Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

Conclusions

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.

34 Responses to “What if Abraham Failed the Test?”

  1. […] What if Abraham Failed the Test? […]

  2. NathanG said

    I haven’t skipped to the exciting conclusion yet. I don’t assume to be correct, but this is my take.

    I would say that I have always read it as test of obedience (and I might add faith) from God’s perspective with Abraham offering an Adam-like Abraham response, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.”

    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.

    I can’t say that I’ve ever read it with the assumption that Abraham knew what he was typifying.

    Interesting set of questions to think through more options. Thanks.

  3. joespencer said

    I’ll confess I’m not terribly sympathetic to (or really at all even interested in) concerns about moments like this in scripture, especially where those concerns can be said to be, ultimately, ethical. But I do think it’s crucial to see what the text itself “requires” of us and to discard what our assumptions “require” of us, and that in the name of making sense of scripture as normative. In other words, it wouldn’t bother me if the narrative ultimately must be read in all the most ethically horrific ways; I have no problem dispensing with the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century obsession with ethics. But what I’d like to know is what the text actually does say, and, so, what it “requires” of us if we regard it as normative.

    All that said, it seems to me that we need to get to work both exegetically and (only then) hermeneutically on all the relevant texts, sorting out their meanings and possibilities. And I’d like to read that kind of task as an implicitly enjoined one in your post, Brian.

    To start: what is happening in Jacob 4:5, particularly if that verse is read in light of the entire Nephite prophetic (and hence messianic) tradition?

  4. Robert C. said

    Brian, I like how you call into question the meaning of this phrase “accounted unto him for righteousness” (D&C 132:36; cf. Gal 3:6 and Jacob 4:5, as Joe brought up). That is, this phrasing seems to me to emphatically leave open the possibility that another response, if done with a righteous heart, or something, could also have been “accounted unto him for righteousness.” Hmmm…..

    • Robert C. said

      (Notice by the way, the similar wording in Psalm 106:31, in reference to the violent act of Phineas in Numbers 25:7-8….)

      • joespencer said

        And note that this phrasing appears in a crucial Abrahamic text: Genesis 15. And note further that Paul draws heavily on that passage in his argument regarding Abraham in Romans. This phrase is theologically central.

  5. Matthew said

    Joe (#3), I’m sure that, given my other post, you won’t find it surprising that your view “it wouldn’t bother me if the narrative ultimately must be read in all the most ethically horrific ways” is very different from mine since that post deals specifically with a text (Jericho & Achan) which seems to me to require reading it in an ethically horrific way which bothers me. I feel as though your comment takes something which can be good to a logical extreme which shows the danger in it.

    So, can you help me understand the following. I know from our past discussions that you take the scriptures very seriously in terms of how they impact your life. So I know that they are much more for you than an academic pursuit. But when I read that sentence (the “it wouldn’t bother me…” one), it seems as though it is all about an academic exercise in understanding the text. I don’t understand how something can be completely at odds with your values and yet not bother you. An interesting thought experiment…could you imagine anything which if it were in the old testament would bother you? You have given us an extreme so I’m trying to understand just how extreme your view is. Possible example: supposing there were a scripture which said that God commanded everyone of the tribe of Levi on a certain day to find the person they least liked outsider their tribe and then torture and murder that person. If presented with such a story in the Old Testament, would you say “and what does this text itself require of me?”

    Or, to put it in another way, 2 Ne 33:11 tells us we have the responsibility to judge whether what we are reading are the words of Christ or not. In your view should this act of judgment be part of how we read the story of Jericho/Achan? If so, how does it fit in?

    I am reminded of the exegesis on 1 Ne 15:1-3 on the Feast wiki. I think it was written by Nate, but not sure. You may remember this exegesis as you also commented on it on the discussion page. In any case, to ask the same question, in one more context, is the view you express above consistent with the idea presented there which prioritizes Nephi’s reaction (seeking revelation to understand) above Laman and Lemuel’s (focusing on the meaning of the text itself)?

  6. joespencer said

    Matthew says: “I don’t understand how something can be completely at odds with your values and yet not bother you.”

