Wednesday 24 June 2015

Isaac on the Altar

The Akeda is the story of the binding of Isaac. As you remember, God gives Abraham a directive to do something utterly unconscionable, to offer up his son as a sacrifice. You can find the story in Genesis 22. Nothing metaphorical; this involved wood, fire and a sharp knife.

It doesn't seem a particularly apt text for a Father's Day sermon, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to the preachers in the Laestadian Lutheran tradition. Ed Suominen quotes a couple of homiletic attempts to draw blood from this particular stone, and rips into the entire enterprise.
"This is scary stuff. It is the kind of thinking, of non-thinking, that is bringing us beheadings in Syria and floggings and amputations in Saudi Arabia."
Ed is a former Laestadian and author of the only (as far as I know) "go to" text that provides an insider perspective on this non-standard version of Finnish Lutheranism, An Examination of the Pearl.

Ed is a bit more direct than I would choose to be (he writes, for example, at the wryly-named Ed Suominen's Shitty Little Blog, which seems to be taking self-deprecation to its outer limits) but it's hard to ignore the force of his distaste for this tale from millennia past. To find redeeming meaning in Genesis 22 is akin to making the proverbial silk purse from a sow's ear. That hasn't, of course, stopped a mountain of related midrash and apologetic bumf from rising up over the centuries.

To which, one might suggest, Ed is playing the kid in the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. Is there really anything salutary in this "faith story"? Is Abraham's obedience really something to hold up as an example of righteousness? Have a read through and decide for yourself.


  1. Even worse (if we concede any historicity to the account), the sacrifice may actually have been completed. Richard Friedman's Bible with Sources Revealed is a very handy tool for reading the Pentateuch, coded for the various proposed sources of the JEPD theory. The Gen 22 text may have originally (as an E source) excluded the last-minute rescue. Quoting from Friedman's footnote: "It is possible that in the original old E story, Abraham actually carries out the sacrifice of Isaac. The evidence that vv. 11-14, in which the sacrifice is stopped, were added by RJE [redactor of J and E] is as follows: (1) This is an E texts, referring to the deity as God (Elohim) in narration three times (vv. 1,3,9), but suddenly, as Abraham takes the knife in his hand, the text switches to an angel of YHWH. (2) Verses 11-15, which describe the angel's instructions to Abraham not to sacrifice his son after all, are enclosed in a resumptive repetition in which the angel calls out two times. (3) Following this resumptive repetition, the angel (or God) says, 'because you DID this thing and DIDN't withhold your son.' (4) The story concludes, 'And Abraham went back to his boys.' Isaac is not mentioned -- even though Abraham had explicitly told the boys, 'We'll come back to you.' (5) Isaac never again appears in E after this. (6) In the E story of a revelation at Mount Horeb in Ex 24, there is a chain of eighteen parallels of language with this story of Isaac, but not one of those parallels comes solely from these verses (11-15). . .(7) There is a group of midrashic sources that say that Isaac was in fact sacrificed. (Friedman, "The Bible With Sourcs Revealed," p 66).

    So...maybe this could be fodder for the next Father's Day sermon...with a different kind of exhortation to the congregants, of course.

  2. The Akeda gives us a peek at the primitive, barbaric set of "morals" held by the earliest Bible adherents. This story was clearly written in an era where human sacrifice was practiced and deemed acceptable. Indeed, sacrifice of the first-born son was practiced in many prehistoric societies, no doubt including the society in which this story originated. What lessons are we to draw from this story? First and foremost, that the greatest thing a man can do is obey God - no matter what God tells him to do. Obedience to God is what is most important.

    A secondary lesson is that Yahweh is not as bad as the other gods - after all, he spared Isaac's life at the last minute, while other gods would have demanded it. Of course, SOMEthing had to be sacrificed. Apparently that's a given.

    In case someone thinks this story was not god-inspired but reflects the primitive morals of a prehistoric age, consider this: the New Testament uses this example to heap highest PRAISE upon Abraham. Yes indeed, obedience trumps all other considerations.

  3. This account is not simply about obedience. It is about obedience as a product of faith. We learn from the NT that Abraham as a matter of faith believed that God could bring Isaac back to life. Abraham became known as the father of the faithful for events such as this one. Based on The Skeptic's hypothesis, Abraham should have been called the father of the obedient.

