Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Genesis 18

Reading the Old Testament has a way of making my modern ears (eyes?) burn a little. In Chapter 18, I was struck again and again by the ethical ambiguity with which the Lord is portrayed, at least the ambiguity filtered through as the story passes through the lens of contemporary culture.

For instance, why does the Lord make particular mention of Sarah’s laughing when just a chapter earlier Abraham received no direct rebuke for his identical laughing? Relatedly, why is it that Sarah is not sitting with Abraham and the Lord rather than hiding behind the tent door, presumably preparing the meals that Abraham has commanded her to prepare? The Lord even refuses to speak directly with her at first, talking instead with Abraham and later only speaking with her through the tent door.

More vividly questioning the moral status of the Lord is his impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He apparently feels some type of shame in regard to the act, wondering whether He should tell Abraham about the plan (I admit that it is unclear, at least in the King James Version, exactly why it is that the Lord does not want to speak with Abraham about His destructive activities.)

More importantly, the fact that Abraham negotiates with the Lord seems to suggest both that the Lord was previously going to destroy the town regardless of at least some of the righteous persons within it and that the Abraham, not the Lord, is the chief agent responsible for the mercy shown in this situation. Why would the Lord destroy any innocent persons, presuming that He has the power to destroy the wicked without simultaneously destroying the innocent? Even granted the legitimacy of capital punishment (a grant many would be unwilling to make), the Lord’s apparent lack of concern for those not worthy of death seems morally inexcusable. Why must Abraham persuade the Lord to save their lives? That the Lord is willing to renege on His intended destruction of the righteous after Abraham’s pleading, often cited as an example of His mercy, seems to my lights less like mercy than the concessions of a sovereign somewhat, but not altogether, persuaded of the ethical problems posed by his actions.

And we have not even considered that the traditional “reason” given for God’s decision to destroy—at least the traditional reason accepted by the LDS edition of the scriptures (see Gen. 18:20 fn. b)—is something that, while we may even agree is morally offensive, we surely do not see as meriting the death penalty. It looks, then, like we have a misogynistic God preparing to kill at least some righteous individuals in order to punish their neighbors for deviant but in all probability non-lethal sexual practices.

All of the above I consider the reductio ad absurdum of this way of reading scripture. But I find myself at a loss as to how to read this chapter otherwise. (Here I call upon your help.) And because of this loss, I am unclear as to how the four questions suggested in our methodology can be answered through this chapter.

We do learn something about the nature of faith from Abraham’s example in this chapter. Abraham teaches us, at least implicitly, there is some kind of moral standard outside of God’s actions, a moral standard that humans have the ability to call upon when questioning God. He rhetorically asks: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” We also learn something as to how this questioning is to proceed: Abraham humbly but boldly calls upon the Lord, even offering rhetorical questions which serve to remind the Lord of His goodness. This episode also gives hints at the possibility and nature of theology: Abraham’s response to the Lord’s intentions seems like a kind of theological response in which Abraham informs the Lord (at least so it seems) that it would not be proper for him to kill the righteous with the wicked, a response which perhaps gives part of the impetus to the “perfect being” theology we usually associate with Greek influences or the scholasticism of Aquinas or Anselm. If Abraham can do theology, and can use that theology to call God to account, perhaps this front is not as bleak as we may otherwise suppose.

Regarding our third question, how our family relationships shape our relationship with God and the kind of theology we pursue, I don’t believe this chapter gives clear suggestions in this direction. Abraham’s relationship with God still seems much different from Sarah’s relationship with God, and there is not much suggestion that they have any kind of “joint” relationship to God. Moreover, Abraham’s theological questioning of God does not involve Abraham telling God that one of the righteous men in Sodom, Lot, is his kin. All that seems salient to the Lord is righteousness, and the salience of even that feature has already been called into question. If Abraham’s familial relationships play a particular role in his relationship with the Lord or in the covenant the Lord has made with him, that role does not seem to be clearly demonstrated here. Abram apparently deals with the Lord on his own, without his wife, and without his kinsman Lot.

