“I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”Matthew 9:13
Last Sunday, LDS parents around the world sat in Gospel Doctrine praising Abraham’s exact obedience as demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.* LDS children around the world may have been feeling a bit concerned about the story, but I’m sure their teachers did their best to help the kids see what a great example Abraham was.
I think a lot about this story, and wonder if we are getting the exact opposite message from it that we are supposed to. Instead of reading this as a story about how we, like Abraham, should be willing to sacrifice anything if asked to by God (or Church leaders …), perhaps we should be reading this story as a witness that God will never ask us to sacrifice our children. Perhaps the lesson Abraham needed to learn was not to be obedient to harsh and inscrutable commands, but that the God of Israel is a loving God unlike the one of his own childhood. And perhaps the sacrifice Abraham needed to make was not of his child, but of his previous conception of God. As Adam Miller put it, “At some point, God will ask you to sacrifice on his altar not only your stories about your own life but your version of his stories as well.”
I know that this reading of the story is difficult in light of the scriptures’ apparent claim that God is the one who told Abraham to make the sacrifice, and then rewarded him for his willingness to obey. I’m not sure how to explain that away. Was Abraham delusional? Was the intent of the authors actually to encourage the typical set of lessons (obedience) but God is whispering the true story of God’s love through the verses to those who will listen?
Lindsey Hansen Park said something about religious trauma a few weeks ago that has stuck with me and I think may illuminate this story. She wrote, in response to the Wilcox fireside:
A lot has already been said about the (now infamous) Brad Wilcox fireside talk. Mostly about his egregious remarks defending the priesthood/temple ban, his disgusting sexism and more. I feel like that talk contains all the worst parts of my childhood church.
I’m still struck by the fear and anger in his voice. The intensity and urgency behind how he talked about apostasy and doubt. It was binary. This splitting, black and white thinking: The church is either the most true church or completely false. You stay or you leave. You don’t question god, and if you do, walk away from everything.
Whenever I hear such reasoning, I’m reminded that logic like this is a result of a traumatized brain. Unprocessed trauma leads the brain to be unable to see other choices, nuance and options.
The most generosity I can give Brother Wilcox (although I don’t think he deserves it after spewing such hatred to youth, especially in a position of authority), is that he’s clearly spent a lifetime traumatized by his own faith. It’s so obvious in his logic and reasoning that he confuses fear with love. He’s adopted a theology of pain, passed down from generations of Mormon trauma that accepts that God asks cruel things and it is us who has to call cruelty like that, love.
One of the biggest tragedies in Mormonism for me (mostly because I live in its wake) is all the unprocessed generations of trauma that has been codified as theology. It’s unnecessary and dangerous. If you look at the history, it’s the same- our leaders take their unprocessed trauma and preach it over the pulpit as God’s love.
I wonder if Abraham’s story is an example of that – of unprocessed trauma being mistaken for theology – whether of his own trauma (in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham himself was offered as a child sacrifice by wicked priests) or the trauma of the men who first spoke and later wrote this story down in Genesis.
Either way, going back to the interpretation, I see Abraham’s God of sacrifice play out in unhealthy ways in our congregations. Too often, I see that we are willing to sacrifice our children in response to what we believe is a hard thing God is asking us. We interpret the objection in our hearts as a trial that we have to overcome, as proof that this is a really hard thing God is asking us to do, but we never stop to question whether those misgivings are actually warnings telling us “this is not right. This is not God.” Sometimes it seems the more miserable a Church requirement makes us, the more convinced we are that it must be our cross to bear. What if the misery is telling us the opposite – what if it is trying to warn to us that this ask never came from God in the first place? So often we go on sacrificing our children, but there is no ram in the thicket to save them and no angel appears to stay the knife.
- Did you discuss this story at Church? Were there other interpretations put forward?
- Have you seen examples where LDS folks (or other religious people) have a mindset that God will ask them to do terrible things? Or have you seen the opposite?
- Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you had to sacrifice your concept of God to make way for truer one?
- Do you think God really told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Was Abraham crazy? Why was this story told the way it was?
*If your class focused on Lot’s “worldly” wife instead, here’s an excellent reinterpretation of that story.
You know what? It’s hard enough keeping the “commandments” and living a Christ-like life. Very few of us accomplish that. So why would God need to test us with arbitrary pretend tests of faith like asking us if:
1. We are willing to sacrifice our child
2. We are willing to marry someone we don’t love and who twice our age
3. We are willing to forgo coffee and tea but indulge on energy drinks and Diet Coke all in the name of obedience
4. We are willing to pay tithing that we might not have before paying rent
I’ve only listed four items. I could do this all day. My God doesn’t operate so arbitrarily. It’s not like we have the basics (unconditional love, charity) mastered anyway.
I sat through this Sunday School lesson, rolling my eyes at the shallow interpretations that celebrate Abraham’s obedience and willingness (which are supported by the published Come Follow Me lesson); we never seemed to get to the basic moral implications of murdering one’s own child, regardless of the motivation. The part that doesn’t get said out loud but probably makes this story resonate with Latter-day Saints is the connection to the temple covenants concerning sacrifice, which are quite severe (“even your own lives, if necessary…”).
This story is consistent with the overall narrative arc of the OT, in that it represents the ancient Hebrews’ attempts to understand and reconcile their relationship with God, especially a cruel arbitrary God who seemingly allows all sorts of trials and tragedies to befall His Chosen People across the millenia. In other words, the Old Testament is like antifreeze; useful for very specific, limited purposes, but should never be taken internally.
I think the reason we give Abraham and Nephi a pass on being willing to kill for God when we would never given anyone a pass in the modern age is because we grew up with Abraham and Nephi as bedtime stories. We are just so familiar with these two that they feel like extended family. And we do for family, including apparently justifying crime.
