Orthodox and Liberal Interpretations of Abraham

By: Mormon Heretic
April 21, 2014

The story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most perplexing moral dilemmas in all of scripture.  It has long been held up as an example of Abraham’s faithfulness.  Orthodox members do not question the traditional interpretation of the story.  They seem to reason that if God wants you to do something, you should do it with unquestioned obedience.  I am not always an orthodox believer, so I find a lack of questioning the story quite unsatisfactory.

A liberal interpretation makes the angel the important point of the story, not Abraham’s reckless and unquestioning faith.

I was recently referred to a post from a more orthodox member in which he is convinced this story is quite intentional on God’s part.  For me, this particular post doesn’t answer any of the qualms I have about this particular story.  The article starts off pretty well, attempting to tackle some issues that “theological liberals” have.  The article states (note, formatting changed):

  1. Making this story less comfortable is the fact that Abraham never seems to challenge the source of his revelation.
  2. Indeed, there is no ‘source of revelation’ mentioned at all in the story.
  3. We are matter-of-factly told that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham clearly has no doubts it is God.
  4. He never asks “is Satan deceiving me?” or “am I losing my mind and hearing things?”

While acknowledging points that “liberal” believers have qualms about the story of Isaac, I find that orthodox believers also never question the source of revelation either.  Instead, the author states rather matter-of-factly that “The New Testament then holds up this story as a supreme example of what it means to have faith in God.

Later on, there seems to be an attempt to reach out to someone like me:  ”I can see why this story is so troubling to theological liberals and non-believers. This story simply leaves no room to ethically explain it away.”  There is even a provocative question:  ”So why is this story held up as an ultimate example of what it means to have faith in God?”  Great question!  I’d love an answer!

“I am not sure I know the answer to that question.”  Thud.  While truthful, this answer is entirely unsatisfactory to me.  

I know this story is held up as an example of faith as the author states:  ”We walk by faith on so many different and even invisible things.”  I understand that God’s ways are not man’s ways.  I understand that we can’t always explain God’s actions.    But I don’t think there is anything in this post, or in orthodox thought in general, that satisfy me.  For me, a liberal interpretation–one that is grounded in both scriptural principles, as well as historical fact–is much more satisfactory.

Before I get to the points I want to make, I want to correct one statement that didn’t quite sit right with me.  ”Theological liberals are terrified at the thought that this is what it means to have faith in God.”  I think this is an unfair characterization of liberals–certainly it does not describe me.  I have faith in God.  I’m not terrified at what it means to have faith in God.  I am terrified of misreading God’s will (especially if God told me to kill my son), and it seems to me that this actually might be the case of Abraham (and subsequent prophets) misreading God.  Misreading God does terrify me–especially if I’m going directed to kill someone; having faith does not terrify me at all.  I have faith.  I walk by faith.  I believe, even if my belief is not typical or orthodox.

Let’s start off with scriptural principles that I can get behind.  (1)  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Mormon 9:9; Hebrews 13:8).  To me, this means God is consistent.  (2)  We should liken the scriptures unto ourselves (1 Nephi 19:6, 23.)  For me, the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice causes these two to principles collide from an orthodox interpretation.  However, with an unorthodox interpretation, I can reconcile these two principles.

(1)  If I believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why would he tell Abraham to kill his son, and not tell me to do the same?  This is not a consistent God.  (2)  If I am to truly liken this scripture unto me, I would have to ask if God would ever ask me to kill my own son.  Would God ask me to kill my son?   I’m quite inclined to say no.  I can’t accept either of these propositions, so if such a thing did happen to me, it would force me to ask if this was a real revelation from God.  There have been some that have claimed God told them to kill their children.  In today’s world, we call them either evil, or mentally ill.  We do not hold these people up as an example of faith.  There is no modern day exception.  If Abraham lived today, he would be jailed for child endangerment (if Isaac was a child) or attempted murder.  He would either be locked up in jail or locked up in a mental institution.  So the orthodox telling of the story fails both of these principles.  The orthodox telling of this story says (1) God is inconsistent (and was different yesterday than he is today), and (2) we should not liken this story unto us by killing our children.

Let’s switch to an unorthodox interpretation of this tale (as I blogged about in a post 5 years ago.)  Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi of Spain in the early 14th century wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?”  Ibn Caspi says the attempted sacrifice is not really the point of the story.  Rather the point of the story is the fact that God intervened, sending an angel and a ram for Abraham to sacrifice.  God loved Isaac so much, he intervened to prevent his untimely death.  The real spiritual nugget of this story is the angelic visit, not Abraham’s unquestioning obedience.  I can get behind this interpretation, because it doesn’t violate the two principles above.  (1)  God is consistent.  He would never ask me or Abraham to sacrifice his son.  After all, the scriptures state that “Thou shalt not kill.”  God wasn’t happy when Cain killed Abel.  Consistent.  I like it.  It follows scriptural principles.  (2)  I can liken the rabbi’s interpretation unto myself.  If I ever misinterpret God, I hope I have enough faith that God will intervene (as he did with Abraham) before I make a major mistake.  This is much more satisfying interpretation than saying “I don’t know why God would command such a revolting thing.”  I can confidently say, “God didn’t command this revolting thing.”

