Saturday, May 16, 2015

Did The Lord Lie to Abraham?

This is no longer the first of a possible series of reflections provoked by a blogger friend's blogged expressions of concern on the goodness of acts imputed to God in the text of the Old Testament. The previous was "not Perspicuous". Like that, this is not (of course! --- indeed no more than the Imagined Dialogue) a definitive answer, because I certainly haven't got any definitive answers, nor authority to define. But our friend's questions, how they are provoking! (In a good way)

One of the strangest episodes in a very strange book begins:
After [Isaac was born, and Ishmael with Hagar sent away, and a truce made with Abimelech], God tempted Abraham ...
If we are to read with faith, believing that this God of Abraham is the God, creator of all things and times, omniscient and eternal, we cannot plainly read "tempting" as testing, not in the sense of trying it out to see what happens as if God didn't know what happens; God doesn't change his mind about Abraham after the trial that follows, but He may very well change Abraham's mind about things. So, to this strange test:
“Take thy only begotten son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the land of vision: and there thou shalt offer him for a holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will show thee.”
“Only-begotten”, eh? strange expression, to name the younger of two men of the same father. I think St. Paul had something to say about these two...

The nitpicker in me also wants (though I cannot trust this wish) to take the Rheims translators as particularly inspired, when they interpolate the adverb "for", which is ambiguous in the Latin they took for their source.

There are a few more miniature pictures along the way — the servants are dismissed, the boy is loaded with wood for burning, and "where is the lamb?" ... "God will provide". The resolution comes:
And [the Angel of the Lord] said to him: Lay not thy hand upon the boy, neither do thou any thing to him: now I know that thou fearest God, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake.
Well, look at that: the Angel of the Lord doth seem to contradict me, though I think actually not1. Again: "Lay not thy hand upon the boy... [thou] hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake."

So, I'm going to use some words now meant to appeal to the theological sense of any well-catechized Catholic: Abraham has worked a sign which, being accepted by God does accomplish what it signifies. The prescribed form and matter being brought together, it could remain, in Earthly terms, a sign without any lasting visible change; nonetheless, God did both accept the whole sacrifice, and returned Isaac into his father's care.

However, the question: did God lie to Abraham, or deceive him? First: did God ask of Abraham anything He didn't want? It would seem that Abraham believed, until the Angel told him different, that what God asked indeed included the physical sacrifice of Isaac's body; but, as God is plainly content with a sacramental and unbloody sacrifice, we must conclude that God indeed never wished it. Then the question must be refined: did God intend Abraham's misapprehension? Putting it another way, could Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac be accomplished without Abraham thinking he would have to kill the boy? I think of parents today who do make bloodless sacrifice of their children, for instance when a child enters religious life... it is far from being a perfect parallel, I do realize, but worth attention. And another thing: the otherwise-very-odd Abraham (whatever is he doing with his wife and the local princes?), drawn out of Babylon into Philistine lands, just might himself have learned something that had locally been forgotten.

But at the very least, I do think we can read the text without supposing God to have worked any deception, though He does seem to have let the truth take some time to develop in his servant's mind.

1: As long as we are on the subject of "now", I want to mention two things: the English is written, "now I know" in the present tense, the Latin is "nunc cognovi" — or, a tad more literally, "now I have known". It doesn't say that God ever didn't know, but the event, the choice made which was known DID have a definite time, and God's knowing it is definitely in relation to that moment of choice, so if there was ever a time when it would be sensible for God to say "now I know", it is at that time. I have some other related thoughts about imagined time-travellers and the justice of one A. H. (styling himself "fuhrer") surviving as long as he did... for another time perhaps.


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