Had we grown up in a different faith tradition, we would probably encounter these stories later in life and would view them very differently.
I agree with Josh h. The God I strive to know just doesn’t play these games.
@Chadwick, funny you mention that. I was listening to The Bible for Normal People (I think?) and Pete Enns was talking about how Episcopalians don’t read the bible. They have their liturgy but they don’t read the Old Testament. And then one year the priest or pastor of the congregation have them all start reading the bible as a congregation, and so many of these people were encountering these stories as adults for the first time and they were all freaking out. So the priest had to bring Pete in to help people deal with it.
Great post, Elisa. You’re on a roll. And before I get to my own thoughts, I thought that Lindsey Hansen Park’s take on the Wilcox situation was the most cogent and thoughtful explanation I had seen. Religion is often traumatizing and it’s a shame most of Mormondom doesn’t recognize that.
So speaking of trauma, I have found, in my journey to a more nuanced faith, that I’ve had to let go of one concept of God and embrace another; one that I think is truer to the Mormon faith. One thing I’ve discovered in reviewing Mormon scripture and history is that while Mormonism claims to believe in an interventionist God, in reality, its God is more like the God of Deism. Except for a few claims about an extremely interventionist God (the First Vision, certain sections of the D &C, a few B of M passages), a lot of Mormonism relies on faith that “eventually things will work out”. That phrase, repeated to me often when I inquired about my adopted daughter not being able to be sealed to both her mother and myself due to our divorce, as well as my own (lack of) direct experience of God, to me indicates a kind of dim hope of God’s intervention, but definitely not a certain knowledge and certainly not a God who is always showing up and fixing things. So while I may have lost a more intimate connection with deity, I nonetheless feel satisfied with where things are and generally more content, since my concept of God now more closely matches the actual experiences I’ve had over the past three decades.
And no, I don’t think God really told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. That’s absurd and represents a primitive attempt to understand the inscrutable ways of deity. And I think the mental gymnastics people perform to try to “justify” God’s cruelty are harmful and traumatizing. I can’t imagine spending so much energy trying to explain away the fact that the god of the Old Testament is jealous, murderous psychopath. It’s such a shame that so many members feel like they have to do this. Once you accept that scripture is just stories, no more, no less, a lot of that anxiety and trauma disappear. I actually think the story was told to illustrate the idea that you should listen to your own conscience more than you should listen to God. The Adam and Eve story essentially teaches the same thing. We only have the possibility of redemption and happy afterlife because Eve disobeyed God’s commandment. Clearly, that teaches the importance of relying upon your own reasoning and making a decision based on your own sense of things, not the commands of a disinterested deity.
“Last Sunday, LDS parents around the world sat in Gospel Doctrine praising Abraham’s exact obedience as demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.” Not our class. Our teacher asked us to define an Abrahamic sacrifice. Many spouted the oft-repeated idea of being willing to sacrifice things we love for the Lord. The teacher agreed that that is the common refrain, but then he asked what is different about what the Lord asked Abraham to do. It took a full ten seconds before one of us (I won’t say who) piped up to say that the Lord commanded Abraham to murder Isaac. We then spent the remainder of the class talking about whether the Lord will ever command us to do something that He previously commanded us to not do. I found it most pleasing that even the stalwarts in the class who had previously expressed no problem with God drowning the world or burning Sodom and Gomorrah were clearly troubled when asked what they would do if they found their spouse leading their child or grandchild up the nearest hill with a butcher knife in hand and, when questioned about what they are doing, replying that the Lord told them to sacrifice the child. I must admit that I noticed that the teacher didn’t ask, however, what the class members would do if it was President Nelson who was the one holding the butcher’s knife. Sorry if that got dark, and I don’t mean to suggest that President Nelson would ever actually do such a thing, but the conclusions we reach about this story are often unwittingly very dark.
I completely agree with Jack Hughes, Chadwick, Bro Sky–well said you three! And Amen to josh H, life is tough enough without the supernal trials or tests that supposedly occur to gauge worthiness or loyalty.
My wife recently read Under the Banner of Heaven, detailing Ron Lafferty’s murder of his sister-in-law and her baby daughter in Utah in 1984, which he claimed to be commanded of God. All she could think about was how these stories in the scriptures can justify murder in the name of revelation from God. It’s impossible to prevent until we stop teaching the “exception to the rule” or being tested by God to break a supreme rule.
Speaking of arbitrary and dark games of sacrifice, how about when Joseph told Heber Kimball to give him his wife, let him struggle with the decision for a few days, and then said “Just kidding! But you passed my loyalty test! Now let’s celebrate by you actually giving me your 14 year old daughter.” Interesting that in the few accounts I’ve read there isn’t anything about how Vilate felt about it.
The unprocessed trauma angle makes a lot of sense. I don’t think Abrahamic sacrifice should be much of a stranger to Mormon congregations. After all, what are some of our church leaders telling parents of LGBTQ children to do if not sacrifice them for the Church while denying the trauma that Mormon teachings have done to LGBTQ people? It’s terrible parenting advice, and most parents of LGBTQ youth are seeing this “conditional love” for the terrible advice it is and getting out. Who would choose the Church over their own child? I would hope no one.
I don’t have much to comment today. Just that I really like your interpretation of the story. I especially liked this quote,
“Perhaps the sacrifice Abraham needed to make was not of his child, but of his previous conception of God. As Adam Miller put it, “At some point, God will ask you to sacrifice on his altar not only your stories about your own life but your version of his stories as well.”
I hope that I can learn to see God for who he truly is. Thanks for the post.
@yourfoodallergy that’s a great example of the ways this strange understanding of sacrifice has impacted our modern practice.
@angela, queer kids (and other kids who don’t fit the mold or stay active) is exactly what I’m thinking about here. I know too many parents who have in fact sacrificed their kids in pursuit of what they think God is asking of them. I think we treat queerness in general like one big obedience test / sacrifice.
