Abraham “Heard Voices”

Abraham “Heard Voices” September 19, 2013

It is important to tread carefully when something tragic is in the news, such as Aaron Alexis' recent shooting rampage at a Navy yard. But my students are continuing to discuss the Abraham story and the Euthyphro today, and we simply cannot bypass the question of how one would react to someone in our time who hears voices, someone who claims a divine command is their motivation to harm another person. I'm not saying that that was the nature of Alexis' experiences. But his recent action, and reports about his mental health, are now the context in which my class discussions – and the students' first writing assignment – are forced to take place. And so I made the above image, to bring that issue into focus, and hopefully generate discussion of it.

But we need to go further still. I want to make clear that an attempt to read the Abraham story as a factual account of an individual with mental illness makes little sense, not just historically but religiously and morally. The story is, in my view, an attempt to co-opt a revered figure in a fight against the widespread practice of child sacrifice.

Taken literally as history, it is a story that opens the door to the possibiity that God could demand that you kill someone else.

Taken as polemic against child sacrifice, it is a story that at least tries to close that door and lock it shut.

Whether the author of Genesis did as effective a job as Ezekiel or Jeremiah in combatting the practice did is another question.

See also my earlier posts related to this story in Genesis.


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  • I am only here today because in 1986, an unfamiliar voice in my head said, “don’t go.” I heeded the warning and missed being t-boned by a red light runner, going 70 mph through the intersection. I know several other people whose lives have been saved by these timely suggestive voices, so it boils down to how they are acted upon.

    I play the popular and violent, Call to Duty and Sniper Ghost Warrior video games frequently. And my dreams are never aggressive. I never harm another person in my dreams or in real life for that matter. But I do think more aggressively and tactically after playing the games. And because of this, I avoid Ginkgo biloba because on my nervous system, it actually drives me…to take risks and make rash decisions. How many of us and young students are high on similar compounds in popular energy drinks these days? “Don’t drink,” is my voice speaking out to you.

  • Hello.

    Most of you would certainly appreciate an article that progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser has written on that very topic:
    He mentionned the case of a woman having recently killed her baby girl after having heard a divine voice in her head.

    Randal is a very honest and insightful thinker, one of the best Christian apologists and I highly recommand my fellow progressive Christians to take a closer look at his papers and wonderful blog.

    James is certainly right that the story is best interpreted as being a strong message to the ancient Hebrews that God does not approve of human sacrifice.
    Yet I take the view of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien that like humans He created in His image, God also writes myths He has the power to make really, historically happen.
    If Abraham was a historical person (which to my mind is quite possible even if the books mentionning him undoubtedly contain historical errors) then I am apriori open to the idea that a similar story occured.

    But of course this raises lots of moral problems. I reject the absurd idea that God can do whatever He wants and is never subject to moral obligations.

    If (like most writers of the OT thought) this earthly life is everything there is, making a father kill his son is clearly a moral atrocity, even or especially for God.

    But what if God is going to give this kid eternal life, so that after a day of mental and physical ordeal he ends up living 10000000…. years in a blissful state?

    I don’t intuitively feel that God would be a moral monster in this situation.
    But even if He granted him eternal happiness, if He ordered an actual sacrifice capriciously without sufficient reasons, I would have a hard time not thinking that the Almighty Himself has serious mental health problems…

    As a Christian, whether or not this tale turns out to be historical isn’t that important, I see through it the sacrifice of Jesus I see as being God’s son and even God’s embodiement in history.
    And like C.S. Lewis I think that the idea of a dying and rising messiah or divine being is one of Jung’s archetypes which also quite a few Pagan authors (imperfectly) figured out.

    Okay, I hope my long comment will provide people with food for thought 🙂

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • Mary

    Dr. McGrath…What is your take on the story of Jephthah’s daughter? (Judges 11:29-40 NLT)

    Personally I find this story more morally problemetic than Abraham and Isaac even though there are no “voices” involved in the story. I am not quite sure that I even believe that the story of Abraham and Isaac ever occured in the first place. The OT has God “speaking” to his followers all the time as part of the story line.