    The Bible casts the sacrifice of any human being in a very negative light. The Canaanites practiced human sacrifice and this is no doubt one of the reasons that it seemed like a good idea to wipe them out.

    Christ learned obedience while on this earth. No doubt it is an important mindset. But it was tempered with love and reason. He constantly warred with the Pharisees over their obsessive preoccupation with obedience to the minutiae of the law. He cited David taking the showbread from before the alter. No doubt the Pharisees would have regarded this a profane act of disobedience but Christ did not.

    -- Neotherm

  4. Great post. This story underscores how ridiculous the notion of biblical infallibility really is. Just look at the above comments - good folks have to twist, turn and do back flips in an attempt to reconcile this story with the image of a loving, just and compassionate God. A God who really is all of those things (loving, just, compassionate) would never tell a parent to murder their child. If Abraham was a real person, he may have believed that God told him to kill his son; and I can see God sending an angel to prevent the nut from acting on his delusion. Complete devotion to God is a good thing, but complete devotion to a book about "Him" is dangerous!

  5. Neo, you apologists can come up with all the rationalizations you want. Who the hell cares if you want to call it faith instead of obedience? I can tell you this: a man who is willing to kill his son because his god tells him to is NOT worthy of high praise. And any god who expects that kind of faith/obedience is a sicko.

  6. Skeptic: I believe you take the limited human view. I do not want to imply that what Abraham did is something that I can readily relate to. Nor do I believe it is something that I could do if called upon to do it. But if you are talking to the actual God who made the universe, ones perspective undoubtedly and radically changes. God knew exactly what Abraham was thinking. He knew exactly how far Abraham was able to go. Abraham believed that God could do all things. This event pre-figured something that God himself would experience. This is not at the level of your local Baptist minister asking you to sacrifice your son. To diminish it in that way is to miss the entire message.

    Thank you for conferring on me the august title of apologist. I am actually just an independent Christian.

    -- Neo

  7. Neo, you forgot to write "I assume" before all of that. You ASSUME god knew exactly what Abraham was thinking. You cannot know that. You ASSUME god knew exactly how far Abraham was willing to go. You ASSUME Abraham believed that God could do all things.

    I assume no such things. I don't think the God who created the whole universe would have anything to do with such a ridiculous story.

    Taking off my religious blinders, it seems to me this story was written by stone-age men who thought human sacrifice was a right and proper way to worship god and were illustrating how righteous their hero Abraham was because he was willing to do so.

    If we apply Occam's razor, which explanation would win?

  8. I think the Mitchell and Webb skit about Abraham and Isaac ought to be the definitive version. (Look it up if you haven't seen it.)

  9. Paul, apparently the Mitchell and Webb Skit is blocked in the U.S.

  10. Skeptic: As you see it, I "assume" that it is true. As I see it, you "assume" that it is not true. For instance, your assumption that "the God who created the whole universe would have anything to do with such a ridiculous story." How do you know what he would think and do?

    I believe, along with many others (just to establish that it is not totally idiosyncratic), who read this account contextually, that there is an interpretation of the Abraham/Isaac scenario that is compatible with an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. You may find a different interpretation, arrived at by a different process, and you have a right to that. And I have the right to differ.. Occam's razor cannot be the deciding principle in issues of history, religion and human behavior like it can be in physics, biology and chemistry.

    If "this story was written by stone-age men who thought human sacrifice was a right and proper way to worship god" is true, then why did the scenario end the way that it did? Why is the tenor of the OT against human sacrifice? What happened in this account was highly exceptional and to a specific theological purpose. And God, who does not live in space-time, knew the outworking beforehand.

    -- Neo

  11. Neo, you again demonstrated why I call you an apologist. As far as you're concerned, any explanation will do.

    This all makes sense to you, doesn't it? You say "The Canaanites practiced human sacrifice and this is no doubt one of the reasons that it seemed like a good idea to wipe them out", yet your God REQUIRED human sacrifice in order to forgive sin! One might think an all-knowing, all-loving God would be able to come up with a better idea. But, Noooooo. Somebody had to die! They just HAD to! And not just anybody! It HAD to be God's own son.

