How (not) to pass an Abrahamic test.

In the Old Testament God decides to “tempt” Abraham (Genesis 22:1) by asking that he sacrifice his miracle son, Isaac, in whom he rested all his hopes for God’s promises to him.

But what sort of a test was Abraham’s test? Was it a test with only one right answer?

There are different kinds of tests. A well-written true/false question has only one right answer, but an essay question might have many possible right answers. Some tests are meant to test our knowledge. Others, like a driver’s test, are meant to test our knowledge and ability. Others are meant to test the depth of our reasoning. In a law school exam, for example, a student could reach the wrong ultimate conclusion and still earn a good score based on her ability to identify the issues and reason through the problem. A psychological test doesn’t measure our knowledge or ability, but is supposed to evaluate our mental characteristics and wellness.

The Kobayashi Maru from the Star Trek universe is an example of a test with no right answer. The Kobayashi Maru is a simulation where the captain receives a distress call from a ship called the Kobayashi Maru. The simulation is programmed so that if the captain does not attempt the rescue, the Kobayashi Maru is destroyed but if the captain attempts to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, the attempt provokes a battle with Klingon ships that ends in the captain’s own ship’s destruction. All choices lead to failure. It’s designed to test how the officer will wrestle with competing principles. It’s designed more to test character than to test knowledge or ability.

Abraham’s Test: God’s Kobayashi Maru.

I suspect that Abraham’s test was a test like the Kobayashi Maru. Did God want a simple right answer from Abraham? Did he want blind obedience at all costs and nothing more? I don’t think so. I think Abraham’s test was a lot more about the wrestle than it was about the outcome. It was to test Abraham’s character, not his knowledge of the correct answer. Abraham’s test pitted God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac against his commandment not to kill. [1] It pitted God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac against God’s own promises to Abraham that through Isaac, his miracle son, he would have descendants to fill the earth (Genesis 13:16, 15:15, 17:6-9 & 19). It pitted God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac against everything that Abraham knew about the character of the God who saved him and called him out from the horror of a religion of child sacrifice (see Abraham 1)—it forced Abraham to consider the horrifying possibility that the only real difference between the living God he knew and worshipped and the idolatrous Gods of his fathers was that his God could actually enforce his demands.

Like the Kobayashi Maru, Abraham’s test was a no-win situation. If Abraham said no, he would sin against obedience to God. But if he said yes and sacrificed his son, he would sin against his own innocent son, against God’s commandment against murder, and against God’s promises that through that son he would make his descendants like stars to fill the earth. And if that’s what God demanded, was this even a God worth worshipping?

In my opinion, the test was not just to see if Abraham would obey. It was to see how Abraham would wrestle with the dilemma. I don’t mean that God is a trickster just messing with Abraham for his own amusement. I think he wanted Abraham to come to grips with the contradictions of what it means to be human. Failing the test would be to fail to wrestle with those contradictions. In my opinion, there were two equally damning ways for Abraham to fail the test: One would have been to just say “Go jump in a lake, Lord, I’m not doin’ that.” But the other would have been to just say, “yeah, let’s go, where’s the knife?”

The dominant traditional reading of the Abraham story is that Abraham passed the test because he obeyed the commandment, putting obedience to God’s commands above everything, even his love for his own son, and his sense of morality (see Genesis 22:12, 16). But if I’m right that the test was less about the outcome and more about the wrestle, I wonder if there may have been other ways to pass the test. What if Abraham had wrestled with the commandment and ultimately concluded that it was so inconsistent with the character of the living God he knew that he must have been mistaken when he thought God had told him to sacrifice his son? I’m not sure that would have been failing the test. What if the angel stopping him was not a reward for his obedience, but a correction because he had reached the wrong conclusion? Something more like “hey Abraham: good try; you almost got it right, but the Lord didn’t want you to actually go through with it, but don’t worry, God sees your devotion and obedience and he’s here to redeem it and save you from it.” (Here‘s a good op-ed that reviews various readings people have given the story over the centuries.)

But why is Abraham our model for impossible tests? Abraham wasn’t the first to face such an impossible choice. That was Eve. In the first creation story, Eve is commanded to have children (Genesis 1:28). But then the second creation story tells us that she was commanded not to eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:3), and as Lehi tells us, she couldn’t keep that commandment and fulfill her mission as the mother of all (2 Nephi 2:22-23). She could either choose obedience, and fail to fulfill her role in God’s promises and frustrate the entire plan of salvation, or she could accept the fact that if she were to fulfill her role, she would inevitably disobey some of God’s commandments. And while the dominant traditional Christian reading of Eve’s test is that Eve failed, the restoration revises that understanding and praises Eve’s choice (Grover’s recent post goes through some of the material on this). Eve chose disobedience for herself and life for her descendants, while Abraham chose obedience for himself, death for his son, and no life for his descendants. But God accepted both Eve and Abraham and redeemed both their choices in his mercy. He gave Adam and Eve a commandment to sacrifice, followed by reception of the Holy Ghost and a promise of children to fill the whole earth. [2] And he gave Abraham a sacrificial ram and the promise of children like glittering stars that would bless all the earth. Abraham and Eve made different choices, but they both passed the test and were redeemed because they wrestled through the test with faith in God and his mercy.

