The Faith of Abraham

Back in my Mormon Matters days (a John Dehlin website), it seems like we’d get a post every couple of weeks about how the scriptures are full of bad stories of God commanding the death of someone. We’d get complaints about Nephi and Laban, of course, but the story that seemed to get the most attention was that of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

I remember one post, in particular that suggested the story should be changed to have Abraham refuse to sacrifice Isaac and the angel of God then praises Abraham for refusing to do something immoral even if God commands it.

I can see why this story is so troubling to theological liberals and non-believers. This story simply leaves no room to ethically explain it away.

First of all, if we actually met someone that decided to sacrifice their son because they believed God commanded it, we’d immediately condemn them and we’d even consider them insane. Under no circumstances would we commend them for their ‘faith.’

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

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

But then things only get worse. The New Testament then holds up this story as a supreme example of what it means to have faith in God. (See also) And not just the New Testament, mind you. The Book of Mormon also approves of the story as a correct show of faith as does the Doctrine and Covenants. So, other than the Pearl of Great Price, the Abraham Story is universally treated by all ancient and modern scripture as a correct view of faith. Theological liberals are terrified at the thought that this is what it means to have faith in God. Come to think of it, theological conservatives aren’t comfortable with this story either, especially if it were to come from a different religion.

So why is this story held up as an ultimate example of what it means to have faith in God? I am not sure I know the answer to that question. One thing pondering the story has done for me is to help reveal to me what I call “the faith-based nature of reality.” We walk by faith on so many different and even invisible things. As my posts on morality point out, even morality itself is faith-based. So deciding to judge a revelation by its moral content is a rationally questionable thing to do since morality is itself actually a type of revelation that can’t be rationally justified.

But I’m open to other thoughts on this subject. Why is this story of Abraham held up by God as the quinessential form of correct faith in God?

27 thoughts on “The Faith of Abraham

  1. The story of Abraham is the ultimate “faith requires you to do extraordinary, painful things” story. It points to the ultimate story of doing extraordinary, painful things, the sacrifice of the Savior. It is also a reminder that the most loyal followers of God, even incredibly important prophets like Abraham, must be tested and must suffer.

    We can believe the story is not historical and still see its power. I often tell myself when being tested, “Abraham and Moses and Joseph Smith and the Savior had to go through things a million times worse than you are going through — buck up and have faith and all will be well. ” So, we can see there is a purpose to this trial. We will always suffer trials in life, and if we handle them well everything will turn out OK, just as it did for Abraham.

  2. “Why is this story of Abraham held up by God as the quinessential form of correct faith in God?”

    The answer lies not just in the nature of the sacrifice demanded (human sacrifice of Abraham’s only begotten son), but in the particular ways in which it was personally disturbing to Abraham himself.

    Consider: Abraham himself was once tied to an altar and was about to be sacrificed himself. This particular close call must have been a psychologically harrowing experience for him, one that he was not likely to forget. Thus, God asking him to do the same thing to his own son must have been astoundingly disturbing, a shock to his system.

    Secondly, Abraham had already sacrificed a great deal to be worthy of a birthright son. Isaac was the embodiment of not only God’s previous promises, but he was the future of the chosen people. To have that future snuffed out, and snuffed out in such a shocking and yes, immoral, way, but a double bind for Abraham.

    Yet, as Joseph Smith famously taught, “Whatever God commands is right”. That is really the crux of the issue, and it’s a notion that theological liberals can’t accept. It may, however, be a moot point since very few liberals believe that God gives revelations, anyway.

    We all have something deeply personal that we either don’t want to give up or something in our lives that represents the ultimate sacrifice. The rich young ruler’s Abrahamic sacrifice was to sell his riches and give to the poor. Clearly, that was a completely different sacrifice. The point is that the sacrifice required is custom made to fit the heart of the one being tested.

  3. I see the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, in a different light. While faith is involved, it has more to do with covenant. I’ve written on my blog regarding the relationship between Jehovah and Abraham. Anciently, Elohim divided up the nations among the sons of God. Israel was given to Yahweh/Jehovah. Yet, Israel did not yet exist!