    I respond: Well, that’s the trick. Wherever I find the scriptures to be completely at odds with my values, I assume (or try very hard to assume) that there’s something wrong with my values. This is something like what your dad was saying on the other thread: I see our task vis-a-vis scripture as one of finding the truth in the text, a truth that should shape us. The point, I think, is to allow the text constantly to call my values into question, to alert me to the possibility that my values are idolatrous—even and especially where they seem fundamentally self-evident. And that must be coupled with my constant recognition that my interpretation of a given text might itself be idolatrous: if I read, say, the Jericho story as giving me warrant to be violent, other scriptural texts should give me pause about that interpretation, alerting me to the possibility that that interpretation is also idolatrous.

    In a word, my deepest concern here is that scripture is something meant to call into question whatever we take for granted—whether what we take for granted in an extra-scriptural (or even scripturally derived) set of values or a facile interpretation of a scriptural text. When we come up against texts like those under discussion here, I should hope that they help us to realize that there may be something idolatrous in our being scandalized by violence. But when we come up against texts like the sermon on the mount, I should hope that they help us to realize that we must be very careful about how we interpret what seem to be violence-inspiring texts.

    In response to the thought experiment: Now this is a purely academic exercise. I might have, in response, to offer a theoretical or hypothetical “yes,” but I don’t think that answer means much: we don’t have those kinds of texts to respond to. What makes my approach to scripture here not merely an academic exercise is that I’m interested only in what the texts in front of me have to teach me. Obviously, the story in Genesis 22 doesn’t require of me that I immediately take my son up on the mountain—that would be a terrible interpretation of the text. But I think it does require things of me, at least to change my thinking so that I relate to the world in a new way. That, it seems to me, is immensely practical.

    As for 2 Nephi 33:11, isn’t your reading a bit free with the text. It seems to me that Nephi means something different with the word “judge” than you’re reading into him. He seems much more stubborn or even militant in the larger passage, giving the word “judge” (which he places in the imperative) the meaning: “Be quite sure you feel comfortable dismissing this text, because that decision will make all the difference in the world.” So, yes, we have the responsibility to judge whether the words in question are the words of Christ, but Nephi is quite clear that if we decide that they are not the words of Christ, we might be placing our eternal selves in very compromising circumstances. I suppose all I’m saying, in the end, is that I agree strongly with Nephi’s sentiments.

    And finally, as for 1 Nephi 15:1-3, I think I would modify the appropriation of the text slightly. Nephi is there sorting out how one deals with spoken, rather than written, and contemporary, rather than ancient (or even century-and-a-half-old), revelation. Nephi has a very different methodology when he comes up against written scripture (his dealing with Isaiah being an obvious case study, where he develops a rigorously distinct model of interpretation he calls “likening,” a model we seldom take the time to make any sense of). When we’re dealing with texts—and I really think Nephi is exemplary on this point, though it would take a bit of work to demonstrate it—I think that careful exegesis is a crucial first step on the way to receiving revelation, but that is not at all to say that the aim is not to come to revealed truth(s). Exegesis is a necessary beginning point, but it is anything but the end.

    Am I getting clearer?

    • Matthew said

      I find your interpretations insightful. In these cases I certainly think your interpretation of 2 Ne 33:11 and 1 Ne 15:1-3 are better than what I offered. Now to focus on what you say about 2 Ne 33:11…

      I also strongly agree with Nephi’s sentiments in exactly the way you say it. But I still don’t see where in your process you leave room to exercise this “responsibility to judge whether the words in question are the words of Christ.” In the same vein as the comment I made on the other post, I suggest that Christ wasn’t and isn’t a proponent of people slaughtering innocent people. (Is this a controversial claim? I hope not.) To the degree that the story suggest otherwise, it is wrong.

      I like Nephi’s thought experiment. If I have to imagine myself at the bar of judgment face to face with Joshua, will I be able to repeat the same words I say here? Yes because in doing so I am not rejecting Christ or his teachings but rather affirming them.

      • joespencer said

        I think we may be in agreement.

        Maybe I can put what I’ve been trying to argue this way: What we’ve got to avoid is deciding that we know what the texts mean, whether we have reference to anti-violent texts or whether we have reference to violent texts. Whenever we claim self-evidence (obviously Jesus would be against violence in every form, or even in this particular form), I fear we’re beginning from ideologies (“philosophies of men”) and only then turning to scripture. At the same time, we must be skeptical of stories that suggest a violent God, simply because we have the New Testament. But that skepticism must be skepticism, not dogmatic self-assurance grounding dismissal.

        To work out our salvation with fear and trembling is, in part, to recognize that God might be completely different from what I’m so sure He must be. (And though I mean to make reference to Paul, there is obviously a bit of Kierkegaard in my reference as well.)

