A Test it is Better to Fail

A Test it is Better to Fail October 22, 2014

Rachel Held Evans blogged about the story of Abraham trying to sacrifice Isaac, on the same day that I was scheduled to speak to a group of local artists about the story. She said what I personally consider the most appropriate response:

I’d like to think that even if those demands thundered from the heavens in a voice that sounded like God’s, I’d have sooner been struck dead than obeyed them. 

Neil Carter commented on the post, and reflected on the implications of religious attempts to defend Abraham, and along with him the stories about Canaanite genocide and other such details. He writes:

Moser AkedahWhen I tell people I’m an atheist, the most common (and most exasperating) response I get is: “Well, without God, where do you get your morals from?”  Inevitably they will tell me that I cannot have an objective framework for morality if I don’t believe in spirits and afterlives (which is rubbish), but the irony is that between the two of us, my challenger is actually the one who cannot categorically condemn any moral choice we could make. John Piper will tell you in a heartbeat that killing your child is totally legit if God tells you to do it, because the Bible tells him so.

In the end, if whatever God tells you to do is right, then morality is fundamentally relative.  Once you’ve decided on that way of thinking, it inevitably devolves into a theological debate about God’s feelings.  This is a highly subjective discussion, of course, since one of the key tenets of monotheism is that if there is a God, you’re probably not him.  So how is it that you feel qualified to determine what he wants and what he doesn’t (and for that matter, why it has to be a “he”)?  It’s your word against another man’s word, not God’s word against everyone else’s.  You can try saying “but the Bible says,” except that’s really the word of more people just like you.  Any attempt to deny this leads to untenable absurdity because the Bible isn’t even consistent with itself.  Biblical writers didn’t all see everything the same way.

Libby Anne also mentioned the post, indicating that “talking back to God” is not only Biblical, but it is something highlighted in the Jewish tradition. It isn’t a rejection of God (despite what some of Rachel Held Evans’ critics have said). Indeed, the Jewish tradition has a long history of being puzzled about why Abraham didn’t discuss this with God in the way he discussed and debated and bargained when God told him about Sodom and Gomorrah.

Of related interest, Martin LaBar blogged about Isaac and Jesus, while Jeremy Smith blogged about looking for the minority report in the Bible.

At the workshop I mentioned at the start of this post, another presenter surveyed a wide range of art related to the story of the binding of Isaac, including the depiction in the recent Bible miniseries. Can you honestly watch this without flinching or being disturbed?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ4H3Qgk-Kw
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  • histrogeek

    There is the long-standing rabbinic tradition that Abraham failed God’s test by NOT arguing against the sacrifice and that the angel at the end of the story is God needing to pull Abraham back from the brink of tragedy.

    • R Vogel

      What I think is really fascinating is there is a long standing rabbinic tradition of struggling with the Akedah. Really struggling with it. What I often find most disturbing about the conservative Christian approach to the Hebrew Scriptures in particular is the lack of struggle.

      • histrogeek

        The conservative Christian approach to most everything difficult is to deny difficulty. I’m not sure if that speaks to an appalling lack of insight or an appalling surplus of denial.

        • That quote deserves to be circulated. Should it be attributed to “histrogeek” or to some other name?

          • histrogeek

            Chris Nelson or histrogeek.

        • Barry_D

          “The conservative Christian approach to most everything difficult is to deny difficulty. I’m not sure if that speaks to an appalling lack of insight or an appalling surplus of denial.”

          I think that to a large degree it is the theology of people who expect themselves (or those like them) to hold
          power.

          It’s the theology of the person expecting to hold the knife, and not to feel the edge.

          It’s the theology of the person expecting worldly power to harm others, not themselves.

          It’s the theology of the person expecting themselves to be the instruments of harm, rather than the harmed.

          Note that when these people see worldly power which is not like them, or answerable to them, they do *not* bow their heads and say ‘Thy Will be Done’, but howl in rebellion.

        • James Walker

          I’m not sure that final sentence is really an “or” proposition… the two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive.

    • Jennifer Rose Avery

      I literally read your comment and then used it when I debated with someone who doesn’t like Christianity. Thank you. 🙂

  • Johannes Richter

    Are arguments that attempt to put the mock offering of Isaac in perspective by pointing to an ancient “benchmark” of child sacrifice – which someone like Abraham might have taken for granted – at all persuasive, or just a modern rationalisation?

