Wednesday, March 05, 2014

OT #9: God will provide himself a Lamb

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #9: "God will provide Himself a Lamb".

My previous lesson on this is found here.

God commanding Nephi slay the drunken Laban. God making a bet with Satan (Adversary) in regards to Job.  Moses and Joshua commanded to utterly destroy cities of women and children. Such events bring up major ethical issues in regards to God and man.  Can God be considered good or great, and yet order or allow terrible things to occur?   Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac becomes a case study for us.

The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac is known as the "Akedah".  In Genesis 22, after Abraham caused Hagar and Ishmael to leave into the harsh desert, Abraham is called upon by God to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.  For centuries, Jews, Christians and others have pondered the story of the Akedah and how to make it sound politically correct in light of more modern concepts.

From the time of Moses, the Old Testament defines child sacrifice as an abomination before God (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-8; Deuteronomy 12:31;18:10; 2 Kings 13:27; 16:3; 17:17, 31; 21:6; 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; Ezekiel 20:31; Micah 6:7; 2, Chronicles 28:3; 33:6),  However, Abraham preceded Moses by several centuries. Israel was not yet a people.  Abraham was Jehovah's first follower, and the promise of the nation God would one day rule over.  Abraham dwelt among pagans from Ur to the north, to Egypt in the south, he had to deal with the beliefs and customs of the nations and tribes around him.  Child sacrifice was common among several of these groups, including the Canaanites and Philistines.  It wasn't only acceptable, but expected to offer up one's first born to the deity.

Still, how can an ethical Jew or Christian of today work through the dilemma of the Binding?  Can God command people to do evil things against his own commandments and will?  The discussion of evil in the world is a very difficult one that has challenged the best of philosophers.

Some only see a happy ending in that it ends up only being a divine test, and that Abraham did not actually slay Isaac.  God never intended anything malicious, and so every one lives happily ever after.

Many Jews see the Akedah as a promise and importance of martyrdom.  The New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah includes a prayer on judgment day,

"Remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah; and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness may Thy great wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city, and Thine inheritance."
 The ram's horn, or shofar, is then sounded.  It is a reminder that Isaac was the lamb to be sacrificed and replaced by a ram.  Christians would see this as a symbol of the Father sacrificing Christ so that the blessings of Abraham could fall upon all mankind.

 Kierkegaard believed that God did intend for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  In this instance, it is a contest between the status quo of commandments and the dynamic of hearing God's voice.  We see a clash between Kierkegaard's discussion of the "ethical man", who would never break the commandments, and the "knight of faith", who realizes that sometimes God suspends ethics in accomplishing His work.

In rabbinic law is the belief that God could never go against his own nature and command a murder. Some of these think Abraham was not clearly listening to God's command, and misheard him.  The Hebrew verb  alah (עלה) can mean "to ascend" or "to climb", as well as to offer a burnt offering (turn something into smoke).  Some believe that Abraham was to take Isaac to Mt Moriah to ascend the mountain and dedicate him to God in the same way Jacob saw angels ascending to heaven on a ladder/staircase. Along these lines, we read:

 In a later talmudic passage (Taanit 4a) it is stated explicitly that God never intended Abraham to kill his son any more than God wishes Baal worshippers to carry out human sacrifices. In a comment to Jeremiah's fierce castigation of the people for burning their sons in fire as burnt offerings for Baal 'which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind' ( Jeremiah 19:5), this passage elaborates: '"which I commanded not" refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27); "nor spoke it" refers to the daughter of Jephtah ( Judges 11:31); "neither came it into My mind" refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, son of Abraham'. Similarly, a rabbinic midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:8) describes Abraham, after the angel had told him in the name of God to spare Isaac, puzzled by the contradictory statements: 'Recently Thou didst tell me (Genesis 21:12): "In Isaac shall seed be called to thee," and later Thou didst say (Genesis 22:5): "Take now thy son." And now Thou tellest me to stay my hand!' God is made to reply in the words of Psalm 79 verse 35: 'My covenant will I not profane, nor alter that which is gone out of My lips.' 'When I told thee: "Take thy son," I was not altering that which went out from My lips [i.e., the promise that Abraham would have descendants through Isaac]. I did not tell thee: "Slay him" but bring him up [i.e., take him to the mountain and make him ready to be sacrificed]. Thou didst bring him up. Now take him down again.' (The Problems of Akedah in Jewish Thought, Louis Jacobs,
  It is interesting to note that on the return from Moriah, we only see Abraham and his two servants, and not Isaac.  Some early rabbis suggested that Abraham indeed killed Isaac and left his body behind, only to be resurrected by God and to return later to his family.

How can God be considered a God of mercy and kindness when he allows wars, plagues, pestilence, natural disasters and famine to occur?  How can he be such a great God when he commanded Nephi to slay a drunk Laban, toyed with Job just to win a bet with the Adversary, or ordered Joshua to destroy all the Canaanites?  On the surface it seems like there is no good answer.  The truth is, there is no easy answer.  We see things from a mortal perspective, built upon limited knowledge of the universe and eternal things.  We do not understand eternity or how God works within a larger framework, where he explains,

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
 We do know that we all go through trying times in this life.  We all feel that God sometimes asks difficult things of us, and sometimes we feel abandoned. Even Jesus on the cross proclaimed, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  Yes, even Jesus had to descend below all things so that he could ascend above all things (D&C 88:6).  But we are given a promise:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
God has a purpose to life for us.   We learn through trials so that we may learn to be as He is.  God is not a static God of rote commandments, but a living and vibrant God.  He reveals himself daily through modern prophets, through the Holy Ghost to some, through the light of Christ to all, through science and other discoveries.  The ethics we have now evolved from cultures that today we would deem barbaric. Even in the United States, it took us over a century to overcome most of the barbarism of slavery - and then only after a tragic war and many false starts.

Perhaps it is not an issue of ethics, but, as Kierkegaard suggests, an issue of faith?  If one believes in continuing revelation and that the heavens are not silent today, then it is very possible that God could ask each of us to do something very difficult, even while society looks on disapproving of it.  Joseph Smith stated, "a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."  Joseph learned of this sacrifice through many things he was required to do: consecration, tithing, missions, plural marriage, and martyrdom.

In the scriptures and the temple, we learn about sacrifice, obedience to law, consecration and dedication to new commands of God.  Our sacrifices, as with Isaac's, are often not fully understood by us.  Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection are yet to be grasped by mankind, as well.  What we can finally do is believe that God has a divine purpose that we may not always understand.  There is evil in the world, and God will one day defeat it.  In Christ, we have a divine sacrifice that gives comfort and hope. Abraham and Isaac's willingness to be the Lord's servants is perhaps something we should all aspire to become.


Mike said...

Is it really an ethical question? I think not, as the comparisons of the victims of child or forced sacrifice, as we see described in Abraham's early experience with the priest of Pharaoh, is completely different than that of a willing sacrifice. It is evident, especially when one considers Isaac's likely age (reference Josephus), that Isaac went willingly to be sacrificed (type of Christ in Gethsemane) and was not a victim against his will as in the vast majority of the cases tied to idol worship. God is a god of Agency. He asks us to willingly sacrifice our will to Him that we might find our lives.

rameumptom said...

It is very ethical. Is suicide by cop an ethical issue? If Isaac was willing to die at his Father's hand, then we are still looking at a father killing (murder) a willing son (suicide). Our society has had huge fights over Dr Kevorkian and others, some fighting for the right to take one's own life, and others fighting to preserve all life.

God is a God of agency, yet still commands and punishes the wicked.