This conclusion serves as yet another reason to find something deeply flawed and problematic about this way of reading the chapter: I want Abraham to be the paradigm example of the centrality of faith and family. What do we do if the text simply doesn’t describe him thus, at least according to our own standards and seemingly “common sense” notions?

Through the above, my question that I hope will guide discussion for the week has become clear: “What is the ethical status of the agents of the story of Abraham, in particular of the Lord, in Genesis 18?” This question is admittedly presumptuous: who are we, and more importantly who am I, to judge God? But I sincerely hope to follow Abraham’s example in righteously questioning God, looking for the God of love in places where something different seems to appear. I hope that these comments will be understood as I intend them, that is, as an example of one flawed way of reading the scriptures, a way that I think is commonly presupposed but generally not followed through to its logical extremes. As I said above and in my email, I’m not sure how else to read such a text. I know that others have ideas in these areas, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions. I appreciate your willingness to help me work through these difficult issues and these sometimes troubling passages.


Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Much of what you have to say, Jeff, points toward the connection between this chapter and Job. Only in 18:27 here and two verses in Job does one find the phrase "dust and ashes." The parallel is quite apt: Job does something much like what Abraham does here, in calling the Lord's ethics into account. The role the phrase plays in Job is significant, moreover, because it appears twice, once as part of the accusation, and once as part of Job's "recant." A fantastic resource on this issue is Gerald Janzen's commentary (just titled Job and part of the series of commentary called Interpretation). Worth mentioning is Janzen's retranslation of the pivotal moment in Job 42:2-6:

"You know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that obscures design by words without knowledge?' [Note that Job quotes the Lord here and again in verse 4] Therefore, I have uttered what I have not understood, things too wonderful for me which I did not know. 'Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will make me to know.' I have heard you with my own ears, and now my eyes see you! Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes." (unitalicizing mine)

Janzen reads the point of Job's words to be that he has come to understand something of his nature, of what it means to be the image of God. Janzen writes: "After the divine speeches in Job 38-41, we may suppose Yahweh standing in attendance before Job, to see what dust and ashes will say concerning itself." That is, the ethical ambiguity is a provocation meant to prove Job. When Job changes his mind concerning dust and ashes, he realizes that his erstwhile silence in response to YHWH was a manifestation of misplaced pride, based on his misunderstanding of what YHWH was doing. In other words, Job assumed that YHWH was unethical, but YHWH was "tempting" Job in a manner not unlike the story we will read in Gen 22.

This calls for two further comments. For one, since the influence of Kierkegaard is so obvious in Janzen's reading, it brings to mind the fact that Kierkegaard published Repetition and Fear and Trembling on the same day (and why was the latter written by Johannes de Silentio, anyway?). The former deals with Job, the latter with Abraham. They are generally understood to be linked, since the former presents a failure of repetition, the latter a success. But the two together present Abraham and Job as the radically faithful, the absurdly faithful.

Also, all of this perhaps points to the connection I mentioned in my first comment on Gen 17. Chapter 18 begins a section in the Hebrew that ends with chapter 22, titled vyr'. The title appears in the Hebrew both here, where it marks the appearing of the Lord to Abraham and in the name of the mountain as Abraham gives it, "Jehovah-jireh," because in the mountain "it will be seen." In other words, the title of the section in Hebrew draws attention to an inclusio in the Hebrew text that connects this appearance (a provocation?) with the other (a provocation, for sure).

All of this should probably be brought to bear on the question of Abraham as the paradigm of faith, but it opens that question in a way we have not yet.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


You raise some very difficult questions. I need to re-read the chapter before chiming in with some better grounded comments, but I like Joe's suggestion about the need to read this chapter in connection with Job (which I also need to re-read).