    On the other hand though most people ignore the story of a virgin girl who was brutally sacrificed in exchange for her father’s victory in battle. I find that that story resonates more clearly to me as true because it lacks the overt supernatural element. It is disturbing that in fact God did not intervene to stop this in the story.

    I know this gets away from the mental illness aspect of your post but I never hear anyone talk about this story at all.

    • There is a sense in which the two are rather similar, in the sense that both are problematic when taken on their own, but both may be transformed by the broader context in which they are currently embedded. The author of the Book of Judges regards all the main characters in that book as seriously flawed, and Jephthah’s vow fits him into that category.

      • Mary

        Thanks for responding, however I cannot go with what you just said. While God does not explicitly tell him to kill his daughter, the very fact that he won the battle seems to indicate God’s approval within the context of the story.

        I think that for myself it seems like that there are two aspects to the story. One is the historical sense, where I certainly do think that many, many people discribed in the bible were seriously flawed (even the heros). So within that context what you say makes sense.

        The other aspect of the story is the message, which is there whether or not the story is historically true. The message I get from the story is that human sacrifice is okay in some circumstances according to the God of the OT. I think you know already that I do not take the whole bible literally, but at the same time I think it is appropriate to look at the messages within it.

        I have heard people give the same argument whenever there is a moral problem with the bible. In fact it usually comes from biblical literalists. My question is can you point out to me ANY verse that condemns this man for killing his daughter?

        • No, not any more than I can point you to a verse that condemns Samson for drinking and eating honey from a dead animal as a Nazirite. But from the perspective of later readers familiar with the Torah as a whole, and with the latter prophets, their actions become evidence of the depraved state of the people in that era “in those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit.”

  • arcseconds

    Was child sacrifice really common in those days? I thought that scholars were sceptical about how widespread it was — I’m thinking of the Moloch sacrifice in particular, of which I thought the view these days was it happened rarely, or maybe even not at all.

    Given that there’s a longstanding tradition of accusing people not of your religion of killing and eating babies, I’m inclined to think we ought to take such stories with a grain of salt. I guess the injunctions against child sacrifice do sound like they’re against a practice that the Hebrews might have been inclined to do themselves, but surely it’s possible that the real function of these things is really along the lines of ‘don’t be like those Phonecians! They kill their own babies.’

    Also, is it really plausible to take this text as having as its main function being anti-child sacrifice, but just doing it kind of badly? The text states God was testing Abraham, and it appears he passed that test.

    I still think it’s far more plausible to take this as emphasizing one should obey God in all things, maybe as a side-effect of praising Abraham for being so faithful he obeyed God in all things, up to and including being prepared to sacrifice his son.

    The text certainly seems to think sacrificing Isaac isn’t a good thing to happen, but it might just not be a good thing for Abraham, rather than something detested by God — although it’s compatible with God not really liking it much either. I’d be more inclined to believe that it was once a real child sacrifice story that was cleaned up later once the practice became unacceptable than the story was mainly concocted as an anti-child-sacrifice polemic. Perhaps involving a figure other than Abraham — and certainly a figure other than Isaac!

    And your earlier post rather seems to suggest an interpretation like that, too, because there you encourage us to use other principles we find in the Bible to criticise this. I’m sure you weren’t meaning us to start doubting the anti-child sacrifice message!

    • It isn’t clear how common child sacrifice was. There are laws about every firstborn – animal or human – being offered to God, which on their own (without other laws allowing for the human firstborn to be redeemed with money) sound like they require human sacrifice. And so it may be that the allegation “Don’t do that, it is a foreign practice” may in fact be deceptive, and the practice being combated is on the contrary deeply Israelite.

      I think the story reflects a long history of storytelling, and so I do think that part of its message was to argue against child sacrifice, but there were elements in the story that could not be jettisoned, and the result is that it still presupposes that a deity could ask one to offer one’s child, and be pleased with your willingness to do so, which is still disturbing.

      • arcseconds

        I can see how the logic of sacrifice could result in sacrifice of children. The gods seem to value things much as humans do (for some reason — at any rate, I’ve never heard of any culture supposing that, fortunately, gods value things that are worthless to human beings, and therefore sacrifice fag ends and empty beer cans), and what could be more valuable than your firstborn?

