Lesson 9: “God Will Provide Himself a Lamb” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Silently he arranged the firewood, bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife. Then he saw the ram that God had appointed. He sacrificed that and returned home . . . From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.  —Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Abraham 1:1, 5–20
Genesis 15–17; 21
Genesis 22

I once wrote a thing about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. It was a chapter in Julie Smith’s award-winning collection As Iron Sharpens Iron. Mine was the free sample, so you can read it here (but you should definitely buy the book anyway). Following the design of the volume, I wrote a dialogue between Abraham and Job, with Job asking Abraham, “why did you agree to sacrifice your son?”

The original intent of the piece was to have Job, who had lost ten of his children when God took them without asking, attack Abraham viciously for agreeing to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham would wither under this questioning and admit his error. And thus we would see that Job was right to resist God while Abraham was wrong to give in to divine bullying. That is pretty much how I saw things before Julie asked me to write the chapter.

But Abraham didn’t cooperate. In that weird way that writers sometimes say that a character takes over the writing process, Abraham insisted on having his say. As I worked towards the end I had in mind, I found myself, much to my surprise, writing these words:

JOB: Then why didn’t you fight back, man? Why didn’t you demand that God explain himself? Why did you just go along with God’s plan to shed the very blood that runs through your veins?

ABRAHAM: Because I trusted the Lord. That is what faith means. I did wrestle with Him, once—as He prepared to destroy the Cities of the Plain. I convinced Him to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men. But when I searched the great city, I did not find even one. And I realized then that the destruction that seemed so terrible to me was, in the eyes of God, a mercy to future generations. That is when I finally learned to trust the Lord.

JOB: But your own son?

ABRAHAM: That’s the point. I had to trust God in everything—even the hard things—or it wouldn’t have been faith. And I had a covenant with God. He promised me that my descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. I knew that God would keep His covenant. And I knew that Isaac would be my heir.

This is the essence of how I now understand the Akedah, or the story of the Binding of Isaac—perhaps the most gut-wrenching story in the entire scriptural canon. It a story that requires us to think deeply, and uncomfortably, about what faith means but which can actually help us understand the concept better in material ways.

One of the most difficult features of the text in Genesis 22 is its economy. It tells us what happens, but it does not even signal how the characters responded. We are not told how Abraham felt about God’s instructions. We are not told how Isaac felt about being a sacrifice. We can get there, but only by treating the characters as human universals and imagining how we would feel in their situation. To understand how the text characterizes faith, then, I must ask myself, “what kind of faith would I have to have to be willing to sacrifice a child?”

Just asking a question like that is one of the most agonizing things I have ever done.

But it leads somewhere. For one thing, it leads to a rejection of the idea that faith is a species of belief. Abraham certainly believed in God, but this belief was incidental to his faith. I believe with absolute certainly in all kinds of things that I don’t ever want near my children: drugs, school shootings, evil people in all walks of life. Simply existing does not give God, or anything else, any moral authority. And it would certainly not have motivated Abraham to bind his son.

We may also safely assume that Abraham did not simply give in to God’s greater power. His faith had nothing to do with God’s omnipotence or with any kind of promise of divine reward or threat of divine punishment. No parent would sacrifice a child because they were bullied into it by a really powerful bully, or bribed by a really rich briber. We would protect our child at any cost, defy the tyrant, and suffer whatever terrestrial or eternal punishment we had to suffer. The faith of Abraham is something much different than simply acknowledging God’s great power.

If Abraham was anything like me, and like nearly every other parent I know, the only thing that could have convinced him to place the ropes around Isaac’s wrists was perfect trust in God’s unconditional love. He had to trust that both he and Isaac were in the hands of someone who loved them, who understood their needs, and who would do everything possible to make them both whole.

And this understanding of faith does something wonderful if we  accept the argument (which is canonized in Jacob 4:5) that the near-sacrifice of Isaac “is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son.” If God was like Abraham in the Akedah, then the Atonement of Christ was also an act of obedience on the part of a God who trusted the love of some principle deep and powerful enough to command even His perfect faith. Nothing in the scriptures, I think, makes God more relatable and more vulnerable than seeing him in the role of Abraham binding his son for a sacrifice.

The Akedah forces us to confront a series of horrible questions head on. I believe that this is its primary purpose, because they are the only questions upon which a mature faith can be based. Can I really be sure that what I perceive as God speaking to me is really God speaking to me? What voices am I willing to accept as instructions from God? Would I commit a horribly immoral action if God commanded it? What if God exists but is not a moral being? What do I really mean when I say that I have faith in God?

