Abraham: the problem

At the moment I am teaching a course on ‘Religion and Violence’ for Leiden University in the Netherlands. The topic is all too obvious these days, especially after the last brutal terrorist attacks in Brussels. As a text we use Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence, a book in which she in fact defends the right of existence of religion as such, a defence which is called for indeed. All through the western world, religion sits in the dock, accused of instigating violence, and by increasing popular consent is found guilty as charged. Would the world be better off without religion? The question was raised during Enlightenment and but now roams larger, wider and much louder. Increasingly the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. Of course this is triggered by excesses, such as we just suffered in Brussels. Forgotten for the moment the manifold contributions to our society and to western civilization by Christianity; or by Islam to the Moslem as well as the Western world, for that matter.
But all religions are under scrutiny, especially ‘strong religions’, as Scott and Appleby call them, high-investment religions with clear and strong claims. Such as ours. Here I do not want to delve into Mormon history – not without its violent episodes – but into a much more fundamental issue, one we share as Christians with Jews and Moslems: the legacy of Abraham. So let us have a look at Abraham, and I intend to do that in several instalments; today we pose the problem at the heart of the Abraham stories.
Caravaggio's version of Abraham's sacrifice
Rembrandt’s version of the Abrahamic sacrifice

The core tale is evidently the sacrifice of his son, Isaac (for Jews and Christians) or Ismael (for Moslems). Depicted as a prince of faith, Abraham is admired for strength, rectitude and for the covenants he made with JHWH, with as crowning achievement his deep obedience to and faith in the Lord when he raised his knife to sacrifice his son on the mountain of Moriah. And got a ram as sacrificial animal. The latter sacrifice is remembered each year by the Moslems in their yearly Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sheep; for Judaism he is the ancestor, whose stories are read regularly in the shul. For Christians Abraham preludes Christ’s sacrifice, a notion we as LDS share, but we stress Abraham more than most of our co-religionists. One major reason is of course the Book of Abraham, allegedly translated from an Egyptian papyrus, but better viewed as an independent revelation.
Joseph’s contribution to the Abraham myth in fact highlights the problematic character of the story, the sacrifice of the son, say Isaac. In demanding that sacrifice JHWH demands something of Abraham that goes against all the grain of humanity. It also goes against his very own covenant, and against his own stance against human sacrifices. That much is clear. What Joseph added was not the solution, far from that. The Book of Abraham gives the story its own past, portraying Abraham as a sacrificial victim in Ur, ultimately delivered by the Lord. So Joseph compounded the problem instead of solving the puzzle: Abraham in obeying JHWH was cast into the role of the priest Elkenah, he would perform the very act that drove him out of Ur to the freedom of the new country. Through this addition the sacrificial demand made even less sense than it already did.
This aggravating of the enigma is a brilliant angle, I think, but only if we see this in perspective. The much lauded obedience of Abraham, the attitude the Lord praises him for after the episode, shows even greater now, but my point is that this obedience is the very problem itself. After all, Abraham responds willingly to a request that never should be demanded, not of anyone, not of him, a demand that should never be issued from any authority, and definitely not from the loving lips of the Lord.
Rembrandt's rendition of the tale
Caravaggio’s Abraham

The official interpretation, praising Abraham’s obedience – also the interpretation inside the text itself -, not only is unconvincing, it is also dangerous. Simply obeying a command that is counter-human, counter-ethical and counter-survival distorts all possible productive interaction between us and God. My point in this blog is that it is exactly this kind of blind obedience to demands that are normally classified as crimes against humanity, which produces the world’s worst nightmares. Abraham sacrifice is a major inspiration for fundamentalists, underscoring the notion that God’s law tops any human law and even other divine laws: the story is fully anomic. For terrorists, such those who attacked the Brussels airport last weekend, Abraham’s blind obedience serves as a grounding tale for their atrocities. Likewise, Abraham inspired the Gush Emunin conspirators who prepared to blow up Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in January 1984 – they were thwarted, Israel’s security system does top the one in Belgium. The latter band of Jewish extremists aimed at destroying the Moslem presence at the very place of the mythical sacrifice in order to build the third temple.
Inside the Dome of the Rock: the spot of the mythic sacrifice
Inside the Dome of the Rock: the spot of the mythical sacrifice

Joseph Smith deepened the Abraham enigma, and that contribution should lead us to rethink the notion of obedience to commands that purportedly come from the Lord. Obedience is a double-edged sword and has to be handled with extreme care. If religion as such is under siege, that is exactly because of these Abraham-inspired acts. Any legacy is a gift, and great stories are powerful tools, but this gift has a poisonous side as well; in German, gift and poison are the same word (‘Gift’), in Dutch they are almost the same (‘gift’ and ‘gif’). This is a legacy with a poisonous sting and we have to be very careful in our interpretation, as the tale can be – and actually is – high jacked for nefarious purposes.
So, to conclude, another interpretation: Abraham should have refused to sacrifice his son. If it was a test, he failed it, as he should have recognized that the Lord never could have issued such a command. In the end the Lord saved him from his failure. And Sara was right in leaving him (Gen 23:2).

51 comments for “Abraham: the problem

  1. A rarely found minority view of the Abraham story is that he failed his test. Sacrificing Isaac contrary to Abraham’s covenant with the Lord and contrary to what he knew of the Lord’s will was a failure to recognize that the source of the thought was not God, but either Satan or Abraham’s own confused psyche. The story was recorded as part of a tribal narrative by persons who couldn’t bear to think of a revered ancestor as having failed such a test of his ability or willingness to accurately discern the source of his “inspiration.” The action was blamed on God, just as was Joshua’s genocide and various other behaviors of the people of Israel recorded in the Old Testament. Christians then found an allegedly inspirational use for the story as recorded. (It actually makes the “justice” problems of atonement theory worse, thereby failing for some in its inspirational intent.) In this minority view, the story is not about obedience or sacrifice, nor is it a foreshadowing of Christ, but instead it is about the difficulty of discerning God’s voice among the many others and the fact that even prophets may sometimes fail to do so.

    A metaphorical interpretation complimentary to Abraham was articulated by Tresa Edmunds here:
    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/roundtable-abuse-and-forgiveness/ Joseph Smith’s deepening of the enigma makes that metaphorical interpretation possible. While there is significant cultural history surrounding and built upon the Abraham story in both general western culture and Mormon culture, for some at least it seems far healthier to consider the story in one of these alternate ways.

    Years ago, as I recall the news story, a mother threw her children off a fifth story hotel balcony in Salt Lake City because God told her to. No one else believes He did. Why believe such a thing of the God of Abraham?

  2. Thank you for this post. My son began early-morning seminary this year. They are studying the Old Testament. I drive him to class (held in a member’s home) and can overhear the lesson while I wait. Sometimes the teacher goes off on tangents that I disagree with, but generally I hold my tongue as I want my son to develop his own skills to sift wheat from chaff in church lessons.

    However, last November there was one class for which I could not hold back criticism. It was on Abraham and Issac. The Paris attacks had just taken place. The message taught (not from the manual but the teacher) was that when our leaders command we obey, even if they command us to kill.