The test of mortality is to recognize that we can’t keep all the commandments and that therefore our only hope is to trust in God. We can’t live as fallen people in this fallen world and remain free from sin. But grace, through faith and repentance, redeems us from the sin that is an inevitable part of living in this world. I believe that this is why Paul doesn’t say that Abraham was righteous because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, but rather that Abraham believed in God and that it was therefore “counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3). [3] It’s subtle, but Paul, as I read him, shifts away from the idea that Abraham was righteous because of his absolute obedience to the idea that Abraham was righteous because of his faith in God. Abraham passed the test, in my opinion, not because he was willing to blindly obey at all costs, but because he recognized that no matter what he did, he could not remain free from sin, and that he therefore could not rely on his own righteousness, so his only hope was to trust in God, hoping that if he did his best with the test before him, God would redeem his failure and make it count as righteousness.

In Star Trek, Kirk beats the Kobayashi Maru by reprogramming the simulation so that the name of Kirk would strike fear into the Klingons and they would withdraw, allowing him to save the Kobayashi Maru, explaining that it wasn’t really cheating because he intended to actually develop such a reputation. Kirk beat the test because he recognized that there was no winning within the rules of the game and he therefore looked outside of those rules and found a way to change those rules. We don’t get to change the rules of mortality, but the only way to pass Abraham’s test is to recognize, like Kirk, that there is no winning within the rules of the game, that there is no pure righteousness through obedience to the rules of the test, and to therefore look outside of the test, to God’s mercy, for righteousness.

“Abrahamic Tests” in Mormonism

Referring the Abraham story, we sometimes call a hard thing that God asks of us an Abrahamic test. The Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t use the term “Abrahamic test,” but it explicitly draws a connection between polygamy and Abraham (see D&C 132:29-37), and Mormons sometimes talk about Mormon polygamy as an Abrahamic test. I’ve also heard people say similar things about Nephi killing Laban and about the church’s historical ban on black members receiving the priesthood and the ordinances of the temple.

More recently, I’ve heard people call the church’s policy barring from baptism the minor children of parents in a gay marriage an Abrahamic test. I can see where they’re coming from: the policy is hard to accept, and, like God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, it seems to contradict what we thought we knew of God’s character (that he forbids none that come unto him, and that he doesn’t hold children responsible for the sins of their parents). But others take issue with that, and I think they raise very good reasons not to call this an Abrahamic test.

I don’t know whether it’s right to call the policy an Abrahamic test. Ultimately, I’m not sure what calling it an Abrahamic test is supposed to mean, precisely. It probably changes depending on who’s saying it and how that person reads Abraham’s test. But if we look at this as an Abrahamic test, then if we are reflexively defending the policy and not wrestling with the damage and pain that it causes, or how it seems to contradict other gospel principles, then maybe we’re failing the test just as much as if we were to reflexively dismiss it without a second thought. If this is an Abrahamic test, then maybe it’s as possible to pass the test by wrestling with it and concluding that the policy is wrong as it is to pass it by wrestling with it and concluding that it is right.

One thing’s certain: whether this is an Abrahamic test or not, the policy is hurting people. And even if we think the policy is right, we should not be okay with that hurt. It should bother us, and no matter what we think about the policy, we should be trying to alleviate that hurt if and where we can. We should not be callous or complacent about it. Dismissing the pain that the policy causes without a second thought is failing the test.

I don’t know what do with the policy. I can’t defend it, except maybe to say I have chosen to sustain the church leaders that have implemented it.

But I do believe that like Abraham and like Eve, we’re going to have to rely on God’s grace and mercy, and not on our own righteousness, if we have any hope at all of finding a way through this.

The impetus for this post was a meditation that a friend posted on his facebook page exploring the idea that the church’s policy excluding from baptism the minor children of a parent in a gay marriage was an Abrahamic test. This post is an expansion on a comment I left on that post. But I’ve discussed these ideas several times before in the bloggernacle, and  I am indebted to more bloggers and commenters than I can name for their help in refining my thinking on this, but this post comes to mind, as well as Ronan’s post linked above.


[1] Technically, Abraham predates the ten commandments, but I think it’s safe to say that the Old Testament depicts a God that disapproved of murder even before the ten commandments. D&C 132:36 takes the position that even for Abraham, “thou shalt not kill” was a commandment.

[2] Joseph Smith’s biblical revision project (the Book of Moses and the JST) actually gives two accounts of how God redeemed Adam and Eve after their transgression. The first account is in Moses 5:5-11. There God tells that he gave Adam the ordinance of animal sacrifice, that an angel asked Adam why did so, and when Adam couldn’t answer, the angel explained to him that it prefigured the sacrifice of Christ, after which the Holy Ghost falls upon Adam and he and Eve praised God for their redemption. The second is in Moses 6:52-68. There it’s framed within Enoch’s preaching. Enoch tells that God gave Adam the ordinance of baptism, that Adam asked God why baptism was necessary, and that God explained that baptism was a commandment to represent being cleansed in the blood of Christ, after which Adam is baptized, and the Holy Ghost falls upon him. But in either case, whether we’re talking about sacrifice or whether we’re talking about baptism, we’re talking about a sacrament that God gives to Adam and Eve, designed to prefigure Christ’s atonement, which accompanies redemption from sin, followed by the Holy Ghost falling upon them.

[3] While Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises generally, D&C 132:36 connects this idea of it being “counted for righteousness” explicitly to Abraham’s test. Thus, being ready to sacrifice Isaac was not an inherently righteous act, but it was “accounted unto him for righteousness” in D&C 132:36.