We can answer these questions, but we cannot elide them. The text does not give us any way to avoid the discomfort that comes from having to question some of our deepest assumptions.  It is the nature of the Akedah that we must face it head on, without blinking, before we draw any conclusions from it. There is no ethical way to mitigate the horror. But on the other side of the horror we find grace.

From the Archives:

How Not to Pass an Abrahamic Test (JKC)
Abrahamic Tests (C’est Moi)
How Abrahamic Tests Work (RJH)
The Two Abrahams (JohnC)


  1. holy moly was this good.

    Thanks Michael. I know that as I’ve grown older, and grappled more with the story of Abraham and Issac, it seems every year that goes by it gets more and more heart-wrenching.

  2. Thanks, Michael. This is a fine meditation on the akedah for Sunday School. “If Abraham was anything like me, and like nearly every other parent I know, the only thing that could have convinced him to place the ropes around Isaac’s wrists was perfect trust in God’s unconditional love” seems to me an oversimplification. It seems it was also necessary for Abraham to have unconditional trust in his own perception that the idea of sacrificing Isaac was the voice of God unfiltered by his culture, background and personal urges. Given examples of other prophets, old and more recent, and my own uncertainties, I remain unconvinced that Abraham’s example is an appropriate model for my trust in God. “I have not sent these prophets…: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jeremiah 23:21. I wonder if an adult SS class should not also deal somehow with the certainty problem.

  3. Really wonderful — and I loved your contribution and the others to Julie’s book.

  4. Wonderful meditation. When it seems called for to have a conclusion about Abraham’s role and decision, I have a different one. And different today than I did a few years ago.
    But this:
    “The Akedah forces us to confront a series of horrible questions head on. I believe that this is its primary purpose.”
    is the key point and I wholly agree and appreciate the reminder.

  5. Well, done, Mike.

  6. JR, I think that, read in any historical sense, or in the “what would I do in the same situation?” sense, the question of certainty is THE most important question. But in the purely narrative sense (i.e. reading it as a story), I think that the text presumes that Abraham is correct in his understanding that Yahweh is responsible for the command to sacrifice Isaac.

  7. Michael, I must agree that the text presumes Abraham is correct in his understanding. The SS concern I don’t know how to deal with arises at least in part because most of our people take the “narrative sense” to be historical, and seek to “liken the scriptures” to themselves, and hear lots of talk about Abrahamic tests of each of us, all without ever reaching the question of certainty. I see certainty as the most important question precisely because of what our people generally do with the story — and, of course, because of the Mormon mothers who, years ago, threw their children off the Kennewick/Pasco bridge into the Columbia river or off a 5th floor hotel balcony in SLC “because God told them to.” For some years, my default Gospel Doctrine teaching position has been to refuse to teach this story and to get a substitute for that week. Maybe making the historical sense/narrative sense distinction explicit could be an appropriate way to introduce the question, even if not an answer. Other suggestions?

  8. It’s a hard question. When someone asks me outside of a Sunday School class, my answer is always, “You really aren’t supposed to read this as history. You can assume that Abraham actually knew what God was thinking for the same reason that you can assume that trains can talk when you read “The Little Engine that Could.” It is just a condition of the narrative. But if you ever actually hear a voice telling you to sacrifice your child, of if a steam engine ever tells you that he thinks he can do something, that means you should get psychiatric help immediately.”

    There are certainly some wards where this doesn’t go over very well, though.

  9. All of this is made harder, because the narrative, as you say, is remarkable for its economy. In confronting Abraham’s faith, nothing is given us to help us in that moment. I fear we simplify our approach to this event because it is so impossibly hard to place ourselves in that situation, and we are not told what we should feel. We are forced to either face up to the horror, or dismiss the complexity of the situation completely. We fail our own tests of faith when we don’t admit to ourselves just how awful the situation was that Abraham found himself in, and don’t find our own flesh weak and trembling.

    Your entry in Julie’s book was was the most compelling to me, although that whole volume asked a lot of hard questions. As I said in my review, “Handle this book carefully. It looks innocent enough, but you’ll likely end up needing a few bandages and stitches as you play with the new sharper edges that it creates in your vision, thinking, and faith.”

  10. This: “If God was like Abraham in the Akedah, then the Atonement of Christ was also an act of obedience on the part of a God who trusted the love of some principle deep and powerful enough to command even His perfect faith. Nothing in the scriptures, I think, makes God more relatable and more vulnerable than seeing him in the role of Abraham binding his son for a sacrifice.” I so agree. Along those lines, I see the story as a peek into a profound relationship between God and Abraham, Abraham thinking he understands the price of his and his posterity’s redemption and God telling him, you have no idea, but soon you will.

