabulous influence, a reference for virtue and life well lived.
People believed in God like you and I believe in electricity. We know it is real even though none of us has ever seen an electron. We believe that the light before the thunder is evidence, proof even, that electricity is powerful and real. The shock and occasional death from sticking fingers into electrical sockets is more proof, even though the heart attack that results is pretty much the same as any other heart attack.
I know that we have other references that convince us but the people back then, when the praised Abraham for his piety, had other references, too, and, most importantly, they had almost none of the ones we now have. These people did not actually understand cause and effect.
Philosophic writings from back then are rife with inquires about the nature of reality that indicate that people really were confused about why a thing moves when you push it. They couldn't decide if the color of a leaf had anything to do with the leave itself or if it was a fantasy. I'd say it was ridiculous except for the large number of people who wrote about such things.
Twenty five hundred years ago, the idea of formal logic had just been found. Pythagoras had just conceived the idea of mathematics and the notion that 'ideas', per se, could have a useful relationship to the physical world. This was a revolutionary idea that caused him to be famous for hundreds of years.
Yet, even he did not apply this to broad metaphysics. He is also the first person to have really thought through the idea that there is a separate, mystical world that is where reality actually takes place. The "useful relationship" was that our world was derived from this more perfect, if imperceptible realm.
It turns out that this latter thought prevailed and eventually turned into the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), all based on the notion that the real reality was the kingdom of God and that our reality is a temporary, imperfect reflection of that kingdom. Being given a concrete action that would allow one to absolutely, perfectly, for sure, be able to gain the favor of the mystical world where "reality actually takes place" was a huge gift.
That it involved sacrifice is no surprise, everything worthwhile does. While we think of Isaac as analogous to our beloved, modern children who are the essential good in our lives, he was not. He was simply another imperfect reflection of the all-powerful, perfect God. His life or death was not going to happen where "reality actually takes place."
To most of us, that mystical notion is ridiculous. I don't believe that level of credulity is available to modern people. Our brains are built on technical understanding of cause and effect and surrounded by the mechanized proof that science is real. But, Abraham's was not. He, and the people who wrote the story and those who believed it, lived without having ever had anyone explain cause and effect, or how to think ethically, or how to rationalize.
These things are so deeply intrinsic in the modern world that the Akedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac, sounds absolutely ridiculous. But, if you believe Isaac was actually the ghost of God and you believed God was literally the arbiter of reality, your knife at his throat was no more controversial than cholera. God wills and it be done.