Monday, February 24, 2014

My Favorite View of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac - Definitely NOT the Traditional View

Currently, my favorite interpretation of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is that God was testing Abraham - and that Abraham FAILED the test.

How could this be, given the traditional interpretation of that story?  

According to this view, Abraham had been raised in a culture that included human / child sacrifice, so God tested him to see if he had abandoned totally that culture. He hadn't. Therefore, God stopped him from continuing that abominable tradition and then taught him that ONLY God would be required to sacrifice a "mortal" - and ONLY in a situation where that child actually was a God and was fully aware, understanding and approving of the sacrifice in advance. (just like Issac had to have been, given the details of the account) In other words, the lesson to Abraham was to eliminate entirely from his teachings to his children the mistaken idea that it was OK to sacrifice people to their God and, instead, to await the time when GOD, the Father, and God, the Son, would take care of it once and for all - for all people throughout all time. 

It also is interesting to note that, according to Mormon theology, the God who commanded and stopped Abraham (the God of this world) was Jehovah, the pre-mortal Jesus - which means that "God" wasn't sacrificing anyone else in the future.  He actually was sacrificing himself - much more like someone running into a burning building to save someone than one person killing another person.  I know we talk about the Father sacrificing the Son, but it's more powerful to me when looked upon in the Book of Mormon terms of God sacrificing himself, not someone else.  

I have no idea if that interpretation is accurate - or even if the entire story is nothing but a grand figurative myth. Given the existence of the story, I choose to interpret it in the way that makes the most sense to me - and the interpretation above currently is my favorite.

[NOTE: As I've said many times here, I absolutely love the symbolism that can be understood through stories like this, but I am open totally to the possibility that the account in the Bible is historically accurate and the traditional interpretation is correct - that it actually occurred as an intentional Christ-type and that Abraham passed the supreme test. I have NO problem whatsoever with people reading this story as foreshadowing and a Christ-type - or with those who teach it that way in Sacrament Meeting or General Conference. There is great power in that interpretation - and I even have no problem teaching it myself in that manner in a setting where I believe it is appropriate. In fact, as I said, it very well might be the "accurate" interpretation. There really isn't any way to know objectively. It's just not the version I personally like the most right now.]


Anonymous said...

It is great to see the lengths to which we'll go to make a horrible story with horrible implications for our understanding of God palatable. Does the God we worship really command us to do something he told us not to do, just to see if we'll do it? And what if Abraham did go through with it. Why not? God told him to do it, and then God told him not to do it. 50-50 chance Abraham will be able to figure it out and get it right. Let's say Abraham does do it. Can God really do anything about it? I mean, was God who told him to do it in the first place, right? Now, Isaac is dead and there goes the future down the toilet. The Old Testament is only a few chapters long...And all because God decided to play a trick that backfired on Him.

Here's a better interpretation. The story never happened. It is a tall tale that used to communicate a moral to a group of nomadic peoples in the ancient world. That is so much better than any other interpretation, but because our understanding of our religion requires the Old Testament to be literally true, we can't embrace it. Instead, we believe that God tells people to kill their own kids to test them.

Papa D said...

Anonymous, serious question: Did you read the entire post? I'm not tied to anything in the Old Testament, especially, being historically accurate or literal. I said:

"I have no idea if that interpretation is accurate - **or even if the entire story is nothing but a grand figurative myth.** Given the existence of the story, I choose to interpret it in the way that makes the most sense to me - and the interpretation above currently is my favorite."

I believe it probably was a mythological tale (or a reinterpretation of an ancient story that was imbued with prophetic and "good" meaning for the people of the time - like a tall tale based loosely on a real historical figure), but there is no way to know for sure with this one (unlike Job, for example, which I believe clearly is an extensive parable). However, there is no way it's going to be removed from the Bible, so there is no way it's going to disappear from our collective discussion. Given that reality, I believe it's important to change the discussion, if possible.

We can do that, because in our Mormon tradition we have two "tools" that allow us to discard the classic interpretation and accept a different one when I teach it. (Elder Holland has done that exact same thing in General Conference, twice, when talking about Judas and also about Peter "denying" the Lord during his trial.)

1) "as far as it is translated correctly" That simple phrase allows us to "translate" objectionable stories differently than has been done in the past, and I MUCH prefer the "translation" in this post to the traditional one.

1) "We did liken all things to ourselves, that it might be for our profit and learning."

Like you, I don't see much, if any, good moral of the story in the traditional reading of it - nothing that I personally can make "be for our profit and learning". However, I like the moral of the story in the interpretation of the post - especially if "God commanded him" meant nothing more than "he believed God had commanded child sacrifice", since he escaped his own sacrifice but didn't let go completely of the belief that it was commanded and sanctioned by God. It was that line of thought that got us in trouble with the Priesthood ban (not believing that God commanded it directly at the time but rather that God had commanded it in the past).

I think there is a LOT of power and "good" that can be taken from the interpretation in the post (which, btw, is not a new one but rather an old Jewish interpretation) - so I choose to interpret it this way whenever the story is discussed.

Papa D said...