I’ve come to think of Mormonism as a security religion. Not that all religions aren’t about that to a certain extent, but, as John Larsen loves to say, Mormonism takes things you thought you had anyway and then sells them back to you, creating what I see as a great deal of insecurity. The church and church leaders sit squarely between the member and God, so when parents feel as though they have to choose between an LGBTQ child and the gospel, they are, in essence, choosing between their relationship with God and their relationship with the child. This is dangerously close to an Abrahamic test, but the parent is not praised or rewarded for choosing the child over God. It’s also similar to tests the church asks parents to make all the time. It used to be more difficult for some parents to embrace a son who chose not to serve a mission. It’s still difficult for most devout Mormon parents to attend a wedding outside the temple, to lovingly manage an unplanned pregnancy, to fully embrace a child who has left the church entirely. Most parents manage it appropriately, but not all.
A capricious God is not worthy of my veneration, nor was he worth Abraham’s. Faithful, balanced, wise worshippers know this and reject the expectation that they will dance for their salvation.
In SS, we discussed mostly Lot and “his wife”.
I’m nearly 74. I live in Davis County in Utah. I’ve been in my present ward going on 37 years (with a few ward split-offs).
Relative to Lot’s “wife”, several of the women on Sunday commented about having to leave friends and loved ones and not look back as undoable. I raised a hand almost at the end of the hour and, when called upon, said, essentially, that Lot’s “wife” exemplified the “salt of the earth”. (I sent the instructor your link today,)
As you can imagine, throughout those 37 years, we’ve often discussed in the ward ss or pm the Abraham-Isaac sacrifice “story”. My position, as far as I remember, always has been that I’d never do it, not with the facts available. (Same with discussions relative to Nephi-Laban.) A so-called god, who would command such a horrific thing and not engage in a detailed, compassionate discussion as to its necessity and outcome with me, wasn’t a god I w/could follow.
Such “stories” allow us to put ourselves into the characters situations and to assess our love, charity and worship accordingly. For example, instead of assessing Lot, we assess the hero of the story, the unnamed wife.
I teach 6 year olds. The manual provided a coloring page with Abraham and Isaac hugging post-attempted murder. We skipped it altogether and finished talking about Hagar and God providing for her and her son in the desert.
In preparation for what they’d get on Sunday, I had already read my own sons the story about how God told a dad to kill his son with my 4 year old wide-eyed wondering why God would ever do that. We talked about how we don’t really know and how scripture is open to many interpretations one of them being Abraham was wrong. Same child told me, “if daddy ever tried that with me, I’d shoot him with a bow and arrow and run away.”
Lindsey Hansen Park, Lioness.
I teach 10 y/os. We watched a video of the Abraham and Isaac story and then talked about 4 different ways to view it from different religions and cultures. My goal was to say that with really old stories like this we don’t know what actually happened but in seeking/struggling to understand we push ourselves to be more moral, live more christlike lives.
Some rabbis believe we’ve got the narrative all wrong. It’s their opinion that Abraham failed the test, that he should have stood up to God like he did in Sodom. They note that God never speaks to Abraham again after the incident.
An attempt to qualify the gospel by an ethical standard will always come up short–IMO. The gospel runs deeper than ethics.
@jack, what is your code of ethics based on, then? Didn’t Jesus come to teach us how to live the gospel and wouldn’t that involve some kind of ethical or moral code?
Thou shalt not kill is literally a commandment and it has no qualifications. Do you not believe that came from God?
@call me mark my 14 yr old made the argument Abraham failed the rest in his Church class. His teacher disagreed, hah!
@ReTx I love that! In my experience kids are perfectly capable of looking at things from different angles and in fact find that a lot more engaging than us dictating to them what the story should mean and why that means they should be obedient too.
I also love “in seeking/struggling to understand we push ourselves to be more moral.” I love this too. I have found that when I have faced challenging scriptures head on instead of skipping over and ignoring them, I learn a lot. Part of the purpose of reading scripture is to learn to think deeply and search for wisdom even if it is buried. It’s a great antidote to the shallow skimming of information we spend so much time doing now.
Jack- Ethics are moral principles that govern our behavior. The gospel I know and love compels me to live by the two great ethical commandments. I can’t divorce myself from those and worship the God I love. Nor would I expect children to obey me if I ask them to violate those tow great commandments.
In my experience and conversations with others over the years, the story of Abraham, combined with the idea that God will never allow church leaders to lead the church astray, provides justification for questionable and errant actions by leaders within the church—for authoritarian followers.
“See thou do it not: I am a fellow-servant…” 😀
Elisa and Camay,
I agree that a code of ethics may be culled from the gospel. Nevertheless, that code will be limited by our poor understanding of the gospel. We know that there is much more to be learned than what we’ve been given thus far. I love these words from King Benjamin’s sermon:
“Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”
I taught primary many years ago. One week the lesson was about Abraham fleeing to Egypt because he father was trying to SACRIFICE HIM TO HIS GODS. That was wrong. The next week was about Abraham SACRIFICING HIS SON TO GOD. That was right. I thought,” Please little children, don’t ask me to explain the difference, but we obviously have a problem here.”
Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun that wrote about this incident. She takes the stance the Rabbi’s mentioned above take. Abraham fell back into the wicked practices of his forefathers. The Lord appearing with the ram in the thicket was a way of teaching Abraham that is was wrong to perform human sacrifice.
I don’t believe in the notion of Abrahamic Sacrifice. We are here to learn to become better and better. How does asking me to do something that violates basic morality move that ball forward?
Laura: We teach the sunbeams, so the lesson was on getting a drink at the water fountain and sitting upside down on your chair. Plus snacks.
Jack quotes King Benjamin: “believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”
I say: believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend, yes – but still believe that man can comprehend some things, one of which is that murder is a Bad Thing.