But I know my orthodox friends will have  qualms with my interpretation.  Is there any evidence that Abraham’s imagination led him astray?  Yes there is.  (1)  Human sacrifice among Jewish peoples was actually quite common in Abraham’s time.  (a)  We know that Abraham’s own father attempted to kill him (the LDS Book of Abraham, as well as Jewish Midrash and Islamic writings confirm this.)  Furthermore, archaeological evidence confirms this.  As stated in my previous post,

William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona, “Child sacrifice was fairly common throughout the ancient near east. And in fact at Carthage in North Africa, a Jewish cemetery has been found with small urns containing the burned bones of infants and the inscriptions accompanying these burials make it clear that parents had sacrificed a child to one or another of the gods to bring them good fortune.”

Scholars have sought to probe the seemingly baffling mystery of how any parent could sacrifice his own child?

Brettler, “As horrific as this might be to us, we can really see this as a very significant religious notion, where a person is coming and is saying to God, ‘God you have given me that which is most valuable, namely a child. I am going to return it to you.’”

Dever, “I think the editors wanted for us to believe that child sacrifice was never practiced. And yet the very critique of the prophets against it is proof of the fact that the practice was common. You don’t complain about something unless there was a real problem.”

I think that Abraham was not the only Jew that has been deceived in regards to human sacrifice.  Evidence of ancient Canannite/Jewish were frequently decieved and perfromed human sacrifice is pretty strong, especially in Abraham’s day.  It is highly likely that Abraham’s culture influenced him.  In fact, one scholar even goes so far as to claim that Abraham wasn’t necessarily a true monotheist.

Walter Zanger, a Jewish scholar. “Every other country in the world, every other civilization had gods whom you had to feed, to sacrifice to them. Abraham had a god who gave him law and behavior. The introduction of a single moral law for king, for commoner, and even for God is a milestone in the history of the world.”

“It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”

I’m not so sure I’d go quite as far as Zanger here, but I do think that Zanger’s comments about Abraham growing up in a culture in which child sacrifice was common could give us a considerable amount of evidence that Abraham’s culture led him to believe that God wanted him to kill Isaac.  I do think that we “see through a glass darkly” as Paul said in 1 Cor 13:12.  I also believe that Abraham wanted to believe that God was the source of the revelation.  I mean who wants to admit they were deceived?

Some orthodox folks still won’t like this interpretation.  Some will say that no prophet has supported this interpretation.  However, the prophet Jeremiah, in condemning child sacrifice among his people some 1500 years after Abraham, described the problem of child sacrifice in Jeremiah 32:25

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin .

Did you catch that?  God says that child sacrifice was NOT commanded by him, NEITHER CAME IT INTO MY MIND.  Has God forgotten the story of Abraham?  Is it better to say that God is consistent, and never wanted child sacrifice?  Is Jeremiah lying?  I’d love to hear some orthodox folks interpret this.

I will grant that Jeremiah is somewhat of a minority opinion, but that minority opinion does jive with the liberal interpretation of this event.  There are scholars that believe the story of Issac is actually a condemnation of this idea of child sacrifice.  Abraham never actually sacrifices Isaac–God stopped the abomination.  Once again, this interpretation makes God a consistent God.

The orthodox post states:

Every Theological liberal I’ve talked to … would prefer that we make a rule that we can discern revelation based on the morality of the content. This story specifically undermines that desire.

First of all, what’s wrong with making rules to discern revelation based on the morality of the content?  If God tells me to commit adultery, kill someone, do drugs, embezzle money, am I not supposed to question the morality of the revelation?  I see nothing wrong with discerning rules based on morality.  Tell me why I’m wrong here.

Secondly, I take issue with “This story specifically undermines that desire.”  No, your interpretation undermines the desire.  My interpretation does not undermine this desire.  My interpretation actually makes more sense than your interpretation.  Once again, my interpretation is consistent.  Yours is not.

Here are some questions for proponents of a traditional understanding.

