Mormon Monday: The Test

Abraham Isaac Sacrifice Mormon
Image by More Good Foundation via Flickr

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.

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3 thoughts on “Mormon Monday: The Test

  1. Ted

    I disagree slightly with your assertion that intelligence can become a distraction to the scriptures. I can understand that you felt the academic analyzing of Abraham was fruitless to you because you’re looking for a more personal, devotional purpose from the scriptures. Both, I think, are godly endeavors and both languish without the other.

    Without the desire for spiritual knowledge, academic postulating over this and that is just as useful as memorizing all of the different Star Wars alien races — you’ve invested a lot of money into myths and nothing more. But without some form of rigorous, critical and creative thinking of the scriptures, you end up with mostly spoon-fed gruel — it’ll keep you alive, but it’s not very nutritious or delicious. I think considering the Abraham-Issac story from Sarah’s point of view could prove to be incredibly interesting for women, while an Islamic and a Jewish point of view could add additional insight to how we view the story from our own inherited cultural lens. Used correctly, these new vistas could expand our spiritual worldview as well as provide beneficial exercise for both spirit and mind in learning of the things of God. In the end, spirituality and intellectualism must work together — spirituality the muscle, intellectualism the skeleton. Together, they can do great things, but by themselves, but spirituality on its own without form or structure is just a gelatinous pile of cells, while intellectualism without spirituality tends to be just a pile of dry, dusty, rigid bones that cannot move much on their own.

    Of course, your choice of the Abraham-Issac story to talk about is slightly ironic, since theologically it’s considered to be one of the most problematic stories in the Bible (Mormonism’s view complicates it even further). Like you said, Abraham’s experience was for Abraham alone, and so for us to extrapolate any value for ourselves could be arguably limited. At the same time, with such a problematic story, I think it’s important that we use all the tools at our disposal. The story of Abraham is heart-breaking and struggling, and even the mere consideration of the story (let alone having to experience the actual trial) has both tempered and shattered testimonies. I think we do such a complex, problematic story a disservice to try and distill it into Sunday School soundbites (which I’m not accusing you of doing, please keep in mind; I’ve just seen many people take your position and run with it to the opposite dangerous extreme).

    1. dteeps

      Right, What I was really trying to point out was the superficial intellectualism these scholars seemed to exhibit. They seemed to be wanting to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac without allowing any spirituality.
      I do agree that intellectually studying the scriptures is possible, I cannot study the scriptures in any other way, but I also use the spirit as well. That’s what I felt was missing from the debate.
      By the way, I enjoy your post about Abraham and Isaac a lot! Thanks,

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