  7. JOE said

    Interesting ideas, but I question a couple of your assumptions here.

    First, why assume that Abraham only knew as much as the text includes? I’m no literary scholar, but it seems to me that each text has some purpose, and an audience. Would any text that became scripture have as its purpose, “Hey look how much I know about the Gospel”? Do you think, for instance, that everything that President Monson knows about the Gospel could be derived from a few of his General Conference addresses? While understanding of the Plan of Salvation may have varied from dispensation to dispensation, I think an understanding that there would be a sacrifice and Atonement has been pretty consistent. See, eg. Nathan’s comment above about Adam.

    Second, I know we all are influenced by our professions, but I think we should be aware of that before assuming God thinks like people in our field. Why are you assuming God thinks like a professor or that his idea of a “test” has any resemblance to a modern academic written exam? I don’t see that in your cited support at all. If you think about the agrarian background that ancient scripture was based in, they probably had simpler ideas of tests. Remember Jacob (I think) and his test for picking the better sheep? That kind of test doesn’t allow for much nuance. Either you are on the right track, or you are not.

    Third, I’m sorry haven’t been following this blog lately, (thanks for the FB link) but really, you can reduce any text ad absurdum. Was this story ever intended to be told outside of a context of belief in the Atonement? Of typifying and prophesying of Christ? It certainly was not ever told outside of a context where Abraham was assumed to be righteous, the Father of the Righteous, in fact.

    Fourth, (I was really going to stop at three, but, well…) To again build on NathanG, what I understand that this story, along with Jericho/ethnic cleansing, and Nephi/Laban (and others) tells us is that sometimes God knows better than us. And Abraham, Joshua, and Nephi were considered righteous for accepting that. That seems good enough for me. I think it is going a bit far to judge Abraham as placing his own salvation over his son’s life.

    But you would never ask questions just to generate discussion and stir the pot, would you?

    -J

    • Matthew said

      I response to your last sentence…

      I have been following the blog (though not as much as I would like) and from my experience with Brian he does not ask questions just to stir the pot. Instead I believe that the thoughts he poses and the questions he asks are sincere.

      • BrianJ said

        As a good friend of JOE’s, I can tell you that he only asked that last question in order to stir my pot.

        “Good friends?” No, life-long friends :)

  8. BrianJ said

    Nathan: “I can’t say that I’ve ever read it with the assumption that Abraham knew what he was typifying.” I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a Sunday school class where the general consensus was not that Abraham knew about the future sacrifice of Jesus, etc. That’s not to dispute what you say, just to make it clear where I’m coming from.

    I think comparisons to Adam are appropriate, but the glaring difference is that Adam was asked to do something he could more or less shrug off: kill some animals. Not so with Abraham, who (depending on how we read it) was faced with a choice between two conflicting commandments or morals. That’s more like Adam in the Garden of Eden….

    Joespencer: I’ll warn you that, as a non-philosopher, I throw around terms like “ethics” in ways that would make the learned cringe.

    Robert: “…leave open the possibility that another response, if done with a righteous heart, or something, could also have been “accounted unto him for righteousness.”” Yes, that’s what I was going for. Thanks for stating it clearer than I did.

    Matthew: “If presented with [a story of torture and murder] in the Old Testament, would you say “and what does this text itself require of me?”” I know it was a question for Joe, but my answer: I hold open the possibility that sometimes the text itself requires me to reject the text. (And frankly, I wonder if some parts of the JST didn’t come about from Joseph doing exactly that!) I do appreciate, however, how Joe’s response calls for caution.

    JOE: “Interesting ideas, but I question a couple of your assumptions here.” Good, that’s what this series is all about! ;)

    “First, why assume that Abraham only knew as much as the text includes?” I don’t think I was—only saying that it is a possibility. In other words, we should accept that Abraham knew what the text says he knew, but everything else is truly an assumption.

    “Would any text that became scripture have as its purpose, “Hey look how much I know about the Gospel”?” Other than the books of Nephi? ;)

    “Do you think, for instance, that everything that President Monson knows about the Gospel could be derived from a few of his General Conference addresses?” No, I don’t. But, for example, I also would not take one of his talks about visiting widows and conclude from it that he understands the nature of time or the process by which we became premortal spirit children of God. He may or may not, in fact, understand either of those, but in the future we (as a Church) may receive that revelation and then be tempted to read that understanding back onto Pres Monson today.