    I’ve wondered since that class “how do members arrive at that belief?” I believe that part of the answer is that we’re not presently faced with commands to kill; so members’ affirmation that they will follow “any command” may be puffery. But most of the answer (I believe) is that we’re so conditioned to “obey the prophet” that we are uncomfortable drawing any line where disobedience is acceptable. We need a guiding principle that overrides obedience in extreme situations – perhaps that obedience to the spirit trumps obedience to leaders.

    25 years ago the endownment ceremony was revised to essentially give women a veto when their husbands issue wrongful commands. It seems high time that members are given a similar authority when it comes to commands from equally fallible leaders.

  3. I should have made clear that Walter is only the third person I have found who, apparently independently, came up with (or articulated) the Abrahamic failure theory. If there are more out there, I’d be interested in knowing of them.

  4. JR – I adhere to the “Abrahamic failure theory.” For reasons such as those in your comment, I find it reasonable to dismiss the traditional interpretations of the Genesis account. However, for me, the bigger problem comes from the repetition of the traditional interpretations as recited in modern scripture.

    The same dilemma exists for questions of whether Adam was a historical person. Just looking at the biblical account, I have no problems believing that Adam is figurative. But D&C accounts of a literal Adam complicate that view greatly (see, e.g., D&C 107, 116, 137)

  5. I cannot conclude that Abraham failed, because that message is contrary to the express message of the scripture and our tradition — I feel a need to respect our scripture and tradition, even while allowing for continued learning. The episode does raise questions, but we don’t need to definitively resolve those questions. On the whole, I choose to continue to see Abraham as a good man, a kind man, a holy man. We need not judge Abraham according to our modern sensibilities.

  6. I look forward to additional posts, Walter. This one points up the difficulty with narrative theology — drawing doctrinal or theological lessons from narratives, a popular method in the LDS tradition given our lack of systematic theology. What lessons *should* one draw from this Abraham episode? Certainly not a lesson that contravenes the clear command “thou shalt not kill.” Abrahamic failure is a better reading than divine incoherence.

  7. I’ll be in the minority, but I’m very glad we don’t have a systematic theology. I’m comfortable with a narrative theology — drawing doctrinal or theological lessons from narratives. There is some messiness, to be sure, and different people learn different things at different stages and in different circumstances, but I am okay with that messiness because I think it produces real learning and real faith — and, it allows the Holy Spirit to continually teach, here a little and there a little, one person at a time.

  8. Dave K. – Yes, it seems the bigger problem may be the repetition of traditional interpretations in modern scripture. That is so with respect to Abraham as well as Adam. On the other hand, that problem is largely a result of the common, usually unarticulated, assumption that when Joseph wrote revelations in the Lord’s first person voice he was acting as the Lord’s stenographer. That assumption may not be accurate. It appears that Joseph felt free to go back and change and add to what he had earlier written as the Lord’s first person words. I don’t have a well-developed alternative theory of revelation, but I don’t feel bound by the stenographic transcription assumption. The problem is similar to, but I think more serious than, the problem of the Lord’s reference in D&C 121:10. That verse can be read as a reference to a well known fictional character. (Some scholars think Job and his friends did not exist; many are confident that the poetic book of Job does not represent actual conversations and actions among Job, his friends, or between God and Satan.) To me D&C 121:10 loses none of its force if it is a reference to a well-known fictional character for purposes of teaching a lesson. Others think it loses all its force if Job did not exist and actually experience all the losses described in the poem. Perhaps the D&C references to Abraham and the sacrifice can be understood in such alternative ways. More remote, but perhaps another D&C use of well-known but possibly non-literal texts might be its inclusion of language attributed to the Lord which is in fact quoted from the Song of Solomon, which Joseph taught was an uninspired writing. I have no conceptual trouble with the Lord knowing and quoting uninspired, erotic literature for His own purposes. I also have no conceptual trouble with those quotations being Joseph’s attempt to articulate in language he was familiar with concepts, but not words, revealed to him by the Lord.

    ji – Yes, what I called the Abrahamic failure theory is contrary to the Old Testament as received, contrary to the stenographic model of the D&C, etc. It is clearly contrary to our tradition. However, we have had (and may still have) received traditions contrary to scripture as well as irreconcilable inconsistencies among teachings of those we sustain as modern prophets, seers and revelators. What I called the Abrahamic failure theory is not for me any definitive resolution of the problem. Nor is it inconsistent with viewing Abraham as a “good man, a kind man, a holy man” nor does it imply any judgment on Abraham to think that he made a mistake others have made (Joseph is reported to have said he had made such mistakes in discerning the source of inspiration). Tresa Edmunds’ metaphorical theory referred to above is complimentary of Abraham as having overcome a natural tendency to repeat abuse that one has suffered. While for me such theories must remain tentative, I find the Abraham and Isaac story far more instructive as a story of “failure” and far more inspiring when understood as a mistake that was overcome, than as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ. You have, however, pointed out some of the good reasons why I do not discuss this in Gospel Doctrine class.

  9. JR,

    Thanks — it is an interesting way to look at the episode, and learning can occur from its consideration. As I have previously thought of it in this way, I try to imagine the Lord’s perspective (imperfect as I am). I have thought that the Lord gave Abraham a hard test, and he (Abraham) passed because he did not turn against the Lord. If Abraham had turned against the Lord, I suppose that would have been a failure of the test — but remaining faithful was passing, whether that faithfulness was manifest in dutiful obedience or in begging and pleading to be relieved. So I can still count Abraham’s obedience as faithfulness and passing of the test. And I see Abraham’s obedience as dutiful but unenthusiastic — surely, he had no eagerness to obey that commandment from the Lord. That’s why I cannot say that Abraham failed the test — if our God called Abraham faithful and said he passed, I cannot say he failed.

  10. “Why believe such a thing of the God of Abraham?”

    Because one has been through one’s own Abrahamic test. And one knows the difference.

    The biggest reason I see for such widespread failure to understand what “obey the prophets” and “follow the Spirit” mean is that people think obedience equates to “doing without thought.” This is so far from the truth, as is brightly evident to anyone who has actually “wrestled before the Lord,” and been asked to sacrifice the thing which is dearest to them. Sometimes there is a ram in the thicket, sometimes not.

    But it is no easier to explain how we know what is from God and what isn’t than someone can explain how you know you actually love your spouse or children. Any attempt to explain cheapens it, and fails to fully express the experience.

    I know Abraham’s test was a true test, because (unlike the woman throwing her children out the window) it resonates with mine. I know at least part of why it had to be done, and that trying to label the results a “failure” or “success” doesn’t come close to understanding the test itself. Not all tests are graded. The Lord’s tests never are, in my experience. Whether or not Abraham “failed” or “succeeded” is impossible to decide by a third party. It is completely between Abraham and the Lord.

    But what studying his test can teach us is that God asks things we might find terrible, even immoral. What will we do? How will we know? What are our priorities? What should we do to build our relationship with God to the point where He can trust us? Any person who is serious about following Christ will be led through their own small version of Gethsemane. Each will have to face their own Abrahamic test, at least once. It is up to us to cultivate the humility, the knowledge of the Spirit and of the doctrine, and the understanding of God necessary to learn what we must from such tests when they come.