I don’t understand studying the OT. But if I did, as suggested above, I would say that Abraham failed the test. The idea of sacrificing a child is ridiculous. There is no lesson here on obedience. God gave us a brain, we need to use it.
Brains are overrated.
Warm, fuzzy feelings are completely unreliable.
Lying is a bad thing too. But you’d do it to protect the Jews in your cellar. Stealing is also bad, but you’d snatch someone’s car if there were no other way to get your dying child to the hospital. So even though we’d categorize murder as something worse than lying or stealing knowing that something is bad isn’t always a sufficient reason not to do it–even by our own lights. How much more so when God enters the picture?
Jack, then maybe Genesis should give us a compelling example where killing is truly justified. And a scenario where God commands a dad to cut his son’s throat in a game of “Prove that You Love Me” it ain’t it.
Not a Cougar,
I didn’t need to reference the scriptures to come up with those examples. I think all of us can come up with scenarios wherein we’d feel justified in doing something that we believe to be wrong under normal circumstances. The sacrifice of Isaac serves as an extreme example of having one’s personal morality challenged to the core. If it weren’t utterly extreme it would be meaningless–as the point of the type involved has to do with how far the Lord will go to challenge the *willingness* of his people.
Bob Dylan summed up the absurdity of the Isaac sacrifice story in “Highway 61 Revisited”, set to a catchy riff and a slide whistle that’s as loony as the whole story:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”
God say, “No”. Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”.
Knowing that something is bad isn’t always a sufficient reason not to do it – and that’s why the human race is so screwed up.
Bob Dylan is a “prophet” in his own right. But Abraham was a far greater prophet.
Elisa asked: “Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you had to sacrifice your concept of God to make way for truer one?”
I answer: Every day since my house of cards began toppling a decade ago. I’ve learned that much of the business of adulthood is unlearning what I was taught or misunderstood in childhood. I now have a dynamic, evolving relationship v.s. a polite, distant one.
Like others, I don’t think a God who puts people through arbitrary, wrenching, traumatic, morally disgusting “obedience” / loyalty games is worth worshipping. The God Church “told” me about did that, but the God I’ve *experienced* wouldn’t do that. I think God is nowhere near that insecure to need to do something like that. If God is, God needs therapy.
@Jack you’re right that sometimes breaking rules is justified. Many of your examples were actually about *saving* life than taking it. As someone else said, killing someone can’t be undone.
We’ve been having a rousing discussion a few posts back about Nephi killing Laban. In that case, there was a whole lot more justification than there is here: Laban had threatened the family, withheld property, etc. While many didn’t end up agreeing that what Nephi did was justified, there is a lot more basis for that there than here — where there is literally ZERO reason to sacrifice Isaac. Zero.
This discussion is giving me some follow up questions I’m curious about:
(1) @Jack, I’m curious how you think your comment that brains are overrated lands, since we’ve discussed on other threads whether a lot of Mormons are willfully ignorant of / would rather NOT know things that contradict truth claims or existing beliefs. Your brain comment would seem to confirm that concern.
(2) For those (like Jack) who say that this was indeed an obedience test from God, let me ask this: Are you willing to consider that it wasn’t? Because it seems like those justifications accept the premise that it was from God and then work backward to try to justify it. I’m curious about whether you’d be open at all to the possibility that it wasn’t from God, and if not, why not?
Lots of people, including prophets, did bad things in the scriptures. Why the reluctance to just admit that? It doesn’t they couldn’t have done good as well, but I don’t understand the knee-jerk response to defend, defend, defend.
(3) Let’s take some of the theories that have been advanced here about the story.
-Abraham failed the test and was supposed to stand up to God
-Abraham fell into his old ways and God stopped him from sacrificing Isaac
-This is a story about God telling us to see God in a new way, and understand that God would never ask us to sacrifice our children
-And the classic, we may be asked to sacrifice EVERYTHING for God like Abraham did and need to pass the test.
Which of those lessons is more fruitful in your own life? Which leads to better outcomes?
This brought me back to my adolescence, where I first started to question how we’re interpreting these “inspirational” stories. I felt there must be something wrong with me, because my big takeaway was that Abraham was a psychopath, and God was cold, cruel, and capricious. I knew immediately I’d never be righteous enough to go far in the church, because my immediate reaction to be told to murder my child would be a hard no. As an adult, as I’ve been dismantling a lot of the assumptions and false beliefs I’ve constructed (or had constructed for me), I’ve had the troubling thought that none of the correlated gospel makes sense. The great “Plan of Happiness” is yet another murder plot. God is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, yet can’t devise any other method for his children to learn, and we’re so wretchedly unacceptable to him, that the only solution is for his favorite kid to be murdered to redeem the rest? And with all the abject suffering in the world, and for all the love he supposedly has for us, he either can’t do anything or chooses not to? Makes me wonder if 1) God doesn’t exist; 2) if he exists, he’s a huge jerk; or 3) he’s actually quite weak. Not very attractive options.
Ironically, orthodox believing Mormons engage in quite a lot of moral relativism, while at the same time claim they don’t believe in it at all.
One of the most important lessons I learned growing up in the Church is that compartmentalization can be quite useful for avoiding the messy, nuanced complications of real life. And now that I know better, I’m trying to do better.
Re: Brains: I’m not saying that brains aren’t important. But I’ve heard the tired old refrain, “that’s why God gave us brains,” so many times and from so many different angles that it’s lost its meaning. I hear folks on opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum lament the fact that people aren’t using their brains–implying that if they did they’d certainly agree with them.
