Abraham wasn’t like us, but we’re also not like Abraham

Peter Chattaway, on Twitter, helpfully cautions against “modern” retellings of ancient biblical stories that don’t involve modern people. One of the things Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe got right in Noah, Chattaway says, is that they didn’t have the ark-building patriarch question his own sanity when God begins speaking to him. Chattaway likewise hopes that the upcoming Exodus movie will avoid the mistake of modernizing Moses.

The idea that God would speak directly and unambiguously to humans is a given in those stories. It’s portrayed as extraordinary, but still within the realm of things that can and do happen. So we shouldn’t be surprised in those stories that these characters are not surprised to find themselves speaking to God directly. This is how those stories work and it would be a mistake to treat them as modern stories about some modern person, today, who suddenly starts hearing a voice that claims to be God.

Peter O'Toole as Obi Wan Yahwobi in the 1966 epic "The Bible."
Peter O’Toole as Obi Wan Yahwobi in “The Bible.”

This is particularly true with the biblical story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, Chattaaway notes, because it follows after That Time When Abraham and God Ate a Non-Kosher Lunch. (Here Chattaway links to a fun and fascinating older post of his on cinematic depictions of that story, which makes me want to revisit the 1966 epic The Bible, because Peter O’Toole.)

“To really understand the story of the akedah,” Chattaway writes, “you have to imagine a world in which God was more than just a ‘voice’ in one’s head, etc.”

That’s in response to this post — “Just take everything down to Highway 61: Obedience is always about epistemology.” But I don’t think Chattaway and I are actually in any disagreement here. We’re just coming at this from different sides of the same pitfall. He’s warning against misunderstanding the biblical story by projecting our modern condition back onto it. I’m warning against misunderstanding our modern condition by projecting the biblical story onto our situation.

I wholly agree that to understand the story of the akedah itself, “you have to imagine a world in which God was more than just a ‘voice’ in one’s head.” But the reason we have to imagine this is because that world is not our world. That world is nothing like our world. Abraham in that story had something we do not and cannot have — direct access to the unambiguous voice of God.

The idea that God speaks directly and unambiguously to humans is a given in the story of Abraham. The idea that God speaks directly and unambiguously to humans now is simply false. When that story is invoked today in support of the claim that we have precisely the same kind of direct and unambiguous access to divine command as Abraham had, then something dangerously wrong is going on.

That’s precisely how Rachel Held Evans’ detractors invoked this story in response to her post “I would fail Abraham’s test (and I bet you would too).” She’s been criticized for refusing to submit, as Abraham did, to the explicit and unambiguous commands proceeding directly from the mouth of God to the ears of us humans.

This criticism starts with that initial error — the same one Chattaway and I both highlighted — of imagining that Abraham in this story is no different from us. But it compounds that error into something truly unholy and evil. God still speaks directly to humans in unambiguous commands, it claims. And, furthermore, we — the righteous — know precisely what those commands are. And, therefore, if some uppity woman blogger dares to disagree with us, the righteous, then she is actually disagreeing with the very commands of God as explicitly and unambiguously heard by us.

The shorthand term nowadays for that vile little stew of blasphemous claims is “inerrancy.” That’s the idea that the Bible is just as clear, direct and explicit as God’s spoken conversations with Abraham or Noah. It’s the idea that either the Bible requires no interpretation, or else that it obviously allows — always and in all things — only a single correct interpretation, readily available, accessible, and unavoidable for all readers of good intent.

Inerrancy, in other words, asks us to imagine we live in Abraham’s world and enjoy the same unambiguous access to the voice of God that the character of Abraham had in the story of the binding of Isaac.

Cowboy philosopher Eric Reitan today takes a look at that same story, Rachel Held Evans’ discussion of it, and the modernist/inerrantist backlash against her post, in “Despair, the Hard Work of Theology, and Abraham’s Test.”

Reitan’s discussion closely parallels my own, but his might be a bit clearer, particularly where he addresses the question Chattaway raises, so let me quote at length from it here:

Let me begin by explaining why I can’t approach the Abraham story as a straightforward account of what God did in His relationship with Abraham. The story, as it’s told in the book of Genesis, takes the following as given: God really did order Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham knew this.

The story asks us to assume that this is true, and to read the story with that assumption in place. For me, this is kind of like someone telling a story about a guy who cuts out a perfectly round square from construction paper and gives it to his girlfriend as a Valentine. If the moral of the story comes out only if one assumes that round squares are real, the storyteller might ask me to assume this for the sake of the story. Maybe, for that purpose, I could momentarily pretend that I believe in round squares. But I could never actually believe in them. And I don’t know how long I could sustain the pretense.

Likewise, maybe I can pretend to believe, for the sake of extracting from the story the lessons it intends to teach, that Abraham really knew that God was commanding him to kill his son. But I’m not sure how long I could maintain the pretense.

… Were a voice to thunder from the heavens, “I, the Lord your God, command you to go and kill your son,” I would assume I’d gone crazy. And if my sanity wasn’t in question, I’d assume I was the object of some high-tech hoax. And if it came down to believing in a supernatural power as the source of the experience, I’d have to conclude something along the following lines: “Satan has taken to thundering commands from the heavens in the name of God.”

Under no conditions would I believe that it was actually God who was commanding me to betray my son in defiance of the very meaning of parental love. And why not? Because to do such a thing would be evil. Even if I was sure that God would intervene at the last minute, my child would still be traumatized for life. A good God would not issue commands that, if followed, would inflict such horror. And I have an unwavering faith that God is good.

Put another way, to believe — even in the face of the most astonishing pyrotechnic display of supernatural fireworks — that God was actually commanding me to kill my son, would be to give up my faith in the goodness of God. It would be to stop believing that God is love.

Reitan goes on — please click over to read his full post — to clarify more precisely what it is that Evans and her neo-Puritan critics disagree on, and in doing so provides an excellent summary of why I am not that kind of Calvinist. (I’m not any kind of Calvinist, but what I mean there is that not all Calvinists paint themselves into this same corner.)

The distinction, he writes, has to do with whether or not one believes that “My conscience is a product of God’s creative work within me, and as such is not profoundly unreliable.”

The point here is not only that Evans’ critics disagree with that claim — that they believe that our consciences are, in fact, “profoundly unreliable.” The deeper point is that they are forced to conclude that because it’s their only way to reconcile their insistence that we have the same kind of direct access to divine commands that the story of Abraham describes and that those divine commands may include things that strike us as horrific, unjust and unloving.

Like Eric Reitan (and me, and Rachel Held Evans), these folks have “an unwavering faith that God is good.” But they don’t want to do what we would all do — concluding therefore that any purportedly divine command that is unloving or cruel or unjust must not be of God. So, instead, they preserve their faith in God’s goodness by concluding that our understanding of goodness and love must be “profoundly unreliable.”

In other words, they redefine “good” to include whatever it is they think they hear the voice of God commanding and commending. If that includes killing and burning a child, well, then killing and burning a child must be — in some ineffable, mysterious way inaccessible to our fallen, human consciences — loving and good.

They would sooner distrust their understanding of what goodness and love mean than distrust their own ability to perceive the voice of God with perfect, explicit clarity. They would sooner doubt the meaning of love than doubt their own capacity for certainty.

(Since we’re dealing with the book of Genesis here, let me say that this understanding of human fallenness seems to contradict that book’s story of the Fall. In Genesis, humanity fell into sin when we acquired the “knowledge of good and evil.” It seems odd to interpret that as meaning that we had perfect knowledge of that before the Fall, but no knowledge of it at all afterward.)

 

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