The two Abrahams

If you have been paying close attention to my posts here thusfar, you may have noted a theme. I’ll be a bit more explicit about it here. We, Mormons, don’t know how to righteously dissent with our leaders (or our Leader). In fact, generally speaking, we frown on dissent, no matter how well intentioned or politely put. We certainly have assurances that God is at the helm of the church, both public and private. But I wonder if we sometimes read too much into that, arguing that anything the Brethren say is the Word of God and not to be questioned. On the other hand, there are those for whom the advice of the Brethren and other Priesthood leaders is considered to have no greater weight than anybody else’s. That also seems to be an extremity. Of course, most Mormons live between the extremes of these two poles. However, should we?

The scriptures have something to say about this problem. In fact, they have several things to say about it, sometimes revolving around the same scriptural figure.

Abraham is probably best known in LDS circles for his near-sacrifice of Isaac. It made him an exemplar of faith, provides us with a clear OT foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and allows us to tell horrifying stories about train switches. More than once, LDS commentators have discussed the parallels of the events surrounding the Aqedah (Isaac’s near sacrifice) and Abraham’s own time on the altar back at Ur. Both feature a son placed on the altar by a father; both feature a miraculous intervention. Some have argued that the trial may have been lessened, because God’s miraculous intervention earlier may have given Abraham sufficient faith that a miracle would take place on Mr. Moriah. It is possible, but I think that it likely underestimates the very real pain and sorrow that Abraham must have gone through while bringing his son to the altar.

In any case, I want to contrast the Aquedah with another event in Abraham’s history: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that case, Abraham argued with God, bargained really, for the lives of the Sodomites. He had to coax God into saving the city if there were even only a few righteous citizens. Perhaps this episode is inserted to emphasize the wanton wickedness of the whole town or perhaps it is an attempt to show the whole-hearted compassion of Abraham, but it raises a question? If Abraham bargained for the lives of the wicked Sodomites, whom we can all agree had it coming, why didn’t he question God’s instructions regarding the sacrifice of his son?

The truth is that we are faced with two Abrahams. One who engages God in debate, seeking a resolution that avoids unnecessary pain and one who humbly and mutely acknowledges the Lord’s will at its most painful and does it. How are supposed to reconcile these two images? Should we? Which is the more righteous act? Why? What does it tell us about how we ought to react to hard council from the Lord or the Brethren, whom we believe speak for him?

For that matter, this isn’t just a matter of the Old Testament, which is notoriously ambiguous on most matters relating to religion and ethics. The Book of Mormon provides a similarly ambiguous note where, in Zenos’s allegory of the vineyard, the servant (presumably the prophet) has to convince the Lord of the vineyard to not destroy it in his disappointment. However, in introducing the allegory, Jacob has just told the reader to not counsel the Lord. What are we to do?

I suppose that for me the lesson is that sometimes it is okay to be suspicious of commands received. I don’t believe that the Lord gets upset with our sincere attempts to verify his will. Nor do I believe that it is a bad thing to try and help the Lord find a better way; that may even be a commandment. However, it does seem that at some point, the righteous need to get off their knees, grab a donkey, son, and knife, and start trudging toward the mountain, too.

Comments

  1. a random John says:

    To this I’ll would add my standard disclaimer which is that if you ever feel that you have been “inspired” to hurt or kill anyone, including yourself, go talk to your bishop or a mental health provider ASAP. I don’t care what happened in the Old Testament or if you believe you are a Danite, do not kill anyone.

  2. J. Daniel Crawford says:

    Uh, yes. Please don’t take this as confirmation of your homicidal tendancies. I just wanted to discuss why it seems to sometimes be okay to disagree with God.

  3. By God do you mean the Prophet?

    While I do think very highly of myself, I rarely find myself in a situation akin to Abraham’s, in which I am arguing with God over something/one else’s fate. Abraham was a prophet. I am not. I usually just argue with God over my own pitiable soul.

  4. J. Daniel Crawford says:

    “By God do you mean the Prophet?”

    Well,that’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t know how to appropriately answer it, so I’ll split the difference and say by God I meant “the Word of God”. Manner of reception is arbitrary in this case.

    I suppose the distinction between my fate and others’ fate is a fair one. But I don’t understand why he argues for the Sodomites and not for Isaac. Admittedly, he doesn’t argue against him, but I would think he would put up a spirited defense. And if he did, why don’t we have a record of that?

