In Abraham’s Shoes Without a Bible (From The Archives)

When I wrote this, I had been reading some student assignments that discussed the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, and was struck by how many are ready to say that Abraham did the right thing in being willing to kill his son. They said this, presumably, because the story is in the Bible, and so Abraham must have been right.

What is missing from such readings of the story is any attempt to put themselves in Abraham’s shoes (or Isaac’s, for that matter), and ask what it would have been like to be part of this story at a time when no Bible existed.

An important question that readers of the story ought to ask is how, if they had been Abraham, they would have known for sure that God was commanding them to kill their son. Did Abraham really hear a voice, or was he simply following a common cultural practice? If you were in Abraham’s situation and indeed heard a voice telling you to sacrifice your son, how would you know it wasn’t a lying spirit that spoke to you? How would you know that the voice you heard wasn’t simply an indication of the onset of mental illness? Of course, the latter might seem like too modern a notion to apply to an ancient text. But perhaps noticing that divergence between explanations that we might give today, and ones available in antiquity, would itself be a helpful outcome of reading the story and situating yourself in it.

Readers of the story ought to also place themselves in Isaac’s shoes, and perhaps should read the story alongside an account of what Andrea Yates did to her children, and to what little we’ve been able to find out about what her children said to her before she drowned them.

The Bible both condemns child sacrifice and suggests that God demanded it on at least some occasions. The Bible also calls upon us to do to others what we’d want them to do to us. I don’t think any of us would want to be in the situation of being a child and having a parent try to kill us. Isn’t it time to stop attempting to harmonize what’s in the Bible, and allow that greatest of Biblical principles, the Golden Rule, to trump, invalidate, and expose as wrong those parts of the Bible that run counter to it? If we ask “What would Jesus do?”, surely the evidence from the sayings attributed to him in the New Testament suggest that he would allow one passage to override another, just as he allowed humanitarian concerns to take priority over the command to rest on the sabbath. Shouldn’t those who wish to call themselves Jesus’ followers approach the Bible in the same way?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    It seems to me as though the bible, having been written by so many disparate authors living in different times and different places, has so many contradictory messages that it is no wonder there are so many very different beliefs and dogmas all claiming the bible as the source of their faith. What you seem to be saying is to not worry so much about what the bible says as to what Jesus did, correct? But, of course, we don’t know that either except for what the bible tells us about what he did and I’m pretty sure there are a few contradictory messages in Jesus’ words and actions, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    It seems to me as though the bible, having been written by so many disparate authors living in different times and different places, has so many contradictory messages that it is no wonder there are so many very different beliefs and dogmas all claiming the bible as the source of their faith. What you seem to be saying is to not worry so much about what the bible says as to what Jesus did, correct? But, of course, we don’t know that either except for what the bible tells us about what he did and I’m pretty sure there are a few contradictory messages in Jesus’ words and actions, too.

  • http://www.simon-cozens.org/ Simon Cozens

    I’m not sure you’re being fair to your students, because you seem to be requiring Abraham – without a Bible! – to have an anachronistically advanced morality when it comes to dealings with the divine. I see this as a process of Abraham getting to know God. In the beginning he simply doesn’t know what sort of god God is. He may be – like other gods around at the time – into child sacrifice. We know that ritual human sacrifice was fairly standard culturally appropriate behaviour in Ur at the time, and so I can’t understand why anyone would imagine that culturally-conditioned Abraham would speak out against it, at this early stage. (That doesn’t put God in the right, but I think it absolves Abraham.)

    Later as Abraham gets who God is, that gives him the standing on which to challenge God’s morality on situations like Sodom. God seems to appreciate the argument – as He does with Moses, and Jeremiah, and Job, and Habbakuk, and Ezekiel, and Peter, and everyone else. “Keeping God honest” seems to be Biblically well attested – the exception being Joshua, who failed to question the morality of scorched-earth genocide. Unquestioning faith is dangerous.

  • http://www.simon-cozens.org/ Simon Cozens

    I’m not sure you’re being fair to your students, because you seem to be requiring Abraham – without a Bible! – to have an anachronistically advanced morality when it comes to dealings with the divine. I see this as a process of Abraham getting to know God. In the beginning he simply doesn’t know what sort of god God is. He may be – like other gods around at the time – into child sacrifice. We know that ritual human sacrifice was fairly standard culturally appropriate behaviour in Ur at the time, and so I can’t understand why anyone would imagine that culturally-conditioned Abraham would speak out against it, at this early stage. (That doesn’t put God in the right, but I think it absolves Abraham.)