  11. Seems there are two issues. The first over the nature of the Abraham narratives. The second over whether or how that affects people socially. My own view is that appeals to scripture or the like tend to be very secondary in determining action. Rather basic human cognition is at the main factor behind most human behavior which is why we find these actions so widely across cultures and not just in the “Abrahamic” religions. It’s not as if Islamic suicide bombers are the only people using suicide as a tactical approach to war.

    I know many such as Krakauer try to draw big lines of violence behavior from certain texts and even history. But I think this is just too convenient. I don’t want to go so far as to say they play no part. Nor do I want to go so far in the opposite directions as to say (as some have after Brussels) that there’s a kind of social determinism at play. But we seem to want simple solutions.

    None of this is to say analyzing Abraham isn’t interesting. Just that I suspect we should be careful.

  12. Another thought — it seems to me that everything relating to the Lord’s New Testament mortal ministry was prefigured in the Old Testament — even the idea of a Father offering his Son. John 3:16 is perhaps prefigured in the binding of Isaac story.

  13. Dave K,

    Sorry for the sidetrack, but I take issue with your claim…

    25 years ago the endownment ceremony was revised to essentially give women a veto when their husbands issue wrongful commands. It seems high time that members are given a similar authority when it comes to commands from equally fallible leaders.

    In the hearken covenant, the use of the word ‘as’ is not veto power. It means ‘in the same manner’; it is a simile. If you follow the structure of the language and covenants throughout the endowment, Adam is set up as the lord of Eve. She is supposed to consider him her lord, and obey him as such. Nowhere is Adam told that he can veto instructions or commands from God. The minor tweak from ‘obey’ to ‘hearken’ didn’t lessen the gut punch to women.

  14. Two things. First, “Gift” and “poison” are not the same in German. “Gift” means poison in German. “Geschenk” means gift.

    Second, this minority view opens up a much-needed door in Mormonism for finally officially disavowing polygamy, which is often seen as some sort of Abrahamic test. Maybe Joseph failed too. And Brigham. And John Taylor. It took Wilford Woodruff and the United States government to provide the ram in the thicket.

  15. Anon for this: You are right, it’s not veto power. Nothing like. But the word “as” commonly means “during the time that,” as much as “in the same way as.” And even the latter definition is not limited to the interpretation you have chosen…if you follow the structure of the language and covenants of the ceremony.

    I’m not going to get any further into it on a public forum, but it’s worth pondering.

  16. My understanding is that interpreting the akedah as a failure on the part of Abraham (and other related readings that avoid interpreting it as a paen to obedience) can be traced to the medieval rabbinic tradition. However, this is so far afield from my area of expertise (such as it is) that I don’t have any citations. I imagine some reader of this blog does, and I for one would be very interested to have them. The fact that Abraham comes from a culture of human sacrifice I think makes the story all the more complicated and in my mind at least points to a reading that there was no test at all — Abraham simply allowed his strong cultural prejudices to get the better of him (maybe allowing himself to be convinced that his God was actually demanding such thing) and it took God actually sending an angel to stop him. My understanding is that some of these alternative readings also emphasize the fact that Abraham objected to God when it came to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but appears to have simply given in when it came to the binding of Isaac. Of course, I acknowledge that in favoring these interpretations I am ironically playing to my own cultural prejudices. As for the tradition argument, I think that as members of a restorationist religion, we of all people should treat this argument with a dose of healthy skepticism, especially if there is a counter-tradition. I don’t understand Joseph Smith as claiming that he fixed all incorrect traditions, just some of them.

  17. Some aspects of this discussion remind me of Timothy Beal’s book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book – See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/rise-and-fall-bible-unexpected-history-accidental-book#sthash.g0JAWzcQ.dpuf and his expressed allegiance to the Bible as a book of questions, rather than a book of answers. For me the questions are valuable. For example, it took me some time (long ago) to learn that the spiritual confirmation I had received of the truth of the Book of Mormon did not mean that I understood it correctly or that I knew in what sense it is “true.” Nor does it help me with the testimony of those who, to all outward appearances, follow the process Moroni describes and receive a spiritual confirmation that the Book of Mormon is not true — or with the reported experience of others receiving no such confirmation of anything.

    At least to some extent this thread has wandered into unarticulated issues of LDS epistemology, but then Walter started it by noting the minority interpretation, and I pushed it further by expanding on that. The traditional interpretation assumes the accuracy of the claim that God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and ignores the epistemological issue. The minority interpretation sees such a sacrifice instruction as so fundamentally inconsistent with the nature of God, with His promise to Abraham, with what Abraham should be expected to have learned about human sacrifice from his experience as an attempted sacrificial offering (the latter may be only in LDS scriptures), that it requires questioning the source of the instruction. The Old Testament story and the modern scriptures referring to the story simply assume that Abraham actually knew that the command, inconsistent with what he knew of God and God’s promises, was from God. They tell us nothing about how he knew that, if he knew it and was not mistaken. As I read them, they tell us he questioned the instruction, but not that it even occurred to him to question the source. Obedience to commandments of God is a phrase without practical content until one first knows or at least believes that the commandments in question are in fact of God. So, for some, the Old Testament story teaches less about obedience than it does about the importance of knowing the source of a proposal for action contrary to prior learning of God’s will. The story itself offers no suggestions for solving that more fundamental riddle.

  18. JR (17), I don’t think the epistemological issues get enough play. I think as a practical matter the Church sees the big problem as people not paying enough attention to personal revelation. So they emphasize that even if it means people will not focus enough on the problem of when they are receiving personal revelation versus it being something else. While I think the danger or misinterpretation is much bigger than most think, I can sympathize with them on where the big problem is. As a practical matter most Mormons don’t have the problem of thinking they have a personal revelation to go do something problematic. (Although after the Bundy standoff perhaps the Church might rethink this somewhat)

    That said, I think the narrative presupposes that Abraham knows. (Just as the Nephi/Laban situation presupposes Nephi actually is talking with God) One can of course read these narratives with a deeply suspicious hermeneutic. I’m not sure that gets us as much as some think. One danger of that approach is of course that it becomes quite easy to discount any narratives we don’t like. As such we don’t engage seriously with the questions.

    Wally (14) I don’t know German so I can’t speak there. I know in late 20th century philosophical debate the double nature of gift/poison is common. A great example of this is Derrida’s analysis of Plato’s Pharmakon in The Phaedrus. This same sort of analysis is then brought to Abraham (by way of Kierkegaard in many ways) in his book The Gift of Death. This take, which was influential far beyond Derrida sees the Abrahamic story as a kind of paradox. (I think elements of that paradox are appearing in this thread) For Derrida there’s an inherent tension between demands with have for the Other (in this case God) and the demands we have socially (the ethical intuitions brought up in this thread). Derrida’s solution is a kind of deferral or openness. This in turn can be interpreted as a kind of radical fallibilism towards these questions rather than the typical determined solution where Abraham is completely right or completely wrong. Further Derrida sees in this God wherever there is Other due to the nature of the analysis. (Interestingly this then makes Jacob an even stronger type of God) Effectively we are left with a kind of responsibility where we don’t have enough information to determine what we should do. This implies responsibility always has essentially a strong element of risk to it.