  1. I think we get into trouble when we try to work out what would be an Abrahamic Test for someone other than ourselves. For some, even some directly effected by the policy, it’s not a test at all, but for others it certainly is. Recognizing our own Abrahamic Tests may be just as difficult, as sometimes what we think is a test is just something difficult we have to survive.

    Interesting post. Plenty to think about.

  2. I think we as Mormons need to be better at calling something just plain wrong. For instance, if the temple and priesthood restriction was for some reason resinstated, I would like to think that most Mormons wouldn’t be saying “well it’s an Abrahamic test” they’d just call it wrong.

  3. When a modern person reaches for Abrahamic test to explain why something must be done you can take it to the bank that the thing being asked is horse sh*t and should be uncerimoniously dismissed.

  4. This is hard for me to grapple with, since most days most of the time I’m thinking that Abraham failed his test, that Nephi failed his test (with Laban), that Joseph Smith failed his test (with polygamy), that Church leaders failed for years in not ordaining black men and not allowing black men and women to participate in temple ordinances, and that Church leaders are failing today when they do not baptize children of age. I’m not much interested in rationalizing immoral behavior, especially when it hurts people.
    But that’s far enough outside the accepted terms of discourse that I’ll consider myself modded in advance, and stand down to watch.

  5. Christian, That may be far outside the usual terms of Mormon discourse, but it is far from unheard of. It is subscribed to by an unexpected number of people commonly silent about just those things in the context of Mormon discourse.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    Thank you for this. It seems that every time the story of Abraham and Isaac comes up in church, the only interpretation presented is the traditional one (obedience/loyalty above morality). I once suggested in class that by willingly carrying out a premeditated plan to murder his son, Abraham had in fact failed the test and required divine intervention to prevent it’s completion–that blind obedience can drive normally good people do to evil things, so why are we trying to argue the validity of the Nuremburg defense? I was quickly shouted down.

  7. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    there is no winning within the rules of the game, that there is no pure righteousness through obedience to the rules of the test, and to therefore look outside of the test, to God’s mercy, for righteousness.

    This is something all of us need to remember. Mormonism at present is dominated by a linear, rules-based approach: follow the rules, stay inside the fence, and everything will be OK in the end. Except sometimes, the wolf can dig under the fence, and we have to jump over to save ourselves, or else hope and pray that the shepherd sees us and both can and will shoot the wolf.

  8. For informed posts on various views of Abraham’s “test” and discussion of them see Walter van Beek’s series over at Times and Seasons, perhaps starting with
    For years I thought I was the only one who believed Abraham had failed his test – at least if it was discerning the voice of God rather than his own cultural background. There have been a variety of views on the subject for a long time.

  9. That’s an important point, Frank. It’s one thing to say this is an Abrahamic test for me. It’s another thing to say this is an Abrahamic test for you.

  10. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    The response of the people in Jack’s GD/PH class is precisely the tendency I’m talking about. You’d think that people would remember that it’s an unprofitable servant who must be commanded in all things–and this doesn’t just refer to micromanagement. The Lord expects us to use our judgment. Sometimes that judgment means sacrificing one good thing to do something better.

    Unfortunately, this is a church in which, for example, mission presidents think that it’s not merely acceptable but good to force missionaries to do objectively stupid things in the name of teaching obedience. (Great example: in my wife’s mission in San Francisco, a Russian-speaking sister missionary was assigned to an area in the mostly Chinese Sunset District, while a Mandarin-speaking sister was assigned to the Richmond District, which had a large population of Russian immigrants at the time. When they questioned him, the MP essentially said, “Do as I say.”) Don’t for a second think that many, many Latter-day Saints don’t carry this attitude forward with them into their adult lives.

    A lot of folks cried that Damon Linker was engaging in bigotry in that infamous Atlantic article from 2012 where he noted that the LDS MBA students he interviewed expressed willingness even to commit murder if the Prophet asked them, and that a Mormon therefore never could be trusted with the presidency of the United States. (As a counter, there’s the old saw about the crank who shouts “I’d take a bullet for the Prophet!” in Testimony Meeting but never does his home teaching.) However, his broader point about the attitude of many Latter-day Saints toward rules and obedience should not be overlooked merely because of his mean-spirited tone.

  11. Christian, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m not going to moderate your comment. It may be outside the mainstream in the church, but I appreciate your honesty.

  12. JR, thanks to the link to the T&S post. That’s one of the bloggernacle posts that I couldn’t remember. You’ll see a comment from me on that post that will look very familiar after reading this post. These are ideas I’ve lived with for a long time.

  13. Hepta, that’s why, despite its very prominent historiographical problems, I think “Under the Banner of Heaven” is a book worth reading because it grapples with the question of what it means to believe in a God that is capable of asking his followers to kill innocent people.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    JKC, this is really great. I love Eve, Arbaham, and the Kobayashi Maru.

  15. Really good point. It’s a bit of a tangent, but I’ve also come to doubt Nephi’s story. First, it’s written well after the fact at a time when Nephi is attempting to creating a founding narrative for his people in opposition to the narrative of his brothers’ people.

    Second, and more importantly, the story just doesn’t make sense. Accepting the rationale that Lehi’s people really really needed the plates, there are lots of less consequential ways for the Lord to intervene than to cut off a man’s agency. As one obvious example, the spirit could have said “Nephi, I’ve made Laban go to sleep for a week, so put on his clothes, pretend to be him, and get the plates from Zoram.” Not only would that method have prolonged Laban’s life, it would have been a greater test for Nephi.

  16. so his only hope was to trust in God, hoping that if he did his best with the test before him, God would redeem his failure and make it count as righteousness.