One more thing:

I have NO problem with the idea that God might test us in ways that are extremely difficult - but, again, in the interpretation in the post AND the traditional interpretation, God was NOT going to allow Abraham to fail the test. He was committed to stopping the sacrifice if Abraham tried to do it, no matter what Abraham's motivation was.

Having said that, I am very wary of the idea that God would test someone by insisting that the person violate his or her conscience in such an egregious way - unless the point of the test, like in the interpretation in the post, is to see if the person is mature enough to say, "No, I won't do that," even to God.

I know that is a radical idea for many people, but I think there is great power in that message, as well - and it is one that can be taken from the interpretation in the post. With that view, Abraham failed in two ways: by not letting go fully of the incorrect tradition of his fathers and also by not having the maturity to question what he viewed as a commandment - especially, again, if his motivation was a dream / vision, as it appears to have been based on the wording of the text itself.

Dave K. said...

Papa, I always like your posts. Thanks. I'd never heard this interpretation before. While I find it intriguing, it seems to conflict with scriptural accounts of God's reaction to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Issac. As summarized in D/C 132:36 - "Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness."

I can't find a way to reconcile this new approach with the scriptures that state God approved of Abraham's action. In fact, God approved so much that He established the abrahamic covenant.

As for me, the only way I can find the story palatable is if I assume Issac was an adult with complete agency and that the sacrifice was a much his decision as Abraham's. I can't accept the story if Issac was a child any more than I could Christ's story if his sacrifice was made when he was a little child.

Papa D said...

Thanks, Dave.

I understand the hurdles to accepting a different interpretation of stories like this, but if Jesus could reference and draw lessons from OT stories that I believe to be mythological (like Jonah being in the belly of a whale for three days), just like all good Jews of the time did, I have no problem taking the D&C references in the same light - as lessons that were taken from a literal interpretation of another mythological story.

That works for me, even as I know how difficult or even impossible it is for many other members who simply can't let go of the implications of letting go of literal views of stories like this.

Papa D said...

I just added a paragraph to the post about the nature of the future sacrifice that I also think adds more power to the story than the traditional interpretation. I just want to make that clear in case anyone who has read the post already comes back to read the comment thread.

Patty said...

Really interesting perspective on this. Your take on it actually makes more sense to me than the "usual" way it's interpreted. :)

wreddyornot said...

Nice post.

This reminded me of a paper on Abraham a friend of mine wrote back in the 80s. He attended a EQ lesson I taught back then where I referred to the Huebner group and the sacrifice the local branch made of those three boys. We got to talking and became good friends and he gave me a copy of his draft. You should be able to see the paper at this link if I'm doing this right.

Dustin said...

This is an interesting way to look at it. I feel like the purpose of this life is to discern and follow truth. In the Book of Mormon god condemns "those of old" for having many wives "which thing was an abomination". How could god let a prophet error? The answer is that god teaches men correct principles and lets them govern themselves. We all in the end fall very short of the glory of god.

We also know that satan is a very clever counterfeit. I have read that he can imitate any feeling up to and including the feeling of light or truth and the burning in the bosom. The only thing he cannot imitate is a feeling of peace. If this is the case, is not the whole trial of man to see how much we love the truth? For is not god all truth? Yet Abrahams obedience to what he thought was gods command was in fact a feeling he felt was from god and therefore accounted unto him for righteousness.

At the end of this life we will have learned more about truth and error than we ever realized. If we are pure in heart and seek to honestly understand gods will and follow it we will turn out ok. If gods will starts to stray too far from the foundation of the beatitudes and basic gospel principals of righteousness, I would certainly struggle to act unless I had a true angelic visitation...

Papa D said...

Thanks, Dusty and wreddyornot.

This is a difficult story for a lot of people, and I understand and respect why that is. I don't like the traditional interpretation, but, if we are going to read the overall account framework literally (believing God did command Abraham), I like this interpretation a lot more.

I feel the same way about the story of Nephi killing Laban - that a different reading makes it much more understandable and acceptable. I also believe there are alternatives available even for some of our modern stories, but that is a topic for a different post.

Donna said...

I like Dad's interpretation of Abraham: God knew Abraham. Abraham wasn't revealing anything to God about what he would / would not do.(foreordained, not predestined). The test was that Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham. And that dovetails into your thoughts in a back-door kind of approach. Abraham may have "failed" the test as in your blog, but he learned something about himself in the process which enabled him to move forward into greatness.

Each of us will have an Abrahamic test to help us learn something about ourselves - though not quite the magnitude and drama of Abraham's test. God knows what I will do in any given situation, but I have to learn that for myself - and then hopefully act upon what I learn and move forward as Abraham did.

Dad often referred to this Joseph Smith quote:

"You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God... God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial kingdom of God." (John Taylor recalls the words of Joseph Smith to the Twelve. JS manual, page 231)

I thought our Chicago mission that was my Abrahamic test.(If it hadn't been a call signed by a prophet, I would have given up many, many times - the only time I've been tempted multiple times to throw in the towel on a church calling.) Since November, Chicago looks more like a speed bump!

There are powerful lessons to be learned in our "failures." Which takes us to repentance, Atonement, Plan of Salvation and back to Abraham and sacrifice . . . . .