  19. I am very pleased with the reactions on my blog and with the additional information on my diverging interpretation. Yes, one of the issues is narrative theology, and tied into one is the problem of historicity. But the main issue is, as the commentators have picked up on well, is the inherent limitations to obedience. and the need to keep thinking wherever any command comes from. The Abraham story is rich, much richer and multifaceted than we usually assume. For me it is mainly a challenge to keep thinking, also about received wisdom, and certainly about received interpretations.
    As for German, both Geschenk and Gift are used, as they are in Dutch.

  20. i agree that the story of abraham is much richer and multifaceted. it’s unfortunate that we don’t view this story alongside the other stories about him, that we tend to view them separately. for example in the sodom and gomorrah story abraham is clearly thinking to the point of punting with the lord. and yet the lord doesn’t seem angry or threatened with abraham for questioning him. we tend to see the “obedience” story as the crowning glory of abraham’s character transformation. i liked what zig said in #16, that “Abraham simply allowed his strong cultural prejudices to get the better of him.” illustrating to us that we all have strong prejudices or inclinations that are hard to budge or change our minds about too. and yet we can clearly see that the lord was willing to change his mind or problem solve with abraham when abraham plead with him to save sodom and gomorrah.

    wonderful post and much needed. looking forward to future installments.

  21. Walter, I only want to note that Wally is correct. German ‘Gift’ = English ‘poison,’ while German ‘Geschenk’ = English ‘gift, present.’ There’s an interesting etymological development involving a fascinating semantic shift that results in the same Germanic root word having two very different meanings in each language.

  22. The Abraham/Isaac story was pivotal in Kirkegaard’s thought. And his reading would have been still more powerful if he had had the Book of Abraham. Kirkegaard reads the “Abrahamic test” as a call to choose between God as a person and God’s preeminent gift to us (apart from his Only Begotten Son)—his moral law. Joseph’s Book of Abraham underscores the beauty of that moral law. It shows Abraham being rescued from an evil order in which fathers sacrifice their sons to false gods. God replaces that evil order with his holy priesthood after the order of the Son of God, a righteous ethical system. Abraham is blessed by that priesthood and moral law. But God then calls Abraham to do the very thing, sacrifice his son, that he had forbidden and saved Abraham from in the first place. Kirkegaard would have loved the exquisite irony of that reversal. I think he would have been struck by the profound truth of this product of his contemporary, Joseph Smith.

    Abraham constructed his altar of unhewn stones on Mount Moriah, the temple mount, presumably in the exact place where the altar of Solomon’s temple would later be constructed and where unblemished lambs would be sacrificed to atone for the sins of Israel. Abraham experienced in that sacred place the emotions God would feel as his only begotten was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world. But Abraham mercifully escaped the ultimate pain of going through with the sacrifice. God didn’t. Still, no one understands what God experienced and sacrificed more fully than Abraham does. No one more fully knows God. This intimate knowledge of God redeemed Abraham.

    As Alma 34: 11-12 clearly states, Christ’s atoning sacrifice signified by the holocaust offerings in the temple does not make sense within any ethical system human reason can devise: “Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered.” Murder is a criminal violation, not a civil one, so Elder Packer’s parable of the debtor does not apply. It evades the core issue. How can the suffering and death of innocent Christ atone for my guilty sins and yours? It makes no sense.

    And yet, I (and probably you) know that it happens. We are mercifully cleansed of our sins, are born again as new and better persons when we come to the person Christ with broken heart and contrite spirit. Redemption is a brute fact of our existence that no strictly reasonable ethical system can explain.

    All systems of rules, whether grounded in religion or not, lead to miscarriages of justice if they are consistently applied. Life is too complex to be adequately compassed by any abstract, generally applicable ethical system human beings can devise or understand. Suicide-bombing terrorists are just another redundant illustration of this moral truth. What they do has warrant within a reading of their religion. It appears to be good. But they, nevertheless, grossly and prototypically violate the third commandment, taking the name of the Lord in vain, by doing evil in his name. Their actions may be logically consistent with their reading of scripture, but the men are nonetheless gross evil doers who affront and malign God.

    Only God, whose mind does compass all existence, can ultimately be an adequate moral standard and guide for right action. His moral law, written in scripture is an invaluable guide, but if we rigorously adhere to it guided only by our own understanding, we, too, will take the name of the Lord in vain and commit gross evils. At all the interstitial points where the simplified, abstract moral model and ethical law is not adequate to complex reality, we must know and be guided by God and his Only Begotten Son if we are to avoid being evil. Abraham knew God and Christ. And knowing God, he knew that nothing God commanded him to do, however painful, could be a sin. The challenge for each of us is to know God as Abraham knew him. In the final analysis, it is the only way to avoid being and doing evil, if not at the magnitude of today’s terrorists, at least sufficiently that we cannot ultimately stand before God unblemished by unredeemed sin.

  23. Pacumeni — I’m trying to understand your point. Are you saying that Abraham actually knew God so well that he knew that He would never allow Abraham to go through with the sacrifice of Isaac and that the whole thing was a sort of ritual that would serve as an important foreshadowing of the death of Christ? If so, I think that’s really interesting and plausible, and my understanding is that that type of reading, more or less, also has its roots in a medieval rabbinic tradition. Alternatively, you might be saying that Abraham did believe that God would allow him to sacrifice his son and that Abraham was willing to do it even though he believed (at least prior to receiving the command from God) that such a sacrifice was morally wrong? I must say that I have a harder time with that reading. Doesn’t that imply a sort of strong form divine command ethic for Mormonism? If so, that in and of itself is interesting especially considering that there are a bunch of commentators over on Rachael Givens Johnson’s second post on Charles Taylor who seem to be in agreement that Mormonism is premised on a type of virtue ethic, which strikes me as inconsistent with that type of strong form divine command ethic.

  24. In my view Abraham did not know that God would stop him from making the sacrifice. He intended to sacrifice Isaac. He fully felt the pain of what he was asked to do. And he therefore came to understand as much as a human being can what God himself suffered when his Only Begotten son was sacrificed to save us all from our sins. That is a point about Abraham’s biography.

    Abraham demonstrated in this episode that he was the epitome of a faithful man, willing to do anything God commanded him to do, and he thus became the father of the faithful. All who are saved are of his descent, by blood or adoption, and by behavior. Even the Savior himself was Abraham’s seed. Abraham was qualified to be the father of the faithful because, having passed through this trial, he knew God by knowing the profound pain God suffered, either directly as Yahweh or indirectly as the Elohim, Father and Mother, within whose ken the Son suffered our sins and pierced their souls.

    With respect to ethics, in my view Mormonism has a virtue ethic, but one that is rooted in uncreated natural law. God’s commandments are the natural laws of happiness. They merely describe the operations of inexorable spiritual causation. If we follow God’s laws, happiness follows as the natural effect of our actions. If we violate his descriptive laws of happiness, misery unavoidably and naturally follows. God did not create either us or those laws. He is God because he doesn’t kick against the pricks. He lives in full harmony with what necessarily is. All this is implicit in Alma’s statement that if God were to violate the uncreated natural law of justice, the law of the harvest, he would cease to be God.