  11. keepapitchinin says:

    the Mormon mothers who, years ago, threw their children … off a 5th floor hotel balcony in SLC “because God told them to.”

    While not the primary point of the comment, I think it’s important that the narrative on this be corrected. This wasn’t an over-stressed Primary president hearing voices after days of fasting. The mother in this case was *not* a Mormon, but was a member of a Denver-centered polygamous group, the husband/father of which, a recent suicide, taught that he was all three members of the Godhead; rather than “God telling them to,” the general belief of close friends at the time was that the distraught family wanted to join their husband/father. There may or may not have been Mormon roots somewhere in their background, but by the time of this tragedy they were so far from Mormonism that it is misleading to call Rachel David “a Mormon mother” or to suggest that in any way that this is “what our people do with the story.”

    And it was an 11th floor balcony.

    I don’t know anything about the other case mentioned, but I do know that we should not be telling stories that so wildly distort what actually happened, if we’re going to relate them to what the rest of us might see in any scriptural story.

  12. wreddyornot says:

    “…we should not be telling stories that so wildly distort what actually happened…” I find this somehow ironic given the Job-Abraham dialogue alluded to in this posting and the nature of scriptures. All apprehension is a matter of imagination and fancy. In that regard, I fancy me talking to a Parent and expecting to understand and, given the nature of the command, not giving in until I did. At least I’d go to the other Parent and ask some more.

  13. keepapitchinin says:

    There is a vast gulf between the knowable history of our own lifetimes and the “nature of scriptures.”

  14. Keepa, Thanks for the correction, assuming the hotel balcony story I remembered and the talk about it at the time, was the David family story. No one suggested that those aberrant mothers (Mormon only in the sense much larger than LDS in the David case), were “what our people generally do with the story.” If you thought so, you need to read more carefully. Look to the prior sentence for what that “generally” comment had to do with. “And” is not the same as “for example.”

  15. keepapitchinin says:

    “Assuming” that the two stories were the same … How many cases do you think there have been in the past couple of generations of mothers throwing their children off hotel balconies?? As inaccurate as your version of the story was, you have little business questioning my reading skills.

    But do carry on, JR. You’re developing quite the reputation as a BCC commenter.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post.

    I have a weird little theory about the Akedah. It goes something like this:

    The OT portrays the Israelites as conquering the Canaanites. Personally I think it’s more likely that the Israelites arose indigenously from aming the Canaanites. (This is a common view among scholars and is supported by the archaeological record.) remember that the Canaanites had a longstanding penchant for child sacrifice. So I see the Akedah as an etiological myth explaining why the Israelites rejected child sacrifice, culturally and religiously going a different direction from their Semitic cousins.

  17. Keepa, I have no idea how many cases of SLC balcony-throwing there may have been. My comment and question had to do with attitudes and ultimately with what I might learn here. I will leave history to you. You are good at that. If you tell me there was only one such case, that’s fine with me. I don’t care (and it’s beside the point of my comment) whether there were more than one, whether the mother was LDS, or whether it was a 5th or 11th floor balcony. I think I am not good at guessing what words I use as logical connectors (or to avoid commitment to something I am unsure of) will lead folks to infer attitudes that are not mine. Keep calling me on your inferences, and maybe I’ll learn, though at my age that sometimes seems to be unlikely. I might idly wonder what the “reputation” you refer to may be, if I cared for that as much as I care for what I can learn here. Thanks again for the correction.

  18. Kevin Barney, that is an interesting take, and totally plausible. I think James Michener would agree with you. Maybe you’ve read his historical novel The Source? I’m sure much of the OT could be read that way—the Hebrews’ reaction to the indigenous cultures around them.

  19. I’m reminded that if I’m ever teaching on this subject, I try to keep the class or the discussion from settling on any one interpretation. This note from my files (probably posted before at BCC) is useful in that respect:

    There is millennia of discussion and controversy about the Akedah in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. It is not a simple story and there is not a simple answer. Among the thoughts put forward:
    >God testing Abraham. A loyalty test.
    >God preventing sacrifice, in a cultural milieu where sacrifice was common.
    >Abraham actually defied God, in the end acting on the lesser direction of an angel in contradiction to what God commanded.
    >God punishing and teaching Abraham in reference to his earlier mistreatment of Ishmael.
    >Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, but only followed the letter of the command to “raise up an offering.”
    >Abraham’s faith was such that he believed and expected God to resurrect Isaac.
    >The whole experience was preset and planned as a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross.
    >Abraham told his son in advance and his son agreed, with the expectation of being killed (alternate: with the expectation that God would stop it in the end).

