Abraham for Liberals and Conservatives

The story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most perplexing moral dilemmas in all of scripture.  It has long been held up as an example of Abraham’s faithfulness.  Orthodox members do not question the traditional interpretation of the story.  They seem to reason that if God wants you to do something, you should do it with unquestioned obedience.  I am not always an orthodox believer, so I find a lack of questioning the story quite unsatisfactory.

I was recently referred to a post from a more orthodox member in which he is convinced this story is quite intentional on God’s part.  For me, this particular post doesn’t answer any of the qualms I have about this particular story.  The article starts off pretty well, attempting to tackle some issues that “theological liberals” have.  The article states (note, formatting changed):

  1. Making this story less comfortable is the fact that Abraham never seems to challenge the source of his revelation.
  2. Indeed, there is no ‘source of revelation’ mentioned at all in the story.
  3. We are matter-of-factly told that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham clearly has no doubts it is God.
  4. He never asks “is Satan deceiving me?” or “am I losing my mind and hearing things?”

While acknowledging points that “liberal” believers have qualms about the story of Isaac, I find that orthodox believers also never question the source of revelation either.  Instead, the author states rather matter-of-factly that “The New Testament then holds up this story as a supreme example of what it means to have faith in God.

Later on, there seems to be an attempt to reach out to someone like me:  “I can see why this story is so troubling to theological liberals and non-believers. This story simply leaves no room to ethically explain it away.”  There is even a provocative question:  “So why is this story held up as an ultimate example of what it means to have faith in God?”  Great question!  I’d love an answer!

“I am not sure I know the answer to that question.”  Thud.  While truthful, this answer is entirely unsatisfactory to me.  

I know this story is held up as an example of faith as the author states:  “We walk by faith on so many different and even invisible things.”  I understand that God’s ways are not man’s ways.  I understand that we can’t always explain God’s actions.    But I don’t think there is anything in this post, or in orthodox thought in general, that satisfy me.  For me, a liberal interpretation–one that is grounded in both scriptural principles, as well as historical fact–is much more satisfactory.

Before I get to the points I want to make, I want to correct one statement that didn’t quite sit right with me.  “Theological liberals are terrified at the thought that this is what it means to have faith in God.”  I think this is an unfair characterization of liberals–certainly it does not describe me.  I have faith in God.  I’m not terrified at what it means to have faith in God.  I am terrified of misreading God’s will (especially if God told me to kill my son), and it seems to me that this actually might be the case of Abraham (and subsequent prophets) misreading God.  Misreading God does terrify me–especially if I’m going directed to kill someone; having faith does not terrify me at all.  I have faith.  I walk by faith.  I believe, even if my belief is not typical or orthodox.

Let’s start off with scriptural principles that I can get behind.  (1)  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Mormon 9:9; Hebrews 13:8).  To me, this means God is consistent.  (2)  We should liken the scriptures unto ourselves (1 Nephi 19:6, 23.)  For me, the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice causes these two to principles collide from an orthodox interpretation.  However, with an unorthodox interpretation, I can reconcile these two principles.

(1)  If I believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why would he tell Abraham to kill his son, and not tell me to do the same?  This is not a consistent God.  (2)  If I am to truly liken this scripture unto me, I would have to ask if God would ever ask me to kill my own son.  Would God ask me to kill my son?   I’m quite inclined to say no.  I can’t accept either of these propositions, so if such a thing did happen to me, it would force me to ask if this was a real revelation from God.  There have been some that have claimed God told them to kill their children.  In today’s world, we call them either evil, or mentally ill.  We do not hold these people up as an example of faith.  There is no modern day exception.  If Abraham lived today, he would be jailed for child endangerment (if Isaac was a child) or attempted murder.  He would either be locked up in jail or locked up in a mental institution.  So the orthodox telling of the story fails both of these principles.  The orthodox telling of this story says (1) God is inconsistent (and was different yesterday than he is today), and (2) we should not liken this story unto us by killing our children.