    So how do I reconcile that virtue ethic with our obligation to obey every command we receive from God? In other words, how do I harmonize the virtue ethic rooted in natural law that I embrace in-principle with the divine command ethic that I embrace in practice? The limits of human reason and knowledge are the key.

    Ethical systems are always models of reality, not reality. They always simplify, which means they always falsify. If fallible human beings make an idol of God’s law as they understand it, if they rigidly adhere to the ethical rule they believe God has given them, sooner or later, like the devout Muslim terrorists, they will take God’s name in vain in the most egregious way possible, by doing evil in the name of God. The ethical law God has given us is good, but due to our limitations, it is always incomplete. It never covers the whole territory. Only God himself, who fully knows the natural law and all its applications, can ensure that we do the right thing in all circumstances.

    So like Abraham, we must ultimately ground our faith in God the person, not in our understanding of God’s moral law. We can’t be perfectly consistent with the natural law of the universe unless we are perfectly obedient to the commands of God, even those commands that we think violate the natural moral law. We must understand in all humility that when we disagree with God about what is ethically required of us, He will always prove to be right, we wrong, once the chain of consequences fully unfolds.

    So our obligation is to always obey God the person when we know that he is the source of our inspiration. If we are not certain that the inspiration comes from God, our safest bet is to follow God’s moral law as we understand it. But we should follow it humbly, with due caution and awareness that if we are arrogant, we will do evil in God’s name and thus take His name in vain. To be certain that our inspirations come from God, regardless of whether they do or don’t appear to violate the natural moral law of the universe, we must come to know God personally as Abraham did.

  25. Pacumeni – “So our obligation is to always obey God the person when we know that he is the source of our inspiration.” On this point, I believe the traditional view that you have expressed so well and the minority view are in agreement. The crux of the problem for those entertaining the minority view is that they are not as sure as you seem to be that Abraham in fact knew that God was the source of the “inspiration” to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice. The received story includes no record of Abraham even considering whether he might be mistaken on that point. In the minority view, it is the need to consider that possibility that was the “test” [not from God] that Abraham failed and from which failure God rescued him by providing the ram in the thicket. In the Christian view of that minority theory, this foreshadows the atonement because God rescued us [all sinners, presumably Abraham as well] from sin by providing the Lamb on the cross.

    Given the common LDS theology recognizing Christ as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, if Abraham’s offering of a sacrifice were to more accurately foreshadow Christ’s atoning sacrifice, perhaps he should have been instructed to sacrifice himself, not Isaac. That instruction would not have conflicted with God’s covenant to provide through Isaac a countless progeny to Abraham. But for those entertaining the minority view, it would still leave open the possibility that Abraham had mistaken the source of that idea.

  26. Wrestling with the akedah is fascinating and sometimes fruitful. However, I have the uncomfortable feeling that some (one is too many) explanations have at their core an attempt to rehabilitate Moloch. That I will not do, and believe is contrary to the overall intent and purpose of the Old Testament narrative. Instead, I would like to think that the predicate of every comment and interpretation is Walter’s: “The official interpretation, praising Abraham’s obedience – also the interpretation inside the text itself -, not only is unconvincing, it is also dangerous.”

  27. Walter, this essay will contribute greatly to my lesson tomorrow, thanks. Wally, Jonathan, it’s great fun to see you two tell Mr. van Beek he’s wrong in how he’s seen/read/hear Germans use “gift.”

  28. Barnabus, I’m not sure what’s fun about it. Neither Walter nor I are native speakers of German, but it is my professional field. If you’re curious, you can consult any dictionary. If you’re looking for an authoritative statement, see the article in Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch, or in the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch. The key phrase there is that the meaning of ‘Gift’ = ‘present’ is “seit der zweiten hälfte des 19. jh. erloschen” – extinct since the second half of the 19th century. Walter could still use the word to illustrate his point, but he would need to modify his argument to talk about history rather than present-day meaning.

  29. When God appears to you personally, as He did to Abraham, and tells you to do something that is against all your principles you must stand your ground, summon all the moral courage you have in your little frame, look Him in the eye, and say, “no.”

  30. I’ve said before that my take on the Abraham story is that the purpose of the test was not the outcome, but the struggle. If Abraham’s reaction was simply “yes, of course, where’s the knife?” that would have been a failure of the test just as much as just saying “no, Lord, I’m not doing that.” It was an impossible choice, like Eve’s choice. Abraham could not keep both the commandment to schedule and the commandment not to kill, just as Eve could not keep the commandment to multiply and replenish and the commandment not to eat. The test was not to see if Abraham would obey without question, the test was to see how he would deal with the contradiction.

    The point of the story, as I see it, is that God is merciful. The accuser would condemn Abraham a murderer if he went through with it, and would condemn him as disobedient if he refused. God, on the other hand, saw in Abraham’s choice a reflection, however flawed, of his loyalty, obedience, and trust. It is altogether possible that, had Abraham made the opposite choice, God in his mercy would have seen it as a reflection, however flawed, of his integrity.

    I think Abraham’s faith, for which he was praised, was not the faith to obey without question, but the faith that God was merciful and would justify him. The point is not that sacrificing Isaac was inherently a righteous choice, but that God, in his mercy, choose to look on the good in Abraham. As Paul says, it was “counted as righteousness into him.”

    The point is that Abraham had an impossible choice, and there was no way to escape without sin, except by trusting in God’s mercy, and his ability to forgive and to heal and to justify Abraham’s choice. The test was not to see which outcome Abraham would choose, the test was too see if Abraham would trust God’s mercy to justify whichever imperfect choice he picked.

  31. While I realize this may be preaching to the choir, something which separates Abrahams experience from the terrorists, is that Abraham was asked to dedicated something to God which he currently had stewardship over and loved. The terrorists don’t have any stewardship over what they are blowing up; nor is blowing something up part of a ceremony which has been outlined by the Lord.
    If there were ever any LDS terrorists, they probably wouldn’t draw upon Abraham as justification for doing something hard, but the story of Adam building an altar and performing sacrifices without knowing why he was doing this.

  32. JR, #24, I have no problem with there being multiple, contradictory readings of scripture. I think scripture is designed to yield multiple readings. For certain, Christ’s answers to clear questions put to him were often enigmatic, more calculated to induce thought than to answer the question posed. Insofar as the minority view underscores the fact that we should closely scrutinize our motives and be sure that when we claim to act at the behest of God, we in fact are carrying out his will, it is a good reading of the text. Lots of people have been deluded on that point and have, thus, done evil in God’s name. Given everything we know about Abraham, I don’t think he was among them, but there is no harm in our taking a warning from this story that it is possible to do evil when we think we are doing good. As I argue above, that can also be true when we think we are applying God’s moral law or our own ethical code. Human beings are error prone.