  20. I’m teaching this class on Sunday. We will cover the material in three parts:

    Polygamy. You can’t cover these chapters without discussing Sarah and Hagar. (And we’ll have a brief aside to ask how LDS polygamy differed from Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.)

    Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael. There are strong similarities between this story in chapter 21 and the Akedah. What can we learn by studying them together?

    And then we’ll talk about the Abrahamic test. Thanks for this post! As I read it, I realized that Abraham “just” finished bargaining with God to try and save Sodom. I think it would be fruitful to ponder as a class whether Abraham would have bargained with God when asked to sacrifice Isaac. If so, what would that have looked like; if not, why didn’t he?

    As a concluding thought, we’ll end with the rabbinic insight that Abraham and Isaac went up the hill together, but Abraham came down alone. What are we to make of this?

  21. MTodd, Wish I could be there. That approach would likely not go over well in my ward.

  22. keepa: Thanks for the correction and additional context. I’d heard that story thrown around before, but never the full story.

  23. MTodd, I want to come to your class too. So, what do all of you do when the teacher\class only wants to discuss OT stories in a historical\literal\one explanation way? I’m not sure it makes sense for me to go, because talking about the stories that way is not only boring to me but agitating…and who am I to stress everybody out if they like that approach?

  24. Christian, Your suggestion (“try to keep the class or the discussion from settling on any one interpretation”) is one I could attempt. Thanks. Should have thought of it (and your list, in addition to other interpretations) myself — but I didn’t.

  25. CJ, I’m not exactly sure how to answer your question. I actually have only one way to look at the scriptures. Ask textual questions to understand: what does this mean? Why is it written this way versus that? Then only once we have a basic understanding do I even consider what does it mean.

    If someone gets hung up on history (e.g. arguing that Isaiah, Noah, David, etc. was or was not a real person) I just remind them that it doesn’t matter; either way I should be able to learn and grow by engaging actively with the text. For example, I have been greatly blessed because I studied To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t get hung up on debating whether or not Atticus Finch was a real person. Engage with the text, historical or literal or whatever, and grow.

  26. If all of us want to attend MTodd’s class (and it sounds like we do) perhaps he’ll be released soon.

  27. @Terry H, as I was just called last month, I hope to last a little longer as Gospel doctrine teacher than a staffer lasts in the Trump administration.

  28. It sounds like you came to the same conclusion about Abraham that Paul did in Hebrews 11.
    During Abrahams time sacrifice was a specific ritual, which do not do today. The Lord didn’t ask Abraham to just kill Isaac, but to sacrifice him; and I think that distinction is important. I think that’s something important to note when reading Judges 11 when Jephthah sacrifices his daughter.
    Still a very heart wrenching experience.
    Abraham had a lifetime of experience of communicating with the Lord in ways that the vast majority of us are never going to have.

  29. Agree jared3rd – As a ‘liken unto us’ question – “What would I do in the same situation?” is one which seems to leap over so many other things we know little about – not the least of which is Abraham’s spiritual state given the experiences life has yet afforded him in terms of his ‘covenant path’. Such questions often lead to self-analytical responses and unfortunately miss potential revelatory moments found in a closer study of the text and its ‘inter-texts’.
    In my GD teaching I use a similar approach to MTodd and enjoy fruitful participation. But this is not something arrived at in a moment, it has taken time to build up a close-reading approach to the scriptures. First, class members need to bring their scriptures and actually read what is written and not filter everything through memory fragments of what they have heard or previously been told.
    For our class the first question is usually ‘What is the text actually saying?’ before we ask ‘What is the text actually saying to me?’ – a fine distinction I agree.

  30. Leslie Thomas says:

    Is anyone else having a hard time that Abraham had no problem sending his firstborn and wife/concubine out to die? I find it hard to see him as a “loving father figure” who would struggle with the thought of killing his son.

  31. Joseph Stanford says:

    Gen 21:11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.
    If Abraham had then to choose between his (first) wife and his first son, how did that impact what played out the second time around?

  32. The Other Clark says:

    I’m supposed to be teaching this lesson this Sunday. So many parts of the story are foreign to the righteousness I know (polygamy, banishing your wife and son to the desert, obeying voices in your head to kill your child) that I really can’t say that Abraham’s example is worthy of emulation. So I’m planning to skip the lesson entirely and see if anyone notices.

    It mystifies me that we spend only one Sunday each on the creation and fall of man (two of McConkie’s three “pillars of eternity”) and then three Sundays on Abraham.

    A new SS curriculum can’t come quickly enough.

  33. I’m teaching this on the 18th and I’m going to ask two men in my class to do a reading of your dialogue between Job and Abraham. It’s going to be awesome.

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