    You write repeatedly about trusting in God — which is exactly what Abraham did, is it not? Trusted that God knew what he was doing when he commanded such an awful thing of Abraham? This was, in both the traditional understanding and your retelling, an explicit direction of God, given directly to Abraham (a man who knew God’s voice and was not, even in your telling, deceived in what he heard God tell him to do) for this one moment in time — not a general “thou shalt not kill” given to all men which could, in theory, be overridden in specific instances. How is it trusting God to refuse that instruction? Had Abraham refused in this instance, what about the instances to follow? When should he trust God, and when should he “lean unto his own understanding”?

    I’m not arguing for the “obey blindly at all costs” mentality, but I question what comes after a lesson that one’s own personal morality trumps God’s explicit direction. Is God a liar? Does he tempt a man to do wrong? You are saying that he does.

  17. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Dave K: dead Laban doesn’t come after Nephi. Laban asleep for a week does.

    The notion of the BoM as having unreliable narrators just like the OT does certainly is intriguing, though.

  18. Dave K – God could just as easily have giveen Laban an aneurysm, or put into his drunken mind that he wanted to strip and dive headfirst into what he thought was a deep pool of water. These bodies are -really- easy to kill, especially if you have the tools enough to build a planet.

    That’s what I don’t get in the talk of “god -wanted- them to disobey” – how is anyone supposed to trust God if God is someone who periodically sets up “gotchas”? (thank you Ardis)

  19. I was teaching primary one year and week# 1 was about how Abraham had to flee because his father wanted to sacrifice him to his gods. Week #2 was about how Abraham was going to sacrifice his son to his god. I kept thinking “please, tiny children, don’t ask me why human sacrifice was wrong for the father and ok for Abraham.” That’s when it dawned on me that we may be interpreting the story incorrectly. If you ask Abraham’s father why he was willing to sacrifice his son, he would have said “Because god told me to.” If you ask Abraham why he was sacrificing his son he would have said the exact same thing. There is more than one biblical commentator that says Abraham failed and god intervened.

  20. wreddyornot says:

    To me all of these tests (stories obviously not fully fleshed out or we wouldn’t have to try again and again to sort them out) signify the necessity of me as a believer to put my questions to God. Symbolically, I’m not to sit at Their dinner table with my device looking at social media, conference talks, or whatever, but I am supposed to engage directily with my Parents about all my important questions and concerns. Whenever I question or have concerns about Their directives (as represented usually by others I respect as having some authority, such as these storied scriptures, etc.), I try to keep right on objecting to Them until I do understand and can agree. I have faith They will be loving and patient, no matter what. I believe in the atonement; I do accept the glory of the mystery, of the idea that there are things I have to wait to understand. When I do comprehend and accede, I’ll usually try to do what I can, but I am stupid, weak and childish. My Parents have yet to send me to my room, even though there have been some heart-rending, soul-searching moments. Plenty who represent Them (or say they do), though, would send and have sent me and plenty of others packing.

  21. jaxjensen says:

    Mormons always say that “this life is a test” but then spend lots of time questioning what that test is. It’s as if they didn’t realize that God himself told us exactly what is being tested.”And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;”

    It’s true that an unprofitable servant has to be commanded in all things, and therefore God doesn’t command in all things, but we do have to obey in those things He HAS commanded.

    As such, Nephi didn’t fail his “test” with Laban. He was commanded, questioned that command, had it reaffirmed to him, and he obeyed. There were other ways that the plates could have been obtained, or other ways for Laban to die without Nephi doing it, but those weren’t what God wanted. Sometimes he wants people dead, and sometimes he wants His servants to do it.

  22. wreddyornot says:

    I put agency (which implies needing to understand) above obedience any day.

  23. Lily, you just reminded me I’m going to have to teach Abraham’s story in Primary this year. I wonder if I can distill JKC’s post to a 9-year-old-friendly version.

  24. Heptaparaparshinokh says:


    You’re missing the point. Commandments can conflict with one another. Sussing out which one to obey and which one to let slide is judgment. DHO’s much-cited “Good, Better, Best” is in this vein.

  25. Some decades ago a mother threw her children off a 5th story balcony in a downtown SLC hotel because God told her to. Is there some reason to think there could be no error, editing, white-washing of a revered ancestor in the story that Abraham [always] knew the voice of God and that God told him to sacrifice Isaac? That story seems to have been written by someone much later than Abraham. Is there some reason to think that Abraham knew the voice of God better than Joseph Smith, who reportedly acknowledged sometimes mistaking the source of revelation, and who demonstrably made large changes in his written revelations? Or better than Brigham Young who later prophets insist got it wrong at least as to his Adam-God teachings? Or better than the GA who told us decades ago in the SLC Mission Home that mission rules were commandments of God and that we could not have the Spirit with us if we broke any of them? That GA was explicitly contradicted to me personally by Ezra Taft Benson, whom we sustained as a prophet. Is there some reason not to explore the possibility that Abraham was mistaken as to the voice of God in that instance as well as the possibility that the written report is accurate and Abraham was not mistaken? If we refuse to consider the possibility of mistake (whether Abraham’s or a later writer’s or an editor’s), are we falling into the same infallibility trap that many including prophets of the Restoration have warned us of?