    Yahweh had to prepare his nation from scratch, while other divine sons already had kingdoms up and running.

    According to the traditions, Abraham was prepared as a child. For several weeks, Abraham was hidden from his enemies in a cave, where God fed him by sucking on his own thumb. The stories continue on how Yahweh protected him from Nimrod and the gods of Babylon.

    Abraham is saved from Potiphar’s sacrifice in the Book of Abraham, and from a fiery furnace in another story. In the BoA, it is the Angel of the Lord’s Presence, the Messiah, or Yahweh that appears and saves Abraham.

    Time and again, the Lord saves Abraham and prepares him for ever greater things. Then comes the covenant. Abram and Sara’s names are changed. They are given new names. One theory is that Yahweh gave each of them an “H” from his name, making them his children. He promises them endless children.

    After all the blessings given and promises made, why wouldn’t Abraham obey God when asked to make a sacrifice? Abraham lived in a land where child sacrifice was the norm. It was NOT morally wrong according to societal views. Abraham had a covenant with God: if Abraham would fully obey Yahweh, he would be the father of many nations, and have eternal seed. Abraham was rescued several times by Yahweh from priests, Nimrod, Pharaoh, armies that sacked Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. Tradition states he dwelt with Noah and Shem for several years. He received the priesthood and blessings from Melchizedek, the Prince of Peace (Salem). He saw the city of Salem ascend to heaven and Enoch’s city, and was shown the structure of the heavens.

    Surely, God had a reason for commanding a sacrifice. God commanded Adam to make sacrifices, and when asked by an angel, Adam responded that he did not know why, save the Lord commanded it. The covenant was the important thing, whether you understood it or not. In this comes faith – knowing that obedience to the covenant will bring the fullness of God’s blessings, whether you understand all things or not.

    Interestingly, in some stories of the Akedah, Satan actually pushes the knife into Isaac and slays him, but then the Angel of the Lord’s Presence appears and raises him. This is similar to a story of Adam being slain on the altar, and the Lord raising him, as well (Book of Adam and Eve against Satan).

    The covenant ties into the atonement of Christ. We promise to obey, and we are promised exaltation and eternal lives. Had Abraham refused his son, the covenant would have been broken, and Yahweh would have had to start over, building Israel somewhere else. In doing this, we then see a type: because of the covenant, God did not refuse to sacrifice his Son for us! And in doing so, we receive immortality and eternal life.

    Yet, you do not see very many liberal Christian theologian wanna-bees actually looking at this info. You do not see them condemn God for slaying his own Son. They do not understand covenant.

    Here’s my blog on the Abrahamic Covenant:

  4. BTW, for Isaac, this became an important experience, as well. He enters into the covenant at this time, as the willing sacrifice. He has heard of Abraham’s experience on the altar of Potiphar, and now sees this as his time to be proved. Again, as with Abraham, Isaac is saved at the last minute by Yahweh himself. It is an endowment, if you will. We place all upon the altar of God, and then God delivers us, and brings us into His presence.

    I do not believe, as does mormonchess, that Abraham was worried or dismayed at the sacrifice he was commanded to do. I believe he had faith in the covenant he had with God. He knew that if Yahweh could deliver him from that altar, that Isaac also could be saved, as well.

    And it is in such a moment that we find those who understand faith and covenant, and those who do not. There are those today who pat themselves on the back, because they are obviously more moral than Moses, Abraham, or Nephi, simply because killing is abhorrent to them. Yet, they do not understand the covenant nor eternal things.

  5. Paul gives the answer to this conundrum in his letter to the Hebrews chapter 11:

    17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he
    that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

    18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

    19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

    So, Abraham knew that he would have posterity through Isaac, but how could he get posterity through Isaac if Isaac were dead? Answer: Abraham knew God could resurrect him.

    Abraham knew the whole gospel story, or plan of salvation, at that point. Abraham knew that God could resurrect people. He knew that Elohim would resurrect Jesus/Yahweh. (I’m sure Abraham, as one of the greatest prophets, knew the nature of the members of the Godhead, even if the OT doesn’t make that clear.)

