Abraham, a dilemma solved?

The man who killed our former Secretary of Health, dr. Borst (see my last blog), will be institutionalized with mandatory psychiatric treatment, for a period as long as is deemed necessary by the experts, till they deem him no longer a threat to society. The judges opined that he was completely unaccountable, living in a totally parallel world. He had set out to kill his sister, and then ‘God told him’ on the spot to kill dr. Borst; he killed his sister later. The prosecution had demanded 8 years in prison first and then institutionalization, and considers to appeal the verdict. Anyway, in our day and age the ‘call of Abraham’ is judged as insanity, so let us return to the Genesis story, for a third angle on what I consider one of the most dangerous tales in the Script.

In my first blog I treated the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac more or less in the way that the Bible presents it, as a test. I argued that the Scriptures may laud Abraham for his obedience (and not just in Genesis), yet on the other hand offer more than enough arguments for the opposite verdict: that Abraham in fact failed the test; viz. Abraham should have used all he knew about God to fight the command to sacrifice. The Book of Abraham does just the same: while hailing his obedience Joseph added reasons why God’s demand for Isaac’s sacrifice was a completely impossible one; someone who follows it is surely obedient, but who fights it might well be the better person. Obedience can be trumped by agency.

Abraham and Isaac as depicted by the Baroque painter Dominichino

Abraham and Isaac as depicted by the Baroque painter Dominichino

The second blog explored another angle: who is telling the story? We saw that the three relevant sources of Genesis, E, J and P, each has a different story on the legendary figure, Abraham. The sacrifice tale is E’s, and though the overt message of the sacrifice may have been obedience, the hidden message of the story is assessment of paternity. J’s tale is about nation building and P is concerned with covenant making, all tales centring on Abraham, the legend.

Now for the third – and I promise for the moment last – angle: where did the story of the sacrifice come from? My take is that the Aqedah story belongs to a specific category of folk tales dubbed ‘dilemma tales’, a type well-known in anthropology and folklore. These tales are known from all over the world, but best from African and Middle-Eastern folklore. It is a special kind of story in which the protagonist at the end is faced with a question which is not resolved, and which the audience has to debate on the spot. In principle the story involves a dilemma for the main figure leading into an audience discussion on what they would do in his place, a kind of direct involvement that fits well into an oral culture. So the whole purpose of the tale is to make the audience reflect the contradicting claims on the main figures, and debate the options and possibly come to a consensus. The tales are not riddles or puzzles, but are designed to lead into debate. Often they use quite impossible situations to start with, like Abraham.

The famous dilemma story depicted by Abraham and Isaac, Philippe le Champaigne

The famous dilemma story depicted by Abraham and Isaac, Philippe le Champaigne

Many of these tales are mainly for amusement: of three suitors to a beautiful maiden, who has the most to offer? Of four women helping a man who will make the best wife? (In African tales he marries them all, and after his death their respective sons claim to inherit his title or wealth: the son of which wife has the strongest claim?) In these tales all have special magical talents, but whose is the most valuable? It works also in reverse, of three stupid protagonists, who is the dumbest? Of the various parts of the body, which one is the most important? Who is the bravest, the strongest, the smartest or the most guilty among the protagonists? But gradually these amusing choices morph into stories with genuine moral questions: what is more valuable money or love (a very old theme indeed); power or justice; gratitude or loyalty; kinsmen or in-laws; friendship or kinship?
Paolo Veronese and his Aqedah sacrifice

Paolo Veronese and his Aqedah sacrifice

A popular theme concerns the relation between father and son. A father neglects and insults his son, who then leaves and is adopted by a man of another tribe. Much later the son has to choose between killing his biological father or his loving and caring adoptive parent. Whom does he choose? Is ‘blood thicker than water’?

One more complex example from West Africa, is even closer to Abraham: Two long-time friends, Abu and Kamo set out on a journey. Abu is told by a diviner that if he would leave the house where they stay at night, he would surely die, or never return. At night Kamo goes out and is attacked by a giant snake; he yells for help, putting Abu for a dilemma: should he save his friend and die himself, or let his friend die and to save himself? Abu decides to go out, kills the snake and saves his friend. A gush of snake-blood, however, blinds his eyes. Kamo, the saved one, then learns from a diviner that to cure his friend’s eyesight, he has to sacrifice his own son, wash Abu’s eyes in the blood of the child, then his friend will see again. The question then to the audience is the second dilemma: What should Kamo do?