    The fact that we are error prone and God isn’t is the reason it is always a mistake to act as Jack, #28, advises and tell God “no” when he commands us to do something we think is wrong. What might seem to be moral courage in that circumstance is really just a failure to appreciate how limited our understanding is. If you take expert advice from your doctor to do things you would rather not based on your own understanding, it would be foolhardy not to follow the EXPERT advice of God. There is no comparison in the magnitude of the knowledge gap between you and human experts and between you and God. The latter gap is infinitely larger. So unless you refuse all expert guidance in life—and in practice, no one can—there is no sound reason to refuse the EXPERT guidance of God.

    JR, your point about the ram signifying the atonement is of course true, for both the traditional reading and the minority reading. And both readings can be connected to the temple altar, also constructed of unhewn stones on Mount Moriah, where rams (signifying Christ) were sacrificed to atone for Israel’s sins. So let a thousand readings of the text blossom. The Jews do this right. They feel no compunction to resolve all contradictions between readings of scripture. Scripture is rich enough to carry all these meanings, indeed, is rich because it enables and even requires us to reflect on multiple readings of the text.

    I do have one concern, however, about the minority interpretation. It might be motivated by an inadequate, sentimental understanding of God, the idea that God would never command us to do something that, on its face, seems wrong or icky. Since justice is inviolable, God must have as a core character component an element of hard realism to be God. Satan lives in a fantasy world, God doesn’t. So sometimes, God will ask us to do things that will seem wrong if our standard of judgement is vapid sentimentality. The sacrament is a case in point—it is symbolic cannibalism. The seeming wrongness of eating another human being’s flesh and drinking their blood is an essential element in this ritual designed to teach us some hard truths.

    God sometimes commands us to do hard things. Nephi had his own Abrahamic test when he was commanded to kill Laban, and in that instance, God provided no ram to relieve Nephi of the burden of violating what he had understood, up to that point, to be God’s inviolable law forbidding homicide. There is a good discussion of this issue as it applies to Nephi and his Abrahamic test in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.


  33. Recently this blog has liked to talk about different faith crisisies that member of the church have; basically, they learn something that probably happened in the churches past and then quit. Why doesn’t anyone quit the church over the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac? I think it’s because we’re taught about from primary onwards. It’s just there in our minds, as a thing which is. We’ve been taught that it’s part of the gospel for so long we don’t question it’s goodness or badness.
    I suspect though, that if we never taught this story, and people only found out about it through personal scripture study as adults they’d freak out over it, because it is so out of character with everything else we’re taught.

  34. Thanks, Walter.

    German Gift / Geschenk. I recognize Jonathan Green’s expertise, but the present-day meaning does not undermine Walter’s point of the original relation between the two words.

    Indeed still the same phenomenon in Dutch and apparently also in Schweizerdeutsch, where “Gif(t)” still means both “poison” and “gift” (Geschenk). In medieval times giving medicine was a “gift” to the patient, and medicine was considered poison (potion) to heal. Hence the semantic overlap.

    For our Germanophones:
    Nicht zufällig kann auf Schweizerdeutsch ein «Geschenk» auch eine besonders widerwärtige Störung sein, nicht zufällig heisst «Gift» auf Althochdeutsch sowohl «Gabe» als auch »Gift» und Englisch «gift» «Geschenk».Nicht nur die Dosis macht das Gift, sondern auch die Beziehung, in welcher etwas gegeben wird.
    Fischer-Homberger, E. “Geschenkwirtschaft und Geldwirtschaft: zu Geschichte und Psychologie des arztlichen Honorars.” PRAXIS-BERN- 96, no. 12 (2007): 469.

    3. Dt. Gift (aus german. *gefti „Gabe”) kann seit dem Althochdeutschen „Gift” bedeuten; im 16. Jh. wurde differenziert: Die Bedeutung „Gabe” blieb Femininum (siehe noch die Mitgift), die Bedeutung „Gift” wurde Neutrum. Danach starb das Femininum bis auf Relikte aus.
    Oertle, Simon. “Von treuen, falschen und einstigen Freunden: deutsch-englische etymologische Paare.” (Japanese here for the name of review) = International Institute of Language and Culture Studies), 22, no. 2 (2010): 201-212.

  35. @Jack. Looking God in the eye and saying no…
    ““All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition. What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it; and from that time he begins to be an enemy. This is the case with many apostates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:314).”
    Good luck with that choice…

  36. Jader (34) I think unique Mormon historical issues are privileged a tad too much. After all looking at the statistics about half of those who leave the Church leave Christianity entirely. That suggests the issues are much broader than polygamy or questions about horses in the Book of Mormon. I think that socially people tend to downplay the broader issues such as Abraham, the conclusion by most scholars that by and large the OT is about akin to the Book of Mormon in terms of historicity, and so forth. At least Mormonism offers a kind of evidentiary based approach to religion. But if personal revelation is to be distrusted upon what basis should we believe in Christianity at all? The move to the Nones is natural for those who don’t have a sufficient testimony.

    Jader (31) I don’t think anyone believes Abraham had the kind of stewardship and ownership over Jacob that you suggest here. (That is in terms of modern ethics, not ancient ones) This just isn’t a difference of the sort you suggest.

    BTW – I have a comment from Friday that appears to be in moderation still. (It shows for me as message 18)

  37. Thanks for clearing up the issue of German Geschenk and Gift. Of course it was a side issue, and anyway to two are too close for comfort. It is clear I underscribe the Latin saying: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes: I fear the Danaïds and the bringers of gifts (Geschenke!). The story and its traditional majority inspiration are both a Geschenk and a Gift, tricky and inspiring, humbling and dangerous. Thank you all, also for the nice expose of the majority interpretation. In the next installment I will try a compeltely different tack.


  38. Pacumeni (no. 32) – In the version of the traditional Christian reading that I am most familiar with it is not the ram, but Isaac, who represents Christ. Perhaps, I have misunderstood at what point the whole traditional Christian typological simile breaks down, but it has seemed to me that the notion was Abraham as God the Father offering Isaac as Jesus. To some, the ram’s being as a substitute for Isaac (and as a relief to Abraham) makes sense as a type of Christ and the atonement only if by that means Abraham and Isaac were saved from their sins. The relevant sins in that view would be Abraham’s mistaking an evil thought for the voice of God and possibly Isaac’s complicity in going along with an attempt to implement that evil thought.

    I am quite happy to agree that multiple readings can be instructive.

    At least in the LDS context, I do not believe that the minority interpretation is motivated by an understanding “that God would never command us to do something that, on its face, seems wrong or icky.” Instead, it is motivated by the presumption, pursuant to LDS scripture, that Abraham learned from his own experience of being rescued by an angel from being a victim of intended human sacrifice, that such human sacrifices were contrary to God’s will. Presumably knowing that (in addition to the promise of descendants through Isaac), Abraham should be expected to question whether the idea to sacrifice Isaac was actually an instruction from God or from some other source. The problem in that case is not one of contemplating a “no” answer to a commandment of God. Instead, it is a problem of learning whether the purported commandment contrary to what was known to be a commandment of God is or is not a new and incomprehensible commandment of God. In the received record, there is no indication that the problem even occurred to Abraham.