    And, as Rameumptom points out, if it were not to be a literal resurrection, Abraham knew that God could save Isaac “at the last minute” just like Abraham himself had been saved at the last minute.

    In my view, the faith that Abraham had was not in doing something horrible like killing his son. The faith of Abraham was in his believing or knowing that God would either resurrect Isaac (in order to fulfill the promises) or at least save him at the last minute.

    Or, in simpler terms, Abraham knew the killin’ was just going to be temporary, or perhaps even called off at the last minute.

    I like Rameumptom’s take on it too. In that Isaac, as a 33 year old, likely knew the plan of salvation too, and knew of his father’s history. So it wasn’t just Abraham who had faith in God’s promises. Isaac did too.

  6. Another counter-point to those who don’t understand the nature of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

    The determination if a personal revelation comes from God or Satan or one’s own imagination should not rest solely on whether the revelation or prompting makes sense.

    The question “Is this something that God could/would tell me to do?” is proper for someone just beginning to learn to recognize and hearken to the voice of the Spirit. A spiritual voice, or an idea, to do your home-teaching or visiting-teaching is likely from the Lord (through the Holy Ghost.)

    However, after while, after we have had practice harkening to that voice for the “easy” things, that we should already know to do, then comes the growth part.

    In my case, apparently after some training in how to recognize the “easy” instructions of the Spirit, which I could judge by asking “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”, then came the next level. I felt inspired to do some things that were neutral, neither obviously bad, nor obviously good.

    I had to ask myself: “Is this the same ‘voice’ that told me to do the easy things?” “Does it ‘feel/sound’ the same?” “Does it ‘feel’ like it’s coming from the ‘correct source’?”

    Since the potential harm of doing those neutral things appeared to be nil, I decided to gamble, “take a leap of faith” if you will, and just experiment by doing those things, and see. And that’s okay, because by definition faith is not knowing for sure. Part of the definition of faith intersects with “gamble”. You don’t have to “know” in order to exercise faith.

    And, it turned out that I had learned, to a small degree, to recognize the voice of the Spirit. That “training” at the “easy” level paid off, and I was “rewarded” by being given training at the intermediate (neutral-looking “assignments”) level. After a number of times, including some times when I guessed wrong, I grew more confident in recognizing the voice of the Spirit.

    And I had guessed wrong more than once at the easy level too. I’ve never been a 100-percenter. But, if I remember correctly, my mistakes have always been to dismiss a legitimate prompting; not the other side, to “gin up” a prompting that wasn’t really there.

    After a while at the intermediate level (promptings that seem neither good nor bad up front, but turn out to be a “good thing” in hindsight), then the next levels came: those where the prompting was to do something that cost significant time, money, or effort, or just didn’t make sense.

    And again, I learned through both positive feedback, and negative feedback. Those things that didn’t make sense, or seemed to be an unjustified expense of money or time, turned out to be very good things. And when I decided wrongly, dismissing a legitimate prompting as my own imagination, the withdrawal of the Spirit, accompanied by a feeling of guilt let me know that I had decided incorrectly.

  7. Okay, two more points.

    1. If God can train an unworthy doofus like me, think of the infinitely greater training, and learning, and capacity of his holy prophets. Abraham hearing God tell him to sacrifice Isaac was not his first conversation with God. Nephi hearing the Spirit tell him to kill Laban was not the first time Nephi was inspired. Both of those prophets recognized the voice of who was speaking to them. They had already attained a very high level of training and instruction. They were far beyond us ordinary Joes who, when we generally receive a prompting, think “Wait a sec. Is that really the Spirit or did I just gin that up in my imagination?”

    2. God, or the Holy Ghost, does have the power to raise his voice and make things obvious, painfully obvious. As Nephi says, he was “constrained.” Not “forced”, but I think the word “constrained” indicates that the Spirit made it painfully obvious, such that Nephi had no excuse to question who was speaking to him.