Let’s switch to an unorthodox interpretation of this tale (as I blogged about in a post 5 years ago.)  Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi of Spain in the early 14th century wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?”  Ibn Caspi says the attempted sacrifice is not really the point of the story.  Rather the point of the story is the fact that God intervened, sending an angel and a ram for Abraham to sacrifice.  God loved Isaac so much, he intervened to prevent his untimely death.  The real spiritual nugget of this story is the angelic visit, not Abraham’s unquestioning obedience.  I can get behind this interpretation, because it doesn’t violate the two principles above.  (1)  God is consistent.  He would never ask me or Abraham to sacrifice his son.  After all, the scriptures state that “Thou shalt not kill.”  God wasn’t happy when Cain killed Abel.  Consistent.  I like it.  It follows scriptural principles.  (2)  I can liken the rabbi’s interpretation unto myself.  If I ever misinterpret God, I hope I have enough faith that God will intervene (as he did with Abraham) before I make a major mistake.  This is much more satisfying interpretation than saying “I don’t know why God would command such a revolting thing.”  I can confidently say, “God didn’t command this revolting thing.”

But I know my orthodox friends will have  qualms with my interpretation.  Is there any evidence that Abraham’s imagination led him astray?  Yes there is.  (1)  Human sacrifice among Jewish peoples was actually quite common in Abraham’s time.  (a)  We know that Abraham’s own father attempted to kill him (the LDS Book of Abraham, as well as Jewish Midrash and Islamic writings confirm this.)  Furthermore, archaeological evidence confirms this.  As stated in my previous post,

William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona, “Child sacrifice was fairly common throughout the ancient near east. And in fact at Carthage in North Africa, a Jewish cemetery has been found with small urns containing the burned bones of infants and the inscriptions accompanying these burials make it clear that parents had sacrificed a child to one or another of the gods to bring them good fortune.”

Scholars have sought to probe the seemingly baffling mystery of how any parent could sacrifice his own child?

Brettler, “As horrific as this might be to us, we can really see this as a very significant religious notion, where a person is coming and is saying to God, ‘God you have given me that which is most valuable, namely a child. I am going to return it to you.’”

Dever, “I think the editors wanted for us to believe that child sacrifice was never practiced. And yet the very critique of the prophets against it is proof of the fact that the practice was common. You don’t complain about something unless there was a real problem.”

I think that Abraham was not the only Jew that has been deceived in regards to human sacrifice.  Evidence of ancient Canannite/Jewish were frequently decieved and perfromed human sacrifice is pretty strong, especially in Abraham’s day.  It is highly likely that Abraham’s culture influenced him.  In fact, one scholar even goes so far as to claim that Abraham wasn’t necessarily a true monotheist.

Walter Zanger, a Jewish scholar. “Every other country in the world, every other civilization had gods whom you had to feed, to sacrifice to them. Abraham had a god who gave him law and behavior. The introduction of a single moral law for king, for commoner, and even for God is a milestone in the history of the world.”

“It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”

I’m not so sure I’d go quite as far as Zanger here, but I do think that Zanger’s comments about Abraham growing up in a culture in which child sacrifice was common could give us a considerable amount of evidence that Abraham’s culture led him to believe that God wanted him to kill Isaac.  I do think that we “see through a glass darkly” as Paul said in 1 Cor 13:12.  I also believe that Abraham wanted to believe that God was the source of the revelation.  I mean who wants to admit they were deceived?

Some orthodox folks still won’t like this interpretation.  Some will say that no prophet has supported this interpretation.  However, the prophet Jeremiah, in condemning child sacrifice among his people some 1500 years after Abraham, described the problem of child sacrifice in Jeremiah 32:25

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin .

Did you catch that?  God says that child sacrifice was NOT commanded by him, NEITHER CAME IT INTO MY MIND.  Has God forgotten the story of Abraham?  Is it better to say that God is consistent, and never wanted child sacrifice?  Is Jeremiah lying?  I’d love to hear some orthodox folks interpret this.

I will grant that Jeremiah is somewhat of a minority opinion, but that minority opinion does jive with the liberal interpretation of this event.  There are scholars that believe the story of Issac is actually a condemnation of this idea of child sacrifice.  Abraham never actually sacrifices Isaac–God stopped the abomination.  Once again, this interpretation makes God a consistent God.

The orthodox post states:

Every Theological liberal I’ve talked to … would prefer that we make a rule that we can discern revelation based on the morality of the content. This story specifically undermines that desire.

First of all, what’s wrong with making rules to discern revelation based on the morality of the content?  If God tells me to commit adultery, kill someone, do drugs, embezzle money, am I not supposed to question the morality of the revelation?  I see nothing wrong with discerning rules based on morality.  Tell me why I’m wrong here.