  5. I think that Amri’s thoughts raise some important distinctions. In my life, I find that there’s a difference between direct council that I get from God (i.e. getting a strong message from God about a specific situation in my life) and the council I receive from church leaders such as the Prophet, whose council is broad and aimed at the entire church.

    When it comes to questioning direct council from God, I’ve done it, but I’ve found that in the end, it usually behooves me to do His will. When it comes to questioning council from the Prophet, that’s where things get trickier for me. I want to simultaneously beleve that this is a leader who is offering divine guidance that will enrich my life as well as a mortal human being who makes mistakes and sometimes speaks from his own limited experience and understanding (and, thus, whose council may not be as directly applicable to my life as the guidance I get directly from God). Trying to sort out how to balance these two beliefs is difficult.

    Anyway, I don’t really have any deep insight into your questions. But I appreciate your post and your questions–thanks!

  6. I don’t believe that the Lord gets upset with our sincere attempts to verify His will.

    This is a very wise statement. One I wish more people would recognize.

  7. I think the healthy mind debates or struggles with any kind of control from any sort of superior. It’s the unhealthy mind, in my eyes, that surpresses the urge to question authority.

    I think Satan’s plan was one of unquestioning allegiance or unwavering alliance with no freedom for secession or divisibility.

    Good scriptures, jdc. God’s anthropomorphism is very highly detailed in these passages. Good stuff.

  8. I thought this sounded familiar. You had raised similar questions in your post, “Disagreeing With the Brethren.”

    I made two comments there about questioning the prophets vs questioning God. There are clear examples of prophets “wrestling” with God over certain issues and influencing God’s decision. I think that, with faith, any child of God can do that. I think what we should avoid trying to do is argue with the prophet of God. Before the prophet of God speaks, he communicates with the Lord, thereby ensuring that he speaks for the Lord. If we have a problem with something the prophet says, we should take it up with the Lord. That’s my view, at least.

  9. I don’t think you can put the two situations on equal footing. Other considerations are the principles behind God’s requests or imminent actions.

    In the case of Sodom, Abraham understood the principle that God has the right and ability to destroy the wicked (lets call that the Law of Destruction). Abraham knew the law and used it to try to save the city if any righteous could be found within, knowing that God usually only destroy’s the wicked when they are “ripe” (as in the case of the flood). I think in this case, Abraham was hoping there would be at least one that was righteous (which God knew there wasn’t)

    In the second case, Abraham understood the Law of Sacrifice. He knew that Isaac was not being killed because of his unrighteousness, but rather that God had asked for this specific sacrifice. There was no need to barter for his son’s life because he was converted and committed to the Law of Sacrifice, and the law doesn’t permit any “Wiggle Room” for substitution when the Lord asks for a specific sacrifice. Isaac’s life was the Lord’s to give and the Lord’s to take without any debate on the matter.

    I’m sure if there was some sort of a loop-hole, Abraham would have explored it.

  10. I might point out something I saw posted somewhere around here (could I BE more vague?) that at least in NT times, children were not given the same sort of reverence they are in modern times. Thus, all of the Savior’s exhortations about children was revolutionary for the time.

    Well, what if the same held true for OT times? Perhaps it wasn’t as big of a deal for Abraham to sacrifice his son vs. a whole city full of people. Maybe Abraham thought that if God provided him with one son, He’d allow him to have another.

    When we read the story, we essentially apply it to our own time – the child was a miracle birth, and now he has to sacrifice him? Who could do that?

    I usually think that Job had it worse in that his family was taken from him without being able to prepare himself. Yeah, he didn’t have to kill them himself, but regardless of what happens to him later, they’re dead and he’s (sort of) responsible. (FHL waits for the bloggers to tell him this story didn’t really happen – it’s just a parable.)

    (Oh, and props to JDC for using a link to Snopes.com!)

  11. You may interested in part of the Documentary hypothesis [1] that discusses the possibility of different authors of early parts of the Old Testament, including Genesis.

    The basic idea is that there were 4 authors and 1 editor who combined them. The first author being denoted J, for Jahwist.