    Later as Abraham gets who God is, that gives him the standing on which to challenge God’s morality on situations like Sodom. God seems to appreciate the argument – as He does with Moses, and Jeremiah, and Job, and Habbakuk, and Ezekiel, and Peter, and everyone else. “Keeping God honest” seems to be Biblically well attested – the exception being Joshua, who failed to question the morality of scorched-earth genocide. Unquestioning faith is dangerous.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I think you left out some information. First you present the situation like it is the first time Abraham heard this voice, when in fact Abraham had multiple dealings with this voice for more then 25 years before the voice told him to sacrifice his son. Second, we do not have to ask what Jesus would do. Jesus was the real sacrifice that Isaac typified.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I think you left out some information. First you present the situation like it is the first time Abraham heard this voice, when in fact Abraham had multiple dealings with this voice for more then 25 years before the voice told him to sacrifice his son. Second, we do not have to ask what Jesus would do. Jesus was the real sacrifice that Isaac typified.

  • Gary

    I almost hate to mention this… Gen 22:1,3,8, and 9 mention Elohim, which is E. Then in v11, as Abraham is about to use the knife, the angel of Yahweh stops him. It’s Yahweh after that. So some say a redactor added the v11-14. Isaac doesn’t appear in a E source after that.

  • Gary

    I almost hate to mention this… Gen 22:1,3,8, and 9 mention Elohim, which is E. Then in v11, as Abraham is about to use the knife, the angel of Yahweh stops him. It’s Yahweh after that. So some say a redactor added the v11-14. Isaac doesn’t appear in a E source after that.

  • Deane

    Leaving aside the question whether Abraham did right or wrong, I think the appeal to “What would Jesus do” is more problematic than you seem to assume, and might very well support the “harmonizers”. I’m referring to this in particular in your post: 
     
    “Isn’t it time to stop attempting to harmonize what’s in the Bible, and allow that greatest of Biblical principles, the Golden Rule, to trump, invalidate, and expose as wrong those parts of the Bible that run counter to it? If we ask “What would Jesus do?”, surely the evidence from the sayings attributed to him in the New Testament suggest that he would allow one passage to override another, just as he allowed humanitarian concerns to take priority over the command to rest on the sabbath..”
     
    I really don’t think that Jesus intended to allow one passage to “override” another, in the sense that the Sabbath law was in some sense abrogated. Rather, Jesus was interpreting the Sabbath law itself, and applying the Sabbath law. Sure, he was doing so with regard to Genesis 1, but his interpretation harmonizes Genesis 1 with the Law. We might well be more suspicious, and conclude that Jesus raises a clever argument to limit the scope of certain laws. But the way I see it, Jesus really thought that the Sabbath law was consistent with Genesis 1.
     
    In this respect, Jesus has a lot more in common with modern, conservative harmonizers than with modern liberal interpreters. That is, Jesus’ method attempted to preserve all biblical passages, whether we might consider them good or bad, and did not seem to believe that he was limiting or abolishing the scriptures in any way. The main difference between an ancient Joshua like Jesus of Nazareth and a modern one like Josh McDowell is in the range of harmonizations thought to be convincing. Since the reformation, the old spiritual senses have taken a back seat, whereas Jesus had a whole range of secret fulfilments (usually regarding himself) and hidden, spiritual meanings to harmonize passages.
     
    So Jesus would probably have had the same train of reasoning as your students: “he story is in the Bible, and so Abraham must have been right.” The significant difference is that Jesus would have felt he was right to harmonize the story as a typological lesson about his own sacrifice as a martyr, whereas your students would require that the story be harmonized with contemporary morality at the literal level of the story.

  • Deane

    Leaving aside the question whether Abraham did right or wrong, I think the appeal to “What would Jesus do” is more problematic than you seem to assume, and might very well support the “harmonizers”. I’m referring to this in particular in your post: 
     
    “Isn’t it time to stop attempting to harmonize what’s in the Bible, and allow that greatest of Biblical principles, the Golden Rule, to trump, invalidate, and expose as wrong those parts of the Bible that run counter to it? If we ask “What would Jesus do?”, surely the evidence from the sayings attributed to him in the New Testament suggest that he would allow one passage to override another, just as he allowed humanitarian concerns to take priority over the command to rest on the sabbath..”
     