    • R Vogel

      If I understand you question, I think it is anything but a modern rationalization. To understand what the author of a story was trying to communicate, don’t we have to try and understand the environment in which he was writing? Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz made the interesting point that for the intended audience it likely would not have been the divine command for child sacrifice that would have been shocking, but the divine interruption.

      • Yes, I think that there is a good case to be made that the author was using Abraham to combat the practice of child sacrifice, which had once been not merely common but required in ancient Israel. Within the framework of the story, Abraham assumes that child sacrifice is something that God may legitimately ask for, and so it remains disturbing. But asking about the author’s possible aims in the context in which the story was later retold, the message conveyed is that this was a test of Abraham, and God never intended for him to go through with it, and since the story exists, no one else can be tested in the same way.

        • R Vogel

          I may not be fully grasping what you are saying. If it was assumed to be within the bounds of what G*d can ask for, how was it a test?

          • Assumed within the bounds of what God can ask for in what would have been Abraham’s time, or in the time of the reader? In the era of the kingdom of Israel, we have laws that require the sacrifice of the firstborn. Later, these were replaced with laws that allows a substitution, presumably sometime after Jeremiah said that child sacrifice was something that never entered God’s mind, and Ezekiel said that it was God testing the nation with “laws that were not good.” I presume that the Abraham story as we now have it stems from that later period, and is an attempt to combat child sacrifice by depicting Abraham as being tested with a command to sacrifice his child, but also being commanded not to go through with it.

          • I can understand that child sacrifice might have been more common at the time of the writing, but don’t understand how this passage is against it.

            No commandments or wisdom sayings are provided to teach against child sacrifice (though the OT is chock full of such things). Instead, Abraham is praised for his obedience.

            “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.””

            The lesson here seems to be blind obedience. If this was a test, then by not withholding his son from sacrifice, Abraham passed with flying colors.

            I think it’s great that later rabbinic traditions struggled with the text and sought to ameliorate the story. But it’s very hard to see such an intent in the original passage.

          • histrogeek

            The fact that God stopped the sacrifice and then supernaturally substituted a ram for Isaac is the usual explanation for why this is against child sacrifice.

            The interpretation is that this is a just-so story, before people might have been sacrificed to God, but since then we know they shouldn’t. Abraham as the faithful archetype is shown as being obedient both as the killer of his son and as the person who initiated the respectable substitute.

          • Johannes Richter

            If you are right, I think it might be a mistake on our part to read the whole story as if the author is only a spectator to events unfolding. That is part of our horror: that apart from the conclusion, everything seems like business as usual with nobody from the audience objecting.

            But there seem to be clues that Abraham has some of the author’s insight into what is happening. In verse 7 we actually hear from Isaac himself – the only time he speaks – and he happens to ask a question that conveniently allows Abraham to give the prophetic answer “God himself will provide the lamb…” (v.8). As if Abraham is lying to his son for our benefit. It is just too staged for me to think we can take everything in the story at face value in order to prop up our modern moral outrage.

          • Sounds like a stretch to me. Abraham goes through all of this rigamarole, secretly knowing that the angel would stop his hand? Very doubtful. The text blesses and praises him for not withholding his son. Envisioning Abraham with no expectation that the death will actually occur is completely at odds with the praise for his great obedience.

          • Johannes Richter

            My point is that “the text” is not an objective observer, and the reader is not just a fly on the wall, but a participant.

            The beginning of the story has the end in mind, since there must be an awareness of the story’s arc for Isaac’s convenient question and Abraham’s prophetic answer. That evidence for a “winking narrator” makes the straightforward reading literalistic and tortuous – you would have to explain Abraham’s “lie” as a lucky coincidence.

          • According to many scholars, your “winking” was supplied by a later redactor, an interpolation to an older tale. You may be right about the redactor’s intentions, but even then, the emphasis of the story is obedience.

            In “King Manasseh and child sacrifice: biblical distortions of historical realities”, Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou notes:

            “It may be that the biblical story contains traces of a tradition in which Abraham does sacrifice Isaac, for in Gen.22:19 Abraham appears to return from the mountain without Isaac”

          • Well, Abraham is certainly obedient as the killer of his son, but the substitute had to be “supernaturally” provided. This kind of obedience – blind obedience – is one of the worst aspects of religions. (and some governments)

          • Johannes Richter

            “No commandments or wisdom sayings are provided to teach against child sacrifice …”

            Deuteronomy 12:31 “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

          • Wow. I’ve seen deceptive quoting before, but this is a bit much. Finish my statement, please:

            “No commandments or wisdom sayings are provided to teach against child sacrifice (though the OT is chock full of such things).”

