OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front: if God ever tells me to whack someone, the answer is no. Just no. I don’t care if he speaks to me through a still small voice, or a burning bush, or a thundering command from the sky. And I don’t care if he wants me to learn how to sacrifice everything and is planning to pluck a ram from the thicket at the last minute. I’m not taking that chance. If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times. I don’t smite.
I’m talking about direct voice-of-God commands here. I’m saying no even if He shows up on my doorstep with brownies. If somebody else tells me that God wants me to kill someone, I’m not just going to say no; I’m going to call the police, alert the newspapers, and make sure that I never have anything to do with that person or anybody they have ever met.
I know that I sound defiant and irreverent when I say things like this. After all, Abraham and Nephi are revered as prophets, and whole civilizations have been built on the premise that they represented God on earth. But let’s be serious here. Plenty of people since Abraham have killed other people—members of their own family and total strangers—because they heard voices. We call these people “criminally insane.” We do not take seriously the notion that the voices they heard might have belonged to God. But we still have a bad habit of presenting, as praiseworthy examples, ancient people whose voices told them to do horrible things.
When I hear the phrase “Abrahamic test” in a description of a modern ethical dilemma, I invariably flinch. I want to say, “Dude, you’ve got it wrong. God was testing Abraham to see if he would be dumb enough to do something stupid and evil just because someone in a white robe told him to. Abraham was part of an ancient Milgram Study. And he flunked.” In most cases, I think this is exactly the right response.
But some line drawing is in order here. From what I have been able to tell, people who talk about “Abrahamic tests” mean two distinct things. Sometimes, it is used to describe giving up everything for the Kingdom of God, as Jesus asked the rich young man to do in Matthew 19:16-22. This usage focuses on the difficulty of Abraham’s sacrifice (treating Isaac more as property than as a flesh-and-blood human being). Used this way, the metaphor of Abraham’s sacrifice is appropriate. Building Zion requires that we sacrifice everything that is not the Kingdom of God for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
But there is another use of “Abrahamic test” that has become increasingly disturbing and prevalent. In this version, the said trial is not a test of our ability to do something difficult, but of our willingness to set aside our own moral beliefs in favor of someone else’s (usually someone claiming to speak in the name of God). In these kinds of Abrahamic tests, we are asked to give up deeply held ethical positions because they do not conform to those supposedly held by the Lord.
Here’s the problem with that kind of “test”: the argument that we should do what the Lord commands is an ethical position that depends on the same moral reasoning responsible for our other beliefs. My core moral beliefs — that I should not kill people, or cheat, or rob, or act in ways that devalue other human beings — come from the same place as my belief in obeying God’s commandments. Thus, the kind of “Abrahamic test” that I am describing appeals to and subverts my capacity for moral reasoning at the same time. Ultimately, the only thing that can be measured by such a test is loyalty.
I love the Book of Genesis, and I love the story of Abraham. But the more I read the stories, the more I realize that the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament teach us as much by what they get wrong as they do by what they get right. For centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have recognized that the Akedah, or the story of the binding of Isaac, is a rich and deeply problematic text that raises more questions than it answers. It is not a simplistic morality tale whose unproblematic moral is: “do whatever God says, even if it means killing your child.” We disrespect the text and the experience when we get this wrong.