    The Nephi example is not particularly helpful. There is no parallel between the role of Laban in that story and the role of Isaac in the Abrahamic sacrifice story. Nephi presumably knew of God’s allegedly commanding various genocides while the Israelites were taking over the land of Canaan following the exodus from Egypt. If so, then he did not understand, up to that point, that God’s law forbidding homicide was inviolable. If, in addition, Jack Welch is right that the execution of Laban was a legally justified homicide, then it may well be that Nephi’s reluctance was merely that he hadn’t previously been an executioner and it’s an icky role he would prefer not to have to play. There is no necessary inconsistency in Nephi’s mind between the prompting to slay Laban and the commandment not to kill.

    I cannot confirm where it originated, but I seem to recall another intriguing interpretation being attributed to Jewish sources. That is, neither God nor Abraham had any intention of actually sacrificing Isaac (and both knew there was no such intention) but only of going through the motions, up to the point where an angel intervenes and a ram is provided in order to demonstrate to the surrounding cultures that child/human sacrifice was not acceptable. Of course, in that case, there is no “test” at all (unless it’s Isaac’s willingness to play act) and no foreshadowing of anything. If that view were adopted, then other, modern scriptural references to an Abrahamic test would have to be in reference to the traditional Christian typological view of the story and not to any reality of Abraham’s. This would bother me no more than Job being fictional but referred to in D&C 121 in order to teach a lesson.

    I’m not sure that any general LDS agreement on the akedah is achievable unless it is limited to the unacceptability to God of human sacrifice. Even that wouldn’t be agreed by the Salt Lake City mother who was told by God to throw her children off the 5th floor balcony to their deaths.

  39. Jack (28) – Genesis 22 provides no indication that God appeared personally to Abraham to deliver the instruction to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. That instruction is not connected to the appearance of Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 18. Even if it were, it would only shift the question from knowing the source of the idea to sacrifice Isaac to knowing the identity of the one who appeared to deliver the idea (and whether the message was correctly understood).

    I’m not convinced that I understand the intended tone of your comment 28 or what it may imply if you mean something other than to recommend saying “no” to God when you know it is God instructing you to take action contrary to your own principles.

  40. JR (40), given how short the Abraham account is and how long after the events I’m not sure that helps too much. No matter what we’re reading a ton into the account. For those who say it illustrates a problem with God are making as much of an assumption as those who discount such problems. That said, I’m not sure what you say here is accurate. It has God saying to Abraham in verse 22. The text doesn’t indicate how this is done whether it is a voice or appearance. But the narrative clearly assumes it’s God doing it. That an angel appears in the narrative clearly makes the assumption that “supernatural” are going on. Further the angel’s response presupposes that the original message from God actually was from God.

    JR (39) the typology of Christ that especially developed among the Christians is interesting. The typical reading is that the sacrifice at least sets up the idea of vicarious sacrifice that’s so important for both Jews and Christians. (The scapegoat is the other vicarious sacrifice)

    I agree that for many moderns the epistemological issues are most important. However those sorts of considerations are really alien to the narrative from what I can see.

    To the theory that Abraham and God knew it wouldn’t happen I believe this is usually wrapped up in the idea that the test was not of Abraham but of Isaac. I think Nibley delves into those traditions in one of his books on Abraham. I should note that this seems reading quite a bit into the text since the clear thrust of the text in Genesis is Abraham. (Which isn’t to deny the obvious reasons to change the focus when one asks questions like how an old guy like Abraham could bind Isaac unless Isaac went willingly)

  41. To repost my (18) since it’s not showing up. (Links removed in case that was causing the problem)

    JR (17), I don’t think the epistemological issues get enough play. I think as a practical matter the Church sees the big problem as people not paying enough attention to personal revelation. So they emphasize that even if it means people will not focus enough on the problem of when they are receiving personal revelation versus it being something else. While I think the danger or misinterpretation is much bigger than most think, I can sympathize with them on where the big problem is. As a practical matter most Mormons don’t have the problem of thinking they have a personal revelation to go do something problematic. (Although after the Bundy standoff perhaps the Church might rethink this somewhat)

    That said, I think the narrative presupposes that Abraham knows it’s from God. (Just as the Nephi/Laban situation presupposes Nephi actually is talking with God) One can of course read these narratives with a deeply suspicious hermeneutic. I’m not sure that gets us as much as some think. One danger of that approach is of course that it becomes quite easy to discount any narratives we don’t like. As such we don’t engage seriously with the questions.

    Wally (14) I don’t know German so I can’t speak there. I know in late 20th century philosophical debate the double nature of gift/poison is common. A great example of this is Derrida’s analysis of Plato’s Pharmakon in The Phaedrus. This same sort of analysis is then brought to Abraham (by way of Kierkegaard in many ways) in his book The Gift of Death. This take, which was influential far beyond Derrida sees the Abrahamic story as a kind of paradox. (I think elements of that paradox are appearing in this thread) For Derrida there’s an inherent tension between demands with have for the Other (in this case God) and the demands we have socially (the ethical intuitions brought up in this thread). Derrida’s solution is a kind of deferral or openness. This in turn can be interpreted as a kind of radical fallibilism towards these questions rather than the typical determined solution where Abraham is completely right or completely wrong. Further Derrida sees in this God wherever there is Other due to the nature of the analysis. (Interestingly this then makes Jacob an even stronger type of God) Effectively we are left with a kind of responsibility where we don’t have enough information to determine what we should do. This implies responsibility always has essentially a strong element of risk to it.

  42. For me the point is that Abraham would have known that it was in fact God making the demand, and knew that God knew that he knew, and also knew that it was something that God would also be doing.

    Also Isaac would have known and I believe have been a willing participant.

    Anyone who repeats this when God does not demand it will be wrong.

    So we must first know God well enough to be sure, and know that we know him well enough.

    I don’t.

    (See Lectures on Faith 6:5, mere sacrifice of all does not quite meet the standard)

  43. Clark (41) – Yes, the minority view we’ve discussed is clearly contrary to the received text. The God-and-Abraham-both-knew-it-was-not-intended view clearly adds to the received text something that is not there. Yes, there is a danger of selectively rejecting or rewriting what we don’t like in the scriptures, just as JS did in the “inspired” “translation” of the Bible. But when it comes to dealing with stories that seem to require thinking of God as a trickster or seem to suggest unthinking acceptance of whatever occurs to us or whatever we are told is God’s will (as in the traditional view of the Isaac sacrifice story), maybe a little selective mental rejection is not such a bad thing since the trickster story tends to destroy faith in God and the unthinking attribution of an idea to God tends to result in action that cannot be changed (at least when there is no angel or ram in the thicket),

    It had not occurred to me that as “a practical matter the Church sees the big problem as people not paying enough attention to personal revelation. So they emphasize that even if it means people will not focus enough on the problem of when they are receiving personal revelation versus it being something else.” My observation has been has been to the contrary — people regularly presuming that any wisp of an idea or any whim of warm, fuzzy emotion is personal revelation. When expressed in testimony such presumptions can have unintended negative side effects such as loss of credibility or provoking depression, anxiety and loss of faith in a listener who believes, e.g. (real life) that either God doesn’t love her or doesn’t exist because he won’t answer her prayers as to what to do about serious marital and economic problems when he regularly answers another Relief Society sister’s prayers with explicit “revelation” as what to cook for dinner.