        But I really have difficulty believing that a culture could wind up sacrificing all firstborn as a matter of course. Apart from anything else, in times when childbirth was a difficult affair and mortality (infant and otherwise) high, this would see you as a massive population disadvantage compared to your neighbours, and we know the Hebrews’ neighbours weren’t exactly quiet, peaceful types. Then there’s the economic negative resulting from also killing off a fair proportion of the domesticated animals…

        Also, I don’t know how the Hebrews arranged these things, but often in animal sacrifice, they don’t dematerialize the entire carcass to godland, so it ends up being a bit of a feast for all concerned. So I would think one would need to see animal sacrifice in its entire social context, and not just focus on the religious aspects of it. ‘Sacrifice of the firstborn’ might effectively result in everyone with cows contributing a calf to the common pot. There’s no such practical reason for sacrificing infants (even if we’re to consider the possibility of cannibalism (normally even those cultures that practice cannibalism don’t just boil up family members — cannibalism is seldom, if ever, a merely practical affair), there’s not a lot of good eating on an infant, even after a year).

        It seems to me that it’s far more likely that ‘you owe God your firstborn child’, is a hyperbolic way of reinforcing your indebtedness to God, possibly informed by a practice of sacrificing first-born herd animals.

        • What do you make of Ezekiel 20:25-26?

          • arcseconds

            I’m not saying there’s no evidence of child sacrifice, in the sense that there are indeed things that increase the probability of there being actual child sacrifice over the probability of there being any if we didn’t have those things. And I’m not going to rule it out as impossible.

            But these have to be weighed against the background probability of child sacrifice. And it seems to be incredibly rare: there are only a handful of reasonably secure examples around the world. People just don’t seem to want to kill their own kids for their gods, for some reason. So the background probability has to be considered to be really quite low. Much lower, for example, than matriarchy, vegetarianism or cannibalism, which are rarish but do crop up now and again, and orders of magnitude less likely than animal sacrifice, which is comparatively common.

            And the Ancient Near East doesn’t seem to be a secure example at all. Most of the textual attestations are suggesting that some other culture engages in the practice, which we shouldn’t take at face value. There’s a piece of physical evidence in the form of an infant cemetery in Carthage, but whether or not this was actual child sacrifice is disputed.

            And literally sacrificing all firstborn is surely far less likely than the occasional practice of sacrificing children when in dire need.

            So, coming to Ezekiel 20:25-26 thinking that this practice is highly unlikely, I would look for other explanations. The context is God berating Israel for being a poor excuse for a chosen nation, so again I would suggest hyperbole: early Israel was so bad they even sacrificed all their first-born children.

            Perhaps they misunderstood the background to their own scripture themselves. It may be that, just like us, they looked at scriptures which (let us say) did not arise out of an actual practice of child sacrifice, but rather notionally extended the practice of sacrificing first-born animals to humans to stress how much one really does owe YHWH, and maybe stories of patriarchs being so obedient they’d sacrifice their sons without question (as opposed to ordinary people who would just baulk at this) and thought they told of an actual practice of child sacrifice.

            Also, that passage in Ezekiel, my NOAB4 (finally got it!) tells me, is unusual in other respects, such as the notion that God’s commandments are actually deliberately bad in the form of a punishment. That might lend some credence to the suggestion that there was such a practice, which at the time Ezekiel was written was abhorrent, and this was an odd attempt at reconciling this, although all we really need to believe here is that Ezekiel (or his chronologer) thought there was such a practice.

            Anyway, I’m going way over my pay rate here, as Ian would say. The long and short of it is, that such a practice seems very improbable on the face of it, so I’d need fairly convincing evidence for it to get it even to the status of a real suspicion. I’ll admit that Ezekiel is easier to deal with on the assumption that there was child sacrifice, as are one or two other things, but they don’t seem too difficult to offer alternative explanations for.

          • This is well outside my own area of expertise too, and so perhaps we can get some people who work in these areas in greater depth than I do to chime in…