An Exegetic Look at Abraham and Faith: A Response to SomeMusician


SomeMusician, Oscar, has written a response of his own to Sifting Reality‘s post entitled “What a Relief.”  At the end of his post, Oscar has Christopher Hitchens, by the means of a YouTube Video, attack the notion of faith’s reliability in God’s commands via the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It’s an emphatic conclusion to both Oscar’s argument and post.  I’ll grant rhetorically it’s effective, but obviously I don’t find it logically convincing.

Before I go any further, please take note of two things: I plan to do a response to the Euthyphro Dilemma Oscar brings up in a followup post because Socrates’ ole riddle deserves a lot of attention, and secondly, I won’t deny that I struggle with God’s order to sacrifice Isaac.  I’m not some automaton devoid of an immediate emotional response of disgust to something as morally depraved as child sacrifice.

Certainly, at face value, Hitchens’ proclamation intuitively seems justified even to me, someone who disagrees with him almost on everything.  But let me fight YouTube with Vimeo:

Granted, the video addresses more the Problem of Evil, but I think Swinburne’s point about the importance of context in the interpretation of Christianity is most pertinent here.  So yes, sorry, it all comes down to context, which I know atheists think is just a cop out response.  However, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t falsify it.

Like I’ve argued previously, if someone’s to criticize one of the most influential and pervasive ideologies in humanity, it seems sensible to understand the hermeneutics applied to its authoritative text.  Many atheists aren’t this studious and neither are tons of fundy Christians.  That’s why the Westboro Baptist Church and its antics seems so asinine.  I’ll admit there are a vast number of Christians who don’t understand their own religion.  I’ll also concede this is a monstrous failure and a dereliction of spiritual duty of the Church.  And while I’m digressing, I’ll grant that atheists aren’t unjustified in thinking that Christian fundamentalism is the consensus of mainstream Christianity because in some places it seems to be everywhere.  But there are also numerous Christians who hold to the historical and intellectually robust teachings of the early Church.  It’s unfortunate yet not unsurprising so many atheists are more content than a cucumber to ignite fundy straw men than tackling real Christian doctrine, which is significantly more fire resistant.  In the conduct of debate, you want to grant your opposition the most charitable position because if you can take down the ideology at its strongest, then all the weaker positions fall with it.  So, just saying…

…CONTEXT IS PIVOTAL.  Now, I don’t intend to imply Oscar was intellectually dishonest or lazy with his critique of faith or the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Oscar is by no means an unfair or militant atheist because that’s the furthest claim from the truth.  He, however, despite what I frankly believe was his most honest effort, took the story of Abraham and Isaac out of context.

Biblical stories and their implications to the whole of Christianity are hardly ever as simple as atheists will portray, and the case of Abraham and Isaac is no exception.  The story doesn’t start at Genesis 22:1. with God’s command to Abraham.  It also doesn’t begin with Isaac’s birth at Genesis 21:1.  Instead, our story commences at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Genesis with the call of Abram.

The LORD said to Abram: “Go out from your land, you relatives and your father’s house to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you.  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you.  I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

For our purposes, God promised the then Abram tons of descendants despite the fact Abram and his wife Sarai had been trying for years and were now well beyond child-rearing age.  This promise would be formalized into a covenant between God and Abram later in chapter 15 in which Abram sacrifices a cow, a female goat and a ram all of which are three years old, plus a turtle dove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:9).  Now, what happens a few verses down in the chapter is crucial.

17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates River: 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:17-21)

God manifesting himself as a fire pot and a flaming torch passing through the sacrificed carcasses is significant.  In ancient Mesopotamian culture, this act essentially meant may I be torn a part and roasted like these animals if I don’t keep the covenant we just established.  In today’s online vernacular, God was telling Abram that He was serious and wasn’t trolling him.

God did fulfill his promise to Abram turned Abraham in Genesis 22 with Isaac’s birth, and God’s good will wasn’t solely exemplified by that covenant.  He also promised Abraham in Genesis 18:32-33 he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 righteous people could be found.  Unfortunately, there weren’t that many.  Only Abraham’s cousin Lot and his two daughters were saved from the destruction (Genesis 19:29).  God also took care of Ishmael and Hagar upon Abraham’s request (Genesis 21:11-21) despite the fact Abraham’s union with Hagar was a sign of mistrust in God’s covenant.

The Angel of the Lord staying Abraham's hand.

Therefore, we have multiple instances of God being gracious and faithful to Abraham.  Now, when this evidence is taken into account with God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, we have a much different picture than what Hitchens or other atheists would have us believe.  The order for Isaac’s sacrifice wasn’t some capricious, arbitrary fiat from out of the blue.  God had clearly demonstrated his favor to Abraham earlier, which means Abraham did have some reason to trust and reciprocate with faith of his own.  It simply did not make sense for God to suddenly pull the rug from under Abraham’s feet.  God had promised Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars.  Killing Isaac would be drastically contrary to that covenant.

Now, it’s impossible to know what was going through Abraham’s head at the time.  I’ve heard some theologians speculate he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead.  Whatever thoughts he had, Abraham obeyed and make no mistake, showed extraordinary faith.  Was his faith unwarranted, a complete shot in the dark?  No.  He had reason to think things would play out right, and they did.

