Friday, 18 May 2007

Remix: Abraham and Isaac

I talked about this briefly with Alexandra the other day, and decided to post on it. I am taking a Bible as Lit class, and on our first day of class, we discussed Abraham and Isaac. Of course, I always prescribed to the amazing story of faith. When we discussed it in class, it kind of rocked me a little. Here's a rough paper on some of my thoughts. They are by no means complete thoughts, just a little something to hopefully get some conversation churning (I hope). And, um. I don't know what's going on with the font. Sorry.

The ultimate story of faith: Abraham, unquestioningly diligent in following the word of God, trudges up the Mount of the Lord to sacrifice his beloved son. The Hebrew term for this long-disputed story is the Akedah, or, the Binding of Isaac. Early rabbinic interpretations quote God, "
'I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac' (using the Hebrew root letters for "slaughter", not 'sacrifice'.)" (McInerny). Rather than a test of loyalty, in seeing if Abraham would kill his beloved son, Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach claimed the commanded sacrifice was meant to be symbolic.

God puts Abraham in quite the moral dilemma: Obey God, commit murder. Save Isaac, disobey God. Even the LDS cover answer for divinely appointed murder cannot fit: there is no risk of an entire nation dwindling in disbelief based on Isaac's living. In fact, God has already covenanted with Abraham in Genesis 21:12 that Abraham's seed will be preserved through Isaac. Theology professors Caspi and Kramer argue that "[Isaac] went together with his father (perhaps having dialogue with his father about the meaning of the sacrifice). In this way, Isaac actively participated in the non-tragic drama of the Akedah" ("Response"). As Sherryll Mleynek rebuts, "There is no textual basis that Abraham knows this is a test. [Caspi and Kramer's] attribution of a second 'dialogue' appears to be based on the wish for such in the context of faith, rather than on any exegetical justification" ("Rejoinder"). The end result that this is a just a test of Abraham's faith is irrelevant to Abraham. Because the text does not support Abraham's understanding, it cannot be assumed. To Abraham, the question truly is, would God have me kill my son? If God had covenanted with Abraham that Abraham's seed would come through Isaac, could it come from God to kill Isaac?

The authoritative Christian reading is that Isaac is a precursor to Jesus. Just as God, the Father, must sacrifice his own son, Abraham must sacrifice his son, like a lamb to the slaughter. Even if this is meant to be a type of Christ, it is incomplete, because Abraham's hand was stayed. How is this taste of sacrifice meant to shed light on the Atonement or the Crucifixion? As a type of Christ, Isaac's sacrifice would have had to accomplish something. Isaac's sacrifice would need to act as a catalyst for something greater, as Jesus' death was the catalyst for the salvation and resurrection for humanity.

While a Christian, type-of-Christ application is irrelevant to the Jewish reader, a Hasidic reading of the text interprets Abraham's inner battle as the pertinent issue. The test was not of Abraham's faith, but of his emotions. "For our Hasidism, had he felt love or pity for Isaac at the akedah, Abraham would have failed the test, even had he sacrificed Isaac!" (Gellam). Abraham had to prove his total devotion to and love for God by eradicating his feelings toward his son.

The Genesis account does not state this is a test of Abraham's faith: "God did tempt Abraham" (Gen. 22:1). Early rabbinic interpretations of the Akedah also refute the notion of a test of faith: "Abraham's imagination led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son" (McInerny). Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi asked "how could God command such a revolting thing?" (McInerny). The divine intervention which prevents the actual sacrifice is curious. God commands/tests/tempts Abraham to sacrifice his son. Surely such a grave command would need to come directly from God in order to be believed, yet when Abraham's hand is stayed, it is on the errand of an angel. If God gave the commandment, would God not need to be the one to revoke it? God shows his mercy and love repeatedly. In his destruction of Sodom, God tells Abraham he would refrain from destroying the city if there were but fifty, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten righteous people. God seems to want to give the benefit of the doubt to his people. The evidence suggests a fair, rational, loving God. Commanding a father to sacrifice his son just as a test of faith is not only unjust, it is cruel and sadistic. The only way to rectify this seemingly cruel joke, is to use the evidence: "God did tempt Abraham." Consistent with God's character, battling temptations are the way to test and prove faith. If God did tempt Abraham, as Genesis states, Abraham was not meant to carry out the sacrifice; Abraham was not meant to attempt the sacrifice. When Abraham yields to temptation, an angel of the Lord stays his hand.