  1. Is God consistent?  Is God the same yesterday, today, and forever?  If so, why would God make such an inconsistent demand of Abraham?
  2. If this story is true, why would God be so cruel to Isaac?  Can you imagine the psychological trauma Isaac must have felt?  How can a loving God be so cruel to Isaac?  Why is Isaac completely ignored in the interpretation of the story?  Some biblical commentators note that Sarah dies quickly after this incident–they speculate that Sarah might have died of a broken heart for Abraham’s senseless act.  Such a god does seem to be cruel, not loving.  Such a god seems to act capriciously like Zeus, or Molech, or Baal.  Is this really the revelation of our Heavenly Father?
  3. Is there a point where this example of Abraham’s faith is too extreme?  If it is not too extreme, would you kill your son if God told you to do it?

You are welcome to say “I don’t know” to these questions.  But know that “I don’t know” is a completely unsatisfactory answer to me.  I much prefer my liberal interpretation.  My interpretation leaves no such ethical dilemmas.  Help me see the error of my liberal interpretation.

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43 Responses to Orthodox and Liberal Interpretations of Abraham

  1. fbisti on April 21, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    You make some good points. I particularly like the Jeremiah quote–new to me. Our LDS class manuals have taught that Abraham left his father because of his father’s (and those peoples’) religious practices–including human sacrifice. So, for him to so readily believe his new, true, God wanted a human sacrifice strains credulity.

    I once read an interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story, by a Jewish character (don’t know if the author is a Jew) in a science fiction book. This man had been ordered by some all-powerful entity to kill his baby daughter. In contemplating whether or not to obey, his interpretation was that Abraham was testing his God to see IF He would prevent the killing–only then giving allegiance.

    And, “jive” = swing music or early jazz. “Jibe” = to be in harmony or accord; agree

    ;-)

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  2. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    The idea that orthodox Mormons think that this story is a fable about the indispensible value of unquestioning obedience is not at all surprising. That’s not actually the “traditional interpretation of the story” at all, except inasmuch as you mean the traditional Mormon interpretation.

    But I suppose to be fair, that’s also pretty much the traditional Mormon interpretation of every other Bible story too.

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  3. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    1. Yes, God is consistent. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What God demands of Abraham is different than what he demands of us because our circumstances are different. Abraham’s circumstances may be so exceptional that God rarely ever encounters anyone in them and so He rarely requires an identical act.

    2. I do wish we had more commentary from both Sarah and Isaac’s perspectives. From a Christian perspective it is difficult to insist that killing one’s own son is cruel, especially so soon after celebrating Easter. The central miracle of Christianity is that a loving God sacrifices his own Son. The utility of this story in foreshadowing Christ’s future sacrifice might even be one of the defining characteristics of Abraham’s exceptional circumstance.

    3. The New Testament is quite clear that Abraham’s faith is not too extreme. I’ll concede that given your interpretation it is possible that those authors are misusing an Old Testament story in an effort to teach otherwise true principles. I’ve heard enough scriptures mangled when someone knows what they want to say and then casts about to find a story to support it. It’s certainly possible that has happened here (if you are right).
    Would I kill my son if God asked me to? That is an interesting question. As a trap, it is quite good. If anyone answers yes, they can be dismissed as immoral and deranged. If they answer no, they deny the application of the story and should adopt your interpretation to resolve the dissonance.
    I’m fairly certain that even you would sacrifice your son if you believed that God commanded you to do it. I wish i could draw a matrix to show the outcomes of the various combinations of circumstance and reactions. On one axis would be the command’s source; not God/God. On the other would be disobey/obey.
    Not God x disobey; we both agree that this is a reasonable choice, provided you get some kind of counseling.
    Not God x obey; we both agree that this would be evil and should have very negative consequences.
    God x disobey; I was about to say that this would not be a rational decision, but it is my preferred choice in a great many instances that are much less trying than killing another person. From my own experience I’ve found that it is difficult to believe this for very long. Either I reevalute the choice and say it was really not God x disobey or I obey. Form the content of your post I would guess that you are the same.
    God x obey; This is the difficult one. From the previous experience of disobeying and then reevaluating, I’m fairly certain that the only way to maintain belief is to obey. So if you really do believe and continue to believe that God demands the sacrifice, you would do it.
    If I believed that God demanded it of me I would do it. I also can’t imagine a circumstance under which I would not get to the nearest hospital and ask to be committed. I have a much stronger testimony of repentance than human sacrifice.

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  4. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    Daniel, I think you (like most orthodox Mormons) are conflating faithfulness with unquestioning obedience. I’ll admit that the two concepts are similar and overlapping, but the discussion in Hebrews definitely focused on the former rather than the latter. If the author of Hebrews meant to say “obedience,” he could have done so, but he did not. By reinterpreting those passages into a story about obedience, you distort them significantly.