And there the tale ends, with the question! It does not offer an answer, as it aims to trigger a debate: what is more important, the supreme kinship loyalty to one’s son, or the combination of friendship and deep gratitude? In these tales the supernatural information is never specified, some unnamed diviner or a special animal, and the place and time of that revelation is kept vague. As in Abraham’s story. Many more examples could be given, of choices between saving one’s wife or one’s mother for instance. Or, for that matter between one’s wife, mother or mother-in-law (in this case the people often decide, I am afraid, that the last option is silly!). For instance, a man, his wife, mother and mother in law are all blind. He finds seven eyes, takes two himself, two for his wife, one to both others: now for whom is the seventh eye, for his mother or his mother-in-law?

Again Rembrandt, is one of his famous etchings. Here Isaac has already left.

Again Rembrandt, in one of his famous etchings. Here Isaac has already left.

These tales are found everywhere, also in Egypt and the Middle East. Story motifs are very stable over time and space, so my – admittedly hypothetical – notion is that the story of the Isaac sacrifice is such a dilemma story that found its way into the oral tradition of Israel. Thus it became part of the Abraham lore and as part of that oral tradition was canonized. Such a dilemma works well in an oral setting with a participating audience, but when written down it tends to be solved, meaning the dilemma will get one answer, obliterating the other options, and that is not the intention of this type of tale. Egyptian folk tales show the same tendency, as they tend to state the solution, thus reducing the dilemma to a puzzle. Codification of a dilemma story almost inevitably leads to one single solution, for two reasons. One is that there is no audience to participate, and second is that the writing down of the stories serves a purpose. That is what we saw in the last blog. In the hands of the particular author of Genesis, E – and as edited by P half a millennium later – the solution of the Abraham dilemma story served several purposes: to underscore the sovereignty of God, to stress obedience and – like I said – to highlight paternity and the patriline. What was lost with canonization, however, was the debate itself, the dilemma in its existential form, and with that much of our involvement in and projection into the story. And thus it became an impossible obedience to an inexplicable command, and as such a highly contradictory reflection on the nature of God.

Are there other dilemma stories in the Bible? Of course, Genesis starts with one: Adam’s quandary, to eat or not to eat? Eating the fruit meant expulsion and death but also progeny, not eating implied obedience and eternal solitude. It is not my intention to delve into the alternatives of this particular dilemma tale, but for this one the two theologically viable solutions are both realized in opposing interpretations. In the mainstream Christian ‘solution’ Adam and Eve should not have eaten and the Fall was a major catastrophe while the Mormon Christian interpretation sees the Fall as intended and laudable: Thank God they ate.

Adam and Eve, one of the most depicted dilemmas of all times. This one is from the Roman catacombs

Adam and Eve, one of the most depicted dilemmas of all times. This one is from the Roman catacombs

The choice of Adam is the one we as human beings have already made – towards knowledge and a self-conscious mortality –, but Abraham’s dilemma will never be ours, as God will not ask us to kill our offspring, never. But we do meet our own quandaries. Life is beset with dilemma’s, choices between competing options that are not simple and not just good versus evil. Dilemma’s are the gist of life, they form the core of the great tragedies (think of Sophocles Antigone). Literature is full of them, sometimes diabolical like Sophie’s choice, most less dramatic; some are constructed (the one of the railway man who can save a train by having it pass along a track his child is playing at, a classic one), some all too real, like throwing people out of an overcrowded lifeboat. Our the human condition is to be right on the horns of a dilemma, our very own. But most are much more gentle, and most choices are between more reasonable alternatives. But choices they are.
The other confrontation between Araham and God: Abraham negotiating over Sodom. An etching by Rembrandt

The other confrontation between Araham and God: Abraham negotiating over Sodom. Again, an etching by Rembrandt

So, in the end, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice is neither a simple test which he passed or failed – as both options remain open –, nor just a story about a mythical ancestor, it is a dilemma, an almost diabolical one, the epitome of the kind of choices we all face in our lives. The tale is not to be solved at all – I insist on removing the effects of canonization here – but it is to be discussed, to see all sides of this impossible choice; its aim is not set an example but to generate a debate. If we ‘solve’ such a dilemma, we are in trouble – as we are now with Abraham in a world of religious extremism –, but the dilemma tales were never intended to be solved. The power of their open-endedness is shown in the fact that this particular ‘impossible tale’ of the Aqedah is still discussed; even after its putative solution it can be debated to stimulate our thinking. The story still works provided we do not acquiesce with the ‘solution’, meaning we have to resist the official interpretation (obedience!) as the only option, and never end the discussion. That, in the end, was my intention, to open up a dilemma tale for its true and proper function: to debate, to think, and to recognize.

