Abraham and Isaac (postview svithe)


As I mentioned last svithe, my Abraham and Isaac thought for Sunday School were inspired by a list of art Bored in Vernal provided over on Mormon Matters. I ended up not getting into much of the art, although many of the rabbinical traditions surrounding the story and alternate versions came up in our discussion. (Note that some of those came up in the MM posts's comments and not the post itself.)

One thing I had not intended to bring up but very nearly did because it was apropos (but telling it would have been much like sharing This Funny Thing happened when You Really Had to Be There) was this:

Something I printed off and had with me but ended up not using was this from Woody Allen:

    And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on."

    And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?"

    "What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at two A.M. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"

    "Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.

    But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."

    And Sarah who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not."

    And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."

    And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?" But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."

    And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"

    And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"

    "Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?" And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."

    "I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."

    And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."

    And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."

    "But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"

    And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."

    And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.

I want to step back here and point out that, usually, I feel very strongly that lessons should be grounded in the actual scriptures under discussion. In fact, I started the lesson by reading the entire darned Genesis account. But this story is horrifying and demands more effort than that. The Bible, Nephi tells us, is missing many plain and precious parts. And this story seems to be one example of that. The popular interpretation that the sacrifice of Isaac represents the sacrifice of Jesus is extrabiblical already, so why not go even farther abreast.

When I was pressing the class to decide what the story means to them, someone through the question back at me. I started by talking about Master Fob's "Abraham's Purgatory" (note, it's not unsvithey to suggest you buy a Fob Bible as all proceeds go to LDS Humanitarian Services) and how in researching this lesson I learned that in many traditions, Abraham was not intended to sacrifice his son at all. Perhaps he got the wrong idea in his head, perhaps God expected him to say no (thus fulfilling the promise of Knowing Good and Evil) --- but the point is, perhaps he was never supposed to accept that he should through with it.

That version of the story has a lot of meaning for me. Granted, verses from the Book of Mormon and D&C (which we read) suggest that is not the true version of events, but it seems a version that has more applicability in my life. I have the power to say no --- to live my life in a way that can take Isaac off the alter. (Of course, no matter how well I live my life, I cannot take Christ off the cross --- I still need grace. But I'm sure you get the point.)

Anyway. Even though it wasn't as wild and crazy as threatened*, it turned out well and I at least learned a lot during the lesson. I hope it worked out okay for others as well.


* I don't usually post these, but three or four lessons a month and every other lesson for Sunday School (as long as I'm doing it --- it's still not my calling or anything) I shoot an email off to the ward as a preview of coming attractions. The reason I'm posting this one is because for the first time people talked to me about it. So I'm using that fact to think about how to write future emails.

    Dear Brothers and Sisters:

    This Sunday please be prepared to sacrifice one of your children to the glory of almighty God. Bring your own materials for building an altar, as well as a knife and wood for burning the offering afterwards in the ward parking lot. Consider fasting for at least two meals beforehand that you might better be prepared to worship through this ancient and holy practice.

    In choosing which child you will sacrifice, consider how you distribute your love and affection among your children and be sure that you give unto the Lord that which you deem your best.

    If you do not have a child or your children are no longer living at home, bring a pet. If you have no pets, I'm really not sure how you intend to stay on God's good side.

    Upon completing the sacrifices and watching the sweet odours drift heavenward, we will return to the chapel and discuss Father Abraham's experience with our new understanding.

    See you then.


    ps: should Sunday be declared a Spare the Air Day, we will instead eat Twinkies in holiness


last week's svithe


  1. My approach to this subject (it is my calling, by the way) was to point out at least two scriptural reasons I could think of for studying this story.

    The first was the Isaac = Christ angle, which wasn't intended to be the main focus but which seemed to resonate with the class, so we went with it. The second was the "tried as Abraham" perspective.

    In addressing the latter, however, we looked back at the previous few weeks of learning many things Abraham went through, and not just at the Isaac piece. One of the key ideas was that perhaps being tried as Abraham means more than seeing if we will give up what we love most. Maybe it also means to be constantly required to re-evaluate our understanding of what righteousness means, and to keep our minds open about the kinds of things we can receive revelation about.