    I really don’t think that Jesus intended to allow one passage to “override” another, in the sense that the Sabbath law was in some sense abrogated. Rather, Jesus was interpreting the Sabbath law itself, and applying the Sabbath law. Sure, he was doing so with regard to Genesis 1, but his interpretation harmonizes Genesis 1 with the Law. We might well be more suspicious, and conclude that Jesus raises a clever argument to limit the scope of certain laws. But the way I see it, Jesus really thought that the Sabbath law was consistent with Genesis 1.
     
    In this respect, Jesus has a lot more in common with modern, conservative harmonizers than with modern liberal interpreters. That is, Jesus’ method attempted to preserve all biblical passages, whether we might consider them good or bad, and did not seem to believe that he was limiting or abolishing the scriptures in any way. The main difference between an ancient Joshua like Jesus of Nazareth and a modern one like Josh McDowell is in the range of harmonizations thought to be convincing. Since the reformation, the old spiritual senses have taken a back seat, whereas Jesus had a whole range of secret fulfilments (usually regarding himself) and hidden, spiritual meanings to harmonize passages.
     
    So Jesus would probably have had the same train of reasoning as your students: “he story is in the Bible, and so Abraham must have been right.” The significant difference is that Jesus would have felt he was right to harmonize the story as a typological lesson about his own sacrifice as a martyr, whereas your students would require that the story be harmonized with contemporary morality at the literal level of the story.

  • Anonymous

    I tend to read passages in search of what the author/editors seem to be going for.  In that situation I think they are trying to show that Abraham did the right thing (he seems to somehow know that, despite killing him Isaac is going to live) but I have to say that it’s hard for me to put myself in a sort of “realistic” scenario in which I have to evaluate Abraham’s position because in the situations presented in the Genesis accounts God’s voice is pretty clear (remember, we’re talking about a guy who had dinner with God and bargained with him).  I don’t think I can both project myself into the story and maintain modern skepticism about God.

    I’m with you regarding the greatest biblical principles.  I don’t know if Abraham even existed but I’m sure Jesus did and we have a tradition of him saying “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (and by that he did not mean child sacrifice as far as I know).

  • http://digestofworms.blogspot.com/ admiralmattbar

    I tend to read passages in search of what the author/editors seem to be going for.  In that situation I think they are trying to show that Abraham did the right thing (he seems to somehow know that, despite killing him Isaac is going to live) but I have to say that it’s hard for me to put myself in a sort of “realistic” scenario in which I have to evaluate Abraham’s position because in the situations presented in the Genesis accounts God’s voice is pretty clear (remember, we’re talking about a guy who had dinner with God and bargained with him).  I don’t think I can both project myself into the story and maintain modern skepticism about God.

    I’m with you regarding the greatest biblical principles.  I don’t know if Abraham even existed but I’m sure Jesus did and we have a tradition of him saying “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (and by that he did not mean child sacrifice as far as I know).

  • Jeremy Wales

    Hi James,

    You ask, “If
    you were in Abraham’s situation and indeed heard a voice telling you
    to sacrifice your son, how would you know it wasn’t a lying spirit that
    spoke to you? How would you know that the voice you heard wasn’t
    simply an indication of the onset of mental illness?” But I wonder, what makes you think these are VALID questions to be asking of the text in the first place? Would you agree that it is possible to ask questions of a text which at first seem relevant to YOU but on closer inspection turn out to be irrelevant to the intent of the text itself?

    The fact that this text does not even attempt to address how Abraham might have known it really was God’s voice telling him to do this horrible thing should serve as a clue: it does NOT invite its audience to imitate Abraham by listening for deep voices telling them to do horrible things precisely as he did. Yet, if NOT in this way, then HOW DOES the text invite its audience to imitate Abraham?

