My friend over at Catchy Title Goes Here recently wrote about the story of Abraham and Issac. This story, to me, is rich in complexity, contradiction, and just plain harebrained bizarreness. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his firstborn son is considered one of the most problematic in all of scripture, theology, and philosophy; yet, three major world religions base their belief on this ancient patriarch. Unfortunately, in Sunday Schools everywhere, the story of Abraham and Issac is reduced to overly simplified messages about sacrifice and obedience — no matter what. This, I believe, does a huge disservice to the story (especially if the story is real). In this post, I wish to introduce several “problems” that add a layer of complexity to the story that, I believe, is spiritual fat we must all chew thoroughly and thoughtfully.
Warning: Just the very consideration of this story (let alone experiencing the actual decision-making process personally) has both tempered and shattered peoples’ faith. This is not for the faint of heart.
1. Abraham is committing his father’s sin
Mormonism’s new scripture on Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price adds a huge double-whammy to the story which I believe most Mormons blithely overlook — Abraham was saved from the very crime he was about the inflict on Issac. Abraham’s father, Haran, offered up Abraham as a sacrifice to false gods, which Jehovah then delivered Abraham from in a miraculous experience. Imagine the bitterness Abraham must have felt when God commanded him to deliver that blow to his son. It’s akin to almost being raped by your father and being saved by an angel at the last minute, and then being asked to now rape your firstborn and only son by God, the very person who saved you from it.
Some have suggested that Abraham had this past experience in mind and hoped that God would stop him from sacrificing Issac at the last minute as well, but this idea has been rejected by most conservative and orthodox theologians. If Abraham knew he wouldn’t have to actually carry through God’s revolting commandment, it would not have been an ultimate sacrifice. It’s like driving home knowing beforehand your friends will throw a surprise party for you; you just have to feign ignorance and act surprised. This takes away from both Abraham and Issac’s burden as well as his relief.
All in all, this cyclical, past connection Abraham has to sacrificing your firstborn makes the entire episode a thousand times more bittersweet.
2. The story makes God and righteousness arbitrary
There are two general theories in ethics that compete with each other in theology — divine command theory and natural law theory. Divine command theory says that whatever God commands is right; the very act of God issuing forth the command is where the “rightness” derives itself from. Natural law theory says that whatever God does must happen within the bounds of a law higher than even God — he must act within the boundaries of a natural (or eternal) law of goodness. This natural law is where God derives his goodness.
Mormons would do well to consider which we subscribe to. On the one hand, we have aspects of divine theory that permeates the culture of our Church. Consider, for example, this oft-quoted tidbit from Joseph Smith:
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.
However, at the same time, we have this scripture (D&C 130:20-21) which is also oft-quoted (it’s a scripture mastery!) and suggests the existence of some kind of natural or eternal law:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
Most Mormons I know don’t see how either idea is incompatible with each other, and at first glance, it doesn’t appear as so. However, one massive ramification of divine command theory is that it renders ethics and the human concept of goodness completely irrelevant and arbitrary. Here’s an example to illustrate: Because anything God commands is good (and he can apparently change his mind), tomorrow he could send forth an edict that says, “It is a commandment that we take puppies and babies and kittens and stab them in the eyes with needles.” Because this commandment comes from God himself, the font of all goodness, it is, according to divine command theory, good ethically to do so. And yet, a fundamental part of us shrinks. How could this be good?
And thus it is with God. If God is good (a fundamental truth in Christianity and the mantra of so many terribly composed Christian songs), then how can taking puppies and babies and kittens and stabbing them in the eyes with needles or mutilating your son’s body and then burning his corpse be intrinsically good?
Personally, I subscribe to a natural law theory of ethics, but for many Mormons, they are comfortable with the idea of a divine command paradigm for ethics. However, I would argue that if divine command theory is, in fact, some kind of divine truth, it makes God an incredibly difficult deity to believe in. He could, at any time, revoke any of his “irrevocable decrees” such as the Atonement or the law of the harvest. People who think they are divine command theorists would say, “No, God would never do that because he’s good,” to which divine command theory would say that the only reason it’s good right now is because God said so. If God decided that the Atonement or the law of harvest is bunk and bad, then ethically it swaps places because God decreed it so and nothing more. Otherwise, God must be held to a higher standard, an eternal law, which dictates that even God must follow some kind of universal or eternal concept of goodness.