By way of preview, my provisional response might be framed in terms of the discussion we've been having about Genesis 17 regarding the difference between contract and covenant.

There is - inherently - something very disturbing (at least potentially) about the excessive unconditionality involved in an unconditional covenant relationship. In order for it to be unconditioned, the unconditional must be, in some sense, arbitrary (if it were necessary, it would be conditioned).

Thus, if we read ethical action as an action that is always appropriate to a situation (either positively or negatively) then contracts and the honoring of contracts are profoundly ethical.

However, covenants, as involving something unconditional, will necessarily break with or exceed the conditionality of the contract. There will always be something "inappropriate" and irresolvable about a covenant. (How could God choose just one man, Abraham? How could he ask him to sacrifice [murder?] his own son? Etc.)

In this sense, God's actions may necessarily exceed the ethical distinction good/bad in ways that we can't make sense of. His actions may be, as Nietzsche says, "beyond good and evil" so that, as Paul says, "all things become lawful for him." (Which phrase resonates not a little with the whole Joseph Smith/D&C 132 difficulty).

This, however, may only sharpen the difficulty rather than resolve it.

More later.

My best,

9:31 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I was re-reading for other purposes today a few of Kojeve's lectures from 1934-5, and the link Kojeve forms between Hegel and Levinas was again forced into my view, but this time with far more clarity, perhaps because we've been discussing this question of excess. If the dialectic is, for Kojeve, the three-fold of "Identity, Negativity, and Totality," then Levinas's Totality and Infinity functions essentially as a corrective to that totalizing last step, a rejection of "absolute" science, leaving us with "Identity, Negativity, and Infinity," that is, "Identity, Negativity, and Excess."

This moment of excess is, it seems to me, becoming more and more important to our discussion, and Adam has here suggested that it is the key to understanding the difficulty of the ethics of this chapter. I agree completely, i.e., wish I had said it first. But if Adam identified the theme, let me negate it in hopes of introducing into our discourse (our dialectic?) here an excess (though I am more likely to produce a totality).

As I conceive of this project, one of our major purposes is to see where a uniquely LDS point of view accomplishes some kind of disruption of the discourse already at work in philosophy about Abraham in the OT. That is, we are reading Kierkegaard and Derrida precisely to see where their approaches to the text totalize it because of their own relative closedness in relation to LDS scripture/tradition/thought.

However, though our discussions have been incredibly fruitful, I don't know how peculiarly LDS they have been. Now, I will confess along with the rest of you (I hope) that there is some apologetic pleasure in reading many of the thinkers we have mentioned (ultimately almost anyone of interest in post-Kantian continental thought, really), because much of what they say rings so true in the ears of a faithful reader of LDS scripture. I think we have to admit that part of the promise of continental philosophy for the Latter-day Saint is that it offers a kind of vindication of the core of LDS thinking, a vindication offered in the name of the academic community nonetheless, which is not something Mormons have often been able to claim. In short, my concern is that this apologetic appeal in continental thought (like the apologetic appeal in any academic pursuit) too often keeps us from developing anything like a uniquely LDS theology (science, economics, what have you), precisely because we are trying to parade before the established continental (or any other) academy.

To put all of this in terms of our increasingly-important theme of excess: if in taking up continental thinking in this seminar we have complicated a kind of naive and repetitive self-assertion, we might become too easily trapped within the realm of the merely symbolic. That is, it is too easy to maintain our discussions within the circularity of continental thought per se.

So let me reinterpret our project as we were conceiving of it from the beginning. Were we not, at least to some extent, trying to open the possibility of disrupting continental thought by the Reality about which it has been trying to think in symbolic terms since 1807 (how interesting is that timing, by the way, for Hegel's PhG?), that is Revelation, Givenness, a genuine Call, Appearance, etc.? Joseph Smith came announcing the very reality of everything continental philosophy was beginning to think about. Jan Shipps can speak about the prophet puzzle precisely because there is an excess in every word Joseph spoke. Aren't we trying to think about that excess, to allow that excess to reconfigure, to reorient, the boundaries of continental thought?