  44. Clark (41); me (43) – I should have added: At least the sister whose menus are revealed by God is not likely to blame any resulting deaths on Him, since He hasn’t been revealing either the recipes or where to buy the untainted ingredients. Abraham, on the other hand, would traditionally have been in a position to blame Isaac’s death and the failure of God’s promise on God Himself, but for the big King’s-X-I-didn’t-really-mean-it appearance of the angel and the ram. Looked at this way, the Abraham/Isaac story, as received, is a very significantly faith-demoting story. By comparison the Nephi/Laban story is merely a story of a clear revelation to perform an icky, distasteful, but justified task, which was in fact performed with reportedly good results and which includes no element of divine trickery.

  45. Abraham desired to be a Father. I submit he desired to have his own house in the sense of exaltation — godhood.

    God put him to the test and said if you want to be like me, here is what you will have to do. He was spared because he not only passed the test, but the sacrifice wasn’t actually necessary. Perhaps it will be in the next phase of his plan of exhalation…?

    If anyone thinks they can be the heirs of exaltation – literal godhood, without eventually being required to render the same sacrifice then they simply do not understand it, as this post makes clear. That’s OK. But don’t deny the truth because you don’t understand it. Better to just trust in the scriptures and prophets and say you’re waiting further light and knowledge on it, but for now it’s not clear to you.

  46. JR #38. Both Isaac, the only begotten about to be sacrificed, and the ram must signify Christ. In this temple location, a ram sacrificed on the altar is an unmistakable symbol of Christ if we read the story as Christians. And it doesn’t have to be one (Isaac) or the other (the ram) that signifies Christ. Both can.

    Nephi had the ten commandments which forbade him to do what he did. And as the article I link notes, Welch’s argument cannot justify Nephi’s behavior because even if Laban were guilty of capital crimes (which he probably was), Nephi, a private citizen, would not be empowered to execute Laban for his crime when he encountered him drunk during the night. Other authorities existed in Jerusalem who would have been charged to carry out the sentence for bearing false witness as Laban did.

    Young Nephi was clearly traumatized by the command to kill. He felt he was being charged to commit a murder and was horrified at the thought. This is the respect in which he was like Abraham. Both were called to obey a personal directive from God/the Spirit which was in direct conflict with the moral law they had been given by God.

    What ultimately persuades Nephi to carry out the execution is a consideration of state. If he doesn’t, his nation will dwindle and perish in unbelief because they won’t have the scriptures. So the execution is a sovereign act, committed by the crown prince of a newly formed sovereign people in the very moment in which they obtained the national symbols of sovereignty (the sword of Laban and the brass plates). When the king (or a soldier) kills someone to protect the people en masse, the act has different moral status than when an individual acts upon their personal motives.

    So yes, Nephi comes to see this killing as like the genocide of Joshua, as a sovereign act. But we see the transition in his thinking, from private citizen to sovereign, in the Book of Mormon text, which has a number of details that support the sovereign act interpretation. But before the transition in his thought, Nephi’s dilemma was much the same as Abraham’s, though less intense because he didn’t personally love Laban. In Kierkegaard’s sense, it was an Abrahamic test before it became a test of Nephi’s ability to serve as sovereign and protect his people.

  47. JR (43) I think the Old Testament is problematic enough in development to allow a certain “burden of proof” skepticism when things seem obviously immoral. Either from the view of “these people given the culture they live in can’t handle more info” that Mormons read into Moses or from the view of “this text was compiled from unknown sources by uninspired scribes who removed a lot of important things” that the Book of Mormon takes.

    I do worry that people just reject what they don’t like. I think we should read the Old Testament as raising a lot of questions that trouble us and force us to ask questions of God. Accepting it at face value or simply discounting it avoids that.

    Regarding revelation I’m just trying to read between the lines at what the Church focuses in on. While the Church does and has focused on false revelation or bad interpretations that’s not what’s been focused on the last 20 years. The fact it’s not focused on suggests where the brethren see the problem.

    I think the problem of people latching onto any emotion as if it were revelation is a big problem though. So I do wish we had the emphasis that we used to get such as with this talk of Pres. Lee’s. However I am sure the brethren have a better grasp of what’s going on in the church than I do.

    Pacumeni (46) regarding Nephi I think the political situation at the time (leaders in secret deals with Egypt, expected conquest by Babylon, possibly Jeremiah in prison) ought affect the judgment. It’s not clear there was anyone else Nephi could go to. But I don’t want to go down that tangent we discussed when we were doing the close readings of 1 Nephi here a few months ago. People can track that down to see the pros and cons on the situation. I’m definitely in the camp that sees Nephi as doing the right thing and am surprised he waited. That said I think your point about state makes sense – for the Nephi for 20 years later.

  48. The problem with Abraham: he was a deeply superstitious person who was prone to delusions so much that he thought that the Hebrew deity YHWH told him to engage in the human sacrifice of his son. Thankfully, according to the tradition, he came under another delusion of revelation just before committing murder and didn’t go through with the horrific act of human sacrifice. Consequently the Hebrew speakers in the Eastern Mediterranean built a religion that ritually sacrificed animals instead of humans.

    Although its practice is not as widespread as it once was, the belief in and the practice of ritual human sacrifice in order to satisfy the perceived demands of god(s) is still a significant problem in Uganda and India.

  49. Brad L (48) I’m new to participating in comments to blog posts and have learned some things as a result of others’ comments, sometimes in response to mine. I have also been surprised at the tone of some of the comments. I see most people here either exploring or sharing various possible “faithful” understandings or revisions of the received Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story, or, in some cases, asserting that their personal “faithful” view of the content of the reported interaction between God and Abraham (and what Abraham thought and felt) is correct. Your comment seems to fall in the second category, though, assuming no ironic intent, the view in which you have faith asserts that Abraham was entirely deluded and suggests that YHWH doesn’t exist. Being new to this, I’m curious. What are you doing here? Why post a comment like yours? What do you hope to accomplish?

  50. The story of Abraham proves that an archaic oral tradition transmitted over centuries and translated into a complex literate tradition over centuries and finally recorded by literate scribes who had certainly forgotten the original context of the oral tradition, and then retranslated into different languages across more centuries, and then interpreted using modern culture and ethics and projecting them back on the whole affair, is, at best, a rather large bag of mixed nuts. The good news is, we are told that we can liken the scriptures unto us, which gives us permission to make them mean what we want them to mean. Or, at least, what we want them to mean as long as we can quote an Ensign talk that backs up what we want them to mean. And of course, the Ensign talk may have absolutely nothing to do with the original tradition.

    I loved the piece. The comments are interesting. But alas, I cannot think of a single Ensign talk that interprets Abraham’s decision as a failure, or as anything other than what Protestant Christian tradition has said about it for some centuries. I suppose that’s why I read these blogs.

    Keep up the good work Walter!

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