That said, while brains may be overrated–wisdom is not. But that’s a different conversation…
Re: Am I willing to consider that Abraham might have been wrong: No. Not anymore–I should say. There may have been a time when I might’ve considered it–but as I’ve studied the gospel over the years I’ve come to view Abraham’s life as a model for the way that every disciple should strive to live. I doubt that anyone of us will be required to sacrifice one of our children–thankfully. But by the same token, my guess is that most–if not all–of the folks here have had a least one experience wherein God has provided a ram in the thicket.
There are some other OT stories that are salient in light of the Abraham killing Isaac story. The first that comes to mind is Job. In Job’s case, God kills all of his children and their wives (to prove to Satan that Job would remain faithful), and Job still refuses to blame God for it, but by the end of the story, it’s no big deal anyway, in fact, it’s a cause for celebration (!) because he has a second set of children to replace the first ones. Not only did he not lose anything, but he doubled his offspring, all thanks to God slaughtering his first set of children, and him remaining faithful. That story is consistent with the idea that children are not real people, but pawns to determine the faithfulness of the parent, and rewards or dynasties that enrich the status of the parent.
The other story that comes to mind is Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. Jephthah makes an oath to his bros that he will make a burnt sacrifice of the first living thing he sees when he returns home from his successful war against the Ammonites as a thanks to God for his success. Of course, his daughter comes out of the house to greet him on his arrival, and while he realizes his oath was rash, he’s a man of his word, so she must die to preserve his honor. He allows her to mourn the loss of her womanhood with her female friends, and then he burns her as a sacrifice. This story bears some resemblance to the Greek story of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter in anticipation of defeating the city of Troy, to appease the goddess Artemis so that the weather will be improved for their invasion and to rectify the offense Agamemon caused by accidentally killing one of Artemis’s famed stags. Agamemnon lures his daughter Iphigenia on the pretense that she will be married to Aulis, but when she goes with him, he kills her instead. In Jephthah’s case, he must kill his daughter to satisfy God’s demand that oaths be kept (oaths > human life) and because of human frailty (his boasting oath to gain status among his peers). Those are the exact same motives at play in the story of Agamemnon. To maintain the father’s status with God (which is in jeopardy because of the killer’s posturing with humans plus accidental factors), the daughter (who is a prized possession) must die.
@Jack, thanks for your response.
I’m curious (again) about Abraham being a model. Abraham essentially prostituted his wife Sarah not once but twice.
The first time (Genesis 12), he felt he needed to because he thought he’d be killed if people knew she was his husband, and so she went into Pharaoh’s court, had sex with one or more people there, leading to a plague and them figuring out she was Abraham’s wife (and so God had cursed them for having sex with her). Meanwhile, Abraham got tons of property, slaves, etc from the Egyptians.
And pretty much the exact same thing happens again in Genesis 20, except this time with Abimelech and this time Abimelech doesn’t end up having sex with Sarah because God tells him in a dream not to and reveals Abraham’s deceit.
Then there’s the business of he and Sarah mistreating Hagar, and then later mistreating Hagar and Ishmael and throwing them out into the desert.
I’m not saying Abraham is all bad or anything. But I am frankly bewildered at a claim that he’s someone who didn’t make any major mistakes.
well shoot @Angela, that’s disturbing, hah! What those stories both show us of course is how the people at the time thought of women and children … not what God thoughts.
Most scholars think that in the mix of history vs. myth, Job is most definitely a myth. Absolutely the people telling that story don’t value children (or women), but that reflects their thoughts, not God’s.
Seems similar to Jepthah – he decided to sacrifice his daughter. Doesn’t sound like God told him to?
To me those stories drive home the point that the child sacrifice bit comes from people and the culture, not God.
At least one additional possibility:
That nothing like this “God test” ever even happened historically at all. Could someone along the way have altered another story, or just made this one up for a reason that is unknown?
Example: one time I was looking up information about Elihu, one of Job’s friends. The Wikipedia account discussed evidence that he was added at a later date by some religious person to teach a lesson he thought was missing.
@sasso, agree. When I talk about scripture stories I’m really talking about the lesson in the story – whether or not it happened historically. Usually it doesn’t matter to me much when interpreting but this is a story where it makes some difference.
Here’s a thought. Maybe this story (or any scripture stories that have to do with violence, murder, etc) should NOT be taught to primary-age children at all. We tend to treat MPAA ratings as fairly reasonable—kids shouldn’t be indiscriminately exposed to adult material. So why do we do that at church?
Christian churches have been displaying Jesus’ mutilated body prominently in houses of worship forever. At least we don’t do that. But we do hand kids books full of stabbings, beheadings, rapes, immolations, etc and encourage them to know these stories. There might be some value to grappling with the Abraham/Isaac story as an adult (I like some of these interpretations about standing up to God), but the discussion is not appropriate for young children. Full stop.
@kirkstall that’s a good point.
More fundamentally I don’t see how these lessons help kids deal with issues they face today.
This week a war broke out. My kids are anxious about this. They have friends with family in Ukraine. This is scary for them.
This Sunday’s lesson is on eternal marriage.
How is that going to help? My daughter who just barely turned 12 doesn’t need a lesson on eternal marriage. That lesson will do absolutely nothing to help her address the challenges she’s facing RIGHT NOW. She needs a lesson on anxiety management and being a good friend and dealing with puberty and a million other things.
I’ll just say what a wonderful relief it is to stop believing in a God who commands us to do wicked things. Instantly my anxiety went down, I was more open to people and ideas around me, I stopped feeling guilt around every corner. Really the Golden Rule covers all the bases and that’s what I live now.
If only there were scripture stories about God challenging peoples’ faith by asking them to be MORE moral than the society around them, and we focused on those instead.
What if God had told Brigham Young that his “Abrahamic test” would be to continue ordaining black men to the priesthood and that interracial marriage was fine? Brigham Young would have had to sacrifice his prejudices, without a ram in the thicket! And if Brigham Young failed the test, what if God commanded David O. McKay to ordain Black men (in 1951 before the Civil Rights Movement even really got started) and handed the entire Church an Abrahamic test of their faith by asking them to sacrifice racism?