I hesitate to bring all of this up in the proceedings of the seminar itself, but I think I'm recognizing that it itself must emerge in those proceedings. How do Joseph Smith's revelations exceed, overwhelm, saturate, real-ize, disrupt, reorient, distract, etc., this chapter?

A negative thought anyway. Does this bring us to a totality or to infinity?

3:17 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I appreciate your comments and I'm in favor of this kind of "negation." Do you have any suggestions about where to begin? Do you see, for instance, a uniquely Mormon way of addressing the problems raised in Genesis 18?

My best,

10:40 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Another anonymous source (again, Robert) offers the following suggestions for thinking about what may be uniquely Mormon in Genesis 18:

While I'm thinking about the issues in Gen 18, a couple of quick thoughts, mainly with respect to what might be distinctive from a Mormon point of view.

God's passivity. I think one's view of God will necessarily affect the reading of Gen 18. If God is impassive, then it seems Abraham's pleading would be a bit pointless. Inasmuch as Mormons are unique in viewing prayer and God's passivity, I think this will have bearing on how this passage is read. (also Joe, I'm thinking here about what posted in the first week of this listserve on Jonah and prophecy: if prophecy fails and love doesn't; I'm not sure your view on that was Mormon-specific in any sense, but that seems to have bearing here also...)

Mediation. I generally think of Mormons as a bit unique among Christians in seeing God as passive. My sense is that this isn't the case in Judaism (though I'm really quite ignorant on this). And yet I think Abraham is clearly a Christ figure in this chapter. This emphasis on mediation and mercy seems distinctively Christian. Inasmuch as Mormonism uniquely encompasses Christrianity and Judaism, I think Mormonism might have a unique view on this.

By the way, I think the NRSV is much clearer than the KJV for this chapter, esp. vv.17-21. What I think the NRSV brings out better is the sense in which it seems God is letting Abraham be privvy to his thoughts here, as part of his council (which I think also opens possibilities for a uniquely Mormon perspective on this God-prophet interaction; for example, the way God interacts with the Brother of Jared, making the B. of Jared come up with his own solution seems to allow for this notion of council to be more than just a one-way, God-to-prophet relationship...). Also of note, in verse 21, it seems that the cry (of justice) against Soddom and Gomorrah seems to be a cry from some nebulous others--the KJV suggests that the cry comes from Soddom and Gomorrah themselves.

Being tested. In the Book of Abraham, God's purpose of creation is said to be to test man--or something to that effect if I'm remembering correctly. Also, I remember hearing stories about Joseph Smith frequently doing little tests of those around him. So I think there are very good reasons for Mormons to take the idea of testing very seriously throughout the Abraham chapters, not just for the Akedah (where testing is explicitly mentioned). In other words, I think Joe's comments regarding God testing Abraham (and Job) are in fact a way of implementing a Mormon-influenced reading of chapter 18.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I'm only allowed to say something negative if I can make a positive contribution as well, eh? My negation was a direct response to Adam's identification, so I hadn't even begun to look at any possibilities here, but I've come across a couple while thinking about this today.

First, some time ago I noticed that a major theme disappears from the Book of Mormon for a good stretch of text: any significant mention of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of Israel broadly, the Jews, and the Gentiles. In short, there is a stretch of the Book of Mormon where the foundational covenant we are looking at in these chapters is almost entirely ignored. That stretch is from Mosiah through the first chapters of 3 Nephi. That is, the small plates are filled with Abrahamic themes, and 3 Nephi is filled with them, but there is almost no reference at all to things Abrahamic in between. A few months ago, while doing some work on Trinitarianism, I realized that a similar pattern obtains in terms of the Trinity: there is extensive discussion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as a Godhead in the small plates and again in 3 Nephi, but there is basically no mention of them in between (except in passages where it is blatantly obvious that the God being described as three-fold is Jesus and Jesus alone, in Christian terms). Within the past week or so, I've recognized a third instance of this pattern: typology. There is a very different kind of typology at work in the small plates and 3 Nephi than there is in the Mosiah-Helaman stretch.