    Abraham was commanded to do lots of things (lie about his wife's identity, marry multiple women, banish one wife and son, sacrifice his other son, and more) that in other circumstances could easily have been considered wicked and in some cases seemed to defeat the promises he had received. Most poignantly with Isaac, he would have recalled his own near death on an altar of the Gods he refused to worship. But we read that in every case is was counted to him as righteousness because he obeyed the Lord.

    So perhaps he had to prove that in his perpetual effort to become a "greater seeker of righteousness," he was willing to free himself from artificially fixed or stagnant ideas about what righteousness really looks like.

  2. .

    That is a fascinating idea. Being forced to reevaluate what righteousness means has certainly been a part of my own spiritual life, so that rings true to me.

  3. There is a danger in taking this too far, but if you look closely at the Abraham, Issac and Jacob stories, all of them clearly show the Lord reinforcing the fact that revelation and the gospel are more important than the other cultural traditions around them.

    For example: Abraham's father is wicked. Technically, in spite of all the importance placed on lineage in the Abrahamic covenant, Abram is adopted in to the priesthood.

    For example: Issac in his old age grows soft and decides to follow the standard protocols and give his blessing to Esau, the oldest son who has adopted the ways (and married in to) the world. Sarah and Isaac deceive him in order to make sure that the priesthood goes through the proper lineage -- the righteous one.

    For example: for all that it is arranged marriage and follows such protocols as marrying a cousin and flaunting wealth (all that jewelery), the mechanism by which Abraham's servant chooses Rachel is based on an appeal to God and the woman's charity towards him and his camels. What's more she is twice given opportunities to back out of the arrangement, but does not because she believes it to be God's will.

    I think too often with the scriptures and even our own lives, we measure what we think the Lord should do by either important, but abstract gospel principles or by what we think would be fair or righteous or just or whatever; whereas, it seems to me that the Lord tends to work with us so that we can progress as much as possible considering our individual (and even more important familial, since righteous progeny are the most valuable thing to him in a dispensation e.g. the goal is to get as many saved as possible before things go to hell and he has to cultivate a propeht and do a restoration again) cultural and material circumstances.

    Now, of course, one can take things too far -- there's also a danger to thinking the ends justify the means, especially if the means are claimed to have been inspired by God.

  4. .

    A lot of danger, yes. This is one of the great paradoxes: the institutional faith v personal revelation.

  5. Wm,

    That's a point that struck me during yesterday's lesson (which I didn't teach), particularly concerning your second example.

    It's interesting how many of the ancient patriarchs that we revere did things that we would cry "apostate" - or at least narrow our eyes - at today. The more I think about it, the more I think that an unwillingness to be open about what "righteous" means is the genesis of divisive phenomena like the "Utah Mormon" (keeping in mind that I've lived in Utah for most of my life). We tend to blur that line between doctrine and culture, which is the same thing that Christ repeatedly called the NT Jewish leaders on the carpet for.

    I know this is a common theme, but it's always striking me in new ways.

  6. .

    If it doesn't, I think we're in trouble. I think a great sin (one I am often guilty of) is assuming we know more than God. That we have no need to change.

  7. How do you know you won't be punished for saying no?

  8. How do you know you won't be punished for saying no?

    You don't. That's the point of the exercise.

  9. You don't. That's the point of the exercise.

    I'm not so sure, MoJo. I have a hard time seeing God issuing commandments we're not intended to keep and then punishing us for not keeping them. Of course I immediately think of the fall when I say that, but that doesn't seem to be a parallel situation to Abraham's.

    Adam and Eve were forbidden to do a certain thing, but they were also told they could choose, because it was given to them - that is the tree was given to them as part of the garden. They were also warned what the consequences of disobedience would be.

    Abraham was simply given a commandment to do something really hard, and expected to obey in faith. There was no warning about those consequences and no evidence I can find in the scriptures that Abraham was led to believe he shouldn't go through with it.