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  5. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    Kullervo: I would agree that the Mormon interpretation that God expects unquestioning obedience to church officers is certainly not traditional. The traditional interpretation does consistently praise Abraham for attempting to sacrifice Isaac and does ascribe the command to do so from God. All of the commentary in the New Testament and the narrator of Genesis take this position. Dissenting positions can be harmonized by interpreting them as of limited scope (Jeremiah was specifically addressing sacrifice to Molech) or as general commands that are overridden by Abraham’s particular circumstances.

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  6. Frank Pellett on April 21, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    Your question/answer on God being consistent is oversimplifying. God asks each of us to do things both according to His will and our needs. God did not ask you to start a Church, walk on water, or part a sea. That does not mean He did not ask it of others.
    .
    To me, the story is a type, an example to Abraham of what God is willing to do for his children; sacrificing His Son. It was a type for everyone involved, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah. It would be through this act that all would grow, even if none could see how the previous promises would come to pass if Isaac were to die. How could God be so cruel to Jesus, or anyone else having to suffer through major pain, trauma, or even death?
    .
    We have lots of examples where we can wonder why the morality of a commandment wasn’t questioned. Not just from simply killings, like Nephi and Laban, but from mass killings that included innocents. The Red Sea claimed the lives of men just doing their jobs, when it could have been let down gently or even before the armies of Pharaoh had gotten there. Nephi started a drought to stop the people from doing evil, do we think no children were harmed or killed by that?
    .
    Morality isn’t a simple thing with nice, clean answers for everything. We do not live by the same morality we had when we were small children, nor should we. In God’s view, we are the children. What parent hasn’t had to invoke “because I said so”?

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  7. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    I think most of the members in my ward would be surprised to hear someone call me orthodox. And I certainly think that the message of obedience especially with regard to church hierarchy is overplayed, This story is used to call for greater obedience to God in the New Testament. That is how James uses it. That is how it is used in Hebrews. Abraham’s faith (ie loyalty, steadfastness) causes him to act (obey). There are places where faithfulness and obedience do not necessarily overlap; this is not one of them.

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  8. Howard on April 21, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    The sacrifice of Isaac was part of Abraham’s Calling and Election Made Sure, the actual training and testing done by God himself in order to know predictably how Abraham will respond to any situation (not the temple ritual).

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  9. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    There are places where faithfulness and obedience do not necessarily overlap; this is not one of them.

    Overlap, sure; identical, no. If they mean exactly the same thing, why use the one word consistently instead of the other?

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  10. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    Kullervo, I am so immersed on Mormon interpretation that I’d love to hear a protestant, Catholic, or Muslim interpretation. Can you enlighten me there? Is a protestant interpretation similar to mine?

    I know that some people like to claim this story is not historical. That is not my position. When you use fable, are you saying it could be a historical story with a moral addition (similar to a fable), or do you believe it is more of a myth?

    I find that I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that God required the death of Jesus. To me, this seems like a cruel God that I do not recognize. I’m more comfortable with the idea that God utilized Jesus to do away with animal sacrifice. To my knowledge, animal sacrifice ceased to be used in mainstream Judiasm, although there are still Samaritans and Muslims that practice animal sacrifice for specific occasions. I don’t know why God would require the death of Jesus; rather, I’m more comfortable that Jesus used the death of Jesus to eliminate animal sacrifice altogether.

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  11. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Frank, I don’t think my question is oversimplifying. I don’t find starting a Church, walking on water, or parting a sea as morally problematic. If God wanted me to do those things, I would me much more inclined to answer the call than if God told me to kill my son. To me you’re talking apples and oranges here.

    I’ve already blogged about Joshua’s Unholy War. I think it is more likely that man blames God for bad behavior–because if God really commanded it, who can question it? It’s God’s will, so discussion is over. I think this is a misrepresentation of God completely. I don’t think God wanted every man, woman, child, and cow killed in Jericho. Joshua is misusing God–blaming God for his bad actions. So I reject many of these commandments as God-given. To me, it seems more likely that Joshua is over-zealous here.

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  12. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Is a protestant interpretation similar to mine?

    Mormon Heretic, I’m just not sure how to square your interpretation (or Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi) with the discussion of Abraham in Hebrews, and I think that any orthodox Protestant would have that problem. I am certain that you could find plenty of liberal Protestant interpretations very similar to yours though.

    Ibn Caspi of course had the luxury of not having to square his interpretation with any part of the New Testament…

    When you use fable, are you saying it could be a historical story with a moral addition (similar to a fable), or do you believe it is more of a myth?

    I meant it only loosely, sorry: my point was, it seems like nearly every story in scripture gets interpreted by Mormons as an object lesson in unquestioning obedience. I wasn’t addressing the historicity of the stories at all.

    I find that I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that God required the death of Jesus.

    It’s a whole different situation once you accept the Trinity.