    In a discussion The Book of J [2], Harold Bloom talks about many of the changes made to the original by subsequent authors and editors. In the standard text of the Book of J, there is no account of the Aqedah. Bloom believes this is because the second or third author, E or P, added the story changing to be an example of Abraham’s faith, rather than yet another example of his negotiation with Yahweh.

    Jay

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis
    2. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0802141919/102-9606566-5872963?n=283155

  12. I thought there was a LOT of wiggle room (ie, pleading with God for an alternative) in the principle of sacrifice and obedience. It’s called the Atonement. We plead with God to, even though we fully deserve it, not be fully punished for our sins and short-comings. He provides us with a way out.

    And I seem to recall Jesus asking for a little wiggle room as he was about to face the brunt of the Atonement. Sure, he went through with it full force, but we don’t criticize him for questioning God’s plan at that moment.

  13. Although I like this question (and you JDC) I actually don’t think these examples are appropriate. First, love the OT but it’s histrionic, isn’t it? What is literal and what is not? How do we know? Since there are some things that are figurative, what if the story of Abraham and Isaac is also? Second, Abraham was a prophet. His role and relationship with God was and should have been different from ours. The sacrifice story (I hate it though, can it be banned from the OT?) is Abraham acting as a person it seems, and in the saving the city scenario he is acting as a prophet in behalf of other people.

    All these complications, to me, make it different than the struggle I have when I find that my personal revelation and the words of the prophets (or God as you have clarified) conflict.

    I believe whole-heartedly that this should never be answered completely. Any time this conflict comes up, I hope I address each issue individually rather than part of the collective of here I disagree with the Prophet or here I go against my personal revelation. I believe in freedom here. Which means sometimes I will make mistakes disagreeing with Prophet or with self, but with earnestness and repentance I think God respects the process.

  14. JDC, I guess I interpret the Abraham/Isaac story differently than you (and, I grant, many other Mormons).
    Yes, it is reported in the scripture that God advises Abraham to sacrifice Isaace. But, the event is set in a time when God is viewed as the source or cause of all or almost all events.
    In our era, we view causes and God quite differently.

    So, I read the story as telling of Abraham participating in a ceremony that involves the near-sacrifice of his son. My view is that God didn’t tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but that the author of the account interpreted and reported the event that way.

  15. s,
    thanks for your comments. I agree that we treat that which comes directly to us from God differently than that which comes through the mediation of the Brethren. I don’t know that it is a good thing, but it is what it is. However, I do think that we turn to both for access to the “word of God” and that was the point of my splitting the difference. I’m fascinated with what we do when the “word of God” isn’t to our particular liking.

    Daniel,
    I agree that it very likely is a good thing to wrestle with the Lord. It’s one of the things that I took from Elie Wiesel’s presentation (while we’re citing earlier posts). That said, I know that their this isn’t a great part of our discourse in Church (outside of the Bloggernacle, of course). I wonder why this is? Why don’t we talk more about figures who engage God in conversation and debate and who are nonetheless considered righteous.

    JM,
    I appreciate where you are going with idea of God’s intent. Ultimately, Divine Command Ethics is probably the only way to ethically justify the Aqedah at all. That said, why shouldn’t Abraham have said, “How about a nice ram instead?”

    I suppose that the issue is perhaps that Abraham knew that he was inspired to argue with God in the case of Sodom (when it ultimately makes no difference) and he knew that he was inspired to not argue with Him on the way to Moriah (where God, ultimately, rescinded the commandment). This, however, raises the question of what the purpose of those individual inspired moments were.

    FHL,
    Maybe children weren’t as highly valued then (after all, who would stone their child for being insulting today). However, I am not sure. Abraham has clearly been longing for that son (and Sarah moreso).

    Jay,
    I wasn’t sure where the two stories fit into the Documentary Hypothesis. I am not surprised that J handles Sodom and P handles the Aqedah (if that is the consensus view at the moment). J tends to anthropomorphize God (as David J noted) and he makes his heroes a bit more human. P (as the initial indicates) is priestly in tone, emphasize symbolic action and sacrifice to the detriment of real human emotion. So you may very well be right in that we are dealing with the narrative techniques of two different storytellers.