    Does that make any sense at all. NO! It's ridiculous. And he didn't really die anyway! He knew he was going to come back to life in 3 days. So what kind of sacrifice is THAT? OK, he went through a lot of pain and suffering (if we're to take the story at face value). But is it really dying when you know you'll wake up in 3 days and be fine? Isn't that more like sleeping? In fact, he knew he'd be MORE than fine. He'd wake up and be immortal and all-powerful. So excuse me if I fail to see the sacrifice in that.

    You think it all makes logical sense because you're so close to it you can't see the forest for the trees. But once you get away from it for a while, and step back and look at it with open eyes, the absurdity of your belief system is astounding.

  12. It is hardly the case for me that any explanation will do. There is a theology that has been in place for a couple of millennia.

    It has occurred to me that God need not have required human sacrifice. God could have broadcast through the world that everyone's sins were forgiven by decree. And there is an account of Christ forgiving sins in the NT before he sacrificed himself. It is because God did it in the way the he did that must give us pause to consider.

    Your definition of death is the one that HWA taught you. It is called "soul sleep." It means that when you die, you remain unaware until God resurrects you. This is not regarded as a heresy but it is not generally accepted in Christianity. Death more generally is the loss of bodily existence in spacetime. Eternal death is the eternal separation from God in hell. Christ experienced a separation from God and the loss of bodily existence.

    It is paradoxical that you would, on one hand, characterize Christ's sacrifice as extreme in one paragraph and not extreme enough in the next paragraph. You remarked concerning me any explanation would do. While this is not so, it does make me consider the converse in your case: No explanation will do.
    I think perhaps the only explanation that you would like to hear is that "There is no god." Did you ever consider that for you personally that statement is essentially true? That you have your wish? I don't mean that as a jab but as a philosophical observation.

    -- Neo

  13. Skeptic:

    I responded to you post above but I think it may have been disallowed.

    -- Neo

  14. A theology that has been in place for a couple millenia? Perhaps that's true in very general terms, but the details are constantly shifting and changing. That's why a discussion with an apologist is so difficult. He has no firm position. You prove him wrong somewhere, and he just adjusts his argument to something else.

    Sure, the bible has errors and contradictions you admit. Still, you take it as a true story. How does one discuss this rationally.

    "No explanation will do" is not my stance. I say, "Only a valid explanation will do". What I hear from apologists is "the bible must be true, so the explanation is possibly this, or it might be that". Any possibility becomes a good enough explanation for them. That doesn't do it for me. I see a book full of self-contraditions, errors and absurdities and I say "maybe primitive people were convinced by this hogwash, but surely we know better in the modern age".

    Neo, I was once a true believer but after extensive research and soul-searching I've become convinced Christianity is just plain not true. You have clearly also done research and soul-searching and have come to a different conclusion. You and I clearly have two different worldviews. I'm glad we can discuss them cordially without animus.

    1. What you refer to as "shifting and changing" I think of as progress. I do not subscribe to the idea that Christianity should always remain what it was in the first century. I believe that natural history and natural theology interact as both develop. At the same time, I believe there is understanding that was held in the first century that we have lost.

      I would not say that the bible has "errors and contradictions". I believe it has language and concepts that are difficult to understand. I also believe that the Bible has been subject to human processes of translation, preservation, canonization, forces of culture and in some cases outright politics. If the Bible were utterly pristine, I think we would still have the Calvinist and Arminian schools of thought in conflict with each other. Humans have an endless capacity to interpret. Think of the Talmud. Yet Judaism remains distinctive.

      Much of what you have written can be inverted and applied to atheists. To me atheists seem to all be "artful dodgers.". Any explanation that denies God is good enough. I think any rational mind would recognize the engineered attributes of the universe. But atheists postulate the unproven theory of a multi-verse to get around this. Hence, many of them have beliefs that pivot on an explanation I would not deem to be valid.

      In the modern age, we know more and we know less. While we understand that mares are not impregnated by the wind blowing against their posteriors, we do not know what dark matter is even though it is apparently the force that is holding the universe together. And if we ever understand dark matter, there will be other things we do not understand. We are the perpetual primitives.