            Did you notice the parenthetical? Yes, it’s not like the OT couldn’t command against child sacrifice. It does, in fact, as you’ve pointed out. (Alhough it’s hard to square such passages against all the examples of God calling down slaughter upon children: Exodus 12:29-30, Leviticus 26:21-22, Isaiah 13:15-18, Hosea 9:11-16, Ezekiel 95-7, … even in the following chapter, Deuteronomy 32, the death penalty for family members who suggest following other Gods)

            But the Abraham/Isaac story gives no such command in context. Abraham’s obedience is the “moral” of the story. The text says as much.

          • histrogeek

            It’s not that hard to square the commands against child sacrifice with other violence against children (not that I’m suggesting those passages are moral examples).

            Sacrifice is a specific religious ritual, while the other acts of violence are not part of such a ritual. To give non-serious parallel there is a difference between missing meals, dieting, and fasting even though all of them involve not eating.

          • Well, sure, you can make “sense” of a religion that prohibits the ritual of child sacrifice on one hand, while celebrating a God who takes vengeance by killing children on the other hand.

            I’m just not sure it’s a religion you would want to emulate.

            Really, I just brought up those examples to demonstrate to Johannes the problems with pulling scriptures out of context.

          • histrogeek

            Fair enough. I don’t celebrate the bloody violence in the Bible, or really anywhere in history (and of course Genesis is not a history in any sense). In the context of the Ancient Near East, the violence made sense and prohibiting child sacrifice was seen as an amazing bit of moral self-congratulations by the Hebrews. Sort of like how Americans patted themselves on the back for, say accepting the Geneva Protocols on treatment of Japanese or Vietnamese POWs while pummeling civilians from the air.

          • I agree. I realize that when I described a “religion” that:

            “prohibits the ritual of child sacrifice on one hand, while celebrating a God who takes vengeance by killing children on the other hand”

            I’m certainly not describing all Christians (or even all Muslims). But there are enough Christians (and Muslims) in the world who do rationalize biblical violence in such a way that they feel justified in promoting violence even today (in the form of death penalties, gun advocacy, “holy” war, or worse from the extremists).

            This is why I think we shouldn’t shy away from the darker nature of holy texts that reflect a more barbaric time in human history. Instead of constantly rationalizing biblical texts, sometimes you just have to say – “this verse reflects an uglier, more violent time in our religious history. We have made ethical progress since the time of this writing, and now reject the morality portrayed.”

          • Johannes Richter

            Why would you jump to accusations? I obviously saw the parenthetical, but “such things” was ambiguous.

          • er … I don’t think I jumped to accusations … your incomplete quotation was deceptive, even if unintentionally so.

            You must have skimmed the comment; because what could the phrase “such things” mean except it’s immediate antecedent.

            At any rate, I think Ken has an interesting take on the difference between the Deuteronomist’s approach to child sacrifice and that of earlier sources.

          • R Vogel

            I agree that the story as an injunction against child sacrifice seems hard to fathom. But I don’t think it has to be about blind obedience either. I think the problem is created when we consider Abraham and Isaac like they are actual people playing these things out, rather than characters. It is similar to the book of Job where G*d allows his family to be killed in the beginning and then gives him a new family in the end and we are supposed to think this is restoration. Sons and daughters are just sons and daughters, not actual people. Isaac is Abraham’s son, but more important to the story he is the fulfillment of G*d’s promise to him. The promise that Abraham completely uprooted his life for. The promise he has waited decades for. The MacGuffin, if you will. Perhaps the test is less about ‘will you kill your son’ which in the historical context would probably be answered, ‘sure, why not?’ but more about are willing to sacrifice the promise which you have spent you entire life waiting for? The fact that the promise is fulfilled in a person is hard for us to separate, especially when many of us were taught that these we historical narratives not stories, but people are often used as devices in the bible in this way.

            What I guess I am trying to say is perhaps this story is more about idolatry than human sacrifice. The two seem to often go hand-in-hand in the bible which may explain the later conflation. G*d is challenging Abraham over whether the MacGuffin has become an idol.

          • So children in the passage are “idols” or “MacGuffins”? The moral has to do with idolatry rather than obedience? I don’t see ancient religious prohibitions against idolatry as much better than commands for obedience (two sides of the same coin really). There is nothing in this interpretation that gives me a greater appreciation for the verse.

