Abide: Genesis 18-23

  • The Lectures on Faith teaches that, “…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.” But how much can we be asked to sacrifice? For Abraham, he seemed to have been asked to sacrifice in a myriad of ways. First, he placed his faith on the altar by waiting for a child with his wife, Sarah. Second, and more famously God commanded him to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac on a literal altar. How can we approach this as modern Latter-day Saints with a context of near ancient eastern history and culture? We’ll discuss that and more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.

  • The Lectures on Faith teaches that, “…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.” But how much can we be asked to sacrifice? For Abraham, he seemed to have been asked to sacrifice in a myriad of ways. First, he placed his faith on the altar by waiting for a child with his wife, Sarah. Second, and more famously God commanded him to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac on a literal altar. How can we approach this as modern Latter-day Saints with a context of near ancient eastern history and culture? We’ll discuss that and more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.

    My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute. Each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.

    Today, we are joined by one of our research assistants, Aaron Gorner who studies Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Comparative Literature here at BYU. Aaron is from Raymond, Alberta and upon graduation plans on going to grad school to further study in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Comparative Literature. Welcome to Abide, Aaron.

    Aaron Gorner: Thank you. Good to be here.

    Joseph Stuart: Glad to have you here. Kristian, this episode covers Genesis 18-23. What’s going on in this block of scripture?

    Kristian Heal: Genesis 22, the story of the binding of Isaac and his near sacrifice sits at the heart of this section of readings. It is one of the greatest and one of the most difficult stories in the Old Testament, it opens with a frank admission that God is putting Abraham to the test, but it seems to me that every story that we read about Abraham has some element of testing in it. This is not a new insight. In Jewish tradition going as far back as the Book of Jubilees, there is an idea that Abraham went through a series of trials or tests, most often ten in number. These are not tests of strength or bravery, rather they are tests designed to reveal the character and faithfulness of Abraham.

    In the Hebrew Bible, this character is being made known to God. The ancient Syria translation of this verse reads a little differently. Instead of the “now I know” of the Hebrew text, it reads, “now I have made known that you fear God.” These chapters continue the revelation of the character of Abraham, not for God or even for Abraham, but I suspect that the benefit of we who are part of the innumerable posterity that he was promised. At the end of this week’s readings in chapter 23, we start the process of transition from Abraham’s story to Isaac’s. In the words of the preacher, one generation passeth away and another generation cometh. The transition begins and ends with death, first Sarah’s then later Abraham’s. Between them comes the plan to secure Isaac’s future, which we will discuss in the next episode. First Abraham must secure a burial site for his beloved Sarah and the rest of his family. This is simply one of the practical consequences of being called to live in a new land by God.

    Joseph Stuart: Thank you for that, Kristian. In Genesis chapter 18 after years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah finally receive their long awaited son. What is particularly interesting to you about this story, especially thinking about Abraham’s relationship to God in this scenario?

    Kristian Heal: I really love the fact that this is a story about an abundance of blessing from God with a display of extravagant generosity on Abraham’s part. And that’s what we have balanced here in this opening of Genesis 18. Finally the long sought for blessing is promised, but it’s preceded by this beautiful moment in which Abraham is enacting the same principle taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. There, Jesus lays out the great vision of Christian generosity. “Give,” He said, “and it shall be given unto you. Good measure, press down and shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom, but with the same measure that ye meet with all it shall be measured unto you again.” (Luke 6:38).

    This is the principle of extravagant generosity and abundant blessing that seems to be on display here in the first half of Genesis 18. Notice how more time is spent time describing Abraham’s eagerness to attend to every need of his unexpected guests and has splendidly – he underpromises and over delivers on his obligations as a host. This is a beautiful account in scripture, this moment in which these visitors come in which they’re entertained by Abraham and in which this blessing is finally given. And it’s at a camp which prompted in these few verses a beautiful retelling in the Jewish tradition and this retelling, these Jewish midrashic accounts are told in a wonderful moment in a documentary by Hugh Nibley when Nibley is sitting out in the desert in Egypt in the heat of the Egyptian sun and thinking and retelling this story about Abraham receiving this blessing.

    Joseph Stuart: Before we listen to Brother Nibley, Kristian, what is a midrash?

    Kristian Heal: Midrash is a mode of interpretation that primarily in early Jewish texts, but also in early Christian material in which stories are retold with the interpretation woven into the retelling of the story. So there’s a narrative element to it, so instead of explaining a difficulty in the text, what we see is a narrative growing and expanding, with narrative expansions which are meant to solve interpretive problems.