    There are some compelling arguments for the usefulness of that interpretation, but the scriptures seem to imply it happened differently.

    As I understand things, faith is based in a knowledge that we are doing God's will. We may not know the purpose or the ends of that obedience, but we can trust that his commandments are true and we will be blessed for keeping them faithfully. Disobeying because it seems wrong - or for whatever reason - seems to me like the very sin that Th. mentioned a few comments ago: thinking we know more than God.

    I'm thinking of other instances in which scriptural figures were commanded to kill. I can't think of another like this, where the person to be killed was not only innocent but a figure through whom divine promises were to be fulfilled, while the person killing was the one who received those promises. In most cases, the killers were given an explanation to persuade them that killing was the right thing. Here there is none. This makes this event stand out to me as a singularly difficult test of faith.

  10. Sorry, what I meant was that to me this is such a singular test because Abraham is being asked to do something so extraordinary *knowing* that it is God's will and must be obeyed, but not, perhaps, understanding why or to what end.

    If he didn't have that knowledge, why would he have gone as far as he did? Abraham knew the Lord well enough to be called his friend (James 2:23), which probably means that he knew the Lord's voice well enough to not be easily deceived.

  11. So, Adam, what exactly would be your answer to my question?

  12. Okay, so I've been thinking about this because Adam, you brought me up short. I wouldn't have likened it to the choice made in the Garden until you led me there, though. ;)

    I've always hated this story. Really. There are a lot of stories and parables I hate because I can't reconcile them with either A) my common sense and/or B) my life experience and/or C) my knowledge of human nature. I ESPECIALLY start hating them when people try to explain them that makes even WORSE sense than the original story/parable.

    I'm tempted to bring up such things as the Ten Commandments, but that happened after Abraham and Isaac. I'm also tempted to bring up Job, but that, too happens after this.

    So this is what I've come to: What if both choices were right and the Lord wanted Abraham to know where he was spiritually/intellectually?

    I tell my kids not to do stuff all the time. They hardly ever listen. When they make me maddest is when they disobey in things that would seriously impact their safety, but...

    ...sometimes I say no out of habit or because I'm too busy to think about what they want to do or I'm only vaguely thinking that might not be a good idea *for their age*.

    Then they disobey me and nothing bad happened and maybe something good happened.

    It makes me think: Where do I draw the line between demanding perfect obedience and teaching them to think for themselves? It's such a delicate balance, you know. How do you get across THIS is okay under circumstances R, 9, and Y, but only on every sixth Wednesday except in the case when it's Thursday (I'll send you the memo but if I forget the memo, you'll have to figure it out)?

    There is a "good" in either decision Abraham made. Isaac dies==Abraham was obedient. Abraham says no==Abraham can think for himself.

    Clearly, there's a bad, too, but it seems to me we're trying to make sense of this in some mutually exclusive manner and maybe it simply isn't mutually exclusive.

  13. Th, thank you for this lesson. I've been meaning to tell you how much I enjoyed it. I really like how you brought other traditions in. I also liked the discussion that ensued about whether or not we would personally respond to a similar request. And how often our own ideas and experiences and voice can seem like God's when it is not. I kind of wonder the same thing about Nephi being asked to kill Laban.

    Anyhow, I look forward to future lessons. I wish it was your calling.

    Kelly Ann

  14. .

    It's kind kind of my common-law calling by now, don't you think?

    As for the rest of you.....

    I've been thinking about this issue, and I think one thing about God is he doesn't like us to be so sure we know what he's going to do. God would never say kill your son. God would never want you to do the opposite of what he says. God would never this that the other. I don't know.

    God ways are not our ways. I'm trying to be comfortable with not really knowing what he's going to do. Yes he is the same yesterday today and forever, but I can't always see the constant in actions that to my mortal perspective seem pretty disparate.

    To me, one of the lessons I should learn from the old patriarchs is that loving and trusting God comes first. Even when nothing else makes sense.

    Not an easy lesson to internalize.

  15. Sorry in advance for the neverending comment here, everybody.

    ...loving and trusting God comes first. Even when nothing else makes sense.