  26. JR, I rest my case.

  27. Ardis and jaxjensen, thank you! The verse from Abraham 3:25 is spot on. Faith and trust in God are paramount in all aspects of life, and especially when it comes to trials. The greater (or seemingly impossible) the trial, the greater the faith and trust in God requested of us. The fact that Abraham and Nephi (and Joseph Smith) are among the greatest and most faithful of all the prophets is not a coincidence, I believe.

    Furthermore, a couple of important ‘details’ I find missing in the discussion, so far: basically all prophets and apostles have interpreted and officially taught the Abraham-Isaac account in a certain way, the ‘traditional’ way, the one I see somewhat disparaged here, as if ‘they do not know any better than we do; actually, they may well be dead wrong!’. This I find hard to believe. Does the fact that basically all of God’s servants, past and present, interpret this scriptural account in the same way mean something or is it just a matter of ‘quoting’ one another? To me, this repeated pattern is a strong indicator that the ‘traditional’ view is the correct one, hard as it may be.

    Furthermore, trying to look at this account beyond the mark leads (inevitably, I would add, whenever we look beyond the mark) on a slippery road: the focus should be on the ‘type and shadow’ of the Atonement of the Lamb of God. That is the whole point of the Abraham-Isaac account, in my opinion, and the parallelism is so striking as to make (again) the traditional view the correct one, after all.

    Abraham was not mistaken; he did not misinterpret God’s words; he was not deceived; he had to exercise his utmost faith and trust in God, who asked him to sacrifice his most precious and only son, the son of promise, in the same way (ironically) as he was being sacrificed by his idolatrous father. Heavenly Father knows something about ‘Abrahamic tests’. He had to pass His own, the hardest test we can imagine, and the sacrificial lamb was His own Son, and He could not stop it even if (I’m sure) He wanted to. Who are we to tell God the whats and hows and whys of Abrahamic tests, or to even accuse Him or His prophets of being wrong, rather than striving to exercise our utmost faith and trust in Him, in His perfect love and His perfect Son?

  28. Ardis,

    I agree with you that Abraham trusted God by being willing to sacrifice Isaac. That’s the point of the post. Of course I don’t believe that God is a liar, and I wouldn’t say that God tempts us to do wrong, either. Rather, he puts us in a world where we will inevitably break some rules when those rules conflict. My point is not that obedience to rules doesn’t matter, or that we should feel free to substitute our own judgment for God’s judgment, it’s that (1) we have to be very careful about what we ascribe to God so that we don’t end up doing something horrifically immoral because we mistakenly believed God wanted us to do it (I’m not saying this is what Abraham did; I’m saying that there’s a danger in trying to apply Abraham’s story to us because we rarely lack the certainty that Abraham is portrayed as having), and (2) when we find ourselves in a situation where we can’t keep all the rules, we have to do our best and trust in God’s mercy for the hope that he’ll count our efforts as righteousness through our faith in Christ, and extend us forgiveness for the rules we break.

  29. JKC, Your point, as explained to Ardis, is the most concise statement of my conception of the subject that I can imagine — but can’t produce myself. Thanks. One thing though — I think you meant “we rarely have the certainty…” I very often “lack the certainty…”

  30. Andrea,

    If you think I’m disparaging the traditional reading of the story, I probably haven’t been clear enough. I agree with the traditional reading. I agree that Abraham passed the test because he trusted God enough to obey. So of course I’m not saying that the prophets and apostles that have read the story that have been wrong.

    Wondering whether Abraham would have failed the test if he had failed to wrestle with the contradiction, or whether it would have been possible for God to count it as righteousness if Abraham had wrestled with it and reached the conclusion that God didn’t want him to sacrifice Isaac, does not mean that Abraham failed, nor does it mean that the traditional reading is wrong. I think, tentatively, that that’s possible. Maybe it’s not. But either way, that doesn’t mean Abraham failed his test.

    And I’ll be honest, I don’t know how you could read what I’ve said here and think that I’m not thinking of the story as looking forward to the atonement. The whole post is about how Abraham’s story points to the atonement.

  31. Yes, JR. That’s a typo. You’re right.

  32. There’s also a danger in trying to apply Abraham’s story to us because even if everyone has had, is having or will yet have his or her own Abrahamic trial, this trial(s) is very customized, very personal, and no one (hopefully) will have to do exactly what they were asked to do, something that (understandably) sends shivers down our spines in our days, striking us as immoral or puzzling and contrary to the Gospel. But even our own Abrahamic trials test us more than we could imagine, wrenching our hearstrings, and they come in innumerable forms.

  33. jax,

    I know from our past discussions on obedience that we probably just disagree on some points, and that’s fine. But I want to address the verse from Abraham 3. If the test is to see whether we will do all things the Lord commands us, that’s an easy answer: we won’t. Sometimes because we just fail (which is a major part of Paul’s message), and sometimes because those commands contradict each other (that is, you can’t do ALL things the Lord commands when one command conflict with another). So it’s not that the Lord needs to learn whether we will obey (he already knows we won’t), he wants US to learn that we won’t obey perfectly and need, desperately, to rely on the atonement.

    Hugh B. Brown’s quip (reported by Truman Madsen) comes to mind. President Brown was asked why, if God already knew Abraham’s character, did he test Abraham. His answer was that God tested Abraham not because God needed to learn something about Abraham, but that Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.

  34. “There’s also a danger in trying to apply Abraham’s story to us because even if everyone has had, is having or will yet have his or her own Abrahamic trial, this trial(s) is very customized, very personal, and no one (hopefully) will have to do exactly what they were asked to do, something that (understandably) sends shivers down our spines in our days, striking us as immoral or puzzling and contrary to the Gospel. But even our own Abrahamic trials test us more than we could imagine, wrenching our hearstrings, and they come in innumerable forms.”