    If the Lord can speak (as in the book of Job) such that Satan can hear him, then He can speak to any of us lesser sinners too.

  8. Lots of good stuff above here, so I’ll just add an unoriginal insight that I think applies in this case.

    When I read the Quran, I found a few passages disturbing, but it didn’t bother me. I expected to find those, because of my experience with other scripture. Joseph Smith said that a religion that doesn’t require the sacrifice of all things couldn’t have enough power to offer salvation. A corollary of that is that there needs to be things in our worship that are hard because there are things in life that are hard. Taking the hard things out of religion waters down its ability to be more than just cheerful affirmations for sunny days.

    So I expect that religion needs to have some parts that are scary, weird, and even offensive. Only hubris can accept something as universal and transcendent as religion just happening to pander to every contemporary whim. God save us from religion that is easy!

  9. Mormonchess says, “Whatever God commands is right”…is a notion theological liberals can’t accept.”

    That may be true in many cases. But there are some, who like Geoff, may understand that the story might be myth while still accepting the principle behind it. The story itself sounds mythical and implausible. But not because a loving God would never do something like that. Why wouldn’t God be violent and bloodthirsty, if the culture he was working in was violent and bloodthirsty?

    I think our modern society has difficulty truly accepting this story partially because our lives are so blessed in this peaceful, post-racial era, and we have adopted a notion that the whole purpose of keeping God’s commandments is to make us happy and prosperous. We assume that commandments are designed for this purpose, and when we are blessed, we think all is well.

    But Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac took place in a world where most children died in infancy, where tribes were in a constant state of warfare, and where human sacrifice was a common religious ritual. Abraham’s father was a human-sacrificer, and Abraham’s grandchildren were murderers and rapists. These were societies that lived by the sword, and died by the sword. It wasn’t until Jesus that it was said, “put again thy sword unto it’s place.” Before that, Jehovah was a God of war and bloodshed, love your neighbor, hate your enemy.

    As a theological liberal, I take the Bible at face value. I accept both the apparent implausibility of some of it’s accounts, but I accept the notion that God can work with diverse peoples, within the differing cultures and values of those peoples, even if their values include warfare and genocide.

    I accept the divine genocides of the Bible, but not as a conservative apologist, who tiptoes around the history, rationalizing the stories this way and that to make them palatable to our modern sensitivities. I believe in a deep God, deeper than anyone has imagined. A genocidal God perfectly fits that mold, as does a God who commands human sacrifice. After all, human sacrifice is the foundational belief of the Christian faith.

  10. One additional thought. Joseph Smith and Hugh Nibley did us a great service by pointing out how thoroughly entrenched Abraham was within the culture of human sacrifice of his time. This helps us understand that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was consistent with his culture and especially his family traditions.

    Human sacrifice is not a very extraordinary behavior if you think about it. It was extremely widespread in the ancient world. God was seen as a wrathful God who demanded blood, either of animals or humans, in order to secure his favor and overcome your sins. Abraham was just getting to know who this strange God was. It could be that the temptation to sacrifice kin was strong in him, just as it was strong in his father. The miracle of the story is not that Abraham would sacrifice Isaac. That was normal behavior for the culture and family Abraham came from. The miracle, is that God spared Isaac through a heavenly angel, an angel of Abraham’s better nature.

  11. “It may, however, be a moot point since very few liberals believe that God gives revelations, anyway.”

    I have written about theological liberalism elsewhere. My conclusion is that there are actually (at least) two different (and mutually exclusive) types of ‘theological liberalism.’ There is the Nate and BCC variety and there is the John Dehlin, Karen Armstrong, John Hamer variety. They have basically nothing in common except a common label and a number of surface similarities that can be exploited by the Dehlin variety.

    Or that is my take.

    That being said, I think the Armstrong/Dehlin variety *would* claim that they believe in revelation. But I think they are hesitant to also explain what they mean by that because, if they defined it, it would quickly become obvious they they are being deceptive in how they word things.