Secondly, I take issue with “This story specifically undermines that desire.”  No, your interpretation undermines the desire.  My interpretation does not undermine this desire.  My interpretation actually makes more sense than your interpretation.  Once again, my interpretation is consistent.  Yours is not.

Here are some questions for proponents of a traditional understanding.

  1. Is God consistent?  Is God the same yesterday, today, and forever?  If so, why would God make such an inconsistent demand of Abraham?
  2. If this story is true, why would God be so cruel to Isaac?  Can you imagine the psychological trauma Isaac must have felt?  How can a loving God be so cruel to Isaac?  Why is Isaac completely ignored in the interpretation of the story?  Some biblical commentators note that Sarah dies quickly after this incident–they speculate that Sarah might have died of a broken heart for Abraham’s senseless act.  Such a god does seem to be cruel, not loving.  Such a god seems to act capriciously like Zeus, or Molech, or Baal.  Is this really the revelation of our Heavenly Father?
  3. Is there a point where this example of Abraham’s faith is too extreme?  If it is not too extreme, would you kill your son if God told you to do it?

You are welcome to say “I don’t know” to these questions.  But know that “I don’t know” is a completely unsatisfactory answer to me.  I much prefer my liberal interpretation.  My interpretation leaves no such ethical dilemmas.  Help me see the error of my liberal interpretation.


10 comments on “Abraham for Liberals and Conservatives

  1. Granted, as you state, Abraham may have been deceived, and this is a discussion that provides an alternative lesson from the story, but I can’t agree with much of your assumptions.

    Just because god is consistent (same today, yesterday and tomorrow) does not mean that he tells all people (throughout time) the same thing, or give them the same laws/rules to follow. If so, we would still be practicing blood sacrifice and polygany.

    God says “thou shalt not kill” but then commanded the israelits to kill many different peoples while settling the promised land. By your reasoning above, this is inconsistent behavior that God is incapable of doing.

    Blood sacrifice of children was common in Abraham’s time. He, himself, was offered on an altar by his father. It is feasible that Abraham did not have written commandments to follow as we do now. It is obvious that many no longer followed the path of righteousness (including his father). If the principle of sacrifice had been altered from that of animals (as representations of Christ) to the firstborn child (as a representation of Christ) then it is entirely conceivable that Abraham had no reason to no believe it was God giving him a commandment.

    Though no blood sacrifice is required today, we are required to sacrifice our families (leave them behind) if necessary to follow the commandments of God. This is contrary to many commandments and principles, especially the one about honoring your parents. Another apparent contradiction. Pioneer history is a good example of families splitting up as one member wished to follow the gospel. Temple marriages are often another means to split a family as non-member parents and siblings are not allowed to attend.

    In modern times, God has given commandments that were then rescinded after the people failed to complete the tasks. If God is all knowing, he already knows that we will fail in the assigned task, then why give the task? We can also ask the same of Abraham, but in this case, God knew that Abraham would do as commanded, so why give the task? Is it truly commanding child sacrifice if God knew that he would rescind the order before it was accomplished?

    Perhaps, Abraham needed to know the pain and agony of sacrificing a son (as would God) in order to gain additional faith? Perhaps Abraham did believe in multiple Gods and sympathized with the practices of others and needed to learn the truth about his God? As a quick aside, if my memory serves correctlty, the story of the sacrifice is the last time that we really hear from Abraham. Perhaps Abraham became sulky and resentful. Muslim tradition tells of Abraham helping his son Ishmael build Kaaba in Mecca, while Isaac stays and builds the Israelite holy land.

    and to your final question, no I would not kill my son. Though I would point out that we hear of countless stories of people who do it throughout the country, quite regularly it would appear. As such, it would mean that our time is not that different from Abraham’s. Though I would not kill my son, I would call the cops on him if necessary if I felt his safety (or others) were threatened by his actions. It is difficult to compare faith, let alone faith without understanding cultural contexts. Abraham’s time regularly had (and apparently accepteed) such actions. Our time is different, thus requiring different tests of our faith.

  2. Alex, thanks for commenting. I picked the moniker “heretic” for a reason, so don’t be surprised that I have alternate explanations for many things in the scriptures. For example, I question whether blood sacrifice was EVER necessary. A more likely scenario for me is that the ancient Jews adapted blood sacrifices from pagan religions and put them in a Jewish context. I also have a problem with polygamy.