    This is well said. Thanks, Andrea.

  35. Sorry, JKC, I just can’t see the Atonement mentioned in the OP. I am still quite convinced that Abraham’s story is not so much about passing a test or obeying an impossible commandment, “putting obedience to God’s commands above everything, even his love for his own son, and his sense of morality”. I still think — also because it avoids many pitfalls — that we should read and understand this account throught the lens of the Atonement of Christ, in order not to look too much beyond the mark.

    I totally agree about the fact that “the test was less about the outcome and more about the wrestle”. I do believe that God does not care so much about our outcomes as He does about who we become and what our choices reveal about who we really are.

    The idea of a seemingly impossible ‘wrestle’ between two contradictory options is another great point of your OP. The Gospel is simple, but it is not simplistic, and certainly faith and trust in God are not shallow or easy.

  36. Well it’s true that I only used the word atonement once, in the second footnote, but then again, so does the New Testament. :) The whole point is that we have to rely on the atonement of Christ because obedience will never take us all the way. Anyway, thanks for your comments.

  37. Since I haven’t been modded (sorry, JKC–you might regret that) let me offer a slightly different paradigm:
    1. Prophets sometimes do terrible things.
    2. God does not always intervene. (Even the ram in the thicket is thought by some to be a later emendation.)
    3. The “right” answer, the godly answer, is probably Captain Kirk’s. Change the rules or find a loophole. (I tend to think that’s the message of the ram–“this is what you should have figured out.”) But those are remarkable solutions usually thought about in retrospect and not what we really expect or experience with life in this sphere, even of prophets.
    4. The scriptures about these experiences are derived from the very prophets who did the terrible things. They are the most suspect, the most subject to interpretation and second guessing, of all the verses in all the standard works.
    5. So we are left to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, with no certainty, no sure footing, but only the infinite capacity of the atonement to make us whole.

  38. Totally agree on #5, Brother Kimball, and #2 is also true, probably more often than we would like to (and again, #2 can be a profound link to the Gethsemane and Calvary account), but the other three items seem doctrinally harder to support.

    1. Terrible, but not as terrible as to put their Exaltation in jeopardy (except for David) or to lose their prophetic status in the eyes of God and of subsequent prophets. Abraham, Moses, Nephi, Joseph etc. were certainly not perfect, but they weren’t as ‘terrible’ (morally wrong; anti-God) as your post ‘might’ subtly imply.
    3. I do not think a man (even a prophet) can do this and not be — sorry for being blunt — cut off by the Lord, or at least demoted from his prophetic role/office.
    4. This does not account for subsequent prophetic (official, binding) teachings or interpretations by additional prophets and apostles.

  39. jaxjensen says:

    JKC, I don’t think we disagree on much at all really on obedience. As you started to talk about us all failing at some point, I was already typing in my mind a reply about the atonement and that same Hugh B Brown quote. But you got to that.

    Personally I don’t think Abraham would have failed at all if he hadn’t wrestled with the command to sacrifice Isaac. Meaning, I don’t think he passed simply because he didn’t want to do it. If he hadn’t wrestled with it and had immediately said, “Okay, consider it done.” then I think he still passes. I think the test is obedience, not whether it is hard or not to be obedient. Saying that Abraham only passed because he wrestled with it would amount to saying that Abraham only passed the test because he was willing to second guess the command; willing to consider not being obedient. I don’t think those are traits the Lord is testing to make sure we have. I don’t think that is the test.

    Same with Nephi that came up earlier. If the HG tells him “kill Laban and take his clothes” and Nephi says “Thank You YES!!” then I think he still passes the test because he was obedient. People will say though that that makes Nephi willing to kill and that is wrong. Perhaps, but then his difficult test (if he is willing to kill so easily) would have be to be obedient to NOT kill. To restrain himself from throwing Laman or Lemuel over the side of the boat or something similar. As long as he is obedient, then he passes the test. When we fail, we are commanded to repent. As long as we apply the atonement then we are still being obedient. If we fail and never repent, then we fail completely.

  40. I had a missionary companion who was known as the most obedient missionary on the mission. He was obedient to a fault. Whenever two rules contradicted themselves–which, given the number of rules missionaries had in our mission, sometimes happened–he’d pull his hair out. He’d drive himself crazy wondering which rule to follow and which to break.

    Likewise, Abraham had two rules that contradicted each other. On one hand, the rule to not kill; on the other, the rule to kill his son. The truly obedient Abraham would have struggled enormously over which rule he should break and which he should keep.

  41. I’m not saying this is what Abraham did; I’m saying that there’s a danger in trying to apply Abraham’s story to us because we rarely lack the certainty that Abraham is portrayed as having

    I think it’s a fine thought experiment, but why do we always imagine ourselves in Abraham’s shoes? In a top-down hierarchy, no one reading this blog is ever going to be anything but an Isaac.

  42. Christian and Andrea, I don’t think prophets are fundamentally different from any other human being in their capacity to sin, so yes, I agree that prophets, like all people, sometimes do terrible things. And prophets, like any other human beings, are susceptible to the temptation to rationalize and self-justify. That does not make them not prophets. And it doesn’t mean that we should feel free to dismiss them, imo, because we’re no less subject to those same temptations than they are, and they have been given a special gift. But it does mean that we can’t surrender our responsibility (that is, our agency) to them.