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  13. The Other Clark on April 21, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Least favorite scripture story EVER. Worse that Lot’s daughters, worse than Judah’s wife playing the harlot. Worse than Joshua’s genocide. There are a lot of terrible OT stories, but this is the worst.

    I don’t understand it, yet I can’t explain it away, as everyone from the NT through JS and to the current SS manual teach the “God commanded him to kill his son interpretation.

    Maybe there is something worse: Last year when the speaker made this story the theme of his Fathers’ Day talk.

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  14. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    Kullervo, how does the Trinity make it easier to accept the death of Jesus? God is killing himself? (Pardon me for my obvious misunderstanding of the Trinity, but as a Mormon, I’m sure I’m not alone in misunderstanding the benefits of Trinity.)

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  15. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    The Greek word for obey is explicitly linked to persuasion. The idea that it would be possible to obey (be persuaded) without first having your doubts assuaged may have been entirely foreign to them. At the time of their composition there was also no church structure that could demand action without first persuading the actor, so our current issues with unquestioning obedience and unrighteous dominion were not of immediate concern. Rhetorically, James may have chosen to not draw attention to his effort to persuade people to good works by explicitly telling them to be persuaded.
    He also may have chosen not to use the word obey because the was worried about your negative reaction to it and would rather you actually perform good works than worry about how you label the act of doing them. Just keep on defiantly being faithful and feeding the poor, you rebel.

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  16. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    Well, keep in mind that the Trinity does not mean that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all one person, full stop. That’s a heresy called Modalism. The Trinity holds that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three persons with one substance–the idea is to give as full of an effect to God’s evidently revealed threeness as to God’s explicitly revealed oneness.

    So I don’t know that the Trinity makes it “easier to accept the death of Jesus” so much as it just changes the equation: while it is true that the person of the Father sent the person of his Son to suffer and die, is is also true that the One and Only God chose to voluntarily suffer and die.

    Although, having typed that out, it now occurs to me that your objection may be more in the sense of “why was it necessary for Jesus to suffer and die to conquer sin and death” and less in the sense of “why did the Father have to send the Son.”

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  17. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Yes, Kullervo, I would shorten that a bit: “why was it necessary for Jesus to suffer and die to conquer sin?” I’m fine with Jesus conquering death, and to me that is the glory of the atonement. I find it problematic to see that God not only requires the death of Jesus, but somehow accepts the suffering of Jesus as payment for my sin. “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not Adam’s transgression.” That particular article of faith does not mention Jesus as all, and I have a real hard time understanding why the death of Jesus pays for my personal punishment for my sins.

    I mean I understand the symbolism of the scapegoat–that we can somehow put the sins of the people and then punish the goat–but the goat did nothing wrong! Not only that but why does God think this is acceptable “payment” for my sin? I just get lost in the logic–it makes no rational sense to me, and this idea that Jesus pays for our sins seems to be a corruption of ancient pagan practices. I just don’t understand why God needs Jesus to pay for anyone’s sin. I make a mistake, I should pay for it. (Sure, it’s nice for someone else to pay–such as Jesus–but I just get lost in the logic of how God somehow benefits from Jesus paying for infinite sins.)

    I’m not a fan of the justice and mercy analogy used in the church. It just seems to emanate from a primitive mind set to me, and I think God isn’t such a simpleton.

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  18. Frank Pellett on April 21, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    MH, Moses killing Egyptians by drowning them in the Red Sea can’t be explained as man’s decision later attributed to God. God had them stopped with the pillar of fire, but let them through so Moses could be the one to actually kill them. Just because God hasn’t asked you to drop a sea on someone doesn’t mean it won’t happen. it just means it hasn’t happened to you.

    I’m not really sure how it’s even possible to make what you deem as oranges to be apples, since the only criteria seems to be your personal morality.

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  19. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 12:39 PM

    For me Christ suffering and dying for all sin is the ultimate rebuttal to the argument from evil. An omnipotent, omniscient God must ultimately be responsible for all the evil in His creation so in His benevolence he takes responsibility for it all.

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  20. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Mormon Heretic, I don’t know what to tell you, because I think that the Second Article of Faith is a damnable heresy anyway. Original Sin and the Atonement are interlocking concepts (see Romans 5, which I don’t think can be reconciled with Mormonism without torturing the text beyond recognition and ignoring the entire line of the argument).

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  21. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    First of all, what’s wrong with making rules to discern revelation based on the morality of the content? If God tells me to commit adultery, kill someone, do drugs, embezzle money, am I not supposed to question the morality of the revelation? I see nothing wrong with discerning rules based on morality. Tell me why I’m wrong here.

    Where do you get the moral rubric that you are proposing to use to evaluate revelation?