    “While understanding of the Plan of Salvation may have varied from dispensation to dispensation, I think an understanding that there would be a sacrifice and Atonement has been pretty consistent.” I agree, but I really have no idea how developed that understanding was through the ages (or, as discussed here, how developed it was at various stages of Abraham’s life in particular).

    To put it in another context, there are reasons that I am active in the Church today, and there are reasons that I went on a mission, but those two lists of reasons are vastly different. It’d be wrong for anyone who knows me today and understands my motivations to interpret my missionary service in today’s light; they’d reach completely wrong conclusions.

    “Why are you assuming God thinks like a professor or that his idea of a “test” has any resemblance to a modern academic written exam? I don’t see that in your cited support at all.” Again, I’m not assuming anything—at least not permanently. I’m talking in terms of a test because it’s one possibility of how God viewed/views things. He may not have been thinking like that at all, and instead more along the lines of what you propose. As you say, there isn’t support in the text at all.

    (As a side note, my profession would actually have me read this “test” as an experiment: as in, to test a hypothesis. In this view, God has a hypothesis about Abraham—e.g., he will always obey, or he loves his son more than anything, or something else—and he designs a situation to test that hypothesis. In this case, there is no “pass” or “fail” for Abraham, there is only a “highly likely” or “unlikely” for God’s hypothesis.)

    “Third, I’m sorry haven’t been following this blog lately”

    You should be very, very ashamed.

    “Was this story ever intended to be told outside of a context of belief in the Atonement?” I truly have no idea.

    “It certainly was not ever told outside of a context where Abraham was assumed to be righteous, the Father of the Righteous, in fact.” Agreed.

    “And Abraham, Joshua, and Nephi were considered righteous for accepting [that sometimes God knows better than us]. That seems good enough for me.” And yet, Adam and Eve are praised for their transgression. To be clear: I’m not trying to change your view of Abraham and his righteousness, JOE, I truly am not. But I don’t share your view—or, at least, I’m not settled on a particular view just yet—and this post is in part an explanation of why I haven’t settled on your view.

    “I think it is going a bit far to judge Abraham as placing his own salvation over his son’s life.” Why? I agree that it’s a harsh reading, but we treat other people in the scriptures far worse. (Also, I said I wasn’t really concerned with Abraham in particular, but more about how I would act in a similar situation, etc.; i.e., what do I value most, and how does Abraham’s story help me evaluate my values?)

    • JOE said

      BWJ,
      I don’t know how to do the nice block quotes (or italics, obviously), but thanks for clarifying, above.

      I agree about Nephi, but, to be fair, the guy had a vision that his posterity was ultimately all going to become wicked and be destroyed. You can hardly blame him for trying to shoehorn the whole Gospel into his “small” plates.

      I guess I am still left puzzled why you are not willing to assume/accept/settle that Abraham was righteous? If his ethics are questioned instead of emulated, you lose the value of his story. It also makes D&C 132 into total nonsense. Isn’t verse 36 an obvious parallel to verses 34 and 35? Finally, 37 uses the same phrase “accounted unto him for righteousness” to condone multiple wives. In short, can you read the rest of 132 coherently using your reading of Abraham’s sacrifice? “…entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne” …”do the works of Abraham” etc., etc. …

      • Mattathias said

        I’m currently reading through the Genesis account of Abraham with some friends, and one of the things that has struck me repeatedly is that Abraham, as Father of the Righteous, does many things which seem to call our conception of righteousness into question, in ways that bring me to strongly support Joespencer’s take on these texts: Abraham’s story reminds us that righteousness, as God counts it, is not the same at all as righteousness as we count it.

        Which is what St. Paul says, using another case of Abraham being counted righteous, in Romans 4. And there it’s clear that faith counted for righteousness is not the same as simple righteousness: it’s not that Abraham’s acts made him ethically perfect, but that his faith made it possible for God to keep him moving in the right direction, and thus, as Paul might say, to save him despite, not because of, his works. Which means that asking “Was Abraham’s decision the best/most ethical one he could have reached?” is not to give up an assumption of Abraham’s righteousness, it’s to ask whether that righteousness was demonstrated, in this case, by works or by faith (Both of which God is willing to accept.) At least, that’s my thought at this moment.