    Amri,
    I have a harder time separating the real and the fictive than most (I am, after all, a literary scholar of some sort). So I am not sure that I agree that the truth value of some events matter much in terms of how we should interpret them. In other words, since we have accepted the Bible as part of the canon, I don’t think we get to run through it picking and choose what can and cannot apply. I hear the Aqedah referred to frequently in church. It is the great trial of Abraham’s faith. Therefore, I think it is fair game for discussion. You are correct in that we almost never here about Abraham arguing with God. Nonetheless, shouldn’t we attempt to understand what it tells us about God and our relationship with Him?

    Regarding the prophet/non-prophet distinction, I would refer you to another OT passage. We are meant to have a kind of democracy of prophets, or, at least, I think we are. But I might have a more expansive definition of prophet than you. In any case, I don’t know that our lack of an office in the church office building lessens our responsibility in praying for others.

    Also, I think that I may be talking about something other than what you are talking about. I believe that God told Abraham he was going to destroy Sodom and Abraham tried to talk him out of it. I also believe that God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham, apperently, didn’t try to talk him out of it. In both cases, I think that Abraham was dealing with what he considered to be the actual word of God. In both cases, it was something that he found unpleasant. Not untrue, not wrong, but hard to follow.

    Whether or not my personal revelatory experience coincides with what the prophet has said is a different matter (unless, of course, I believe them both to be the unadulterated word of God, in which case I have a lot of thinking to do).

    Finally, an apology to Dave for all of the commas.
    Thanks for all your comments so far.

  16. Sid,
    That is an interesting point and certainly coincides more closely with the original ideas of the Biblical authors. However, I think it may be a stretch to argue that “x happened” equates to “god commanded x to happen” even in their worldview, as there wouldn’t really be a reason to insert “god commands” all those times that they did.

  17. Mark Butler says:

    It is worth noting what Hebrews says about Abraham and Isaac:

    By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
    Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
    Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
    (Hebrews 11:17-19)

    Now supposing that God himself was able to fulfil his promises, resurrect Isaac from the dead, and make the pain and suffering up to Isaac (and Abraham) in other ways, how exactly are we to say that God would have been wrong if he allowed Abraham to carry out his initial instruction, instead of using it as a test of faith? It is more than worth noting that Isaac does not seem to have violently fought the idea either?

    Consequentialist ethics can be problematic for mere mortals, but can we say the same for God himself? The scriptures repeatedly imply that God is legitimately consequentialist in ways beyond our capacity to fully comprehend – the suffering sacrifice of Jesus Christ, first and foremost.

  18. Mark, I am not sure that you are going to get widespread LDS support for understanding God as a purely consequentialist candidate.

  19. Mark Butler says:

    I will say that the one thing that the scriptures will not let God do, is fail to keep his promises, or violate the covenant when his children are faithful. On the contrary, he is constantly shown to use even his punishments in favor of the restoration, not the abrogation of the covenant – a truly everlasting covenant – saving us (according to our premortal consent) even by temporally abandoning us to the fires of hell where necessary – tough love at its finest. And what does he get out of the bargain besides the joy of seeing his children walk in faith?

    So I must dissent from the idea that the Old Testament is ambiguous about God’s ethics – I suggest that rather it teaches that God’s behavior is the very fulness of ethics, in ways beyond our complete capacity to understand. Abraham knew that as well as anyone and that is why he is the pre-eminent example of faith.

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

    So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
    (Isaiah 55:8-11)

    Note the correlation between morality (ways) and fulfilment of promises (word) here.

  20. Mark Butler says:

    Where did I ever say God was purely consequentialist? Consequentialism for an absolute being is a pointless concept anyway – why should an absolute God use round about techniques to accomplish his will?

    Divine consequentialism only makes sense in the context of natural law (temporally unalterable absolutes) and free will. That natural law must entail some sort of restrictions on the available paths from any present state A to desired state B, a plurality of intelligences, and some sort of at least partially ordered metric on the desirability of states of affairs.

    Otherwise we cannot distinguish the kingdom of God from the devil. Might does not make right. God’s might must be closely related to his righteousness. And indeed D&C 121:46 and D&C 29:36, and the scripture I quoted from Hebrews among many others, teach or imply precisely that – that God’s power is a consequence of his righteousness, not the other way around.

    Divine consequentialism must be interpreted within the context of his righteousness, and not as defining it – that makes no sense whatever.

  21. Mark Butler says:

    One more thing, if you have state A and desire to reach morally preferable state B, it is incumbent upon you to minimize the traversal cost to all concerned. All routes from A to B are not created equal.