Or an entire General Conference could be devoted to the scriptures condemning rich men, and “oppressing the hireling in his wages” and the Brethren could set an Abrahamic test for all wealthy LDS businessowners – they can’t earn more than four times the amount of their lowest paid employee.
Really, if God wants to set his followers an Abrahamic test, it sure would be nice if the challenge was to exceed the current society’s morality rather than do something universally condemned. Then we wouldn’t even need a ram in the thicket to save us from our zeal to prize obedience over morality.
@janey brilliant comment.
I was going to add “how about a story about standing up to a Church when God tells you too” and then I realized there are actually tons of scripture stories on that … and also Jesus.
(And would add so often people justify things like the race-based priesthood and temple ban as essential to the Church’s survival and that’s why it was necessary.
Well, Isaac was the only way that God’s promises to Abraham were going to be fulfilled sooo …)
great follow up points Elisa
Kids can handle violent, upsetting stories as long as they aren’t then twisted to justify something unjustifiable. Nobody handles that well.
One of the big problems with human sacrifice from a theological perspective is that it puts the person performing the sacrifice above God. Often this is super explicit: “In burning Iphigenia, I will guarantee our victory in the Trojan war.” Really, little mortal man-dude? So you control the Gods now? (Let’s see what your wife thinks about all this… enjoy that bath, Bud.) Or, “By sacrificing X number of prisoners at the top of our temple, -we- prevent the -gods- from beginning the apocalypse.”
Human sacrifice is the ultimate expression of the patriarchal obsession with bodily control, and so it’s not really a surprise to me that Abraham (whether fictional or not) thinks he has to go there. Interrupting the natural/divine order of life while fixating on its own supposed supremacy is kind of Patriarchy’s thing.
Abraham’s attempted murder of Isaac, in addition to being a terrible thing to do on every other level I can think of, is blasphemous. As God Himself, Jesus had the right and ability to choose when and how to end His life. Abraham had no such right over Isaac’s life, except the classic cover for all patriarchal misbehavior “God told me so.” But without that allegedly God-given right over Isaac’s life, what “special” power does Abraham have? What makes him any different from Sarah? Or Hagar? Or those evil Midianites down the road? He had to believe he was special, even (especially?) at the expense of his own son.
Abraham’s own trauma (thanks Elisa for that really helpful way to think about Abraham) was totally part of it, I think. Ditto the toxic elements of his culture (Angela, thanks for those examples; as you can see, I stole one.)
And so it goes for all of us, right? How do my trauma + my culture intersect to (potentially) turn me into a monster? And gratitude for when a merciful God intervenes to save me from the worst versions of myself. That’s what I’m taking away from revisiting the story this time.
Thanks so much for such a great discussion!
@Margie, wow, you have given me a lot to think about. What wonderful insights.
Two immediate reactions –
(1) you’re so right that this is classic patriarchy, and of course this isn’t the only way Abraham demonstrated a propensity to take advantage of other people’s bodies to suit his own needs. Giving Sarah to other men (sexually) twice in order to save his hide and get money and property, using Hagar’s body to produce an heir (then tossing her and Ishmael out when it wasn’t convenient). Circumcising all the men in his household. Of course that’s not unique to Abraham (Lot does similar things in this set of chapters) but that’s because it’s a symptom of patriarchy being enacted / embodied in Abraham.
(2) Rather than viewing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as an act of selfless self-denial and obedience, doesn’t that make him extremely selfish rather than selfless? He’s willing to kill his son to preserve his own standing with God.
It would have been braver and selfless for him to instead – like Huck Finn when Huck believes rescuing a slave is against God’s law – say “well then, I’ll go to hell.”
But no, what matters to Abraham is his own standing with God and he’ll do anything – even kill his son – to preserve it.
And that’s where we get back to the extremely toxic message for modern Christian parents: your standing with God (and in our Church, Church and Church leaders stand proxy for God) is more important than your children. That’s awful. And I think we see it (among other ways in those that @jaredsbrother mentioned early in the thread).
I was placidly catching up on reading comments when Utah Girl rocked my complacency. Yep, that plan I was taught would bring me happiness, instead was the genesis of conflict, family division, and mental health challenges, and it has the same fingerprints all over it as do the OT stories highlighted above..
A “wholesome” God who would also “for His own wise purpose” sow confusion with such senseless evil will have people deluding themselves about all manner of realities they see with their own eyes, in order to make the baffling parts fit. It’s disorienting, precipitates moral relativism (a most useful quality in some quarters) and withers the spirit. Or else one gets brutally honest about what they see with their own eyes.
I finally learned to see toxic patriarchy behind the confusion, and how devious, how self-absorbed and entrenched it is, now there’s no way to unsee it. But I can reject it and still have faith in a loving God, and a beneficent universe, and have plenty of challenges with which to hone my love, patience, and all manner of virtue, and I can unify my brain with the rest of my soul, in as much harmony as one can muster in this environment. And one of the good effects of trusting my own judgement instead of suspending it, is that I have a stronger grip on the reality of evil, how it is so common, sneaky and poisonous. Sigh. The story of Abraham, Isaac, and God is a tool that’s up to no good. So I mus reject it as something I don’t need to make sense.
And while I wrote up my thoughts, Margie and Elisa were already on it with a well-done deconstruction of all the things I want to say in my comment.
Re: Genesis 12: That’s one way of interpreting those events. I agree with Nibley’s interpretation–that the plague actually prevented the marriage from being consummated. And in that light, the sacrifice of Sarah is similar to that of Isaac in that the plague (or Abimelech’s dream) serves as a “ram in the thicket.”