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  22. Hedgehog on April 21, 2014 at 1:55 PM

    MH, my view is that we are the ones demanding justice for wrongs done us. That’s why I like the description of Christ as the mediator of all; because we are the ones who have been paid by Him, just as we accept His payment for the wrongs etc we have done. Hence the need to forgive: we can’t rule his payment ok for our wrongs but then deem it insufficient for the wrongs done us.

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  23. […] A while back I did a post called The Faith of Abraham where I discussed the considerable challenges surrounding the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice Isaac. I have been in conversation recently with a blogger from Wheat and Tares about this story because it really bothers him — to the point where he has come up with ways to discount it as truly having come from God. As the discussion went on we agreed to ‘take it public’ because its such an interesting topic for discussion. His response to my post is found here. He then posted it on W&T today. […]

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  24. Nate on April 21, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    MH, I think that “apologetic” readings like yours, which try to retain some kind of claim on a historical Abraham, will neuter the power of the Bible as a spiritual allegory of human nature and religion. It will ultimately be unsatisfying for the “orthodox” believers looking for some way to hang on to Biblical historicity in the face of it’s barbarism. The Orthodox want to believe in a good Abraham, not a fanatically misguided Abraham. And it will also be unsatisfying to the liberals who have moved beyond apologetics, and simply see the Bible as myth or cultural relic.

    To be fair, I sort of like your apologetic view of Abraham as a fanatical, “old-school,” human sacrificing sort of prophet, who misinterpret’s God’s commandments. There might be some virtue in such a reading, if it means emphasizing the idea that God works through fallible prophets.

    But I think the fundamental spiritual reading of the text is somewhat lost with such a view. The sacrifice of Isaac illustrates the power of the religious call, one so powerful that it transcends all ties and all natural instincts. “Do you think I am come to bring peace, no, the sword! I am come to divide son from father, and mother from daughter.”

    Additionally, the sacrifice of Isaac must be understood within the context of God’s continual thwarting of His own promises. He promises a posterity as endless as the sands of the sea, then He makes Sarah infertile. He sends Ishmael as a firstborn son, but Sarah insists on throwing him out, and God tells Abraham to hearken unto Sarah. Then after Isaac is born, God thwarts his promise yet a third time, by commanding God to sacrifice him. Abraham hangs on with faith through all of these experiences, which is an allegory of the ideal faith in God. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”

    In your reading, we also miss the “LDS reading” of Isaac as a type of Christ, with Abraham as a type of Elohiem, an alegory which helps us understand God in an emotional, dynamic way.

    Probably, there are additional virtues to your reading which I am missing, but I think they are very influenced by our modern humanist values. I prefer not to mix humanism with the Old Testament, or even Christianity.

    For me, the Old Testament is like a dream I had, where I murdered lots of people. The dream could have an important interpretation, but if I only see “I am a murderer” or “my dream is NOT me!” then I won’t be able to interpret the dream or see my metaphysical murders for what they truly are: one metaphysical aspect of my identity uprooting other metaphysical aspects of my identity.

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  25. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    In your reading, we also miss the “LDS reading” of Isaac as a type of Christ, with Abraham as a type of Elohiem, an alegory which helps us understand God in an emotional, dynamic way.

    Facepalm.

    Headdesk.

    That’s not an “LDS reading.” That’s a Christian reading. Mormons didn’t invent Biblical typology. Biblical typology is not somehow characteristically Mormon.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typology_(theology)

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  26. Jeff Spector on April 21, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    A few points that I think need to be made.

    1. Abraham was not a Jew. He was a Chaldean, but his Father was a descendent of Noah. he was called by God to go to Canaan. He believed in One God, Elohim.
    2. You clearly do not fully know the relationship that Abraham had with God to the point that he would know His voice and be sure it was Him.
    3. You chose one single Rabbi’s opinion of the event when there is many, many interpretations which vary greatly.

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  27. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    You chose one single Rabbi’s opinion of the event when there is many, many interpretations which vary greatly.

    Including the ones in the New Testament.

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  28. Daniel Smith on April 21, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    Which New testament commentaries on the story of Abraham cast his actions in a negative light?

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  29. Tulip on April 21, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    Well, I must’ve gone way off the deep end in that I finally ended up resolving most of the morally repugnant stories in the Bible, including Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, by accepting that most of it is probably not historical in the strictest sense. I understand that the texts and stories of the Bible had a long, long journey to get to their present form. This allows me to read the text looking for spiritual truths and interpretations without having to abandon my faith in a God whose moral compass is at least recognizable. This changed my relationship with scripture, to be sure, but I still treasure it and learn so much from studying it. This allows me to base my relationship with God on my own interactions with him, rather than having obstacles of fear and distrust placed between us. Phew! It appears I out-liberaled the lot of you!