23 comments for “Abraham, a dilemma solved?

  1. “Our” former Secretary of Health. Ethnocentric much? Or, am I supposed to know where you live?

    Other than that, a great post!

  2. The problem of the Borst example or similar ones is that the people seem quite mentally ill. While I know atheists want to say revelation is inherently mental illness, Mormons obviously disagree. The problem is that if the people killing are typically mentally ill, they probably aren’t exactly capable of reasoning about the epistemology of revelation. To me the bigger issue is less the crazies with some parallels to the Abraham story than it is the people who are rational and capable of judging. I think things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre are deeply more troubling.

    The scene in Schindler’s List that remains so haunting to me are the German soldiers rounding up Jews, finding a piano and joyously playing. It’s that banality of evil that is so troubling. The idea that we can, as rational beings, find ourselves committing atrocities so easily. We want to imagine the Nazis were all black hearted. But the reality is that most likely weren’t. Yet the evils still happened. That’s the type of obedience that seems the real threat.

  3. I live in The Netherlands (1) and yes, Clark, the banality of evil is indeed more troubling than the any mentall illness can ever be. But of course that is not the gist of my post. The point is that we have become used to a story about senseless violence (albeit only intended) which sometimes dulls moral acumen. And my thesis is that a dilemma story has been misused and is applied uncritically.

  4. Fair enough. Although my sense is that the danger some see in narratives like Abraham (or quite a few other Old Testament narratives) is that it can support this banal evil. That is, obey the way the Jews were to obey.

    The Abraham story seems different because it’s an unmediated encounter between God and Abraham (except for the angel at the end – but that’s miraculous and unambiguously divine as well). The problem of placing this as a conflict between “moral acumen” and obedience is really to the modern mind epistemological. How do we know it’s God? That’s because the presumption is God won’t ask something immoral. Yet the way the story is sometimes raise as a problem tends to presume the real conflict is between religious obedience and morality.

    To use your examples of these open ended stories, what does the more contemporary use of the Abraham story tell us about societal values? So, for instance, the Abu and Kamo story tells us that there’s a presumption fraternal obligation could conceivably trump paternal obligation. That’s a very interesting a perhaps troubling feature of that culture. To us, of course there’s not even a question because there’s no conflict between those values. One is obviously more important. The way the Abraham story is used tells us a great deal of the conflict between religious obedience and moral instinct in our society. I think it strongly suggests that religious obedience has over time been devalued relative to what’s effectively different social norms.

  5. I’ve enjoyed the journey. Thanks. Personally I began with what I understand to be the conclusion (not in so many words but in substance), so it’s been a pleasure:
    “The story still works provided we do not acquiesce with the ‘solution’, meaning we have to resist the official interpretation (obedience!) as the only option, and never end the discussion.”

  6. It would be nice if one day the church would stop treating this as a “morality tale” and treat it, as you say it is, a “dilemma tale.”

  7. Another reason I stopped believing: the church’s treatment of the OT stories as having actually occurred and incorporating the most gruesome and horrific stories (such as Samuel’s command for Saul to kill all Amalekite women and children 1 Samuel 15:3) as lessons on obedience and morality.

  8. Except that as presented it isn’t left as an open ended dilemma. Walter is pretty clear he is “removing the effects of canonization here.” Abraham has the dilemma but makes a choice. We can debate whether that was the original nature via form criticism. However as compiled it just isn’t a dilemma tale. Now we can follow various deconstructive threads and interrogate the text. But we should be clear what we are doing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I rather like Walter’s take of dilemma. It gets me thinking. However even if it is a dilemma it still rests on the two choices being hard to decide between. That in turn says something about the importance of obedience to God even in this deconstructed reading.

  9. I’m much in line with Captain Kirk, though I dislike the character. “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario”

    Whenever I come across one of these thought exercises, my instinct is to find a way to break the game. I’d try to derail the train with people on both tracks. I’d find another person to give an eye to, or have only one myself. I’d ask a third party (my wife) to also pray and see if what I heard was truly from God. I’d wait to ask God if the fruit is truly the only way.