    Many indications confirm that the text invites its readers to imitate Abraham in obeying God’s voice to them, not audibly, but in written law. The incident opens by saying, “God tested [NSH] Abraham,” (Ge22:1) and closes with Abraham being told, “Now I know that you fear [YR'] God” (Ge22:12). How should the ancient Israelite audience expect themselves to be similarly tested by God so as to demonstrate appropriate fear? Within the final form of the Pentateuch of which Genesis 22 is a part, this was exclusively the function of the WRITTEN LAW. As Moses says immediately after the giving of the ten words, “God has come to test [NSH] you, that the fear [YR'] of him may be before you” (Ex20:20). Indeed, every time ISRAELITES (as distinct from Abraham himself) are described as tested by God, whether in the past or potentially in future, it is not via a voice telling them to do horrible things, it is through hardship (De8:2,16) or even through a false prophet enabled to do mighty signs (De13:1), and the criterion for success is ALWAYS FAITHFULNESS TO WRITTEN LAW. Indeed, after the Isaac incident, God says to Abraham, “You obeyed [ShM`T] my voice [QLY],” (Ge22:18) which is later glossed for the Israelite audience precisely as “p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }a:Abraham obeyed [ShM`] my voice [QLY] and kept my
    charge, my COMMANDMENTS, my STATUTES, and my LAWS”
    (Ge26:5). This desire to cast Abraham’s obedience as analogous to law observance by the ancient Israelite audience is perhaps reflected also in the explicit mention of the site, Moriah (Ge22:3), mentioned elsewhere only as the site for the Jerusalem Temple (2Ch3:1).

    So, I think Ge22 raises severe ethical concerns IF it is completely stripped of its textual context in the final form of the Pentateuch. Stripped of its context it might be taken to encourage listening to deep voices commanding horrible things. But read its within its actual context, it seems unambiguously to encourage only faithfulness to written law. Which is to say, it only raises severe ethical concerns if it is read with an exegetical procedure which I hope most would concede is illegitimate (i.e. ignoring context).

    Jeremy

    P.S. Some of this thinking about what questions to ask and how to exegete Ge22 comes from Walter Moberly’s chapter, “Genesis 22: Abraham – Model or Monster?” in his Theology of the Book of Genesis, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in Ge22.

  • Jeremy Wales

    Hi James,

    You ask, “If
    you were in Abraham’s situation and indeed heard a voice telling you
    to sacrifice your son, how would you know it wasn’t a lying spirit that
    spoke to you? How would you know that the voice you heard wasn’t
    simply an indication of the onset of mental illness?” But I wonder, what makes you think these are VALID questions to be asking of the text in the first place? Would you agree that it is possible to ask questions of a text which at first seem relevant to YOU but on closer inspection turn out to be irrelevant to the intent of the text itself?

    The fact that this text does not even attempt to address how Abraham might have known it really was God’s voice telling him to do this horrible thing should serve as a clue: it does NOT invite its audience to imitate Abraham by listening for deep voices telling them to do horrible things precisely as he did. Yet, if NOT in this way, then HOW DOES the text invite its audience to imitate Abraham?

    Many indications confirm that the text invites its readers to imitate Abraham in obeying God’s voice to them, not audibly, but in written law. The incident opens by saying, “God tested [NSH] Abraham,” (Ge22:1) and closes with Abraham being told, “Now I know that you fear [YR'] God” (Ge22:12). How should the ancient Israelite audience expect themselves to be similarly tested by God so as to demonstrate appropriate fear? Within the final form of the Pentateuch of which Genesis 22 is a part, this was exclusively the function of the WRITTEN LAW. As Moses says immediately after the giving of the ten words, “God has come to test [NSH] you, that the fear [YR'] of him may be before you” (Ex20:20). Indeed, every time ISRAELITES (as distinct from Abraham himself) are described as tested by God, whether in the past or potentially in future, it is not via a voice telling them to do horrible things, it is through hardship (De8:2,16) or even through a false prophet enabled to do mighty signs (De13:1), and the criterion for success is ALWAYS FAITHFULNESS TO WRITTEN LAW. Indeed, after the Isaac incident, God says to Abraham, “You obeyed [ShM`T] my voice [QLY],” (Ge22:18) which is later glossed for the Israelite audience precisely as “p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }a:Abraham obeyed [ShM`] my voice [QLY] and kept my
    charge, my COMMANDMENTS, my STATUTES, and my LAWS”
    (Ge26:5). This desire to cast Abraham’s obedience as analogous to law observance by the ancient Israelite audience is perhaps reflected also in the explicit mention of the site, Moriah (Ge22:3), mentioned elsewhere only as the site for the Jerusalem Temple (2Ch3:1).

