This weeks’s chapters are difficult and socially significant like last week’s, which makes them difficult to write on. My approach, therefore, will be to come at it from a few disconnected directions in which I ask questions I don’t really have good answers to. Before moving on, I strongly recommend you read Robert Alter’s literary translation and commentary on chapter 22 as well as my post on why all the chapters leading up to Genesis 22 are important for Genesis 22.
What makes this chapter difficult and uncomfortable? (BTW, if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I’d suggest you’re either not paying attention, or haven’t really thought about it.)
As a history, this is a very troubling story. How so? Well, what if we were to place its events into another context? What if we were to read of Xenu commanding Tom Cruise to tie up his daughter Suri and slit her throat with a knife, and only at the very point he was about to cut was it called off? Would we find that admirable or frightening? What of two LDS brothers who received divine revelation (so they claimed) that they were to kill a child relative of theirs? They’re in jail now in Salt Lake, because they actually did so.
I’ve always been somewhat disturbed by the apparent cheerful enthusiasm of Abraham’s son at being sacrificed in some translations of the Qur’an. (While Islamic tradition holds that Ishmael was the near-sacrifice instead of Isaac, the son is not actually named.) I wondered, among extremist Islamic sects, does Isaac/Ishmael’s enthusiasm at being sacrificed at God’s command contribute to suicide bombers and martyrdom?
Reading through it and consulting some friends, it’s clear that, in contrast to the Genesis account, the son in the Qur’an knows exactly what’s coming ahead of time and is willing. (This is a good page for working through the Qur’an, if you have any exposure to Semitic languages, plus you can listen to beautiful recitations of the verses you’re looking at, bottom of the page.)
Sura 37:102ff “Then when [Abraham’s son] reached the age of striving, he said ‘Son, I have indeed seen in a dream that I ritually sacrifice you. So, look, what do you think?’ He said, ‘Father, do what you are commanded. God willing, you will find me to be among those who endure to the end.’ Then when they had thus submitted (Arb. ‘aslama) to God’s will, he put him down upon his forehead. We called out to him, ‘Abraham! You have indeed fulfilled the vision! Thus do We reward those who do good. Surely, this was the clear test.”
Two notes on my translation there (which is surely a bit rough.)
- “among those who endure to the end” I rendered this in a particularly LDS way, as it refers to those who maintain their devotion patiently or steadfastly regardless of what comes.
- “this was the clear test.” I don’t know quite how to read this. Clearly, it was a test? It was clear that it was only a test? It was the test that made Abraham’s righteousness clear?
As a model, Genesis 22 can be read as modeling several different things, and not all of them are good to take as normal or normative, as is clear from the examples above. Just as the Islamic read of the story has its own peculiarities, so does the LDS read. The Book of Abraham adds that something similar had happened to Abraham when he was younger, though with some differences. That detail creates some interesting takes on the story, though it certainly doesn’t deliver it from discomfort. See these thoughts on the LDS reading, for example, from the perspective of someone who was abused as a child.
I suspect the central discomfort stems from the idea of killing someone. Most religions, I suspect, emphasize the idea of obedience to deity or being in tune with divine will, and model that in various ways. What if there were some other action to use, some other great sacrifice to require?
Which brings me to my next point, about “sacrifice.” I’ve often heard LDS and others define sacrifice as “giving something up in return for something better.” We use that definition to bias us in favor of making such sacrifices. Regarding that idea, one famous scholar of religion quipped, “that’s not sacrifice, it’s a $#!**^ investment plan!” In the Old Testament, “sacrifice” most frequently means “to ritually slaughter” (Heb. zabach, the -ch like loch or Bach), and the Arabic cognate is what we find Abraham doing in the Qur’an (ḏabach, with ḏ pronounced like the th in “the”). The exceptions are largely the phrases “sacrifice by fire” (Heb. ‘isheh) and “burnt sacrifice” (Heb. ‘olah).
To sacrifice something was to completely lose its use, and gain nothing concrete in return, no quid pro quo. The one exception where zabach seems to lose its concreteness is Psalm 51, which tradition ascribes to David after Nathan the prophet had condemned him for the affair with Bathsheba. Verse 17 reads “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” In other words, true sacrifice or Godly sacrifice consists of a broken spirit and contrite heart, which should sound familiar from 3 Nephi. (Go read my essay that expands on the idea in terms of temple covenants.) This phrase is commonly understood to refer to humility and obedience to God’s will, or (if we can bring some Islam back in), submission to God’s will. “Islam” means “submission” and a “muslim” is a verbal form meaning “one who submits (to God’s will).”
Some literary notes on Genesis 22.
- First, the whole things is masterfully written, and really has a silent sense of building tension, foreboding. Wocjciech Kilar’s agnus dei captures my mood reading it, and the title “lamb of God” is appropriate.
- God’s command to Abraham has two things of interest.
- First, it parallels Genesis 12 very closely.