          • R Vogel

            Not ‘children,’ Isaac. In the story of Abraham, Isaac is the fulfillment of G*d’s promise. The thing which Abraham has been pursuing for most of his life. Now G*d tests him to see if he is willing to give it up. You may not like the prohibition against idolatry but that is not the point. My proposition is that when people read this story like a recounted historical event we can’t help but be repulsed by it from a 21st century perspective that is framed by the inherent worth of individuals. It’s a father preparing to kill his son! If we consider the historical context and the broader narrative within which it is presented, Isaac may be being used as a device to address a different issue, an issue central in Judaism’s development toward monotheism. So rather than a father killing his son, it is Abraham sacrificing the fulfillment of G*d promise that has informed his whole life.

          • Yes, I understand the interpretation, and it’s clear in other passages that Isaac and Ishmael often represent whole nations, especially to the Deuteronomist redactors who were competing for a religion centered on Jerusalem rather than the surrounding nations and territories.

            The story has been influenced by multiple ancient traditions, and while you will find rabbinical treatments of the story with the symbolic meanings you cite, there are also ancient rabbinical treatments that do frame Isaac as having the inherent worth of an individual.

            To claim that it is merely a “21st century perspective” to see Isaac as a person or even the event as being historical, is to ignore much of the ancient rabbinical writings on the passage. Religious writers have been troubled by the personal ramifications of this story since before Christ, much less the 21st century.

          • R Vogel

            I am not denying any of the Rabbinical writings surrounding the Akedah. But Rabbinical writings are also interpretive and most are not much older than 2000 years. The text in question is far older. I am simply trying to propose a different framing based on what we both acknowledged was a challenge in interpreting the text in relation to the original context. If it was a test, it was a rather strange one if child sacrifice was widespread. It’s not like him being willing to sacrifice his son would have any special meaning in a place where many of the local religions did so. There is no direct command to not sacrifice children after the event, just G*d blessing him for being willing to. After the fact you can see how this could serve to support the Jewish prohibition, but I think it is difficult to make it out to be an anti-child sacrifice text.

            I did not mean to imply that finding the divine command to sacrifice his son as abhorrent is exclusively a 21st Century perspective, but I can see how it came across that way. I was trying to say something about the flavor of the current discussion. You are completely correct that this has been a hot topic for millenia. Much of the Rabinnical discussion I have read has focused on the character of G*d, in specific is G*d bound to act morally in the same way we are or are the laws for the subjects and not the King. And you have a lot written about Abraham, the whole ‘suspension of the ethical’ and what not. I haven’t read a whole lot focused on Isaac himself. If you have anything you can direct me to, that would be great.

          • “I think it is difficult to make it out to be an anti-child sacrifice text”

            I completely agree. I don’t think you can make it out as either for or against child sacrifice; it is simply a text in which child sacrifice is part of the historical/cultural milieu.

          • Also, to be fair, if I’m not wrong the “God” asking for Isaac’s murder is the elusive “Elohim”, while the “God” sparing the child is “Jahweh”; so, as you has pointed out, this tale has to do with the Jewish people rejecting their pagan neighbours’ blood sacrifices involving children.

          • That might be the purpose of the last redactor. Some scholars propose that if you separate the Elohim text, you have an early version of the story in which Abraham goes through with the sacrifice of Isaac.

          • Michael Wilson

            Good post R Vogle. Your right that we should not focus on the murder of a child, this is not history, this is fairy tale, Isaac is not a real individual but a symbol for Abrahams ultimate desire. God is his ultimste duty. This story still has relevance for us if we imagine God as love and truth, are we willing to turn our back on these ideals to attain our ultimate desires?

          • Johannes Richter

            It seems to me that isolating any of the different layers to the story detracts from the meaning that emerges when they function together, and leaves us responding to ghosts of the intended story. It is never ‘just’ history, or ‘just’ fiction:

            1) There is the “factual” layer in which a good Chaldean called Abraham obeys his God. This is the Sitz im Leben where child sacrifice is the order of the day and “Isaac” probably doesn’t return.

            2) Then there is a layer where the story is a slice of history in which “Elohim” asks Abraham for a sacrifice, who obeys, no questions asked. Fortunately for Isaac, God calls it off at the last moment and declares it was just a test. The story develops strictly chronologically and begins and ends with Abraham’s blind, unquestioning obedience to a God who (evidently) might require something immoral at any moment. This is also the primary or “foundational” layer where fundamentalistic readings are most common: here we have to take the story at face value and metaphorical or symbolic intepretations are suspect. The conclusions we may draw about its truth depend mostly on it having happened “like the Bible says”.