    Hugh Nibley Quote Excerpt: “The story is told in midrash. It begins with Abraham sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day. But this was a hot day, you see this is what inspired the story probably, it was a hot day. It says it was a day like the breath of Gigindum, like the breath of hell that’s coming out. You can see the kind of country it was and is when this is all the heat and the dust and the sand are utter desolation. And he was worried of course because he said some poor stranger might be lost out there, someone might have lost his way and be perishing because he might be lost. So he sent his faithful servant, Eliazer out to look everywhere. He sent him out in all directions, he came back, no I can’t find anyone anywhere. He was still worried. He says, there might be someone out there. And he had these feelings, so he went out himself but he was very sick at the time. He was sick and old and he went out and into that hell. And he looked and he searched and he found that one and at the end of the day he came back exhausted toward his tent as he approached the tent the three strangers were standing there. It was the Lord and two with him because the Lord goes with his counselors, so to speak. He throws himself down on his face and then it is that he promises him Isaac, as a reward for what he has done. This is a very moving story.”

    Joseph Stuart: Now, what was your first reaction when you heard this story, Kristian?

    Kristian Heal: This is one of those stories which made me fall in love with the Jewish exegetical tradition and also with Abraham as a figure and as a religious figure. I really felt a connection of Abraham’s extravagant generosity and it may be that I was moved by this story of extravagant generosity because it looked a lot like the practical Christianity of my parents. My dad never saw a person stranded on the side of the road without stopping to help them, changing tires, towing cars, fixing trailers, whatever was needed. He once even picked up a young hitchhiker in the days when one felt safe to pick up young hitchhikers who ended up, being down on his luck, had been thrown out of his home and ended up staying in our home for a couple of years and working for my dad. This sort of extravagant generosity was muddled by him as the enactment of his Christian faith. My dad is never one to talk about doctrine, but he is one who is willing to go out and do the works of Abraham. And it’s wonderful to look at our families. To look at our ward families and to look around the world and see these wonderful examples of people doing the works of Abraham. My mom is more extravagant in her generosity than my dad, 6 children but we sort of fostered children in our household.

    Joseph Stuart: Often the greatest sermons that we can deliver are the quiet moments in our lives when no one is looking to whether we are bearing our testimonies. That it’s one thing to go to the pulpit on Sunday morning, it’s another to extend yourself and what you have to bless someone in time of need.

    Now switching tack a little bit, I find it fascinating the Old Testament that there are all sorts of difficult stories and hard sayings. Also, people are talking back to God, they are bargaining, they’re telling him that you need to do something different, or how can we have something different happening. So Aaron, what does it say to you that in the Old Testament there’s much more of a dialogue going on between God’s chosen people and God himself?

    Aaron Gorner: I think here we have this idea of a dialogic God which is presented so richly in the Old Testament text. I think in part that comes from a people who suffered more than anybody else has suffered and I think throughout the whole testament we read of constant failure, constant promises being not fully realized by the people that received the promise. And I think that has a lot to contribute to this idea of how do we interact with a God who promises us wonderful things but lets us suffer so much. And so, I think this idea, which is a richly Jewish idea, arguing with God is a main component of an honest and real relationship with the being of Creation.

    Joseph Stuart: This is something I think about too in friends and mentors that I have that the greatest respect they could give you was to argue back with what you are presenting in an academic sphere. Not to say you’re wrong, you’re dumb, but to say I am taking seriously what you have to say and pushing you to be better to live up to the promise that I know you have.

    Aaron Gorner: Yeah, I love that. And I think we see that particularly strongly here in the second part of Chapter 18 of Genesis. We have God who’s about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, a very wicked city and so he sends these three righteous men who Abraham has so generously taken care of to Sodom and Gomorrah to take care of some final work there. But it was particularly that Abraham stood yet before the Lord and boldly inquired, “wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” This is especially significant to Hebrews, to Jews who understand I think even better than we do in our faith tradition, the majesty and terror and the awfulness of God. To stand and to boldly inquire of God, you know, question His purposes I think is significant. And he remained there bargaining back and forth until God promised him that he wouldn’t destroy Sodom if there was at least 10 people remaining there.

    Anson Latner in his book Arguing with God, a Jewish Tradition claims this is a Jewish response to the problem of the Odyssey. How do we make sense of bad things happening to good people? He says, “An authentic Jewish form of prayer that though rooted in deep faith, nevertheless calls God to task for his lapses of duty which result in suffering and injustice.” That’s his definition of what’s happening right here with Abraham.