God’s first call to Abraham is introduced by the declaration, “Go forth … to the land that I will show you”; and His last employs almost identical language, “Go forth … to the land of Moriah … on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” The Hebrew phrase lekh lekha, “go forth,” does not occur again in the Bible, a fact that underscores the deliberate and meaningful nature of its use in these two passages. In both instances, the precise ultimate destination of the trek is withheld, and in both the tension of the drama is heightened by the cumulative effect of several Hebrew epithets, the last of which is the most potent: “your land, your homeland, your father’s house”; “your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love.” Both episodes culminate in promises of glorious posterity, the second one containing striking verbal echoes of the first. One blessing was received at the terebinth of Moreh, the other at the similar sounding Moriah; and at both sites, it is stated, Abraham “built an altar there.” JPS Torah Commentary.
- Second, according to another commentary, God’s command to “take your son” is the sole command of God in the entire Old Testament that is given with the particle na’. This particle is a softener, a way of making commands less commanding or harsh. It’s often translated as “please” or “I pray thee”, but I think the real sense of it here is that God is speaking very softly to Abraham. There is contrast between the content of the commandment (monumental, harsh, difficult) and the way it is delivered (briefly, quietly, softly). There’s no pressure in the delivery.
- First, it parallels Genesis 12 very closely.
- Abraham barely speaks a word, and offers no verbal response to God’s command. “Here I am Hebrew hinneni expresses an attitude of attentiveness and receptivity. It is the only word Abraham utters to God in the entire episode.” JPS Torah Commentary (which I obviously really like here.)
- But the next morning, without a word to Sarah, he gets up early and prepares to go. Also of import is that this will require three day’s travel.
“Early next morning, the old man rises to fulfill the divine charge. He performs a series of preparatory acts all described with an economy of words appropriate to the somber silence that pervades the scene. The long interval is crucial to the trial of faith, for Abraham’s instantaneous assent to God’s request may have been impulsive and emotional and without proper consideration. The long trek enables him to regain his composure. It allows time for sober reflection; yet his resolve is not weakened. His decision to obey God is thus seen to be an undoubting act of free will.” JPS Torah Commentary.
“When Abraham acts, it is not a knee-jerk reaction. He is not able to push himself through it quickly before he feels it (let’s get this over with). For three days he has to live with the haunting specter of what he is going to do. For three days he must live in the confusion about how God’s covenant promises will be carried out now. For three days he can try to rationalize some other course of action and talk himself out of doing what has been asked. This transforms his response from a reaction to a decision. The purpose of God will not be achieved unless Abraham arrives at the point of conscious commitment.”- NIVAC, Genesis.
- Isaac is probably not a small child, but a teenager. The narrator never fails to emphasize the relationship between Isaac as Abraham’s son, Abraham as his father.
The main test here is Abraham’s faith/faithfulness, but in a larger way than we often recognize. Chapter 22 “is organically connected with the preceding chapter. Abraham has lost one son and now seems about to lose the other. In both narratives, the child is saved by divine intervention at the critical moment, the only two biblical instances of an angel calling from heaven to human beings. In both cases there is a fortuitous discovery: a well of water in the earlier story, a ram in the thicket here.” (JPS)
In other words, Abraham believes God’s covenant promise of covenantal offspring through Isaac, and now God himself is telling him to put an end to it?
“Just when every trouble seems resolved and everything is in hand, an obstacle appears that threatens to put Abraham, Sarah, and the covenant back to square one. This obstacle differs from the previous ones in that it is not built out of circumstances such as childlessness, famine, human strife, and so forth. It is put there by God.” NIVAC.
How do we react when the fulfillment of God’s promises to us seems undermined by God himself in some way? This is not a rhetorical question for me. Both my and my wife’s patriarchal blessings refer to children, and yet 15 years into our marriage, no children are present, and medical science is at a loss to explain why, since the all the biology is functioning exactly as it should.
“Abraham’s faith is not only demonstrated in his willingness to obey the command but is also evident in the confidence he shows that somehow the situation will be favorably resolved. Consequently, he tells the servants that “we will come back to you” (22:5) and tells Isaac that God will provide the sacrifice (22:8).” NIVAC
Hebrews, written a thousand years later, has another take on this. In that reading, this was Abraham expressing his faith not just in God but the resurrection. The idea appears to be that sacrificing Isaac isn’t an issue, because God will just resurrect him. Heb 11:17-19
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead…
Indeed, some Jewish tradition often held that Isaac had actually died; you kindle the altar’s fire before you put the sacrifice on it, so Isaac had burned to death. See here for how Jews and Christians have variously interpreted the story.
One last long quote about God’s “now I know…”
What is accomplished by this unusual test? Commentators have made many suggestions, most of which are at least partly acceptable. But in most cases, the suggestions qualify more as function than purpose. It is true that this sequence of events functions in numerous ways:
• to strengthen Abraham’s faith
• to give Isaac a firsthand experience of the God his father has come to know over years of association
• to enable the world to see how justified God was in selecting Abraham as the recipient of the covenant promises
• to offer a picture of a father’s pain in sacrificing his son, as God eventually did in offering up Jesus
• to demonstrate how God abhors human sacrifice
But none of these serves as the divine purpose behind this passage. The text itself specifically indicates what God’s purpose is.
