In my English literature class this week we are reading a transcript of a discussion by a group of smart scholar-types about the Book of Genesis, specifically Chapter 22 where Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. There are some very intelligent people talking together about what this story means, and though are Jewish and Muslim and Christian, none of them seem very religious.
My first impression of this text is that it is a bunch of people who have been trained to read literary texts trying to apply these same skills to a document that is not meant to be understood intellectually, but spiritually. The Bible, I will admit, does not make a whole lot of sense. There are a lot of contradictions and stories that don’t make sense without the help of the Spirit.
It is also interesting to notice that when looking at scholars criticizing a text one usually learns more about the scholars than about the text. There are two female scholars in this conversation and they are the only ones asking the question, “What did Sara think about all of this?” The Jewish scholar is the only one asking what this story means for the Jewish people, and the Muslim is the only one who sees Ishmael instead of Isaac in the story.
The question they keep asking as they analyze the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is How God could ask such a thing, How we can believe in a God who would require such a thing of his servant. And they keep making God the central character, rather than Abraham or Isaac. God did not command Abraham to sacrifice his son because God needed it done, or because God needed to test Abraham. Hugh B. Brown said that God did not command Abraham because God needed to learn something about Abraham, “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.” For me that is the crux of the matter – God tests us, we know that this life is a test, but we also know that God knows us better than we do. We trust that, we have faith in a God who knows all things, so why does he still need to try us? To allow us to learn that in those situations we will be faithful.
I don’t see an evil God in the story of Abraham, a God who commands the unethical, or whose commandments contradict themselves. I see a God who allowed Abraham and Isaac to learn a great truth about themselves, their obedience and the power of the Atonement. Abraham’s experience with Isaac is comparable to God’s experience with his Son. Abraham was allowed to have a glance into what it is like to sacrifice a son, gaining a unique insight into the Atonement.
If studied with an open heart and the Spirit of the Lord, scripture can teach us more than what the words on the page say, but if analyzed and criticized and dissected as any other piece of literature, the Bible becomes nothing more than merely another piece of literature. This is a book to be studied, not with literary criticism, but with an understanding heart, looking for the personal applications behind the actual stories and events.
I do not ask why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, when he has also said ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and when he had made great promises to Abraham to be fulfilled through his son. I ask what I can learn from Abraham’s example, from Isaac’s example. I read this story and I do not look for what it means, I look for what it can mean for me.
I do love intelligent discussion of gospel principles, I do love collective conversation, but I do not enjoy people trying to intellectualize the Bible. Reading this transcript, I found myself disagreeing and disliking most of these scholars who only want to find problems with this story and not the deeper meaning. Too often we can get distracted with intelligence and lose sight of spiritual truths. There is more to learn from Abraham and Isaac, more to learn from a study of the scriptures.