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Antigone and Abraham

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Abraham and Antigone: Facing Superior Orders
Abraham from the Bible and Antigone from Sophocle’s tragedy Antigone share a very similar dilemma: both characters receive higher orders that would hurt their family members. Abraham receives the command from God to kill his only son as a sacrifice while Antigone is under the state’s decree that forbids her brother the honor of burial. Under the comparable situation, the two characters exhibit different responses: one decides to kill his son under command without hesitation, but the other is willing to defy the law for the sake of her brother. Abraham’s unquestioning attitude towards God’s inhumane order is startling and throws the credibility of his character into question. On the other hand, Antigone’s insistence of respect for her family, regardless of the city’s laws, makes her appear to be a more believable and relatable person. However, Antigone’s motivations to bury her brother also stems from her obedience towards the laws of her gods. Abraham and Antigone thus share the same absolute obedience towards divine authority, but Antigone’s will to also fight for her family’s dignity and honor differentiates her from Abraham as a more believable character.
Abraham’s character seems unbelievable because he is willing to kill his own son without questioning and hesitation solely because God asks him to. In Genesis chapter 22, God commands Abraham to take Isaac, Abraham’s only son, to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice to God. Hearing this supposedly shocking and inhumane order, Abraham does not question God at all. He appears to suffer neither mental disturbance nor sorrow of losing his only son; he simply accepts the order with unexplainable ease. Isaac was born when Abraham was one hundred years old, and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was ninety years old. One would expect that Abraham cherishes and loves his late born baby, an assumption that is supported when God commands Abraham to take “[his] only son, whom [he] loves” to the mountain for sacrifice (Gen 22:2). If Abraham truly loves Isaac, a human response would express more emotion - sorrow, anger, fear, or shock - when God tries to rip his beloved boy from him. Yet Abraham reveals no emotions, instead he simply packs for the trip and takes Isaac along with two of his young men to the mountain that God has shown him. Even at the mountain, Abraham seems shockingly stoic about the imminent death of his son. Without warning Isaac of the order, Abraham builds an altar for God and binds Isaac on top of it. If Abraham were a typical father, he would not have committed such an inhumane action against his son - at least not without some kind of visible emotional response. Even if he were forced to do so under a divine authority, one would expect Abraham to show some sorrow before he has to kill his own son. But Abraham raises his knife seemingly without any hesitation or remorse. He surprisingly just accepts God’s superior order, even though the command appears totally inhumane and cruel. Abraham’s absolute obedience towards God makes him a less believable character because he shows no human affection towards his own son. In chapter 22 Abraham functions like a cold robot that simply follows orders, lacking any human emotions that would be expected with the action of killing one’s own son. Thus Abraham is not a strongly believable character because he seems to lack a typical emotional response to a cruel situation.
Some may justify Abraham’s cold-bloodedness by suggesting that he has faith that God would not kill Isaac. When Abraham leaves for the mountain, he tells the two young men who stay behind that “we will come back to you”, even though the command dictates that he should kill Isaac on the mountain (Gen 22:5). Perhaps Abraham’s stoic attitude derives from his belief that God will work out an alternative plan. Yet Abraham’s blind faith does not justify his stone-hearted actions. When God gives Abraham the cruel order, Abraham does not even try to negotiate for Isaac’s life. Ironically, just a few chapters prior, Abraham petitions for the citizens of Sodom because God attempts to wipe out the city due to the outcry of great sin. When Abraham knows God’s plan, he does not simply accept God’s will in the same manner he accepts the order of Isaac’s death. In contrast, Abraham tries to talk God down by proposing that a small portion of righteous people still reside in Sodom who should not deserve the same fate as the wicked people. Because of Abraham’s effort, two angels visited Sodom and saved Lot’s family from God’s punishment. The petition with God indicates that Abraham is not a man who merely obeys the will of God. He also has morality that can oppose God’s will. However, Abraham’s morality seems very incoherent, as he petitions for a city of strangers but not his own kin. Normally, people value their families more than strangers because of the close bonds created within families, yet Abraham seems to manifest the exact opposite values. His efforts to protect innocent strangers and his relative nonchalance of killing his own son, despite the fact that Isaac is also an innocent, make Abraham an extremely contradictory and incoherent character. Abraham seems unrealistic because of his lack of emotions towards the sacrifice of his innocent son. And his action cannot be justified by his absolute obedience towards God’s will since he tries to help the righteous people of Sodom through a negotiation with God. Abraham’s willingness to petition for strangers but not for his only “loved” son further undermines his believability. In order for Abraham to be more believable he needs to respond in a way that people understand so readers may empathize with him.