    Joseph Stuart: That seems really wise to me that especially as Latter-day Saints, we believe that we can know God, that we can know His character, that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God, that Joseph Smith literally talked to God the Father. We can ask questions that we can say what do you mean this is happening? How am I supposed to react to this? And recognizing that we have agency to talk and to question and to ask more of the Lord. We don’t always receive as direct an answer as Abraham is when he’s bargaining for the city of Sodom, but it’s important to recognize that prayer is not just a one way conversation with God. That we expect him to answer to us, but also that He wants us to speak to Him. Aaron, how do you see this idea of agency playing into the idea that we can argue with God?

    Aaron Gorner: One thing that feels really relevant to this is, as my Dad loves to quote Truman G. Madsen felt that section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants was more profound than Plato’s Timaeus, this idea that agency is the ability to see as things are and to see the world for what it is and to have access to truth in our choices. And I think that when we argue with God and when we confront God with the reality of the situation and the reality of the suffering that we’ve endured and the reality of how we feel towards Him, it allows for a discipleship that’s based on real connection. And I think when we have a discipleship based on real connection we have access to the truth of God’s nature.

    If we’re always walking around pretending to love God, pretending to be okay with what He’s done to us, there’s not very much room for truth, there’s not very much room for a relationship. But I think that’s why this is such a rich idea and so important, because they have suffered so much. They’ve fostered this type of discipleship that can be based on truth. That they’ve survived, even though enduring more than any people we have a record of.

    Joseph Stuart: So how is this reflected in the Abrahamic Covenant then?

    Aaron Gorner: I think what’s very important to understand about the Hebrew Bible is that everything is in context. A couple chapters ago we had that magnificent experience, Chapter 15 of Genesis where God brings Abraham out under the stars and he tells him to look up at the starry sky which must have been far more brilliant back then than it is to us today and he said, “See if you can number the stars. Such will be your posterity.” And then he makes a covenant with Abraham and Abraham says, how will I know? How can I know that you’re going to be true to your side of the covenant or your side of the promise? And God covenants with Abraham right there and I don’t think it’s by coincidence that we have two chapters later Abraham having the stature to stand against God and to question Him. I think this is born from a covenant with God that to be part of Israel means that you have the stature to act in truth and to act in reality with God.

    The word, Israel, which is how it is in Hebrew is a term that’s been largely contested for meaning. I know we have a prophet who said it’s to let God prevail. But a lot of scholars contend that this more accurately to the Hebrew and to the Rabinic interpretation of the word is that it means to struggle with God. And in the context it makes a lot of sense. When Jacob spends the night wrestling the angel the angel then gives him the name, Israel, “for ye have wrestled with God and man and have prevailed.” The entire idea of this covenant to be part of the special people of Israel is that ye contend with God is that you are not simply reactors in this play of life but that you are creators, that you impose form on the world and that you have an influence. And I think that’s something beautiful that we can take from this.

    Joseph Stuart: Sometimes I think we inadvertently stress, we see God as this fragile being who can be broken apart by us being upset with him. Is there anything in Jewish or Rabinic tradition that would maybe help us to think about this a different way?

    Aaron Gorner: Terryl Givens, an excellent writer, everybody who is listening to this podcast no doubt knows about him. In his book the Crucible of Doubt in Chapter 9 he tells this story. I think it would be beneficial to read it here.

    “A rabbi was sought out in Jerusalem by a man who was suffering a crisis of belief. He listened and listened to the man who ranted and raved for hours. At last he said to him, ‘Why are you so angry with God?’ Then the rabbi stood up and told the man to follow him. He led him to the wailing wall. Away from the place where people prayed at the site of the ruins of the temple. When they reached that place, the rabbi told him that it was time to express all the anger that he felt toward God. Then for more than an hour, the man struck the wall, the cortel with his hands and screamed his heart out. After that, he began to cry and could not stop crying and little by little his cries became sobs that turned into prayers. And that is how the rabbi taught him how to pray.”

    I think this is a truly beautiful example of this principle and the wailing wall in general, that how many people have found God when they couldn’t find him anywhere else, there at that wailing wall. I think of Daniel on his knees praying out the window towards the temple which was in a distant land. Sometimes in our lives if we are realistic with ourselves, we don’t feel close to God. We don’t feel like he’s accessible. So maybe it’s at those times this story is leading us to believe that maybe we need some time at the wailing wall.

    Joseph Stuart: Thinking about another form of sacrifice. Another form of dialogue that Abraham is having with God is the occada or the binding of Isaac that we find in Genesis 22. And to be frank, something that I thought about while reading this chapter again was, where was Sarah during this entire experience, Kristian?