    “God says “thou shalt not kill” but then commanded the israelits to kill many different peoples while settling the promised land. By your reasoning above, this is inconsistent behavior that God is incapable of doing.”

    You read me pretty well. I question the idea that God commanded the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, cow, and any other livestock. We call that genocide. I do not believe that God commands “holy war” (I even wrote a post about Joshua’s Unholy War.)

    You ask some good questions. I don’t know why God commands us to do things we will fail at. Sure, we learn from mistakes, but we can also get discouraged and quit trying. I think we attribute things to God (and Satan) that God (or Satan) had little to do with. My God is often a non-interventionist. Why did he intervene on Abraham’s behalf, yet we have a cemetery of children in North Africa where God did not intervene? Why did God save Isaac, and not some unnamed child? These questions are impossible to answer. But my liberal interpretation feels more right to me than the traditional interpretation. I have fewer gaps of understanding and faith to fill.

  3. The D&C actually teaches that giving a conditional commandment and then revoking it is completely consistent with the understanding of God.

    “Wherefore I, the Lord, command and arevoke, as it seemeth me good;” (D&C 56:4)

    While your liberal interpretation “feels more right to you,” I fear that it lack sufficient saving grace and power. Joseph Smith/ The Lectures of Faith taught that “Let us here observe that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” If we believe that God is limited by our own sense of morality and is incapable of asking us to sacrifice or do things with which we are uncomfortable, we lack the faith necessary to lead to our salvation and exaltation.

    I would add that there is nothing wrong with verifying that revelation is truly from the Lord. Joseph Smith hesitated to begin to practice polygamy, Nephi hesitated to kill Laban etc… One of the best examples is Abraham (the same Abraham) discussing with the Lord whether the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was justified. What sets these men apart is not that they questioned the Lord, but that once they KNEW the will of the Lord they acted.

  4. Symphony of Dissent, I don’t deny that God asks us to do what is uncomfortable (in fact I would say that voicing these opinions of my own are uncomfortable in an orthodox community), but I think this discomfort should be within the bounds the Lord has set. I don’t think we should murder our children–that seems out of bounds to me, and is beyond simple discomfort. It is out of bounds.

  5. My interpretation is very different. I see the Abraham and Isaac events as simply a teaching story for that time. There was absolutely no need for the Lord to test Abraham. As Words of Mormon 7 states the answer is obvious: ” . . .The Lord knoweth all things which are to come. . .”

    It is probably, as you surmised, from a time when child sacrifice was accepted and more than likely pseudographic as one would expect that Abraham would not have actually considered such an act. It was simply a story to encourage obedience that made it into the Old Testament

  6. […] on we agreed to ‘take it public’ because its such an interesting topic for discussion. His response to my post is found here. He then posted it on W&T […]

  7. Abraham was hundreds of years before Moses and the Ten Commandments, So possibly the thou shalt not kill injunction was not in place.

  8. Abraham wasn’t before Cain, and God was much displeased when he killed Abel.

  9. Isn’t it strange, that God who is Purely Good, would order Abraham to Kill his innocent son, Isaac?
    Would our loving Father, God, play a “Trick” like this on His loyal servant?
    Could it be that God NEVER told Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?

    All of these questions are answered in this Teaching:

    • The Common Understanding of this record
    • Why is this “Test” Questionable?
    • Did God Tempt Abraham?
    • Burnt Offering vs. Sacrifice
    • Satan’s Deception
    • Not the first time Abraham Miscomprehended
    • How old was Isaac?
    • Other Important things to Note

    -Andrew Davis

  10. The very first thing anyone must do when it comes to revelation is to know the source of the revelation, i.e. is it really from God. Was Abraham deceived??? This prophet who talked with God?

    Were James and Paul both deceived in the New Testament concerning their understanding of those scriptures concerning Abraham?

    It is interesting that Jesus never took occasion to correct this error, if it were in fact an error, although he spoke of Abraham repeatedly.

    Or maybe, just maybe, Paul knew what he was talking about when he said in reference to Abraham’s decision to obey God’s voice that Abraham was “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” (Hebrews 11:19)

    I have more misgivings over the story of Jepthah and his daughter, where an actual sacrifice is recorded as having taken place, but Jepthah is noted to have been a righteous man.

    I don’t buy the explanation linked to by Andrew Davis about the daughter having been offered up to be a priest and having to remain celibate all of her mortal life. Firstly, the priesthood is only recorded to have been had among the male Levites, and the Levite priests did marry.


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