Antigone, the protagonist of one of Sophocles’ tragedies, faces a similar dilemma to Abraham’s, yet her completely different decision makes her a far more believable character than Abraham. Antigone, the daughter of King Oedipus, one day hears the decree from the ruler Creon that dictates one of her brothers, Polyneices, shall not have the honor of burial because he has committed treason against Thebes. The law forbids anyone to bury Polyneices but to let dogs and birds eat his corpse. Antigone, unable to bear the cruelty upon her brother, faces a similar situation that Abraham faces- to obey the superior order or to preserve a family member’s dignity and respect. Antigone, however, chooses a different path than that of Abraham. She decides to disobey Creon’s decree by burying Polyneices so that she would not become her brother’s “traitor” and could thus die “with honor” (23, 25). When Antigone is caught by guards and brought in front of Creon, she does not regret her actions and instead claims that there is no “greater glory” than “giving [her] own brother funeral” (39). Under a superior order, Antigone chooses to protect the honor of her family rather than obeying the dictator. Her courage, inspired by her affection and respect towards her family, makes her a very believable person because humans have a fundamental instinct to harbor strong protective emotions for close family members.
However, Antigone’s love for her family is also clouded in ambiguity. When Creon sentenced Antigone to death, she claims if her husband or children were dead like Polyneices, she would not have crossed the state’s decree but “let them molder” (54). Antigone reasons that she can always find a new husband or give birth to a new baby, but she can only have two brothers given that both her parents have passed away. Her controversial speech throws her true emotions and humanity into question because she suggests she acted from cold logical reasoning rather than the warmth of human love or sorrow. If Antigone truly loves her family, she should extend the same affection for her brother to her husband and children as well, yet she cold-bloodedly suggests their replaceability. A mother’s unconditional love towards her children is an image that we often hold and witness in real life, but Antigone’s speech shows a lack of motherly love that we expect from a real woman. From this aspect, Antigone’s character becomes less believable because she does not exhibit the typical motherly affection a woman is expected to have, regardless if the woman has children or not.
Abraham and Antigone seem to follow opposite paths in a similar dilemma: one chooses to obey the superior order and the other defies it. Yet Antigone buries Polyneices not only because she honors and respects her family; she commits the crime to also honor “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws”, which she believes are far more powerful than the rule of a mortal man (37). Antigone fears “the gods’ sure punishment” if she were to neglect those laws (37). Even though superficially Antigone seems to be a rebellious character who dares to defy the laws for her family’s honor, her actions are also driven by the desire to please the gods in a similar manner to Abraham’s decision to kill Isaac. Antigone breaks the Creon’s decree, but she obeys the gods’ orders that she deems superior. If Antigone is also a follower of divine will, is she then a character just as unbelievable as Abraham? Although Antigone share the same driving force of obeying the gods as Abraham, Antigone’s eagerness to earn respect and honor for her family differentiates her from Abraham. While Abraham seems to care nothing of Isaac, Antigone serves her family with respect after their death: she washes the bodies of her parents and her brother, dresses them for the grave, and sacrifices herself for Polyneices to share the same honor and respect as the rest of the family. Antigone’s care for the honor of the family marks her a more relatable character, even though she shares some merciless opinions of husband and children that make her as cold-blooded as Abraham is to Isaac. Abraham fails to appeal as a realistic character, because he lacks the expected emotional connection to Isaac. His incoherence in treating the innocent people of Sodom and Isaac only makes the matter worse. Antigone shares the same obedience in the gods. However, her affection and respect towards her family at the expense of her own life makes her a more believable character, since the tendency to sacrifice for one’s blood relative is not odd.
Abraham does not appear to be a believable character because he is willing to kill his beloved son without questioning or negotiating. In the event of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham fails to manifest any fatherly love or emotional response to the poor fate of his late born child. His incomprehensible coldness towards Isaac prevents him from becoming a relatable and believable character. Abraham’s incoherent morality - his effort to save Sodom’s citizens and his indifference towards Isaac - only drops his credibility even lower. Antigone, however, shows more emotions toward her family. She honors her family and sacrifices her life to honor her last brother. Even though her motivation to bury Polyneices also stems from the desire to follow the divine order, Antigone’s eagerness to earn dignity for her family makes her a far more relatable and believable person.

Texts Used: The Bible, Antigone…...

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