    Kristian Heal: One of the questions that allows us to exercise our imagination a little bit because all the way up until this point, Sarah and Abraham have been side by side as they’ve gone through trials and received promises and wrestled with these promises and waited. Sarah has taken initiative as we saw in the last episode with Hagah. So Sarah is always there, but in this one moment, this great test that perhaps the last final test of Abraham, Sarah is nowhere to be found in the text of scripture. And this gave an opportunity for early Christian and Jewish exigenes as they are interpreting the scriptures and reimagining the scriptures to bring Sarah in.

    The fourth century commentator, Ephrem the Syrian responds to the question to where Sarah is by saying, “Abraham did not inform Sarah because he had not been commanded to inform her.” This is his answer to where was Sarah. Abraham wasn’t told to tell Sarah so he didn’t tell Sarah. So Sarah is nowhere to be found. But, he doesn’t let himself imagine what would Sarah had done had she had been told? So Ephrem says she would have persuaded him to let her go and participate in this sacrifice just as she had participated in the promise of his son. And so what we see in Ephrem is this profound faith in Sarah, as a devoted matriarch. Every bit as faithful, every bit as committed as Abraham is and was. We realize as we think of it in these terms that we are not just talking about the patriarchs when we talk about our spiritual ancestors, that we have to talk about the patriarchs and the matriarchs. These women whose faithfulness ensured that the promises were continued.

    There is a lovely, a beautiful extended account of what Sarah would have said or could have said in this moment in a later Syriac poem that’s retelling the story of Genesis 22 and let me read it a little bit of that to get a sense of the faithful reimagining of Sarah.

    Sarah saw them and terror siezed her, saw them being Abraham and Isaac about to leave, and she spoke as follows, “Where are you taking my only begotten?” Realize that Abraham is told to take “your only begotten” but actually Isaac is Sarah’s only begotten. Abraham has two children at this point which is interesting, though the text continues. “Where is the child of my vows off to? Reveal to me the secret of your intention and show me the journey on which you are both going? Never has there been a time that I have held back from the performance of what is good, have you ever brought in the poor and I not looked after them with compassion like you? For some of the poor that we have received turned out to be angels. They can testify to my mind if what you had in mind was not the same as me. You went off and fetched a calf while I was kneading unleavened bread. We were as one person with a single love when we received these supernatural beings when they were rested and gave us rest and the child came as a result of their blessing, but now when you have in mind a journey, why is the child going with you and why are you not revealing your secret to Sarah, your faithful wife? Who in all hardships of exile has borne trials along with you?” We have this beautiful image of Sarah, the faithful and devoted disciple of God not simply a faithful and devoted wife to a husband who is a disciple of God but in her own rite this faithful and devoted disciple.

    Joseph Stuart: And an active participant that I think is clear here too, it’s not just Abraham having good ideas or experiences with God or other heavenly beings. Sarah is right there the entire time actively participating.

    Kristian Heal: I think there is a lovely message in the writings of these early Syriac authors, from a Latter-day Saint perspective. One is the imaginative engagement of scripture. By this I mean the reading of scripture and then allowing ourselves to ask, what would have happened if? Or, what else could have happened? Or what’s in this space that seems to be opened in scripture? Early Chrisitans and early Jewish readers of the Bible were constantly reading the scriptures to understand the words that were there but also to interpret these silences, these gaps that seemed to inform the words around them just as much as the words themselves. And this is something that I really believe in.

    Nephi wrote that he delighted to ponder the scriptures and write them for the profit and benefit of his people and I’m convinced that as we ponder the scriptures and write them and rewrite them that we will start to see great things. And this is I think the case certainly with these early Syriac authors, they saw wonderful things which are moving and profound and when I think about the relationships that these ancient authors had with scripture, I’m inspired to ponder the scriptures more carefully and more imaginatively and to try to probe into them to seek understanding and insight. I have to say, some of my most powerful experiences with scripture have not come through intellectual engagement but through experiencing scripture, through living myself into it through imagining myself in these moments and imagining myself to speak up to talk and to receive answers as it were. I think this is a function of the imagination and part of the blessing of both an imagination and an intelligent approach to reading scripture.

    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a lovely place for us to stop today. Have a blessed week y’all.

    Thank you for listening to this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Head on over to iTunes or your preferred podcast provider to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Each of which are worth their weight in podcast gold. You can receive show notes, including references to the sermons and articles referenced in this episode by signing up for the Maxwell Institute Newsletter at mi.byu.edu. Please also follow us on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more content from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Thank you.