The Akedah may be similar to that of David and Saul: a cautionary tale. God is consistent; man rarely is. When Abraham felt tempted to sacrifice his son, he was tempted with the current trend.
Human sacrifice was a common thing in Abraham's day: as evidenced by Abraham's father's actions. Rarely does God command his child to follow the current trend. "Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required" (McInerny). God is constant and sure. While a story of unwaivering faith is the most common as the interpretation of Abraham and Isaac, a story of temptation is the only one to make sense.


Jeje said...

I have quite a bit to say on the topic. I've thought a lot about this one, and I took a course on the book of Genesis last semester (from one of the foremost Hebrew Bible scholars in the world) which caused me to think about it a little more. Have you read much philosophy? Kant? Kirkkegard? Anyway, I'll say my piece in a couple of days. Unfortunately, I don't have time right now. I'm finishig up my last term paper for the semester . . .

Courtney said...

Well, this will make me look completely uninformed . . . the only Kant I know is what Alexandra has quoted to me. I read Kirkkegard like 4 years ago. Unfortunately, I am not well-read historically or philosophically. Please do share all your thoughts on the subject! (And good luck on the term paper.)

Monica said...

While I am not going to quote Kant or Kirkkegard - I'll leave that to Tania - I would like to address this topic, especially because I often think that some lessons in the scriptures can become so muddled in the commentary of the world, which many of us hear and study on a regular basis.

First, I would say that I disagree that God was "tempting" Adam. As with all translations, I don't think the word "tempt" has the same connotations here as it does in its general usage. Elder McConkie says in Mormon Doctrine that "Temptation - though its existence is essential to God's plan - is not of God, but of the devil." God does not place temptations before us - although he often tries us and tests us by asking things of us that we may not understand and that might be difficult for us to accept. D&C 132:36 says, "Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness." For this to have been a temptation, rather than a command from God, Abraham would have needed to stay his own hand, rather than be commanded to stop by an angel. I think about how difficult it must have been for Abraham to obey the Lord, especially now that I have a child of my own. Here he has been promised that he would be the father of nations, and there is no way that he could have understood the Lord's motives, yet he obeyed the Lord because he loved the Lord and he wanted to do his will, and I believe he understood that the highest laws of the gospel require sacrifice - possibly of anything with which the Lord has blessed us. Because of Abraham's obedience, the Lord renews his covenant with him as a blessing: "And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."

It is very possible that Abraham was tested in such a way, not only to test his faith, but so that we might have his experience to learn from. I think that the story itself functions on a number of levels, two of which I would like to discuss. Jacob 4:5 reads as follows: "Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son." While the Book of Mormon is not a scholarly source you can use in a discussion in most schools, there is a deeper level to this typification of Christ that might be helpful. Not only is the sacrifice symbolic of God sacrificing His son, it also shows how all of us can be granted mercy because of the sacrifice of our Savior. Courtney, you stated that "Even if this is meant to be a type of Christ, it is incomplete, because Abraham's hand was stayed. How is this taste of sacrifice meant to shed light on the Atonement or the Crucifixion?" You state that such a typification would need to be a "catalyst for something greater," yet the ritual of sacrifice itself occurred as a type of Christ for years without really being the type of catalyst that you suggest. While sacrifice was performed for remission of sins, it was not the sacrifice of lambs or doves, but of Christ that allowed for there to be remission of sins at all. The symbolism in the sacrifice of Isaac operates on another, deeper level. The Bible states that God saves Isaac and provides a substitute for him - the ram caught in the thicket. We are all, in a sense, like Isaac. Because of the fall, we all must die, but God has provided a substitute to suffer in our stead and to free us from death - his own son, our Savior (Dallin H. Oaks talks about this in his talk "Bible Stories and Personal Protection" in the November 1992 Ensign). So, this story sheds light on the atonement by not only foreshadowing the sacrifice of the Savior, but by showing the mercy of God in saving his people by sacrificing His own son on our behalf. That is the significance of the incompleteness of the sacrifice. In the end, not only has Abraham demonstrated his faithfulness, but we have been given a story in the scriptures that demonstrates the great love God has for us, His children.