  9. Matthew said

    Brian or Joe,
    >I do appreciate, however, how Joe’s response calls for caution.

    Agree, we must judge wisely, not always an easy task.

    Judgment can be difficult. It isn’t necessary that is is always so.

    We should not apply so much caution in rejecting innocent murder that we fail to come to that judgment. Let us not let the question “why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?” condemn us.

  10. Kyle M said

    One element that I didn’t see addressed here is that Abraham had a previous brush with human sacrifice, and goes out of his way to tell about it in Abraham 1. He witnessed (or at least recounted in some detail) the sacrifice of the righteous daughters of Onitah, and was almost an unwilling sacrifice himself. So I have to believe that he had fairly strong opinions on the subject of human sacrifice.

  11. BrianJ said

    Kyle M: I consciously chose to ignore Abraham’s personal past experience with sacrifice in this discussion, not because it isn’t relevant—it certainly is—but just that I didn’t feel that it helped me get my point across here.

  12. BrianJ said

    JOE: I’m really just teasing about Nephi, and if I ever meet the guy then hopefully he can take a joke. (joking again!)

    “I guess I am still left puzzled why you are not willing to assume/accept/settle that Abraham was righteous?”

    Three points:

    1) The text tells me that Abraham’s decision was “accounted unto him for righteousness,” so I am willing to view him that way. I still wonder, though, if there were multiple possible choices that would have been equally accounted for righteousness. Does the text say there were not?

    2) Regardless of the answer to #1, I wonder what Abraham understood when he made his decision. He chose to obey God’s immediate command, but why? It’s not just academic curiosity that drives my question either, because perhaps his motivations could influence my motivations to do likewise. “Go and do the works of Abraham,” we’re told, so I want to understand him better.

    3) Speaking now more “meta”, I discovered long ago that I approached the scriptures with too many assumptions. I found that I read the text with an idea already in mind of what it taught, but upon closer reading saw that it said no such thing. Too often, I read into the text what people in the past had said the text said, instead of reading the text for what it actually said. So, now I try to question everything, and this is just one example of doing that. In this case, for as long as I can remember, people have told me that Abraham made his choice because he knew he was pre-enacting the crucifixion, but the text doesn’t say that; I’m trying to understand what the text does say.

    “It also makes D&C 132 into total nonsense….”

    I don’t see why. I spent some time this morning going back over D&C 132 because of your question. It seems to me that it is not a commentary on Abraham. Rather, it is a commentary on something else entirely and includes Abraham as an example of a point it is trying to make. It doesn’t matter to D&C 132 what Abraham could have done, or even why he did it (which are my questions in these posts), it only matters what he did and that God did not condemn him for it.

    • JOE said

      I see what you are saying re 1,2 and 3.
      1) Abraham is the one that teaches us that there is always one better than the other. I got from your title that you were contemplating that he had failed, not just chosen one of a number of good outcomes.

      I know 132 isn’t commentary, but it seems to be pretty clearly using Abraham as a precedent (to dip into my prof. prejudices). If he made a bad choice, it is not a good precedent.

      Tying my interpretation of your reading of Abraham to 132 is interesting. If Joseph Smith had asked the Lord “Could Abraham have done something else and had it counted unto him for righteousness” maybe the results of 132 would have been different… However, at least some of the Brethren, and perhaps JS himself seem to have asked exactly that question re plural marriage, and yet they felt compelled to obey this difficult law.

  13. kirkcaudle said

    Another great topic and discussion here. I really love what is being done here with D&C 132.

    I thought I had (which builds on that of my others here) while reading this duscussion was that in the end, don’t we all “fall short of the glory of god,” and yet some of our lives will be “accounted for righteousness?” People are called “perfect” in the scriptures, and yet nobody is perfect for an entire lifetime, we all sin. However, I think our journey and the methods we use to reach our conclusions are more important than the conclusions themselves. This is why the choice of Abraham could be “righteous” even if there was somehow a “better” course of action. Abraham did the best with what he had. Therefore, I cannot agree with JOE that “D&C 132 [is turned] into total nonsense” under the logic of Brian.

    On the other hand, under my same logic, I cannot condemn JOE’s reading if he is doing so with a sincere heart and using the tools given to him to the best of his ablility. Because if he is, I think God would count it as “righteousness,” even if he came to the “wrong” conclusion.

