What if Abraham Failed the Test?
Posted by BrianJ on May 30, 2010
To be clear, I’m not contemplating, “What if Abraham had failed the test,” as though this post is an exploration of what might have been. No, I want to think about whether or not Abraham actually failed his test.
But before I get there, I’m afraid that there’s a lot of groundwork I need to lay. Please note that my previous post, When Abraham Knew, is a precursor to this post.
What Test? (and which grade?)
The Test of which I speak is, of course, the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the Akedah, the protect-my-son versus obey-my-God test:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:1-2, NIV)
But that doesn’t quite tell us what the test was, it only tells us what the test looked like. In this case, we know what God asked, but we don’t know what he hoped to learn, discover, or observe. I don’t see that God ever explicitly tells Abraham (or us) what the test—meaning, the purpose of the test—was. We don’t know what a “pass” looks like, or a “fail,” an “A” grade or a “C.”
Do we find any hints from scripture?
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” [the angel] said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Gen 22:12)
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. (D&C 132:36)
Not really. In the first, the angel only reports what the test revealed about Abraham; it’s not a grade or judgment, just a report. We can place value on that observation—“fearing God is a good thing”—but the text doesn’t. Even if we assume that the text agrees with us (a pretty safe assumption), we don’t know if that was the best possible “grade.”
The second verse reads somewhat like the first: it’s a report on what Abraham chose, followed by how God chose to respond. But was it the best possible response? the hoped-for response? The text doesn’t say.
(James 2:21-23 and Hebrews 11:17 also comment on Abraham’s test.)
What Was Abraham Thinking?!
You know how sometimes, when you totally misunderstood a test question, the professor awarded partial credit for your answer (even though it was waaaay off) because at least your answer made sense within the context of your misunderstanding? Let’s suppose that God can grade that way too. (Not too far-fetched, I think.) Within that framework, what Abraham had in mind is as important as what God had in mind. Or, to put it another way, the “right answer” is to some degree determined not by God, the author of the test, but instead by Abraham.
We can’t know what Abraham was thinking, but let’s look at just some broad possibilities. Remember that previous post asking about the timeline of Abraham’s understanding? Here’s where that’s important.
Typically, I find in discussions of Abraham that most people view him as a knowledgeable, enlightened prophet who possessed a near-perfect understanding of the Gospel. We’ll take that as one extreme. On the other end of the spectrum, let’s consider that Abraham knew only as much about Jehovah as the texts (both Genesis and Abraham) tell us; i.e., not very much. I’m not going to go into detail here, but take a quick skim of the Book of Abraham in particular and see just how little is explicitly taught about Jehovah/Christ. (Topics that are covered: eternal nature of spirits, brief mention of the priesthood, God is greater than all, view of the creation, etc.) Basically, we have a man who knows that Jehovah exists, is powerful, and makes promises. If there was any instruction about the future role of Jehovah as savior and redeemer, or the atonement, etc., then it existed as a type or symbol that might only be recognized as such in hindsight (e.g., by people like us who have the New Testament).
Let’s consider, then, how Abraham’s possible views might influence how he thought of the command to sacrifice Isaac (meaning, how he thought of it before heading up the mountain):
1) Total knowledge: Abraham might have thought, “I’m pre-enacting the crucifixion, where I’m in the role of God and Isaac is Jesus.”
2) Total ignorance: Abraham might have thought, “Jehovah is an awful lot like all the other gods in Canaan; namely, he likes human sacrifice.”
3) Something in between: There are too many possibilities here to consider, but I just wanted to throw this in here to indicate that I don’t think this discussion should start and end at the two extremes. For example, if Abraham understood some aspects of faith and resurrection (but not anything about Jesus Christ specifically), then the Akedah could have been a test of whether he believed God would resurrect Isaac so that the covenant could continue through him as promised.
There are many other questions we could ask about Abraham’s gospel knowledge, ethics, expectations, etc.:
Did Abraham think it wrong to:
a) kill innocent people?
b) kill his son?
c) disobey God?
What did Abraham think was at stake?
a) his covenant (with Isaac dead, the covenant is null)
b) his soul (killers are damned)
What did Abraham expect in return?
a) his son to be resurrected
b) to call God’s bluff
c) to have another son
d) to lose everything
I don’t think that any of that is answered in our texts, and yet so often I feel that discussions on Abraham revolve around only one set of questions and reach only one set of conclusions. But any change in the combination of questions we ask above or the answers we give would change how we view Abraham’s thought process, the decisions he made, and ultimately the lessons we take away from it all.
What Was God Thinking????
Underlying all this is the question I brought up earlier: what was God’s goal? Just as the way we view Abraham’s thinking changes our interpretation of the story, so does how we view God’s thinking. Let’s look at just three possibilities. God wanted to…
1) …test Abraham’s obedience. Result: Abraham passed.
2) …test Abraham’s willingness to personally sacrifice. Result: Abraham feared what God would do to him if he disobeyed—more than he feared for his own son.
3) …explore Abraham’s ethics. Result: Abraham valued obedience more than innocent life.
There’s actually a third part to this series, but for now I want to wrap this part up.
How we interpret the story of Abraham and Isaac is heavily influenced by assumptions we make about both God and Abraham—assumptions that, for the most part, are not supported (or refuted!) by the text. We often assume, for example, that Abraham knew what he was typifying (Christ’s sacrifice), and that assumption allows us to look past the abhorrent brutality of what Abraham was willing to do. On the other hand, if we assume that Abraham was totally ignorant of most of what we today understand as the Gospel, then we see him as pretty much doing what a lot of his contemporaries did: offer innocent humans as sacrifices to their gods. Interestingly, this assumption also let’s us let Abraham off the hook: yes, he was about to do something that is repugnant to us, but we blame his society, not him.
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