Courtney said...

Monica, that was a really great comment. I really like what you point out about sacrifice and the significance of incompleteness. I completely agree with you. In fact, thank you for pointing that out to me, as my mind has been reeling and has not been able to see any positive in all of this.
I agree with you about the temptation. I intentionally left out the references to the words of God commanding Isaac on purpose. Even in genesis, the footnote translates "tempt" to "test or try." So, I agree with you. I just wanted to play up one theory.
The one thing I still struggle with is God putting Abraham in that situation. It doesn't sit well with me that God would ask Abraham to kill his son when God has covenanted with Abraham his seed will continue through Isaac, let alone the whole murder thing. While God does require sacrifice, I do not believe he would mean us to come to a state of mind where we could kill our own child. It seems cruel and sadistic as just a test to see Abraham's obedience, faith, and diligence. The reference to the Savior aside, I am more concerned about the immediate effects this had on Abraham and Sarah. My mind just can't marry this story to the God I know. Not that I assume I can know everything about God. But it just doesn't seem to match to me.

Monica said...

I agree that the explicity of this command to Abraham is troubling, and I know that it has troubled many others - you're not alone. I've heard similar discussions concerning the Fall as well (among other things). How could God give two contradictory commandments as he did in the Garden? While I was in college, one local minister answered this particular question by stating that the commandments in the Garden of Eden were not contradictory - God's plan must have been for everyone to be happy forever in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve screwed it up by being disobedient. Thus, in his mind, the Savior was the emergency backup plan, necessary only because Eve partook of the fruit. Not only does this kind of misunderstanding have extreme ramifications for an individual's understanding of God and His plan, but it also has extreme ramifications for women in any patriarchal religion that prescribes to Eve as deviant and the cause for all human suffering. This logic leads one to believe that human suffering, trial and tragedy were never part of God's plan. Of course, through the restored gospel, we know that this is not the case. I wonder very much how this minister feels about the story of Isaac, believing as he does that trials serve no purpose for God's children.

To address the issue of contradiction in commandments: just as was true in the Garden of Eden, there must be opposition in all things for us to be able to truly use our agency to follow Christ. Some of the stories in the scriptures that teach us this principle, however, are some of the most difficult to accept and require a great deal of faith, study and prayer.

So, how could it be that a kind and loving God would command Abraham to do something so contrary to the teachings of the gospel? It's a valid question. I think that Abraham's level of obedience was much greater than yours or mine, and he would need, therefore, a more powerful test of his faith and obedience. I agree with you - I don't think that God would put us in "state of mind where we could kill our own child"; that suggests malevolence and cruelty. I doubt very much that Abraham was in a state of mind where he could carry out the deed and accept it fully without tremendous pain and suffering. And I doubt very much that he told Sarah what he planned to do - I doubt she would have allowed it. The immediate impact on Abraham must have been devastating. Of course, Heavenly Father knew that whichever choice Abraham made, his son would be spared. I think it significant that the Lord does not command Abraham to "murder" his son - an act that is cold and calculating - but, rather to "offer" him up as a burnt sacrifice unto the Lord. Even though the command to sacrifice Isaac implies his death, I think that this distinction is necessary to maintain. Think of the difference with Nephi when he is commanded to "slay" Laban. Abraham, was in a sense, asked to give Isaac back to his Father in Heaven. I often wonder if some early Saints would have continued on the trek west if they had been told in advance that they would be required to sacrifice their loved ones along the way. Granted they themselves would not have done the sacrificing, but that was part of the sacrifice they faced in journeying to the land the Lord had designated for them.