    So, I think Ge22 raises severe ethical concerns IF it is completely stripped of its textual context in the final form of the Pentateuch. Stripped of its context it might be taken to encourage listening to deep voices commanding horrible things. But read its within its actual context, it seems unambiguously to encourage only faithfulness to written law. Which is to say, it only raises severe ethical concerns if it is read with an exegetical procedure which I hope most would concede is illegitimate (i.e. ignoring context).

    Jeremy

    P.S. Some of this thinking about what questions to ask and how to exegete Ge22 comes from Walter Moberly’s chapter, “Genesis 22: Abraham – Model or Monster?” in his Theology of the Book of Genesis, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in Ge22.

  • Carl Conrad

    This one is not funny, but I think it is right on target. The story of Abraham’s offering up of Isaac in Genesis 22 is a story about which nobody can remain neutral. It has been variously interpreted, (1) as Abraham’s “baptism of fire,” his demonstration that he is totally committed to do whatever God tells him to do, (2) on the basis of the substitution of a ram for the boy to be sacrificed, as an aetiological myth explaining the abolition of child-sacrifice in primeval Israelite cultic practices, (3) for humanist rationalists, as the ultimate exemplification of the degrading depths to which religion at its worst can debase humanity (Lucretius: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum – “What sheer depths of evil has superstition been able to justify!”).

    There is a classic philosophical essay of Soren Kierkegaard about this story, entitled “Fear and Trembling.” I recall it was the first example of “Christian Existentialism” I ever read as an undergraduate at Tulane. The subject of the essay is “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” i.e. Can there be a situation in which there is something better and more important to do than “the right thing”? I read that essay and felt sheer disgust at it; it seemed to me not so much to point out the limits of human rationality but to take sheer delight and exhilaration from wallowing in human irrationality.

  • Carl Conrad

    This one is not funny, but I think it is right on target. The story of Abraham’s offering up of Isaac in Genesis 22 is a story about which nobody can remain neutral. It has been variously interpreted, (1) as Abraham’s “baptism of fire,” his demonstration that he is totally committed to do whatever God tells him to do, (2) on the basis of the substitution of a ram for the boy to be sacrificed, as an aetiological myth explaining the abolition of child-sacrifice in primeval Israelite cultic practices, (3) for humanist rationalists, as the ultimate exemplification of the degrading depths to which religion at its worst can debase humanity (Lucretius: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum – “What sheer depths of evil has superstition been able to justify!”).

    There is a classic philosophical essay of Soren Kierkegaard about this story, entitled “Fear and Trembling.” I recall it was the first example of “Christian Existentialism” I ever read as an undergraduate at Tulane. The subject of the essay is “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” i.e. Can there be a situation in which there is something better and more important to do than “the right thing”? I read that essay and felt sheer disgust at it; it seemed to me not so much to point out the limits of human rationality but to take sheer delight and exhilaration from wallowing in human irrationality.

  • Paul D.

    Gary: Indeed, and doesn’t the wording of verse 16 suggest that Abraham actually did the deed? (If you ignore the possible interpolation of vv 11-14.)

    • Gary

      @Paul, I am no expert. Richard Friedman’s comments, “it has been suggested that in the original version of this story Isaac was actually sacrificed, and that the intervening four verses were added subsequently, when the notion of human sacrifice was rejected (perhaps by the person who combined J and E). Of course, the words “you did not withhold your son” might mean only that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice his son. but still it must be noted that the text concludes (v.19), “And Abraham returned to his servants.” Isaac is not mentioned…a later midrashic tradition developed this notion, that Isaac actually had been sacrificed. This tradition is discussed in S. Spiegel’s “The Last Trial”…1969/1950″. For me, if you believe JEDP sources for the bible, I can see many conflicts in the written text of the bible, regardless of the outcome of this story. It is reasonable considering the split between Israel and Judah, separate kings and priests, but with the same religion, with a written text that differs over time. Same with Christianity, with Rome and Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic and Protestant. Just that those differing texts/traditions never were merged together again, unlike the north and south Jewish texts/traditions.

  • Paul D.

    Gary: Indeed, and doesn’t the wording of verse 16 suggest that Abraham actually did the deed? (If you ignore the possible interpolation of vv 11-14.)