Interestingly, here’s a biblical case for faith that is not blind or stubborn.  It was an act of trust, which make me wonder…

…from where did we get this concept of blind faith?

Modus Pownens

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9 thoughts on “An Exegetic Look at Abraham and Faith: A Response to SomeMusician

  1. Modus,

    You must remember that, as a former Christian, I am aware of the context of most Biblical passages. And while I won’t dare say that this knowledge is anywhere near where it should be, I think it should be granted – especially with such an important story in the Bible – that I would at least be aware of the Abrahamic covenant.

    Now, upon a re-reading of my post, I realize that the point that I was trying to make by bringing up the “sacrifice” of Isaac was not abundantly clear – sorry! Irrespective of the mindset of Abraham throughout this whole ordeal – all of which would be mere speculation – I think it is safe to assume that Abraham did indeed think that what he was about to do was the moral thing to do. While I concede that Abraham may not have understood what he was doing, or even thought that this directly contradicted the Lord’s promise to him, the fact remains that he did proceed with the steps. So yes, Abraham did trust that the Lord had a plan, but this also means that Abraham considered what he was doing to be moral.

    This is the point that I was trying to make. Even though you or I would undoubtedly view the act of child sacrifice to be an abhorrent act, Abraham had faith that what he was doing was moral. Translate this scenario to a modern context – what if a father were to do this to his son under the presumption that God told him to do it. In fact, one would think that the institution of the Abrahamic covenant would strengthen my argument. From what I could glean from your post, the majority of Abraham’s perturbation came not from the act itself, but because this act seemed to come into conflict with God’s promise. (I don’t mean to be cynical – I’m sure Abraham was distressed at the potential loss of his son.) Morality would therefore be rendered a fluid concept – a construct that is liable to change upon God’s command. My point in those few sentences was to say that the theist must solely rely on faith that what he considers to be ‘moral’ is indeed what is moral because there is no way for the theist to be absolutely sure.

    1. Oscar,

      Thanks for commenting like always. I’m aware that you’re a former Christian and you know of the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, I don’t think it’s too much of a point to concede that the story of Abraham and Isaac must be understood with that in mind. I confess also, I don’t know enough of the Bible as I should either.

      Granted, and I mention this in the post, it’s impossible to know what Abraham was thinking. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume Abraham would ignore the covenant and the past history he had with God throughout the ordeal. I think it’s ok to assume it was on his mind.

      If I understand your post correctly, you attack Divine Command Theory especially in concordance with Christian morality. Therefore, your thrust is not just at theism, but Christian theism. Insofar as this is the case, given the whole context of Christianity, it’s abundantly clear in multiple instances that God abhors human sacrifice: Deuteronomy 12:31 and Leviticus: 18:21. There are others, but I won’t go into it.

      Also, but because you’re a former Christian, Oscar, you’re undoubtedly cognizant of the fact the greatest command is to love the Lord you God over everything else, even your children. Not that I’m a defender of the strong formulation of Divine Command Theory, but I feel that such a Divine Command Theorist Christian could respond that Abraham was doing the right thing. Abraham abided to the biblically established moral hierarchy.

      Moreover, the modern example is a little different then Abraham and Isaac. Again, according to Christianity, there is no further revelation or covenant that needs to established or fulfilled, save one–Revelations. The man, in that circumstance, is deluded.

      I don’t think you’ve shown that morality is a fluid construct given our moral convictions and the story of Abraham and Isaac. Your implementation of Euthyphro I think was more effective. The brunt of your criticism was against Christian theism, and comprehensively, I would contend that God within Christianity is consistent with his commands, and morality does not appear to be arbitrary. Hence, the blind faith that you identify as justification for Christian morality isn’t inadequate. It isn’t blind. The debate over Abraham, Isaac and God’s moral commands comes down to exegesis, and I don’t think you’ve done enough to make a biblical case against Divine Command Theory.

  2. OK, I am no where near as educated as you guys, nonetheless, I felt a need to say something about the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham had a lot of personal experience in regard to the trustworthiness of his God. God came through for him even when Abraham messed up. (Proving, once again, it is not about our behaviour as Christians that guarantees our salvation, but the grace and trustworthiness of our God.) And honestly, if the Creator of the Universe came to you directly and told you to do something, would you really stand there and question His morality?

    The really amazing things about the story is that Isaac was not some little kid. He was an adolescent who went along willing. Abraham was an old man by now, yet Isaac laid down on that altar without a struggle. Also, home to Mt Moriah was about a 3 day walk. They had plenty of time to think about what was happening. God was asking Abraham to give Him what he loved the most. It was a huge test of obedience. (In many of these Biblical stories, however, the hardest tests produce the biggest results.) Last of all, God provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Substitutionary sacrifice. One thing being sacrificed for another. Sound familiar? Like maybe God sacrificing His Son for our sins? Geographically, Mt Moriah is the hill across from Calvary. I do not believe for one moment that it was coincidence.

    Life has taught me that I am not qualified to judge others. (A point God made to me when I was in the jury pool for a confessed cop killer. The prosecution wanted the death penalty). I do not want the job – the responsibility. And judging God and His morality, well . . . scarey stuff.

    1. Sorry, I was requested by a certain someone to remove the comments about them, which unfortunately included yours, Oscar. I hope you understand, and I’ll watch the video on YouTube when I have the time. Once, I do we can continue this conversation.

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