  14. NathanG said

    Brian,
    I’ve been thinking about this question off and on since you initially posted. If we believe that Gen 22:1-2 is correct and that God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac, then I begin to get uneasy considering that another option than obedience could have been the better answer (correct me if this is not what you are encouraging us to consider). The first law of heaven is obedience (if you don’t mind the commonly used phrase) and the first promise we make is one of obedience. If we become convinced that when God commands us to do something that there is a better response than to obey what he says, then I think faith is injured. Perhaps an argument could be made that Abraham had moved beyond a simple test of obedience and that sometimes you have to follow the “spirit of the law” and not the “letter of the law”. The times that I have seen that attitude in practice has been to justify disobedience.

    So for me, the exercise of considering other possible outcomes that may have been acceptable makes me uneasy to the point that I think when God commands, the correct answer is to obey. But perhaps I haven’t understood obedience well enough yet…

  15. BrianJ said

    Nathan: I’ll start by reiterating that I don’t know what Abraham thought or knew when he made this decision; thus, I can’t say with certainty that he was being obedient, at least in the sense that you mean it. I will admit that, if pushed, I’d settle on viewing Abraham as largely ignorant of the Gospel at this particular moment, and thus his obedience was toward a God who, like those around him, apparently enjoyed human sacrifice. Anyway, I don’t think that’s quite how you’re viewing Abraham with your question, so I’ll try to answer more directly (i.e., respond with “your” Abraham in mind).

    Okay, so now I’m picturing an Abraham who, at minimum, understands covenants, faith, that Jehovah truly is unique (etc.). Abraham has been given several commandments, including:

    Do not kill.
    Kill your son.

    How do you define obedience in this case? It’d be a totally different question if Abraham were “simply” asked to give up all his wealth and personal comforts, or to lay down his own life to save another’s, or some other monumental sacrifice (that would still dwarf any that most of us are faced with). None of those alternatives require that he break another commandment.

    “…that there is a better response than to obey…”

    Nowhere in scripture do I get to read Abraham’s* thoughts about this. To even try to get a sense for the scene, I would be forced to search for the smallest details—trying to squeeze from them any hints of what Abraham (and Isaac) might have been feeling. Was Abraham angry? frustrated? resolute? upbeat? Was Isaac complacent or oblivious? Did Abraham say “God will provide” with a raised eyebrow or with a wink? “God will provide” or “God will provide”?

    If you’re uneasy with this then I make no effort to coerce or entice you to consider it any further. But I have become entirely uncomfortable with not re-considering it.

    ___________
    * So perhaps a better example would be Joseph (and Emma) Smith and polygamy, because there we can witness much of the struggle.

  16. BrianJ said

    A friend just wrote this to me, in a completely different conversation: “”Our choices [don’t] guarantee our future, but rather demonstrate our priorities.”

    Seems appropriate here.

    (P.S. I posted this same comment on my “You Have a Choice” thread.)

  17. Susan said

    I hate to intrude on a conversation between friends and of which I don’t understand half. But I have a question that has been bugging me for a long time that is tangential to this discussion or maybe goes back to the first question “Did Abraham fail?”.

    How was Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son? Did Abraham hear a voice? Did he get a personal visit? Did someone he trusted and who also had an understanding of the gospel tell him to? This is not a commandment that had been written which is how I get most of the commandments I follow.

    And so I wonder….was it instead perhaps a deeply felt inspiration? And if it was then how was Abraham to know that it came from God instead of Satan? Considering the times and the fact that he himself had been offered for sacrifice was he at this point in his life now that he had a son remembering that moment and felt a shift in understanding, a comprehension of why human sacrifice was needed? How truly was he to know that God was asking him to sacrifice the promised son when he knew it was wrong according to all he believed?

    Genesis 22 says “God did tempt Abraham”. Not commanded, tempted. Is it not possible that a truer rendering (with apologies to JS) was that “God allowed Abraham to be tempted” “? Could it not have been like Job where God allows Satan to do what he wants to him?

    In which case it wasn’t obedience but something else. But because his heart was right and because of his background and personal experience God “accounted it for righteousness”

    Maybe my understanding of the relationship between a prophet and God is sorely ignorant and they do talk back and forth, but modern prophets have said that inspiration comes as a deep impressions,,,but so does temptation.

    Go ahead, shot holes in all my reasoning…I just have wanted to ask that for so many years, and there is never a platform to do it on.

  18. BrianJ said

    Susan: I’m happy that you found a platform to ask your question, because it is a good one (and no good question should have to wait so long to be asked!).