    • Gary

      @Paul, I am no expert. Richard Friedman’s comments, “it has been suggested that in the original version of this story Isaac was actually sacrificed, and that the intervening four verses were added subsequently, when the notion of human sacrifice was rejected (perhaps by the person who combined J and E). Of course, the words “you did not withhold your son” might mean only that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice his son. but still it must be noted that the text concludes (v.19), “And Abraham returned to his servants.” Isaac is not mentioned…a later midrashic tradition developed this notion, that Isaac actually had been sacrificed. This tradition is discussed in S. Spiegel’s “The Last Trial”…1969/1950″. For me, if you believe JEDP sources for the bible, I can see many conflicts in the written text of the bible, regardless of the outcome of this story. It is reasonable considering the split between Israel and Judah, separate kings and priests, but with the same religion, with a written text that differs over time. Same with Christianity, with Rome and Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic and Protestant. Just that those differing texts/traditions never were merged together again, unlike the north and south Jewish texts/traditions.

  • JS Allen

    I agree with Simon Cozens.  You’re being unfair to whoever wrote the story of Abraham, because the author of the story clearly intended to convey the idea that Abraham had a longstanding relationship of trust with the voice.  When you eliminate that important detail, you ruin the entire value of the story.

  • JS Allen

    I agree with Simon Cozens.  You’re being unfair to whoever wrote the story of Abraham, because the author of the story clearly intended to convey the idea that Abraham had a longstanding relationship of trust with the voice.  When you eliminate that important detail, you ruin the entire value of the story.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    This comment isn’t a reply to any one commenter but to topics raised by several. First, I should add the additional information that the assignment for class was to put oneself in Abraham’s situation, whether imaging oneself back into that time, or setting it in the present day.

    I agree with those who have emphasized the importance of paying attention to the role of the story in it’s present form and it’s present literary context. I think that the author/editor is using Abraham and this story about him precisely to try to counter the practice of child sacrifice.

    Nonetheless, those who treat the story as a factual account of an actual event and treat Abraham. A positive example of faith do approach the story in a way that would encourage one to be ready to emulate it’s example. And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them. Do any of those who’ve commented so far actually disagree with me on this last point? Whether you do or not, presumably the only way to answer the question is to do what I asked the students to do, namely put themselves in Abraham’s shoes.

    • JS Allen

      Assuming it’s a fictional story that’s intended to teach a moral lesson, it seems virtually impossible to draw the lesson “don’t sacrifice your children”. If you wanted to teach that lesson, the story of Abraham would be an exceedingly odd way to make the point. There are several other plausible morals that can be drawn (and no, “kill your kids if the voices say so” isn’t one of them).

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    This comment isn’t a reply to any one commenter but to topics raised by several. First, I should add the additional information that the assignment for class was to put oneself in Abraham’s situation, whether imaging oneself back into that time, or setting it in the present day.

    I agree with those who have emphasized the importance of paying attention to the role of the story in it’s present form and it’s present literary context. I think that the author/editor is using Abraham and this story about him precisely to try to counter the practice of child sacrifice.

    Nonetheless, those who treat the story as a factual account of an actual event and treat Abraham. A positive example of faith do approach the story in a way that would encourage one to be ready to emulate it’s example. And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them. Do any of those who’ve commented so far actually disagree with me on this last point? Whether you do or not, presumably the only way to answer the question is to do what I asked the students to do, namely put themselves in Abraham’s shoes.

    • JS Allen

      Assuming it’s a fictional story that’s intended to teach a moral lesson, it seems virtually impossible to draw the lesson “don’t sacrifice your children”. If you wanted to teach that lesson, the story of Abraham would be an exceedingly odd way to make the point. There are several other plausible morals that can be drawn (and no, “kill your kids if the voices say so” isn’t one of them).

  • Gary

    James asked, “And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them. Do any of those who’ve commented so far actually disagree with me on this last point?” I do not disagree, except that I have flashbacks, having raised two boys,…if Isaac was a teenager, I think I could identify with Abraham (in certain instances).

  • Gary

    James asked, “And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them. Do any of those who’ve commented so far actually disagree with me on this last point?” I do not disagree, except that I have flashbacks, having raised two boys,…if Isaac was a teenager, I think I could identify with Abraham (in certain instances).

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James,  you said:

    “And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them.”

    This made me think of a similar situation. Although it was not their own children, what does this say for all the people that killed others in the inquisitions when they heard the Pope’s voice asking them to do it? I’m sure at least some of the people doing the killing thought they were doing God’s will.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James,  you said:

    “And however much the voices in one’s head may have served you well in the past, I think that if they are telling you to kill someone, you should resist them.”