      -- Neotherm

    2. What you refer to as "progress" I refer to as "making it up as you go".

      The bible clearly has errors and contradictions. I recommend Dennis McKinsey's Encylclopedia of biblical errance. It's loaded with thousands of them. The bible says things like "Joab had seven sons" and then names eight. It tells how many from each tribe returned to Israel, and gives the total, but guess what - the numbers don't add up to the total. It gives two totally different geneologies for Jesus - they even have widely different numbers of generations. The list goes on and on.

      My mistake - I thought you had previously admitted the bible has errors and contradictions.

      One last point: you repeatedly make a logical error. Not being able to prove something is true is NOT equal to not being able to prove it is not true.

    3. You are mistaken. In the modern age we know more. Not less. True, we do not yet know everything and probably never will. But our answers today are better than the answers mankind had 2,000 years ago. They didn't know answers so they made up answers: they created gods after their own image. Modern man should have the sense to see that for what it was.

    4. Let me clarify. I did not say we know less and not more as you have read the text. I said we know more and we know less. We know more in the sense that you describe and we know less in the sense that there is always much more to know. Knowledge leads to more knowledge, more questions. And the universe can supply mystery inexhaustibly.

      -- Neo

  15. I think we can forever expect that as knowledge evolves, new light will be cast on traditional beliefs. The principle applies to both religious and secular knowledge.

    I mistakenly took your example of Job's sons seriously. I tried to find a list of eight names but could not and then deduced you were just offering an example. Part of McKinsey's problem is that he does not recognize the deeper meaning of the Bible - he is confined to the superficial and this is what you would expect from a professed atheist. So when the Bible uses the word "death" McKinsey actually expects someone to fall on the ground lifeless. I think you see the problem. His work has not rocked the Christian community although many atheist like his writing - especially the ones who simplistically believe that if you can find an error in the Bible it proves there is no god.

    I examined the issue of logic that you make and I see no issue. For example we might have two propositions:

    1. I cannot prove there is a God.
    2. I cannot prove there is not a God.

    First, these statements are not "equal" but may both be true. Both propositions assert that something cannot be done. In this case what cannot be done in proposition two is the negation of what cannot be done in proposition one. If both statements are assigned the value of "true", I see a logical parity here. Both of these statements can be true at the same time. But I think what you are implying is that the people who do not believe in god have no burden of proof. The burden of proof all rests on the shoulders of those who claim there is a god. This is incorrect reasoning. The burden of proof lies on both sides. If someone asserts that "there is no god" as Mr. Dawkins does, he must be able to prove it. If he cannot he has no right to the assertion. He needs instead to say that there is no evidence in the observable universe that persuades me that there is a god.

    Maybe I have not understood what you intended. You might want to construct an example so I can look at it.

    When I say the Bible has no errors or contradictions, I mean the delivered Bible in its original signatures. Signatures which, of course, do not have a documentary existence because men futzed with scripture from day one.

    -- Neotherm

  16. Being an "apologist", I owe an apology to Mr. Dawkins (sounds like a WCG minister when said like that). I referred to him in my previous post as claiming "there is no god." He is widely described in the media as an atheist but he claims personally to be an agnostic. He acknowledges no proof that God does not exist. He does believe the existence of God is improbable.

    -- Neotherm

  17. I don't assert "there is no god". I assert 'there is no evidence that a god is anything more than a figment of man's imagination". You know, an invisible friend. I guess my position is consistent with what you say Dawkins' position should be.

    Neo, God is all-wise. Why would he inspire a set of books with no errors or contradictions, then allow men to futz with them? What possible good does it do anybody to have a set of books that is partially inerrant and partially a hodgepodge?

    OK, you're putting me to work. You want actual examples of miscounted sons? OK, here you are ...