    The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

  10. Frank, knowing Watler I think he would rather go for a game of Checkers with you than Chess.
    Why I liked Walters’s excersise is that it is clear that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not complete, eventhough the seeming outcome is that obedience to a “dictator” God is paramount. There is more to learn from the story, and if it were a historical account, one could assume more details were needed to draw the right conclusions. Jewish traditions have some great ideas here. Was Abraham the hero here, or was it in reality the victim Isaac (or as the Kor’an purports Ishmael), assuming Isaac was not a babe when he “layed down his life for his father’s will”? And why not say more about Sarah’s feelings? Besides, Abraham was not saved because of his obedience, but because of his righteousness (Rom. 4). And did God give Abraham arguments for killing, like at least the Spirit gave Nephi in order to kill Laban? And how did the Spirit tell Abraham to sacrifice his son; was it a sweet whispering, or God appearing with a fiery face? And how did Abraham feel, him having to sacrifice his son, whilst his own father Terah had attempted the same with him (Abr. 1). This would make for a great Sunday School lesson.

  11. Thanks for your comments.
    Frank (7), yes, when put for a dilemma one is always faced with a loose-loose situation. That is the essence of a dilemma. Many dillema stories end, after the discussion, has been done, with a little annex to the story, where the protagonist draws him- or herself out of the game: for instance, the girl with the many suitors will not marry after all.
    Yes, definitely, Nate (5), I do hope the church would treat the story as a dilemma, and not just hammer on obedience. That says more about institutional priorities than about thorough reflection on existential dilemma’s. A dilemma approach has so much more to offer.
    Clark, yes, the choices do reflect societal values, and in fact are made and told to highlight these. For us the first question would be epistemological – how does he know,- which also is a question of authority: is this really God who is commanding, such a thing? The West African example was between a combination of friendship plus deep debt versus filiation, and it indeed highlight their importance of social relations, of any kind. And of large families, with kinsmen to spare. I think crucial too is the notion of theodicy, the question why a loving Allmighty has created such a messy world. That is a truly modern question, since Leibniz in fact, and implies that our image of God hinges on notion of good and evil, instead of the reverse. We measure God’s interventions with the yardstick of morality, and that is a moral evolution that putshuge question marks at tales as Abraham’s one.
    Yes, it would be well if we would get rid of our cult of obedience.

  12. I think a big debate is what is the cult of obedience versus what’s appropriate obedience. My sense is that often there’s more going on in that analysis than usually gets portrayed.

    While it’s undeniable we are part of the modern world and that society is fundamentally at odds with the mindset of the ancient world, I think there’s more going on here. As you say, this conflict between mess and God is one of the central questions of modernism that is largely unasked in the medieval era. (The ancient era is more complex I think) You are completely correct that the modern mind is more than willing to judge God. I think though the results parallel moves made in the ancient world where thinkers typically abstracted deities away. Zeus and his pantheon (who are morally much more troublesome than the Jehovah compiled in the post-exilic period) become more an more de-mythologized until Zeus becomes the One of Plato, the universe as organism of the Stoics, or the less bothersome first cause of Aristotle. The move is always to push gods back until they become irrelevant in terms of the narratives.

    This shift from God to abstract morality repeats itself starting in the Renaissance through modernism until God is pushed away from most discussions of right and wrong in more thoughtful circles. If on the one hand there’s the danger of a cult of obedience. I think the other side has the danger of the inverse. Since God has been divorced from morality and justice, it’s a kind of anti-cult against obedience. You have the occasional retrenchment or pushback. It’s precisely because of that pushback against an ethics divorced of God that Kierkegaard and others invoke the Abraham narrative.

    If the ethical is the modern view of obedience divorced from obedience to God, then it’s no surprise many say that Kierkegaard is about the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

    If we read the dilemma of Abraham in these terms – again a deconstruction to these roots behind the narrative – the story again becomes about faith versus reason. (As it has so often been in the history of modern thought) The dilemma is now the dilemma of which to serve: faith or reason.

    Now I tend to reject this reading of Kierkegaard, although it’s hard to underestimate how important it has been in the years since Kierkegaard. (Largely opposed to the religion of Hegel and Kant although perhaps not yet the madman entering the church to announce God is dead and that they killed him) It’s worth noting though that in one of Kierkegaard’s treatments in Either/Or that Abraham begs God to forgive him for even contemplating sacrificing Isaac. That is he begs forgiveness for considering obeying instead of doing his ethical duty. Even in Kierkegaard the dilemma version remains.

  13. How do you discuss Abraham without discussing Christ? Isn’t God sending not only Christ here as well as us essentially a death sentence with guaranteed pain and suffering for all that would have been avoided if we just remained as spirits?

    If we are to be exalted on high and believe God when he promises we will be made like him and everything the Father has given to us, won’t we be in a similar situation with our spiritual children?