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  30. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    Which New testament commentaries on the story of Abraham cast his actions in a negative light?

    None; that’s not what I meant. Sorry for not being more clear. I only intended to draw attention to the fact that Ibn Caspi’s 14th century Jewish midrash can probably be safely discarded as doctrinal in light of the New Testament’s explicit treatment of the Binding of Isaac.

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  31. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    I am really enjoying the comments here. Thanks to all for adding their points of view.

    Where do you get the moral rubric that you are proposing to use to evaluate revelation? Kullervo, it sounds to me like you have a pre-conceived answer to your question. I’m open to God-given moral rubric, man-given, or a combination. (I probably lean most toward the 3rd option, because I think that man misinterprets a lot of God’s message.) But I’m open to them all. How would you like me to answer the question? I’m happy to go with your preferred answer, but once again, I think man misinterprets God’s will quite frequently, so I don’t know how to avoid that. I just do the best I can. I’m sure you think I’m interpreting God’s will miserably–and that’s fine. I’d just send that thought right back at you.

    Hedgehog, I like that thought. (I had to read it several times before I felt I understood what you were getting at. Just to make sure that I’m clear as to what your saying….are you saying that God doesn’t accept Christ’s payment for wrongs–we are the ones to accept or reject Christ’s payments? (and we have to accept it unconditionally: all or nothing?) I don’t think that’s an orthodox point of view, but I like it. I’m not sure your interpretation will be backed by orthodox, but it’s a very interesting idea. Do you have scriptural support for that?

    Jeff, I have no disagreement with your first point. “2. You clearly do not fully know the relationship that Abraham had with God to the point that he would know His voice and be sure it was Him.” Who does? Abraham is not here to personally question. 3. I’d love to hear some alternate interpretations besides the 2 that I have already highlighted here. Can you share?

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  32. Kullervo on April 21, 2014 at 5:01 PM

    Kullervo, it sounds to me like you have a pre-conceived answer to your question. I’m open to God-given moral rubric, man-given, or a combination. (I probably lean most toward the 3rd option, because I think that man misinterprets a lot of God’s message.) But I’m open to them all. How would you like me to answer the question? I’m happy to go with your preferred answer, but once again, I think man misinterprets God’s will quite frequently, so I don’t know how to avoid that. I just do the best I can. I’m sure you think I’m interpreting God’s will miserably–and that’s fine. I’d just send that thought right back at you.

    I’m not really trying to set up a “gotcha” here; I think it’s a question that simply cannot be dodged when talking about this stuff.

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  33. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 5:18 PM

    Kullervo, did I answer it to your satisfaction? (Or did I dodge?)

    Nate, I haven’t been called an apologist for about 3 years. Made me laugh. I used to get called that by non-believers at MM, but it seems like most people here think I’m the opposite of an apologist. (I’m not sure if you’re a believer or a non-believer–I don’t really care–but it does make me wonder where your point of view comes from.)

    I confess that I have a really hard time understanding where you come from in most of your comments–because it seems you use words much differently that I do (apologist, liberal, conservative.) If you want to make this story an allegory instead of an event–fine by me. But by taking this to the myth status, it seems to me that YOU are the one that causes the story to lose its power.

    It’s not that I am against myth per se. I mean I like Star Wars after all, and Mormons do love to quote Yoda (and Pres Kimball used to love to quote Les Miserables–calling it near scripture.) So there is power in myth. I get that. But to me reducing Abraham and Isaac to a myth, while some find value, just doesn’t work for me. It loses power for me, and puts it in the realm of Star Wars.

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  34. Jettboy on April 21, 2014 at 10:42 PM

    “If you want to make this story an allegory instead of an event”
    Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! These are not mutually exclusive to each other! Of all the points you are probably asking why I pick to respond to this one and with such passion. Its a pet peeve of mine when one is used to dismiss the other. A myth can be real. An allegory can be real. These terms convey the Power of the words or events, not the reality or non-reality.

    Back to the regularly scheduled discussion . . .

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  35. Nate on April 21, 2014 at 11:13 PM

    Just to clarify, I say apologist, because you seek to apologize for the sacrifice of Isaac as a real, historical event, purpetrated by a prophet of God in real time. I would define a liberal approach to the story as one which doubts its historical authenticity and seeks to understand it beyond its real life implications.

    I suppose I’ve become so far removed from thinking of scriptures as mere historical facts that perhaps I’ve sort of lost my ability to communicate with normal members. But for me, I really don’t feel like I miss anything by it. The story is still just as strong a vehicle to communicate spiritual truth.