    • (a) "... and the sons of Zerubbabel; Meshullam, and Hananiah, Jusha- bhesed, five." (1 Chron. 3:19-20). How can there be five sons of Zerubbabel when 7 males and one female are listed?
    • (b) "And it had for its inheritance Beer-sheba, Sheba, Moladah, Hazar-shual, Balah, Ezem, Eltolad, Bethul, Hormah, Ziklag, Beth- marcaboth, Hazarsuah, Beth-lebaoth, and Sharuhen- thirteen cities with their villages" (Josh. 19:2-6 RSV). Fourteen cities are listed, not 13.
    • (c) "The cities belonging to the tribe of the people of Judah in the extreme South, toward the boundary of Edom, were Kabzeel, Eder, Jagur, Kinah, Dimonah, Adadah, Kedesh, Hazor, Ithnan, Ziph, Telem, Bealoth, Hazor-hadattah, Kerioth-hezron (that is Hazor). Amam,Shema, Moladah, Hazar-gaddah, Heshmon, Bethpelet, Hazar-shual, Beer-sheba, Biziothiah, Baalah, Iim, Ezem, Eltolad, Chesil, Hormah, Ziklag, Madmannah, Sansannah, Lebaoth, Shilhim, Ain, and Rimmon; in all twenty-nine(29) cities, with their villages" (Josh. 15:21-32 RSV). Thirty-six cities are listed, not 29.
    • (d)"...and the sons of Shemaiah; Hattush, and Igeal and Barial, and
    Neariah, and Shaphat, six" (1Chron. 3:22). Five names don't total six.
    • (e) "...the sons od Jeduthun; Gedaliah, and Zeri, and Jeshiah, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the hands of their father Jeduthun,..." (1 Chron. 25:3). Again, five names do not total six.
    • (f) "And in the lowland, Eshtaol, Zorah, Ashnah, Zanoah, En-gannim, Tappuah, Enam, Jarmuth, Adullam, Socoh, Azekah, Sha-araim, Adithaim, Gederah, Gederothaim: fourteen cities with their villages" (Josh. 15:33-36 RSV). Fifteen cities are listed, not 14.Bibical authors not only counted inaccurately but often added with comparable precision
    "The whole congregation together (those who returned from the Captivity-Ed.) was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore (42,360)" (Ezra 2:64). The number of people in each tribe that returned from the Captivity are listed from Ezra 2:3 to Ezra 2:60. One need only total the figures to see that 29,818 returned, not 42,360- an error of 12,542.
    • (h) A similar problem is encountered in Neh. 7:66, which says, "the whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and three-score (42,360)." One need only add the figures between Neh. 7:8 and Neh. 7:62 to see that the total for all the tribe should have been 31,089, not 42,360-- an error of 11,271. Besides adding inaccurately, Ezra and Nehemiah can't agree on what the total should be. The former supports 29,818 while the latter asserts 31,089.

    I could list thousands such examples if I had the time and energy. There are some verses in the bible we can check - such as math. Most of the bible we cannot check - it is lost history, subjective accounts, etc. If the little bit we can check proves unreliable, why should we trust the portions that cannot be checked? Thus I am convinced the Blble is not of god, and is not of any use. It is unreliable.

  18. The New Testament can't even get it right. How did Judas die? There are two different stories. What happened after Christ was buried? The accounts cannot be "harmonized". What was Jesus' lineage from David on? Again two different stories. If I had the time and energy I could keep listing inconsistencies for hours.

    Plus, they can't even get their story straight. They trace Jesus' parentage through Joseph. But a different account says Joseph wasn't Jesus' father, god was. Could it be the early accounts had Joseph as Jesus' father, then later writings decided to make him the son of god instead? Think about it.

  19. Why would God let men futz with his son? Perhaps, to give men a chance to demonstrate what they are.

    If you get a good commentary and/or with a little imagination, the events in Christ's life can be understood in their broad strokes. If you have a pre-determined interest in not finding an explanation, you won't.

    In some cases, like the count of the sons of Zerubbabel, we do not know the entire backstory of why the writer constructed the genealogy in this way. The scripture does not say that Zerubbabel had five sons. The text you quote is in error and that is not what the KJV states. I assume you lifted the incorrect quotation from McKinsey. What the writer in the actual text did was group the names of five men together and then affix the word "five" at the end. I don't know why he made a distinction between the first two and the latter five. Maybe there was a marriage involved. Maybe there were some Levitical roles involved. To make an issue of this, I would have to be speaking from a political slant. I don't want to sound dismissive but honestly a lot of this kind of stuff is not really important unless you want it to be.

    This does give me some insight into how Mr. McKinsey constructs his arguments. Thanks for bringing him up. I may have occasion to look at his assertions.

    -- Neo

  20. Yes, maybe it was this and maybe it was that. The bible cannot be in error - there always must be some possible explanation. Like I said, any explanation will do.