    This made me think of a similar situation. Although it was not their own children, what does this say for all the people that killed others in the inquisitions when they heard the Pope’s voice asking them to do it? I’m sure at least some of the people doing the killing thought they were doing God’s will.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, it might serve well to make that point to a society that accepted child sacrifice, to attribute to their forefather Abraham a story in which he was asked to sacrifice his child only as a test of his loyalty, and not because God actually wanted him to go through with it.

    • JS Allen

      Yes, the story is endorsing the idea that Abraham had to be prepared to kill his only child in obedience to God. And it wasn’t just any old test of loyalty — it was a test that passed God’s blessing on through Isaac.

      IMO, it’s a very clever story, because it is essentially self-terminating. After Isaac, nobody can ever claim to be truly prepared to kill their child out of obedience, because there can always be doubts raised that the person is simply copying Abraham and hoping for gain (rather than simply being obedient at great cost and no apparent gain, like Abraham was). By telling the story, you ruin anyone else’s ability to copy the story, which is why the Muslims are forced to argue that it was really Ishmael on the altar.

      It’s also the ideal story about the father of your race, because it puts a knife in any claim that your race is simply the result of biological urges. It allows you to make the claim that your race was born out of the ultimate conquest of the procreation urge, yet is destined to number as the sands of the sea, and all others are shut out of this story. It’s hard to imagine a better founding myth.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, it might serve well to make that point to a society that accepted child sacrifice, to attribute to their forefather Abraham a story in which he was asked to sacrifice his child only as a test of his loyalty, and not because God actually wanted him to go through with it.

    • JS Allen

      Yes, the story is endorsing the idea that Abraham had to be prepared to kill his only child in obedience to God. And it wasn’t just any old test of loyalty — it was a test that passed God’s blessing on through Isaac.

      IMO, it’s a very clever story, because it is essentially self-terminating. After Isaac, nobody can ever claim to be truly prepared to kill their child out of obedience, because there can always be doubts raised that the person is simply copying Abraham and hoping for gain (rather than simply being obedient at great cost and no apparent gain, like Abraham was). By telling the story, you ruin anyone else’s ability to copy the story, which is why the Muslims are forced to argue that it was really Ishmael on the altar.

      It’s also the ideal story about the father of your race, because it puts a knife in any claim that your race is simply the result of biological urges. It allows you to make the claim that your race was born out of the ultimate conquest of the procreation urge, yet is destined to number as the sands of the sea, and all others are shut out of this story. It’s hard to imagine a better founding myth.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Perhaps we could say that the author of the story would have been delighted to know that a time has come when people find the notion of child sacrifice so abhorrent – at least partially as a result of the story he wrote. And so even if we find the story problematic as a result of our changed perspective, we owe that changed perspective at least in part the the very story in question,

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Perhaps we could say that the author of the story would have been delighted to know that a time has come when people find the notion of child sacrifice so abhorrent – at least partially as a result of the story he wrote. And so even if we find the story problematic as a result of our changed perspective, we owe that changed perspective at least in part the the very story in question.

  • JS Allen

    I suppose it’s conceivable, but that explanation feels like pure psychological projection.  We can imagine people today constructing tidy little fables to manipulate public sentiment about specific moral issues, but the Abraham story doesn’t seem to fit this template.

    I think that the author of the Abraham story knew that elimination of child sacrifice within his own people was a sure thing by that point, and had his sights set on much bigger things.  Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2 are minor side notes in Israeli history, and it just doesn’t seem credible that the Abraham myth would have been constructed around such an ancillary goal.  I might be persuaded that the author piggybacked on the the inevitable social momentum of the baby sacrifice issue as a way to lend emotional support to his larger story and to create a firewall between the Jews and the other local people who hadn’t yet abolished baby sacrifice.

    The story accomplishes too many other goals, and is too superbly constructed, for me to to see generalized child sacrifice as anything but an afterthought.  I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, if there are additional arguments that haven’t been presented yet.

  • JS Allen

    I suppose it’s conceivable, but that explanation feels like pure psychological projection.  We can imagine people today constructing tidy little fables to manipulate public sentiment about specific moral issues, but the Abraham story doesn’t seem to fit this template.