The text maintains that the sequence of events is done for God’s benefit. This stunning suggestion would seem impossible were it not for the clarity of verse 12: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” God himself focuses on what he gains from the test. Despite its forthrightness, it has often been circumnavigated by interpreters as they object that God, in his omniscience, must have known that Abraham would do what he did. God, by his nature and affirmed attributes, cannot add to his cognitive knowledge. Yet the text stands, and our commitment is to understand it, not sidestep it.
We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts. God wants us to pray even though he knows what we are going to say and may already have the answer in motion. He wants us to praise him even though he knows how we feel. God asks us to express our faith and love. It is honoring to him for us to demonstrate those things that he knows exist because it pleases him. That is what I mean when I speak of God’s “benefit.” We all know that as much as our parents, spouses, and children know that we love them, it is important that it be said and demonstrated. Cognitive knowledge is not enough and is often less than satisfying.- NIVAC.
As Ramban points out, it is not that God’s foreknowledge is wanting but that, for Abraham’s sake, the quality of character that now exists only potentially must be actualized. In the biblical view, the genuinely righteous man must deserve that status through demonstrated action.- JPS Torah Commentary.
Beyond comparisons between Jesus and Isaac (which are not explicitly found in the NT) and typologies of tests, I think there’s at least one other potential takeaway from this chapter.
We cannot easily extrapolate the mind of God from his “thou shalts” and “shalt nots” and when we try, we are likely to do so wrongly. Does this commandment mean God wants Isaac dead and Abraham must kill him? This is clearly not God’s purpose, as revealed to Abraham at the end of the chapter. Of course, the audience knows from the beginning of the chapter that there is a disconnect between the actual purpose and what God commands. We cannot always predict God’s purpose in giving a particular commandment, even when it seems obvious.
To take a different example, can we determine, as John and Leah Widtsoe originated the argument, that God’s prohibition on tea and coffee indicates that God wants us to avoid tannins and caffeine? I don’t think we can. (Whether it is healthy to avoid tannins and/or caffeine is a completely separate question.) Another example, I think, is the Joseph Smith Translation. Joseph was commanded to “translate” the Bible, but the goal of this commandment does not seem to have been restoration of the Bible to its original form, as much as to catalyze Joseph Smith’s study-closely-ask-questions-get-revelation pattern. (I make this argument in more depth in my Religious Educator article.) Another example, which I suggest very tentatively, relates to the priesthood ban. My own view is that it did not begin at God’s will, but David O. McKay gave him several opportunities to lift it, and was eventually told “not yet and don’t ask me again.” Should we necessarily understand from that that God approved of the ban and reasons for it? I think it is not well-grounded to do so. Elder Oaks tells the story of “of an old lawyer. As they traveled through a pastoral setting with cows grazing on green meadows, an acquaintance said, ‘Look at those spotted cows.’ The cautious lawyer observed carefully and conceded, ‘Yes, those cows are spotted, at least on this side.'” We need to be careful not to make unwarranted extrapolations, to leap to assumptions, to overread what the text actually says, and keep it within its proper bounds.
- Nephi has his own problem, namely, that God told him to kill Laban and he did so. The differences between Nephi and Abraham in context, purpose, narrative (i.e. an oral tradition written down much much later, vs. a 1st person account written some years later by the actor in question) are significant, and a moral challenge in some sense. Why did Nephi include it in his narrative? See in particular here, here, and here for some ideas.
Genesis 15 incorporates a ritual to ratify the covenant God makes towards Abraham. Note that it is God who is “signing the contract” here, not Abraham. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, covenants were usually ratified with a ritual, most often with the slaughter of an animal. That animal represented the death of the person who would violate the covenant, and the animal’s blood was known as the “blood of the covenant.” Again, see my essay on temple covenants and background. Also note, the animals slaughtered here are in two parallel lines, not one long line. I saw a particularly terrible exposition of this once, that involved drawing a menorah. It had nothing to do with the chapter, but the LDS instructor’s (terrible) use of Hebrew and menorah were razzle-dazzle enough that no one noticed it made no sense at all.) To restate all this,
Ancient covenants involved both blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for violating it. Often, the covenant was ratified through a simile-curse, a ritual action in which death was symbolically enacted. The Abrahamic covenant was instituted this way in Genesis 15; The Law of Moses was instituted this way in Exodus 24 in particular bloody fashion, and reiterated in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and other passages, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses”This covenant/blessing/curse/symbolic action connection is also found in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 3-5, Alma 46), as well as the Book of Moses.It’s directly invoked by Jesus in the New Testament, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper/sacrament (which we ritually reenact every week) and declares his sacrificial blood to be “the blood of the (new) covenant,” meaning he is the sacrificial animal whose death puts the new covenant in force, in a direct reference back to Exodus 24. This pattern is built-in to the very fabric of Christianity, then.
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