I would venture to say that most Mormons probably subscribe (whether they believe it or not) to a natural law worldview, and that’s what makes Abraham and Issac’s story so problematic — it suggests that God’s ethics is divine command theory ethics. When he saves Abraham from child sacrifice, that act is evil. When he commands Abraham to do it to Issac, that act transforms to good. When he prevents Abraham and forbids it, the child sacrifice reverts back to evil status. Ethics (and righteousness) has suddenly become pliable in the hands of a jealous, ancient god.
3. It contradicts the nature of Abraham
Abraham (and most of the Old Testament prophets) are famous for his close relationship with God. It is my belief that this close relationship is born from bickering and debate. Consider, for example, the famous story of Abraham negotiating with God for the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham deals and wheels and barters with God, accusing God of injustice and even haggles with him. In the end, Sodom and Gomorrah were too wicked, and they’re nuked, but not until Abraham has a say and is completely satisfied that God’s action is morally right.
Again, the Mormon perspective of Abraham emphasizes this even further. Abraham desires the priesthood of God, the very power and authority God wields. He desires it, he seeks it, even to the point of traveling to the high priest who can give it and paying his tithing to him. Abraham is proactive, and if he disagrees with God, he will speak his mind until satisfied. This is one of my favorite part of the Old Testament — prophets who not only asked for blessings and knowledge, but demanded it, as per the irrevocable eternal law cited above about blessings and such.
And this is where the scriptural record becomes problematic. God tells Abraham to do an ethically abominable act (which we have discussed in the last two points) and Abraham…is silent. He’s sad, sure, but that’s all. He’s a mopey depressed guy who goes, “Well, ooookayyyy, I gueeessss” and tells his son they’re going on a trip and proceeds, exceedingly sorrowful.
Where’s the argument? Where’s the debate? Abraham is willing to risk his standing with God and disagree with him when complete strangers’ lives (who he acknowledges are very sinful) are at stake. And now, God commands him to sacrifice his own son and he rolls over without a single word of dissension. Did Abraham get old? Is he just tired of it all?
In the end, we’re left with a highly problematic, complex story with lots of different things going on. People have debated this for millennia, and I don’t think we’ll be getting an answer anytime soon. Still, this is thick, meaty scripture and doctrine which we must (it is our prerogative!) consider carefully, chewing slowly, savoring its many flavors, and try to make sense of it for ourselves, even if it means ultimately throwing up our hands from time to time and shouting to the heavens, “I just don’t know!”
Instead, we often treat this story blithely, as just another devotional story about sacrifice and absolute obedience. “Oh, how faithful Abraham was!” we coo, not even thinking about the absolute magnitude (and natural abhorrence) we feel at the idea of sacrificing a child. Sacrifices back then involved ritualistic slaughter (we’re talking cutting Issac up into pieces) and burning at an altar. Even the idea of stabbing my child with a knife sickens me, let alone cutting up the limbs and disemboweling him. In Sunday School, the instructor suddenly posed the question to my mother: “Would you sacrifice your son, Ted, if God told you to?” Immediately, tears sprung up and freely flowed from her eyes. She could not answer. How could someone answer such a question?
And that’s the reaction we should have with the story of Abraham and Issac. We shouldn’t have feel-good warm fuzzies about obedience and sacrifice. We should react at our most instinctual, gut reflex level – revulsion, disgust, terror, agitation, perplexity, and distress. This story should keep us up at night. It should be haunting, not a 45 minute once-every-four-years Sunday School lesson in which we gloss over the details and ignore the “hard” parts. Because the story of Abraham and Issac deals with the perennially difficult (perhaps the most difficult) parts of any religion, and Christianity (and Mormonism) in general: Why does the gospel require such terrible acts of depravity to advance the goal of goodness? And what, exactly, is the very fundamental nature of ethics?