    A former coworker of mine told me that his rabbi taught that Abraham was tempted by Satan and not by God. It’s hard for me to accept that reading since I think it requires too many loops and tricks with the text, but at least you are not alone in considering it.

    For whatever reason(s), the author of Genesis doesn’t seem at all interested in providing many details in this story. That means, in terms of your question, that we don’t know whether Abraham just “had a feeling” one day or was taken up into heaven to speak with God face to face.

  19. Robert C. said

    Susan’s question about how the commandment came reminded me of another point that I think is worth stressing in regard to the commandment not to kill: I don’t think there was a commandment as we think of them today in effect back then to not kill. And I think this is an important issue in terms of how we read the story. The commandments hadn’t been given in written form until Moses, as far as we know (I think).

    So, I think the kind of moral dilemma that Brian is asking about, though perhaps important as we think about the implications for the story today, was probably not the kind of dilemma that Abraham experienced. In this sense, I think the test was more straightforward for Abraham: will I obey by giving up what is most precious to me, or not? After all, Isaac was a gift from God (as Abraham experienced Isaac’s birth), and what God giveth, God can take away—no? (This, by the way, is my general reaction to Kierkegaard’s take on the Akedah—interesting philosophically, but an anachronistic hermeneutic seems to be at work in his musings….)

  20. BrianJ said

    Robert: I’ve already said that I prefer to not even think about Abraham per se, in favor of thinking about what Abraham means to me—how his story helps me work through my own story.

    That said, if I’m asked to consider Abraham’s dilemma, then I feel that I must choose between two Abrahams: the “enlightened” one versus the “knows only as much as the text explicitly says” one. Since the former knows more than the text tells us, I have to assume that he at least knows the most basic of things, such as not killing the innocent. The later, on the other hand, is faced with exactly the dilemma you propose.

  21. Robert C. said

    Brian, thanks for your continued and patient discussion here—I am interested precisely because I am trying to work through my own thoughts and understanding of these and related issues.

    Regarding #20, how do you understand Nephi’s slaying of Laban? Here are some questions regarding Nephi that I think are relevant to how we should understand Abraham:

    * If Laban was not innocent, why did Nephi hesitate so much?

    * If Laban was innocent, it seems that Nephi’s hesitation is evidence that he was enlightened. But if he was enlightened, why didn’t he stand by his enlightened convictions and refuse the “utilitarian logic” offered by the angel (regarding one man versus one nation perishing from unbelief)?

    Feel free, by the way, to refer me back to previous comments or posts, it’s hard for me to remember what you may’ve already said directly about Nephi, or about issues that would less directly apply to Nephi’s situation. And thanks again for helping me ponder all of this deeper myself….

  22. BrianJ said

    Robert: (I hope I didn’t come across as saying, “I already answered that question so pay more attention!” I just wanted to preface my comment so that you would know that I wasn’t trying to introduce a new idea.)

    The real elephant in the room, who I am trying to ignore, is Joseph Smith (regarding polygamy). I keep saying that we don’t know Abraham’s thoughts/knowledge, but we have tons of info on JS. Nephi, I think, falls somewhere between the two.

    “If Laban was innocent…” I don’t think Nephi thought there was any chance of that. I still think, however, that Nephi could have “refused the utilitarian logic offered by the angel.” He could have—but I’m not saying that he should have.

    And so I think that Nephi hesitated because he worried about his own innocence.

  23. BrianJ said

    Mattathias (note within comment #8):

    “Which means that asking “Was Abraham’s decision the best/most ethical one he could have reached?” is not to give up an assumption of Abraham’s righteousness, it’s to ask whether that righteousness was demonstrated, in this case, by works or by faith (Both of which God is willing to accept.)”

    Interesting and important point. Thanks.

  24. ramona said

    Its probably a little late to comment, but I was intrigued by your post.
    Abraham was an obedient servant of God, much in the same service as Christ.He seemed to have perfect obedience,a huge resovoir of faith and beleiving that God had his best interests at heart,and Abraham believed that God had his best interests at heart.

    Genesis 22:4-5

    4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off.
    5 And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”

    He made a statement saying that “we will come back to you”
    Surely,Abraham wound not say this if he did not believe it to be so.

  25. BrianJ said

    Comparing Abraham and Eve’s choices on obedience: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/11/eve-and-abraham/

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