    Th., that was exactly my point.

    I appreciate your point about God's ways being higher and us not knowing, and it's well taken. I'm not saying that we should or do always know what God is going to do. Only that we can know when He has spoken to us and then, as you say, trust Him.

    I think the flipside of your point is this from Nephi:

    "For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding."

    (2 Ne. 31:3)

    combined with this from Brigham Young:

    “There is no doubt, if a person lives according to the revelations given to God’s people, he may have the Spirit of the Lord to signify to him his will, and to guide and to direct him in the discharge of his duties, in his temporal as well as his spiritual exercises. I am satisfied, however, that in respect, we live far beneath our privileges.”

    I'm not trying to be argumentative or to say I'm absolutely right, but I just don't believe that God wants us to be walking around in circles scratching our heads all the time. That doesn't mean we need to be commanded in all things, but one of Joseph Smith's fundamental teachings about the character of God (as I understand it) is that He is not the obscure, unknowable being of the Nicene tradition.

    Another is that we can have confidence in His commands. The book of Abraham tells us that we are sent here to see if we will do all things that we are commanded by the Lord to do. That is the nature of the test that the Gods laid out in their plans: a test of obedience.

    I admit, we don't comprehend God or anything perfectly in this life, but that is different in my opinion from knowing with surety that God has spoken to you and given you direction, and from understanding by that direction what you are to do.

    So to answer Redoubt,

    I would say that our responsibility is to become so familiar with the voice of the Shepherd that, as one of His sheep, we know it. Then when we hear it we don't need to worry if we'll be punished. We can trust that if we obey, all things will work together for our good. Even if we get the wrong idea about what to do, God knows that our intent is to obey and I believe that He will steer us right.


    I'm sorry if I made (am making) this story worse for you.

    I know you don't object to people countering your arguments, though, so I will say this:

    I relate to your point about your kids. Mine are the same way and I often wonder if they haven't gained something by disobedience that they wouldn't have otherwise.

    Neither of us, however, is a perfect, omniscient parent. God is.

    Also, regarding good coming from Abraham's choice either way, You left out what actually happened. Abraham obeyed, but Isaac didn't die. And obedience to God doesn't equal inability to think for oneself. One can come to the same conclusion as God, or simply conclude that since God knows so much more than we do, trusting His direction is best. That's not a cop out by any means. It's humility.

    So both good ends can come to pass through obedience. But which of the options is there "bad" in? Is it worse to kill your son at God's command or to disobey the command to kill him when you know it comes from God? That's where Th.'s point hits home for me.

    I wasn't trying to be mutually exclusive, by the way. I was just dealing with the case of Abraham. I agree that the correct application of even eternal, true principles involves a situational perspective.

  16. Adam, no, you're not making things worse for me. I have much deeper things on my mind (and have had for a while now) than Abraham and Isaac. This is simply tangential to what I'm really wrestling with.

    I think one thing about God is he doesn't like us to be so sure we know what he's going to do. God would never say kill your son. God would never want you to do the opposite of what he says. God would never this that the other. I don't know.

    Th., I think we as a culture are trained to be sure of God's motives, implicitly and explicitly, in the way we use language and structure our thoughts/lessons.

    To me, one of the lessons I should learn from the old patriarchs is that loving and trusting God comes first. Even when nothing else makes sense.

    I do agree with this. The rest is an intellectual exercise for all of us, I think. Meat, because *I* only get milk at church.

  17. Well, MoJo, best wishes, for what it's worth, on whatever your struggle really is. You're a sharp woman. I'm sure you'll work through it.

  18. .

    One comment: although God works in "plainness", Christ spoke in parables that people might not understand and then there's this. So he allows us to be confused.

    This is in keeping with the existence of the veil though. Perfect knowledge does not become us.

    I will allow possibly different circumstances for prophets though. Such an allowance seems pretty reasonable.

    Back to something you said earlier, Adam --- God calls Abraham a friend centuries after the Isaac incident. I just wonder when that designation began.

    The only other friending I can think of off the top of my head is in the D&C where it is fairly common.