    I do think God looks favorably on those who, like Kirk, try to think creatively to bend rules or find loopholes in service of godly principles. Abraham haggling with God over the destruction of cities comes to mind, as does David defiling the temple and eating the consecrated bread, Jesus healing on the Sabbath, or condemning hypothetical priests and Levites who were sure to follow rules about not becoming defiled by coming in contact with what appeared to be a dead body instead of seeing if the man was alive and needed help. The key, I think, is whether we’re looking for loopholes to satisfy our own greed and selfishness, or to justify our sins, or whether we’re looking for loopholes to extend mercy, to pursue justice, to humble the proud and exalt the humble.

  43. jax, it’s clear that we agree on a good deal, but on this point I think we just disagree, and that’s fine.

  44. Kevin Christensen says:

    There is the problem of us testing Abraham (or Joseph Smith or God) where the correct answer is “whatever I would have done as a sophisticated 21st Century modern.”

    Regarding Abraham, I think it’s important to read the story in light of the verse where Abraham says, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you,” and then the verse where Abraham says “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.”

    It looks to me like Abraham knew exactly what was going on, because as Nibley pointed out way back in the 29 part Improvement Era series, Abraham had been through the ritual several times before, with himself on the altar as the offering, and had seen Sarah twice on the altar. So taking the story as encouraging blind obedience to immoral commands is symptomatic of not removing such beams from one’s own eye, and therefore not seeing clearly. Abraham does not behave like someone who does not know what is going on. There is no Kierkegaardian agonizing in the Biblical narrative. Just, okay to the notion, not of killing, but of offering exactly what Abraham himself had offered repeatedly, and what Sarah had offered repeatedly, with the experience that a substitute would be provided. So that is not blind obedience, but the result of a life time of preparation.

  45. Kevin, That opens up ways of looking at it that are new to me. I had not seen Abraham as having himself offered, but rather having been offered by someone else. I’ll need to read Nibley again. It has been a long time. Of course, that approach may still make some aspects of the received story metaphorical rather than literal.

  46. it's a series of tubes says:

    Kevin, would that Nibley series by chance be available online? If so, a link would be greatly appreciated.

  47. Kevin Christensen says:

    For the most relevant Nibley essays, the Sacrifice of Isaac:

    And the Sacrifice of Sarah (my sister named her daughter Sarah after reading it):

    For Abraham not agonizing and saying that he and the boy would come back after worshiping see Genesis 22.

  48. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thanks Kevin – looking forward to some weekend reading.

  49. As I read this, I am reminded of the many paradoxes and contradictions that are given us in our standard works. Abraham’s Test is probably the most well known. I acknowledge Ardis’ point that Abraham knew God’s voice; the paradox placed before him was real and undoubtedly heartbreaking, to the extent that it appears he lied to his wife about it. I think Abraham passed the test, but only at great cost. I believe that he did wrestle, and that its similarity to his past experiences as the subject of such a sacrifice made it only more painful for him. I also recognize that many if not most of us are glad that we haven’t had to deal with quite the same level of wrestling that Abraham, and Nephi, and perhaps many others did.

    And I am reminded of Julie Smith’s remarkable edited collection of re-imagined conversations regarding many of these paradoxes in scripture that won the AML award for Best Religious Non-Fiction for 2016, “As Iron Sharpens Iron,” (Kofford Books). I wrote a review <a href="

  50. Admins: I messed up the html tags on my link to my review. Here is the corrected link:

  51. Thanks for sharing that Kevin Christensen. It’s been a very long time since I read Nibley on Abraham. It’s a reading of the story that I’m not averse to, though I still use its useful to read it with application to our own tests and trials. Radically re-envisioning old testament texts is a long and glorious tradition in Christianity in general and in Mormonism in particular.

    And kevinf, Julie’s book is really great. I did a review of it here.

  52. Very interesting perspectives. I’ve never considered that possibly Abraham failed his test, or passed it through wrestling with it as opposed to obeying immediately. D&C 132:36 implies that it was counted to Abraham for righteousness because he didn’t refuse to offer his son. That seems to be the hard line, obedience over morality/reasoning. I suppose you could call that Joseph’s interpretation of it, which all scripture has to be to some degree—influenced by the culture and perspective of the writer. Some people, like Carol Lynne Pearson, feel that the whole section was initiated by Joseph as a justification of his Abrahamic test of polygamy.

  53. EnglishTeacher says:


  54. I think we all have Abrahamic tests… 🎶one way or another, it’s gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha🎶 You might be be-bopping along thinking all is well in Zion when you are faced seemingly suddenly with an irreconcilable conflict that pits the impetus of love against obedience and requires one or the other to be sacrificed to the other. And it is especially poignant to the extent that it effects our own little Isaacs pitter-pattering underfoot. What about the homosexual parent who marries in order to live (our first covenant was to live remember – shouting for joy with Job and all that), but thereby exposes his children to the effects of the POX, (policy of exclusion), or the transgender person who decides to openly transition because otherwise she will just die (literally 40% suicide attempt rate among those in a non-supportive milieu – hey Y’ALL try being the wrong gender for forty years – see how ya like it), but who fears the explosion such a move would cause in her children’s lives in the kingdom etc. The thought that the trauma of a suicide would be greater to loved ones vs all of the other traumas attendant to the above choices is a temporizing measure at best. The only real hope lies in the truth that Christ exemplifies the grace that came by sacrificing himself, He loves us, and when we come closest to making our choices (YES- draped in all the fear and trembling of Kierkegaardian anguish) based on the impetus of love, then we will come closest to fixing our messed up lives, church, and world, we might even get a sneak peak at the rest of the Book of Mormon. Our conception of what is law is mutable, the principle of love is eternal, and wrapped in grace. I think that is how we all fail our Abrahamic tests, by not making love our highest standard. Just keep hang in’ on though, The Real Ram in the thicket has your back. Thanks for your thoughts in this post, has meant so much to me personally.