@jack, not familiar with that interpretation and it’s certainly not a view that prevails among OT scholars (no textual support, seems only designed to justify Abraham) – but even if true that doesn’t change the fact that in both cases Abraham offered her up as a sacrifice. The idea that we can do awful things and God will provide a ram in the thicket is very dangerous. Reminds me of the dad in Educated (excellent book) who was so reckless with his family because of his “faith” that God would protect them. No – I think God expects *us* to protect our families. Abraham did neither.
@MDearest, your comment is another that made me really glad for this discussion. Unifying your brain with your soul and reclaiming personal authority (including the right to say “no, just because that’s in the scriptures or a Church leader said so doesn’t make it right” – yes! Justifying objectively evil acts by blaming them on God has got to stop.
A basic problem here is naming practically every significant OT figure a prophet. All, of course, were imperfect beings.
Adam and Noah, for example, were mythical figures whose stories in different forms were common in the ancient world. They helped explain a worldview in nonscientific ways.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were patriarchs whose main purpose was to assure continuation of a divinely favored family. While Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah et al brought a “word of God” to particular situations (that may or may not have more universal application).
Our first challenge today is to decide whether the people leading us (and our religious institutions) are patriarchs or prophets. I sense there’s a lot more of the former than the latter.
A second, much harder challenge, is to find ways for our faith community to function as a prophetic people. It’s much easier to be satisfied with patriarchy.
@Rich Brown, I’ve not heard the patriarch vs prophet distinction before and it’s a very insightful way to look at this & other stories and events (including today). Love it!
@Elisa How might it change the thinking in the CoJCoLDS to view the Q15 as patriarchs, with the senior member as presiding patriarch who could, on occasion, perhaps bring prophetic insight to the church as a whole?
Hi @Elisa, Yes, I think it makes Abraham selfish under the guise of selflessness, a guise which he himself may–probably even does–believe. And, yep, I totally think that’s how patriarchy is playing out today in our own religious culture with our LGBTQ+ kids and siblings (other people too). “I’m hurting you like this and telling you can’t be who you really are BECAUSE I follow God and I love you and want you to follow Him too or else you’ll be lost.” Most of the patriarchs I know, are human-beings, not monsters. The problem is they’ve hitched so much of their identity to a “specialness” or “choseness” that by virtue of what it is, demands they exercise power over other people’s bodies, or attempt to, anyway. If they really understood that this is what was *actually* happening, they’d be horrified.  But that would require jettisoning such a core part of their identity, I think most of them can’t even begin to go there. As you say, it’s sacrificing their near-entire notion of God–and also of themselves. And @MDearest, that is so well said. When you are able to see it, it makes some things so much easier and clearer. I think it’s easier for those of us who for one reason or other find ourselves unable to fully participate in the patriarchal power schema. Obviously, Patriarchy hurts everyone, but in some ways, it damages men most.
 I think this is the power of the Abraham and Isaac story: it is pretty inescapably horrific. It’s as close as scripture gets to saying “You see this? This is what you’re *actually* doing. Feels wrong, doesn’t it? Takes a whollllllle lot of cognitive dissonance and stifling of your humanity/light of Christ to be okay with it, doesn’t it?”
This was the test for my wife and me in 2015. Do we stay in a church that clearly has no unconditional love for our gay daughter and “follow the brethren aka God” or do we choose our daughter ? Zero regrets six years later to get our family to safe ground and out of the toxic LDS environment for the sake of our daughter and to show our unconditional love and support for her. That said, the pain lives on as my wife and I can sense and feel the disappointment to this day among almost every family member and friend still in the church that we truly failed the test .
@Margie, your explanation of what that awful account may (or may not) be up to is more positive and generous than mine, and most meaningful to me, a clear-headed plain reading of the text. When I was allowed to teach that one time, the oldest Primary kids, I ignored the manual stuff and would spend the little bit of time we had just reading passages of the scripture aloud and talking it over. It was NT, fairly easy and inspiring.
Agree that under toxic patriarchy, men in general sustain a great deal of damage that goes unseen. Men and boys are carefully indoctrinated as are women and girls, but the content is more intoxicating— Authority! Power and control is an illusion that’s hard to see as delusional, and much harder to walk away from. Their mental health challenges are formidable.
What a wonderful post and ensuing discussion. I loved @janey’s list of hypothetical alternate tests and implicit questions: Why wouldn’t God test our morality, rather than our immorality, along with our obedience? What does God gain by submitting us to a test that Ted Bundy or Hitler would pass more easily than us?
Various aspects of our character — love, disciple, patience, obedience, courage, etc. — are tested every day, regardless of whether the tests are cooked up by God or anyone else. What matters is which of those tests are important to us, not to others. @Gavin, if parental love is among your highest values, then kudos to you and your wife for passing the test. Personally, I hope that love can always be my highest aspiration, and that I can be as courageous as you in pursuing it.
@Robert, thank you for that. I appreciate you saying that. It really was a brutal test. In the end, it came down to what had been engrained from the beginning…we just said “ah [insert swear word of your choice], do what is right and let the consequence follow”. Surely God will understand that.
A little over a year ago, I had a conversation with a member of my ward. They wanted to express discomfort for my vocal support of my LGBTQ child. I explained the necessity for members of the ward to confidently speak of love, inclusion, and celebration for LGBTQ youth because, among many important reasons, it can be a life and death issue. This ward member responded with glee and pride in their cleverness. They shared how our Heavenly Father sacrificed his child and Abraham was willing to sacrifice his child, what made me different or special. This was not a fringe member. This was a person widely respected by other ward members. They were asking me to feel comfortable, even excited or interested in having a conversation centered on my child’s death. I see evidence of this member’s viewpoint all over the church. My family rarely goes to church anymore. I do teach Sunday School and so I came to the second hour and taught this lesson. I asked the youth to set aside the things they’ve been told about this story and asked them to bring a new lens of perspective. They presented some fascinating perspectives. The only value I see in this bible story is the opportunity to critically analyze it. Thanks @Elisa
Jen H: That makes me physically ill. There will be a special place in Hell reserved for such people. This is in fact in some cases a very real matter of life and death, and even for those for whom it is not, it’s the difference between a life worth living, a life of joy, and a life of self-denial that nobody would ask a cishetero person to live.