  19. Allows us to be confused, yes. But He doesn't require constant confusion as proof of faithfulness. Comfort and assurance are key gospel promises.

    I think we're making arguments that are complementary rather than contradictory. Like MoJo said, they're not mutually exclusive.

  20. .

    Oh, I couldn't agree more.

    To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

  21. I have a hard time with allowing us to remain in confusion, considering we are told that God is a God of order and not a God of confusion.

    Aren't we also told that we can tell if a decision is wrong because of a stupor of thought (which I take to mean confusion)?

    I say this from the fact that in my own life, when I'm confused about something, I cannot and DO NOT act. Once I am not confused, I do act. If I'm not confused and I don't have the means to take the opportunity, then I take that as a personal failure to be prepared.

    I can't accept that God would allow us to be confused (or at least not at length) about a course of action.

  22. .

    Perpetual confusion doesn't seem to work well within the framework of his longterm plans.

    So does trust/faith cut through confusion, or does confusion evidence that those things are lacking (perhaps because we can only have faith in something that is true)?

  23. I think we sometimes give God too much responsibility for the things He allows. Of course he allows whatever we do. That's part of this earthly experiment. It's evidence of divine respect for mortal agency. We are not forced to do anything, even be saved: therefore we are allowed to do anything, even be damned. We (as a people in general) might do well to be a little more interested in what we will/should allow. I'm fairly sure God is.

    So God's going to allow me to be confused about whatever I'm determined to be confused about. But I agree with you, MoJo, that I think He would rather give us the guidance we need. We just need to be willing and prepared to accept it.

    I'd like to share a personal story that might help. It's not about confusion, but I think the concept is transferable.

    As a missionary I was very, very serious: a hard, straight shooter with a reputation for fierce obedience and a working pace that could bring the most seasoned Idaho farm boy to his knees in exhaustion, if not humility (I'm being a bit too dramatic here, but the essence of this is true).

    Then I had a companion who saw my motives more clearly than I did. He accused me of being more interested in "suffering for Jesus," as he put it, than in preaching the gospel.

    His intentions in pointing this out were hardly pure and I dismissed the idea at first, but eventually I saw there was truth in it. I was so converted to the principles of strict obedience, faith through adversity, and blessings after the trial, that if I didn't have deep water to swim in, I didn't know what to do. I made my own adversity if God wouldn't give me any, and that was how I convinced myself that I could go to bed at night feeling that I had fought the good fight.

    But I was looking for a fight, rather than fighting the one given to me. I was refusing to receive certain blessings because I wanted to have to struggle for them more. I wasn't generous with myself and therefore refused to allow God to be generous with me. It was like I wanted the suffering - the internal turmoil - so that I could stand before God and say, "look what I went through for you." Success wasn't nearly as interesting as being able to say I tried hard. This is a lesson I still haven't fully learned.

    Oh, I was blessed and grateful, but not to the extent I could have been. Once I learned to start letting go of that and accept that God would bless me for His own reasons and not mine, then things started getting easier.

    I don't know if you see the applicability of this story to the present discussion, but to me it makes sense and I felt I ought to share it. I won't try to draw that line for you, though. I can't.

    On a different note, maybe both of the conditions Th. suggested about the relationship among faith, trust, and confusion are true.

    I tend to agree with MoJo that God doesn't allow us extended confusion about what to do so long as we are willing to act. If we allow ourselves to become paralyzed though, I don't see how such confusion can end.

  24. .

    I have a mission story to, from the end of my mission.

    We were teaching a beautiful college girl and the Spirit clearly prompted me to give her my CTR ring.

    Now, giving girls rings is hardly proper mission behavior I need not tell you, but finally I listened. And then I went home. And two months later she was baptized and she returned the ring and told me it helped.

    It was rather a confusing prompting. But it worked out well.

    That's an example where the likely end was pretty clear and was finally borne out.

    Sometimes though we may not know God's reasons for a long time. And we have to way the confusion of one request with the general certainty of our spiritual life. Stepping into the dark, as Elder Packer once said, to find the way lighted one step further.