  55. Kevin Christensen says:

    Another thought as to why Abraham knew what was going to happen. Abraham was called the friend of God because he was willing to plead for Sodom when he didn’t understand the “Why”, calling attention to the possibility of good people being there. Yet he doesn’t plead for his son. He simply obeys. The only reasonable explanation is that he knew that “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you,” and “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.”

  56. Really good points Kevin.

  57. Kevin C., I will likely be entertaining for some time the thought that Abraham knew what was going to happen, but it is not the only reasonable explanation as to why the received story tells us nothing about Abraham wrestling with the received command or of him pleading for his son. What we have in the received story is merely an absence of a record whether he did so. It the absence of that record meant he did not, then, taken in conjunction with the pleading-for-Sodom story and the further assumption that Abraham acted consistently (not a good assumption as to most of the people I know), then that would indeed suggest that Abraham knew what was going to happen.

    On the other hand, it would seem that if Abraham knew what was going to happen, the event was not so much an “Abrahamic test” as traditionally understood, but instead a direction to enact a ritual only up to a point that did not actually require him to offer his son. In turn that would seem to make the angel’s reported explanation, apparently on behalf of the Lord, somewhat irrelevant: “for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” On the straightforward, traditional reading, the we-will-“come again to you” and the “God will provide himself a lamb” statements are merely dissembling statements for their particular addressees and not statements of Abraham’s belief.

    The story as received is so inconsistent with what many perceive as the nature of a loving God, that it is no surprise to find many alternative emendations supplying missing elements or “correcting” it by taking some statements literally and not others. I sometimes seems that the varied understandings/interpretations/retellings may have more to do with what the reader needs to learn, or wants to “confirm”, about his own understanding of God and his/her relationship to God than they do with Abraham and Isaac. Maybe those who, like the nation of Israel as often depicted in the OT, need most a lesson about obedience to God see that lesson. Maybe those who, having been subjected to abusive authority, need most a lesson about the love of God are impelled to re-imagine the story somewhat differently than the Reader’s Digest version found in Genesis 22. Maybe those who need reminders that not all their “spiritual” impulses are God-given need a lesson in being corrected by God (or an angel-messenger of God). Maybe those who need to see Abraham as model of a prophet who always correctly perceives and interprets the voice of God need to see him as knowing what would happen, without regard to what that does to the obedience lesson of the writer of Genesis. Maybe most Christians don’t even think about the received story except as [an imperfect/incomplete] type of the death and resurrection of Christ. Maybe I’m out to lunch and my ramblings are of no value to anyone but myself.

  58. JR I don’t think you were out to lunch. These are plausible readings as well. Maybe it was more that Abraham believed he knew what would happen. In that case it would be a story affirming faith.

  59. Gjkkjhkkkjj says:

    I am somewhat ambivalent against Ben Spackman because he introduced me to this apostate lot….

    But one thing he taught me that was useful was the categories of scriptures and that modern Jews view the story of the binding as an etiology as to why Israelites do not practice human sacrifice…

    In a background of many societies that practiced human sacrifice and infanticide, thw Israelite polemic includes a story with God asking Abraham ( they most righteous) to practice human sacrifice). Just kidding, God says… I just wanted to make sure you’d be obedient, but that’s not what I want. Hence, be to this day, Israelites do not practice human sacrifice…

    [Personal insult removed by admin]

    I bear testimony that Russell Nelson is the Lord’s chosen prophet, and that those who fight against him here (you know who you are) will eventually inherit their just reward.

  60. Gjkkjhkkjj:

    Not cool. Feel free to discuss your insights on the meaning of the Abraham story, feel free to disagree with anyone else, feel free to share your testimony of President Nelson’s calling, but personal attacks against other commenters is off-limits.

  61. Bro. B: I’m not sure that section 132 necessarily has to be read as taking a hard line that obedience is superior to morality. Like I said in the OP, that verse saying that Abraham’s choice to obey was counted as righteousness, instead of that it was inherently righteous suggests to me the possibility that choosing obedience over morality was not righteous, but that Abraham was redeemed because of his faith in God’s saving power. Like I said in the OP, saying that Abraham choosing A was counted as righteousness because of Abraham’s faith does not necessarily mean that Abraham choosing B could not also have been counted as righteousness if Abraham made the choice with faith.

    I don’t think that’s the only way to read it, but I do think it is a plausible way to read it.

  62. Ryan Gotchy Mullen says:

    Fascinating post and discussion. I generally lean toward the DH model that supposes that Abraham really did sacrifice Isaac (as evidenced by his disappearance from the rest of this chapter and the lack of Isaac stories in general) but the text was later edited when human sacrifice become morally unacceptable in Israelite theology. But the framework in the OP is more useful methinks as I wrestle with God on my own life decisions. Thank you for that.

  63. Interesting point, Ryan. If I recall, one Muslim tradition also says that Abraham really did go through with it, but reconciles it by saying that God then resurrected Isaac. And honestly, if the story is all about pure obedience and a similitude to the sacrifice of Christ, I have to say, that version does it better.

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