Elisa, I believe Nibley states that view in his article The Sacrifice of Sarah. Another thing that Nibley talks about (in the article) is that Sarah’s sacrifice isn’t so much about Abraham placing her on the altar–so to speak. It’s about Sarah giving up an opportunity to become the queen of Egypt. She might’ve been the most powerful woman in the world–as they knew it. But instead the Lord delivers her from Pharaoh so she can continue to be the wife of a lowly Bedouin.
and so, I think the idea that Abraham sacrifices Sarah might be misplaced. Because there was really nothing he could do to prevent the Egyptians from taking her. If Pharaoh had known that they were married he simply would’ve have taken Abraham’s life. And so his request to Sarah–that she identify him as her brother–was really a plea to her to protect him. He placed his life in her hands–not the other way around.
@jack, I find that interpretation implausible in light of the text and the later repeat in Genesis 20. Even if I didn’t, you’re only underscoring that Abraham viewed Sarah’s body as a tool he could use to protect himself. We have no idea how Sarah felt about any of this – it wasn’t her idea and she never speaks. Also, she was thrown out of Pharoah’s house – she didn’t “choose” to leave any more than she chose to go in the first place.
I think approaching a biblical story with the foregone conclusion to exonerate the “hero” is reckless and bad scholarship. If Nibley wants to present that as a possibility, sure, I think exploring multiple interpretations is fruitful. In my family, we talked about how Abraham and Sarah were refugees in Egypt and how it’s a good demonstration of how refugees then and now are often forced with wrenching decisions and face separation from their families (and how can we help refugees today?). So we were hardly villainizing Abraham and personally I think our discussion was much more applicable to living and god and moral life now than Nibley’s. (I did also tell my kids in no uncertain terms that their body belongs to them and no one has the right to use it for their advantage – somehow chastity lessons at church never teach this). But I think one must address and grapple with the other possibilities, which apologists tend not to do (and I have zero patience for that – it’s intellectually and morally lazy).
I am all for feminist interpretations of biblical texts that bring more light to stories and characters, but Nibley’s is the opposite – it’s an interpretation to justify a man’s exploitation of his wife. Do not pass go.
Sarah was returned to Abraham because of a miracle. Whether it’s a plague, a dream, or the appearance of an angel that prevents the sacrifice–it is God’s hand that ends the ordeal.
When we reduce the stories of the scriptures to our own limited sense of morality we run the risk of missing the mark–not that what we bring to those stories never lines up with them in terms of the ethics involved. But to limit the morale of this particular story to how one uses another’s body–and I agree that there’s a lesson there–is to miss the opportunity to show how the Lord’s disciples–a woman in this particular case–might be tempted in the same way–and and to a similar degree!–that Jesus was tempted by the adversary. “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
IMO–it is through these stories that we learn why the Lord established his covenant with both Abraham and Sarah–and why they were both worthy to be known as the father and the mother of the faithful. “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you…”
@jack I can definitely appreciate an effort to elevate Sarah and her role in the story. I think the great thing about scripture is that it can mean lots of different things. What frustrates me about some apologists is where there are certain meanings / conclusions that are off-limits (and I also need to remind myself not to treat explanations as off-limits and to be open and curious to whatever interpretations bring light / knowledge / truth / morality to my life and help me be a better person).
Btw, I know I disagree with your most the time but I appreciate your engagement, perspective, and the respect you show to all the folks here who see things differently.
Thanks Elisa. I appreciate your willingness to hear me out. Even though we may disagree my sense is that you’ll probably enter the Kingdom before I do–you and a lot of other good folks who comment here regularly.
@gavin and Jen H, thanks so much for sharing your painful “Abrahamic sacrifice” moments. Sounds like you both are sacrificing tremendously in order to care for your kids – at the expense of social standing and certainty. It’s terrible that Church asks us to choose – when as I mentioned in the post I think the story of Abraham tells us God will never make us sacrifice our kids in the name of obedience. But so many have it exactly backward – and it’s actually hurting people.
Your stories demonstrate this isn’t an academic exercise about OT scholarship. These interpretations have a real impact on our culture and some interpretations are really hurting real people today.
“And would add so often people justify things like the race-based priesthood and temple ban as essential to the Church’s survival and that’s why it was necessary.”
How often is the opposite of this justification attempt true, too? Imagine the church today if President Kimball hadn’t prevailed in giving Black members access to the temple and priesthood? A continuation of these bans would likely be more damaging to the church as an institution than its history of discrimination.
@sasso I’m not totally sure I follow but I suppose that when it comes to an institution trying to protect itself at the expense of people, that’s just the wrong choice and doing it based on some prediction of a perceived future harm vs looking at the harm going on right now is problematic.
I really loved @Janey’s take here that why can’t obedience tests be about being *more*, not *less*, moral.
I haven’t yet seen mentioned that anyone currently making the “Abrahamic sacrifice” is considered to be severely mentally ill. In my psych training at more than one hospital (and a prison), I met individuals who while untreated had murdered their children – people with deep delusional systems about god speaking to them, and the necessity of exact obedience. Not a common delusion, but one that occurs fairly regularly in our religious society. I wonder how many of the family murder/suicides we hear about and deplore involve such delusional thinking. ‘Course there’s no way to find out when everybody is dead. The Abrahamic sacrifice story has a lot to answer for, as do those who push it.
@karla yes, I have seen this in mentally ill people.
Karla: I feel like this is similar to the backstory of Carrie, but with misogyny thrown in. Good catch.