    God can prevent all death and suffering, but doesn’t do so, essentially so we can learn something. I’m not sure that’s really any better than Abraham almost sacrificing one person, from a modern humanist perspective.

    So the modern view which rejects Abraham also inadvertantly is laying the groundwork to severing faith in God.

  14. I haven’t followed these Abrahamic posts closely, so this may have already been brought up. I have come to understand that Isaac may not have been a young boy, but was a youth or possibly even an adult at the time of the sacrifice. This idea helps me find some peace with the story.

    Does the idea that Isaac was a willing adult participant, and not a weak and helpless child change the story?

    Abrahamic sacrifice has had Christian purchase as a “type of Christ”. We understand that Chris was a willing “victim”. Perhaps Isaac was also?

  15. It appears Isaac was about 30 at the time of the story – at least given the data in the form it takes in the Bible. (Again we have to be cautious since it’s compiled by uninspired scribes around 200 BC from who knows what sources – likely a combination of sources that are merged together) This typically is seen as making a difference. I’m not sure it changes the moral calculus issues, however there’s a strong reading that the test is not of Abraham but of Isaac. Nibley has a big chapter on this in one of his Abraham books.

  16. Walter, this was a great series of discussions on the Abraham-Isaac story. I’ll make good use of it in lessons at home and church. Thank you very much.

  17. Good to see that Abraham’s diemma keeps us at our toes.

    Yes, Stephen, according to at least the Jewish interpretation Isaac would have been in his thirties, fully capable of resisting an attempt on his life by an aged father. For many of the Jewish commentaries – far more numerous than in Christianity – the focus is on Isaac, and the Aqedah story is one of surrender by Isaac, even more than obedience of Abraham. As has been remarked, in the Christian interpretation which sees the story as a model story for Christ, that would fit Isaac better than Abraham of course. But Isaac is more or less ignored in the later bible books that mention the sacrifice, the reference is mostly on Abraham. The comparison with Christ is informative but rather limited and does not really fit well.

    Clark, Kierkegaard has been wrestling with the Aqedah story, and with Christianity in any organized form all of his life, and I have always trouble getting straight what he meant, and at what time. But I need to read him better.

  18. I’m far from a Kierkegaard fan, so I should warn of my biases. I just think he gets religion wrong in a fairly disturbing way. Yet I have enough friends who love him that I try and temper my thoughts on him. They obviously see something I don’t.

    He has several different views on Abraham – something that often gets lost when people say “Kiekegaard and Abraham.” You’re right that he struggles with Abraham. While I think some of the things he raises are pretty interesting, ultimately to me I confess I buy more into the traditional LDS reading of the narrative. I like thinking through these other ways of reading the story. I’m actually rather partially to Derrida’s thinking through the issue (and through Kierkegaard) in The Gift of Death. It’s been years since I read it last though. I need to give it an other go as it’s one of those books I learn a lot from. (I should also mention that I’m in the minority camp that reads Derrida as a realist rather than a nihilist or a relativist)

  19. Walter, thanks to you for this series of posts and to numerous commenters for their contributions. It seems the concept of the Abraham/Isaac story as a dilemma tale could be (carefully) introduced into Sunday School along with other alternatives. Quite apart from a background in anthropology, folklore, and dilemma tales, others have come to see the Bible (perhaps LDS scriptures generally) as a valuable library of questions, rather than a book of answers. Rachel Evans: “The Bible is meant to be a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. … God chose not to communicate in bullet points [or systematic treatises, etc.], and I believe it’s because he wants to draw us into conversation with Himself and with one another.” http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/bible-questions Timothy Beal: The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book.

    I wonder if there is room in the LDS Church for those who are inspired to thoughtful Christian living by treating the scriptures as a library of questions and dilemma stories, as well as those who are inspired by treating them as books of answers (even though the answers found seem to be found by unacknowledged, selective literalism).

  20. Both questions and answers are important. If we just see scriptures as offering questions though I think we’re missing something fundamental. That said, I think the key function of scripture is as a catalyst for revelation. I do think there’s a reason the scriptures aren’t written in bullet point form most of the time. Although I’m not sure it’s just to make questions. Again looking at the Old Testament broadly is interesting here – even if the law portion was perhaps more revised over time. Even looking at the prophets section while it’s not quite in bullet form, it’s a fairly simple set of condemnations in many ways.

  21. I don’t think obedience must be the only motive in the debate. That’s a little too reductionist for my tastes.

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