    For my thoughts on this, see these links:

    You read Nate in #9 and he is clearly a believer in a literal God. You read John Dehlin and Karem Armstrong and it is not clear if they believe in a literal God or not. i.e. they might be a type of atheist. (My experience suggests that this means they do not believe in a liberal God and are hiding that fact.)

    But if “God” can be a term for “moral force” and “revelation” can be a term for “moral feelings” it’s not hard to see how *all* atheists both believe in “God” and also “revelation.” Therefore, by a relabel scheme, we can easily make it very difficult to tell the different types of theological liberal apart.

    By the way, Nate, good thoughts in #9. Don’t even get me started on slavery. 😛

  12. Everyone had some excellent thoughts here btw. Many things I had not thought of.

  13. Yeah, this discussion has been great. It’s really a wonderfully deep topic. I appreciate everyone’s comments.

  14. I recommend reading Kierkekaard’s take on Abraham in Fear and Trembling. Without going too much into details, he demonstrates why Abraham’s faith was both inspiring and disturbing, that Isaac’s sacrifice represented a “teleological suspension of the ethical” in which faith superceeded ethics — even the ethics based on God’s own commandments. In Kierkekaard’s view it’s not a story that we can take lightly…and I’d add that it doesn’t seem helpful to use it as a rhetorical cudgel against theological “liberalism” or “conservatism,” whatever you take those terms to mean. Abraham should compel all believers to ask hard questions about faith.

  15. I went to a funeral this weekend. The deceased had been a young girl in New Mexico during the agricultural depression of the 20s and then the Great Depression and much of the time lived out of a wagon traveling from abandoned homestead to abandoned homestead to graze their few animals. Her life was not very stable.

    Perhaps because of that instability, there was a story from that time that she remembered vividly and would retell often. It was a very simple story. All that happened was that she was trudging along with the family’s only calf walking a few steps in front of her. Suddenly it disappeared, as if it had vanished from the earth. What happened was that it had fallen into an inexplicable sinkhole and they were able to rescue it. But that sense of stable things melting away remained very powerful.

    The Abraham story is the sinkhole of faith. It should disturb all believers who take it seriously, whether conservative or liberal.

  16. Nate, #9,
    I think you’re missing the point of the story if you treat the sacrifice as culturally appropriate in the setting of the times. From internal evidence alone, one can see that this was meant to be a shock to Abraham, who had been promised seed through this son and whose early life was largely centered on a foundation story of rejecting human sacrifice through belief on the true God. That is extremely unlike the genocide stories of the Canaanite conquest, which do read as culturally appropriate. Contextualizing Abraham’s sacrifice does no good.

  17. Taking a line from Bruce Nielson, my experience suggests that theological conservatives do not really believe in a God that would tell one of his children to murder another one, and they and are hiding that fact.

    In practice, in today’s world, we don’t allow someone to murder in the name of God. There’s no circumstance whatsoever that would cause us to write a law allowing such a murder. This is a de facto admission that we don’t accept the possibility of such a commandment, is it not?

    (And fyi, as someone who might be labeled a theological liberal, I’m not sure you accurately describe the way I believe in God. I am comfortable claiming I believe in God, but not in the way a more conservative person might make the claim. I’m just very hesitant to draw 100% firm conclusions on the nature of and universality of my experiences with diety.)

  18. Trevor, even in the common law (which is based on very conventional morality) there’s the doctrine of Necessity, through which someone who breaks the law will be held blameless if the breaking of the law is found to have been justified because it prevented a greater harm than that which the law sought to protect (think speeding to get someone to a doctor). So the fact that no one would endorse a law that allows murder does not mean that we fail to recognize situations where it might be required and even justified under the law.

  19. To no one in particular: If you had been a special forces soldier who knew how to kill someone with your bare hands, and had been sitting behind one of the 9/11 hijackers before they commandeered the plane, and God told you (“constrained” as Nephi said) to kill the man sitting immediately in front of you, and you knew the prompting/revelation came from God, would you have done it?

    I think this is a legitimate hypothetical question. It would have saved lives. It took 5 men to commandeer the 3 airplanes that crashed into buildings. The one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania had only 4 hijackers, and the passengers were able to force the hijackers to miss their intended target.