    I do think that historicity must be confronted as a trial of faith in a kind of general way, when talking about things like Christ’s resurrection or atonement. To say, “I know that my redeemer lives” means something very literal to the believer, and something Jesus specifically asked us to believe as a test. But when it’s about stuff in the book of Genesis, why even bother I say. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We believe in healings, revelations, and visions today, and those same things happened in ancient time. But human sacrifice, worldwide floods, and the parting of the red sea? That’s not the same God. It is God allegorical, but not God historical.

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  36. Mormon Heretic on April 21, 2014 at 11:29 PM

    Jettboy, fair enough. But I do see that Nate and I approach this story from VERY different points of view.

    Once again Nate, apologists don’t apologize. Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information. I would venture to guess that most orthodox folks view me as OFFENDING, not DEFENDING this story with my interpretation of it. But it does appear that you are more liberal than me if you want to view these biblical stories as a-historical, so I guess from your point of view I could be an apologist, but I doubt that any orthodox here would call me an apologist. Like I said, I haven’t been called an apologist for years, so your use of words, though correct from your point of view, is not what I would call traditional understanding of how others view me here.

    Once again, I have a hard time comprehending your language. I’m much more fluent in orthodox. I enjoyed your post on Noah, but I have no idea how to respond.

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  37. Hedgehog on April 22, 2014 at 2:34 AM

    MH: “are you saying that God doesn’t accept Christ’s payment for wrongs–we are the ones to accept or reject Christ’s payments? (and we have to accept it unconditionally: all or nothing?)”

    In the main, yes. We are the one’s asking for, demanding justice for the wrongs done us. That’s not to say God can’t also be sinned against (wrongs done in the name of God would qualify – taking His name in vain). I generally see God as a parent with children demanding adjudication. (And what parent hasn’t been in that position?)
    I find it helpful to view it that way. I had been pondering some years ago now, that the way we tend to talk about justice and mercy as such abstract concepts at church isn’t particularly helpful, and came to see it this way.
    I absolutely do believe we are the ones to accept or reject Christ’s payment for the wrongs done us, and I do think it is all or nothing. It has to be if we are all to become one with God. We can’t pick and choose. Either His sacrifice was enough, or it wasn’t. If we’re going to say His suffering wasn’t enough to pay for ____ , then He can hand our portion back to us (which logically would increase the suffering available to cover ____ ). Similarly, we can’t say, we don’t want Him to pay for _____ , we want the perpetrator to pay, and then still expect that He will pay others for our sins. I see Christ as standing between us individually, and everyone else.

    I think Matt 7:2 and James 2:13 back that interpretation implicitly, also the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt 18, but I’m not aware of anything explicit in scripture that spells it out.

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  38. Kullervo on April 22, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    Mormon Heretic, you kind of dodged.

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  39. mormon heretic on April 22, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    Can you answer your question then?

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  40. Kullervo on April 22, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    As in, could I answer it if it had been directed at me? I dunno. I think it’s a tough question. But I’m not the one proposing to evaluate God or his revealed word by some alternate moral standard.

    I think it’s easy for a person to assume that their sense of morality is somehow innate, but I thik there is plenty of evidence to the contrary: all norms are aspects of culture, and they are transmitted to us in the same ways that other cultural aspects are. It’s a bit of a mish-mash in the western world in the 20th/21st century because we live in a fairly diverse and cosmopolitan society and there’s a lack of social consensus about a lot of things. So we grow up getting a number of different competing moral educations and make some kind of a stew out of it. And even when we pick and choose, we’re picking and choosing by comparing new moral information to the existing framework we have.

    My point is, I think that, given the state of our culture, a lot of our moral norms have really suspect provenance. If there really is a God, I think it’s a seriously dubious proposition to judge him based on that. And Romans 9:20 addresses it squarely.

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  41. MH on April 22, 2014 at 1:01 PM

    Kullervo, it sounds like you’re dodging just like me! :) (I think our answers are very similar.)

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  42. Kullervo on April 22, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    Ha! I suppose I am–I mean, my intent was to talk about the issues rather than to explain my personal stance, but in so doing, I deftly avoided identifying my personal stance.

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  43. Andrew Davis on May 18, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    Isn’t it strange, that God who is Purely Good, would order Abraham to Kill his innocent son, Isaac?
    Would our loving Father, God, play a “Trick” like this on His loyal servant?
    Could it be that God NEVER told Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?

    All of these questions are answered in this Teaching:
    http://bibleofgod.org/did-god-tell-abraham-to-kill-isaac/

    • The Common Understanding of this record
    • Why is this “Test” Questionable?
    • Did God Tempt Abraham?
    • Burnt Offering vs. Sacrifice
    • Satan’s Deception
    • Not the first time Abraham Miscomprehended
    • How old was Isaac?
    • Other Important things to Note

    -Andrew Davis

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