    And when conceiving states A and B, and the paths in between, one must consider the global state of everyone and everything. Naive consequentialists and utilitarians rarely do this. And in addition, any force applied to other persons other than in self defense must be with their prior consent – hence the grand council in heaven, where every person here on the earth gave consent to God’s plan for their salvation. This consent gives God considerably more flexibility to solve intractable cases than that implied otherwise.

    So the classical utilitarian counter arguments where many benefit do to the non-consensual suffering of a few does not apply. There is prior consent for everything God does here on earth, and that consent was given on the terms of the covenant – that he save everyone who was not intractably unwilling to comply with the requirements of salvation at the last day.

    The surprising thing about most modern commentaries on the Old Testament is that somehow they think they are wiser than God, simply because they do not understand his purposes. That *no* a just God could never ever do that. They have no idea.

  22. Mark,
    In my experience, most modern commentaries don’t bother to try to understand what God intends, nor do they speculate on their relative wisdom. They attempt to understand what the original authors meant, which is something else entirely.

    I am curious about what you understand the Old Testament to be saying about God’s ethics? Aside from noting that it won’t make sense to humans, that is. However, this is probably a side issue. Perhaps you could email me? hpsoandsos [at] gmail [dot] com

  23. Mark Butler says:

    I said it often doesn’t make complete sense, and only because we do not know all of the details.

  24. Since were on the subject of Genesis, can one of you all-knowing scholars recommend a great book on the Pentateuch, containing good textual criticism and all?

  25. I lean toward Sid’s interpretation in that I think a key lesson from the story is that unlike the gods worshipped by some other peoples, Yahweh did not require human sacrifice.

    Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed that the absence of human sacrifice in Yahweh worship was not because Yahweh’s worshipers were “chicken” or “less willing to sacrifice” than the worshipers of other gods. It was because Yahweh did not wish His worshipers to do so, and even sent an angel to underscore that point and put a stop to the attempt.

    Of course, this lesson could be derived from the story whether the attempted sacrific was at Abraham’s instigation or whether it was at God’s, as a test/demonstration to other peoples of the commitment of His followers.

  26. Jared,

    I like Everett Fox’s translation and notes.

  27. I argue with God all the time. Sometimes I win and sometimes he does

    Some of you know how that has turned out.

  28. JaredE,
    I don’t know how detailed you want to get, but I like the translation and the notes in the HarperCollins Study Bible, especially as a means to introducing yourself to biblical criticism.

    DavidH,
    That is an interesting take (particularly since we know that there is long tradition of human sacrifice in Canaanite culture). Thank you for sharing it. I can understand it as a theological reason for including the story, but I agree that it doesn’t really help us understand Abraham in this case.

  29. Mark Butler says:

    HP, I emailed you at the specified address, and do not appear to have been favored with a reply.

  30. Sorry, Mark. I’ll check it and reply. I am sometimes a bit slow in response.

  31. Did anyone see this weeks installment of Faith and Reason on PBS?

    The guest was Anne Provost who looked at God from the perspective of a drowned child during Noah’s flood.

    From memory, I was particular impressed with what Provoost had to say about responsibility, faith, and transcendence.

    To Provoost, it is important that we acknowlege that God is within us. That way we have to take responsibility for our faith. If we see God as an external authority, on the other hand, then faith suspends our conscience too often.

    That reverberated with me. From my mission, I know that I was willing to do things because people who had “authority” demanded them in the name of God. I never would have done them if I had to take responsibility for them.

    A good example was pretending to do a survey during street contacting. There are other things that I refused to do, thank heavens, such as exploiting refugees for number games.

    In the end, I have concluded that we are responsible for our lives. I have to determine the difference between right and wrong. I have to pay my bills, feed my children, and respect my friends. Whatever leaders may say, it’s no excuse when I hurt others or myself.

    We might have overcome racism, for example, a lot faster in the Mormon experience if we had not been pretending that it was the will of God rather than the prejudice of mortals (see Prince’s McKay biography).

    Anyways, there might be transcript of Provoost’s interview on the Faith and Reason website soon.

  32. If Abraham bargained for the lives of the wicked Sodomites, whom we can all agree had it coming…

    Finally, someone on BCC comes out unequivocally against sodomites!

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