    I’m going to leave unanswered the question of whether God would have told you the _why_. Though in Nephi’s case, he was given the reason why. You may answer the question either way.

    Keep in mind that:

    1. The hijackers were going to, and wanted to, die anyway.

    2. Mormons aren’t the only Christian denomination to believe in personal revelation from God.

    3. Mormons aren’t the only Christian denomination to believe that God inspires people to do things that don’t make sense on the surface.

  20. MC: if there were a higher purpose served in killing someone, then it wouldn’t be classified as murder. If you’re talking self-defense, or defense of an innocent third party, it would be justified homicide.

  21. Trevor,

    I think a theological conservative would say that you should both follow God and then take your punishment afterwards if that is what God wants you to do.

    So believing the law should say it is never okay to kill and also believing God could *theoretically* command it anyhow are not necessarily inconsistent.

  22. MC,BN,
    you could also simply believe that (1) this is what prosecutorial discretion is for or (2) that the cases of genuine revelation to kill are exceedingly rare so that any legal recognition of it would be simply abused by murderers falsely claiming divine prerogative.

  23. Book – If the revelation came in the manner in which I have received revelation in the past, including one life altering experience too sacred to describe, I’ll answer your question — Nope. I would not kill the person. I would sit very alert and ready for them to make an aggressive move.

    But nothing short of an angel I could touch would move me to action in this scenario.

  24. chris,

    Ah, but you’re open to the possiblity of that angel. I think that is what makes you different here from the way the rest of the world would like you to see it.

  25. Chris, #25, Do you believe that the convincing power of the Holy Ghost can be as great or greater than an angel, or personal appearance of the Savior?

    See page 33 of the current edition of Gospel Principles, chapter 7. Personally, I’m of the opinion that when it’s the will of the Father, that the convincing power of the Holy Ghost can be more powerful than a visit by an embodied resurrected angel who you shook hands with.

    As a corrolary question, and please don’t answer this out loud, just something for everyone to think on what their own personal Abrahamic sacrifice might be, at what level of “that doesn’t make sense” or “outrageousness” would you perform something based on what the Holy Ghost tells you to do?

    To what level would you go in doing something where the only cause or justification for it would be “God told me to”? And, I suppose there could be two sub-levels to that question. One, assuming the Holy Ghost would speak only to the maximum degree/intensity/surety that he has spoken to you in the past. And, two, assuming that the Holy Ghost would speak to you in the maximum degree/intensity/surety that you believe possible.

    In my life, some of the worst, or the worst, mistakes in my life have been when I ignored the promptings of the Spirit, because I thought “God wouldn’t/couldn’t tell me that” or “That’s too minor to be something God is interested in.” Or, even with the reasoning “That’s a bad thing, not a good thing, therefore it can’t be coming from God.”

    (Plus there have been many more times when I just do a Jonah, chicken out, let my pride rule, and intentionally disobey anyway.)

    In one case, I would have been in trouble with church authorities, perhaps rising to the level of being disfellowshipped, perhaps having to make monetary restitution to the church, as there was absolutely no justification to do what I was prompted to do other than “the Spirit told me to.” Another aspect of that case was that on the surface it would have appeared obvious to anyone that I had tried explaining to, that the “whispering” was from the adversary, since at first look it was a “bad thing”.

    Had I obeyed the prompting, I would have had to explain my actions to my Stake President, and possibly be interviewed by a GA. And the _only_ way they would have believed me would be if the Holy Ghost had confirmed to them my story.

    In regards to that one case, it wasn’t until 15 years after the fact that I finally realized that that spiritual whispering was indeed from the Spirit, and that much heartache and expense came from not obeying. I finally saw that whatever hassle, problems, embarassment, costs, inability to explain, etc., that I would have incurred from obeying, were, by orders of magnitude, outweighed by the problems and costs that came about by disobeying.

    LDS aren’t the only ones to whom the Holy Ghost whispers. Here’s a story by Pastor Beth Moore that I love.

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