So, I think the bigger question here is, why would a loving God make a promise to Abraham and then ask him to give up the only way for that promise to be fulfilled? Why command the sacrifice of Isaac when he covenanted with Abraham that his seed would continue through Isaac? This is the part that requires faith. Abraham doubtless knew that the Lord is bound to the covenants He makes with us when we obey - just as it says in D&C 82:10: "I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise." Abraham had to trust that the Lord would fulfill his promise if he obeyed his command. Great blessing often require great sacrifices, and I wonder if there was truly anything else that Abraham could have given to the Lord that would have been such a poignant statement of his trust in his God. Our trials fit our level of faith and spiritual progression at the time they are given - and in this way they help us to grow. I wonder how much Abraham learned about himself and his faith because God had given him such a difficult trial - not only that, but I wonder what the effect was on Isaac, who saw his father carrying out the will of the Lord, and no doubt saw growth in his own testimony when the Lord intervened to save his life. I still don't know if that is a satisfactory answer, but if nothing else, it gives us all a little more to ponder, pray and discuss. Good discussion, by the way!

Courtney said...

Those are very important questions you ask near the end. I also like the distinction you make between Abraham offering up Isaac to the Lord and a commandment for murder. I do agree that distinction is an important one. One thing I have wondered is if Isaac already had children at this point. Isn't it generally accepted that he was a grown man? He may have had children, which meant that Abraham's seed had already been supplied through Isaac. This would definitely have changed Abraham's mindset. I tend to hate the cop-out answer of "we just can't understand the mind and will of God." (Which I don't think you were suggesting, by the way.) But I think that is very true for this story. Like you said, Monica, Abraham clearly had infinite more faith than I have, so he must have had a very different relationship with God. I suppose that is the thing I can't hope to understand: Abraham's relationship with God.
I think you are right that Abraham most likely did not tell Sarah. This is another thing that bothers me. But you are right, there is no way she would have allowed it. If it was meant to be Abraham's test, Sarah could not have been involved. I suppose I would just like some stories solely about Sarah. Not much I can do there, so I might as well not take a feminist bent while reading the account.
I am going to re-read your response and think about it some more. I think you brought up some very important and valid points.

Alexandra said...

Re Sarah: yes, but just because we don't have anything recorded about her involvement in the binding of Isaac doesn't mean she wasn't actually involved. Who knows, perhaps it could have been just as much a test for her as it was for Abraham. Various pieces of artwork have depicted Sarah as being present... Who knows, right?

Monica said...

Something else I thought of in regards to this question:

How would Abraham's earlier experience of being saved from Pharaoh's priests by God affect his decision to proceed with the sacrifice? The fact that he was to be sacrificed earlier in his life would seem to be more than relevant here. Of course, the account is in the Pearl of Great Price, so it would not be considered by scholars who have commented on this subject. Essentially, Abraham knew that God had the power to save Isaac just as he had saved him, and I would think that this aspect of his faith in God is greatly significant for this trial. It also emphasizes the importance of the sacrifice being incomplete, as I mentioned earlier.

Also, I agree with Alexandra; there is no way to know if Sarah was aware of Abraham's intentions beforehand. We can only speculate on what she may have known and how she dealt with it.

I'd still really like to hear what Tania has to say on this subject...

Michaela Stephens said...

The only thing I can think of that may have been the reason that Abraham was willing to do what God asked him to do and trust is his closeness to God.

Abraham must have had so much experience already with the voice of the Spirit that he knew the source of the command to sacrifice his son.

That he did it without quibble or hesitation is AMAZING, and a measure of his obedience.

That Isaac was willing to submit to it is a measure of his obedience too.

As for the murder thing, we have no way of knowing just how detailed Abraham's ideas were of what constituted murder. Our society breaks things down so precisely with 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree.. and so on. The Law of Moses gets pretty precise. While Abraham was a man of God, we don't know everything he knew and didn't know. He knew human sacrifice to idols was wrong (we know from the Book of Moses), he knew killing people to get their wife was wrong (the Lord warned him how to avoid being a victim of this). If he had records from the beginning, he would have known from the story of Cain and Abel that killing to acquire someone's stuff was wrong. He would perhaps have had records about Noah and the violence of the pre-flood period. Besides these things, we just don't know much else.