            3) In the layer in which all of the above are given, the elements are mediated by a narrator and the audience is expected to react to them. Here, the words “God will provide” confirms both Abraham’s obedience and Isaac’s salvation. Contrary to what someone familiar with the first layer would assume, Abraham doesn’t fail the test when he spares Isaac. In fact, his example of obedience forces the audience to reconsider what obedience to God actually means, given the fact that “Elohim” turned out to be “Yahweh”, the redemptive God (cf. Exodus 6:3). The implications for the audience are inextricably bound up with the implications for Abraham and Isaac.

            That third layer is what allowed a prophet like Hosea to declare that God ‘desire[s] mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings’ (6v6) without being thrown out of the Bible. The existence of redactions and multiple traditions may be disturbing to second layer readers because it seems to take power away from the text and putting it in the hands of someone with “an agenda” and “other influences” (*gasp* Sumerians! Babylonians! Egyptians!). But I for one am a Christian because of those redactions, not in spite of them. I feel emboldened by them to listen for the voice of “Yahweh”, which I am sure is what Jesus (i.e. Yeshua, ‘Yahweh rescues’) had in mind when he in turn quoted Hosea: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matt.12:7).

            There may be nothing deaf or blind about that form of obedience – it is inherently disruptive.

          • I like the idea that religious story-telling is continuously “redacted” to progressively more ethical and universal ways of thinking. I would hope that this could continue even today.

            Can you elaborate on what you mean by obedience that is inherently disruptive?

          • Johannes Richter

            We are in the ‘Progressive Christianity’ section, after all.

            The progression exists in the Bible itself. So much so that the differences can be jarring when you try to read it all on the same level. It is much less so when you see its contents as reflecting this trajectory/tradition, which, for Christians, Jesus epitomises: obeying Jesus is obeying love is obeying God (John 15:10-14). As Fred Clark over at slacktivist explains: obedience is always about epistemology [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2014/10/23/just-take-everything-down-to-highway-61-obedience-is-always-about-epistemology/] – “the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.”

            The moment you relate it to a person, or measure it against love, “obedience” ceases to be something that can be isolated from any other consideration, or “blind”. As with epistemology of science, obedience to the rules of conduct actually imply that scepticism and doubt is part of the process.

          • That’s the most enlightened description of obedience I’ve heard of. I’ve always thought of obedience precepts as one of the least attractive parts of religions and ideologies.

            But obedience to love is a notion I could get behind!

  • Liz Delafield

    Interesting article. I had some similar thoughts about this. http://liz4528.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/abraham-and-isaac.html
    If only Abraham’s children today would listen to the voice of the angel, and put down the knife.

  • Ken

    Genesis 22 is more troubling if you read it with the Documentary Hypothesis in mind, since the first ten verses setting up the sacrifice use “God” (the E source). Then in verse 11 it switches over to “LORD” for the angel, the alternative sacrifice, and the promise.

    It’s also notable that in verse 19 Abraham – not Abraham and Isaac – return to the young men; and that Isaac does not appear again in the E source. For that matter he’s not a major figure in what we have, and many of his stories (Abimelech king of Gerar, the wells of Beersheba) duplicate Abram stories. Even the writer thought it important to explain these duplications, with “there was a famine, besides the one in the days of Abraham” and the like.

    • Interesting! I had not noticed that particular divergence of sources.

  • Some additional resources from Rachel Held Evans about the story: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/abraham-isaac-resources

  • NelsonRobison

    What surprises me is the fundamentalist Christian tradition of complete obeisance to a deity that is formed in their image. Who hates what they hate, thinks the way that they think and acts as they act. I am certain that the story of Abraham and Isaac is one of those tests that Abraham failed for one simple reason, he gave up his conscience to a deity that he knew nothing about, or actually the Christians would have us believe that Abraham was an automaton who obeyed without question the story of Isaac’s sacrifice.

    Given their predilection for having people obey them, pastors and teachers of fundamentalist thought must qualify their beliefs with some kind of sacrificial order from their god.

  • dj

    What has never made sense to me, no matter how you argue the story, is that isaac is only saved physically. The psychological trauma would remain. And that was all a-ok with the god of this story.