    I think that the author of the Abraham story knew that elimination of child sacrifice within his own people was a sure thing by that point, and had his sights set on much bigger things.  Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2 are minor side notes in Israeli history, and it just doesn’t seem credible that the Abraham myth would have been constructed around such an ancillary goal.  I might be persuaded that the author piggybacked on the the inevitable social momentum of the baby sacrifice issue as a way to lend emotional support to his larger story and to create a firewall between the Jews and the other local people who hadn’t yet abolished baby sacrifice.

    The story accomplishes too many other goals, and is too superbly constructed, for me to to see generalized child sacrifice as anything but an afterthought.  I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, if there are additional arguments that haven’t been presented yet.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, in the next few days I am going to repost something I wrote a while back on child sacrifice in the Bible. But in the mean time, perhaps I can mention Exodus 22:29-30,Ezekiel 20:25-26 and Jeremiah 19:5 as providing indication that child sacrifice may at one point have been very much a live issue among the Israelites.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, in the next few days I am going to repost something I wrote a while back on child sacrifice in the Bible. But in the mean time, perhaps I can mention Exodus 22:29-30,Ezekiel 20:25-26 and Jeremiah 19:5 as providing indication that child sacrifice may at one point have been very much a live issue among the Israelites.

  • JS Allen

    It should have been obvious from my comment that child sacrifice was a live issue among the Israelites at one time.  The two verses I quoted would make no sense if there weren’t people at the time who were passing their children through the fires of Molech.

    My point is that it was one issue of many, and probably wouldn’t have rated even in the top half.  We have to get halfway through the ten commandments before any type of murder appears.  It seems an extreme stretch to say that the Abraham story was geared toward eliminating child sacrifice; not the least because the story can actually be interpreted as supporting child sacrifice.  It seems more plausible that the child sacrifice themes of the story were chosen because they would resonate with the population and recast the history of child sacrifice in a new theological light.  I’m not understanding why you seem to completely dismiss this potential explanation?

    FWIW, I would be careful about extrapolating Ezekiel 20 back to Abraham.  It seems far more likely that Ezekiel is recasting history in a theological light, and not reporting any existing problem.  The fact that he would be recasting a specific historical issue doesn’t say anything about the Abraham story; anymore than Ezekiel 23 demonstrates that the Exodus story was a story about Jewish women engaging in sex with donkeys (or Egyptian men, for that matter).

  • JS Allen

    It should have been obvious from my comment that child sacrifice was a live issue among the Israelites at one time.  The two verses I quoted would make no sense if there weren’t people at the time who were passing their children through the fires of Molech.

    My point is that it was one issue of many, and probably wouldn’t have rated even in the top half.  We have to get halfway through the ten commandments before any type of murder appears.  It seems an extreme stretch to say that the Abraham story was geared toward eliminating child sacrifice; not the least because the story can actually be interpreted as supporting child sacrifice.  It seems more plausible that the child sacrifice themes of the story were chosen because they would resonate with the population and recast the history of child sacrifice in a new theological light.  I’m not understanding why you seem to completely dismiss this potential explanation?

    FWIW, I would be careful about extrapolating Ezekiel 20 back to Abraham.  It seems far more likely that Ezekiel is recasting history in a theological light, and not reporting any existing problem.  The fact that he would be recasting a specific historical issue doesn’t say anything about the Abraham story; anymore than Ezekiel 23 demonstrates that the Exodus story was a story about Jewish women engaging in sex with donkeys (or Egyptian men, for that matter).

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, I didn’t mean to give the impression that the message of the story in relation to child sacrifice was the only point or significance of the story. Sorry if the fact that I focused attention on that, as it seemed germane to the focus of the post and the discussion it generated, gave the impression that I was saying that there is nothing more to the story.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @JS Allen, I didn’t mean to give the impression that the message of the story in relation to child sacrifice was the only point or significance of the story. Sorry if the fact that I focused attention on that, as it seemed germane to the focus of the post and the discussion it generated, gave the impression that I was saying that there is nothing more to the story.

  • Deb Avery

    I’m interested in yet another angle on this story – one that detaches itself from the lens of the book of Hebrews and that terribly distressed community’s need for a storyline that affirms God’s rescue in the midst of their loyal following of the near impossible call God has placed on their lives.

    What if God was hoping for Abraham to display some kind of chutzpah – some courageous move, some step in the direction of covenantal behavior which in truth is much more like a partnership than a one way street of blind and absolute obedience? I much prefer the Abraham who shows up for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah to the one in this story.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X