If these are gathered up, there are three central themes to the small plates and to 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon that are missing from the stretch in between: (a certain kind of) typology, Trinity, and Abraham/covenant. While this points the way to some major questions that need to be answered about the Nephite history, it might also be taken to suggest some kind of connection between typology, the Trinity, and the Abrahamic covenant. Now, how might this all be connected up with the fact that the covenant has only just been given in chapter 17, and when it is confirmed in Sarah's hearing in chapter 18, it is given by a three-fold appearance? In short, if Christians have read the Trinity into the appearance of the three men (since the very beginning), might it be significant that this happens in connection with the covenant given to Abraham? And how is this related to typology (the kind of typology involved here might be called eschatological typology, anticipatory typology, rather than typology that repeats something that has happened before)? I'm not sure how to approach this last point, but these things are suggestive. At the very least, what connection is there between the Abrahamic covenant and the revelation of God in a Trinitarian structure?

Second, let me take up a point or two from the JST (when I cite the JST, I'm using the "original" manuscripts as published by the RSC). A couple of very interesting changes are at work in the JST manuscripts. For one, any reference to one of the three men as "the LORD" is removed. And then they are not described as "men" in the JST, but as "angels" specifically. Here we have three angels visiting Abraham, a theme familiar from certain LDS quarters. In fact, that familiar ring becomes even more central the further one reads into the text. When the angels head towards Sodom, the head of them ponders over whether he should let Abraham in on the plan (and at some greater length than in the KJV), and then he explains things in terms rather different from how things appear in the KJV. The presiding angel among the three explains to Abraham: "the Lord said unto us, Because the cry of Sodom & gomorah is great, & because their sin is very grievious, I will destroy them. & I will send you, & ye shall go down now, And see that their iniquitise are rewarded unto them. And ye shall have all things done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come up unto me. And if ye do it not, it shall be upon your heads; for I will destroy them, And you shall know that I will do it, for it shall be before your eyes" (all of this is transcribed directly, mistakes and all, from OT2; in OT1, it looks like it originally read as a direct commission to just the presiding angel, but there are cross-outs and adjustments to make it apply to all three). Then the text reads, "And the Angels, which were holy men, & were sent forth after the order of God, turned their faces from thence & went toward Sodom." Note that all three go after this revelation. Then Abraham seeks the Lord directly in prayer and has the conversation about intervention. All of this points in some interesting directions as well (note, however, that the Trinitarian reading is in tension with this). The three messengers have proven Abraham faithful, and now they go to prove the people in Sodom and Gomorrah in the same manner, perhaps. I'm reminded of three visitors who are sent to prove the faithfulness of those remaining in the fallen world, proving their faithfulness, and then delivering them from the wickedness of that world (as these angels will do with Lot).

Here are a couple of words from Joseph that seem to me to exceed the Genesis text, a bit of Reality that effects a tear in the woven words of Genesis 18. However, I'm not sure how to think about these texts without falling back into the circularity of continental thought. Is there something in these irrupting texts that point the way for us?

Adam, my greater familiarity with Marion than with Badiou perhaps shows here. I can see how these texts shatter the horizons of a continental reading of Genesis 18, but I'm not clear at all about how we can then begin to think about these things. Unless I've already begun to do so with the typological temple reading in the JST text?

Totality is so much easier than infinity.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Robert's comments showed up only a minute before mine, so I didn't read them before I posted those, but I think they draw out some typological possibilities. If three angels are coming down to visit Abraham, and they prove him true and faithful before moving on to Sodom, is it significant that after they leave Abraham begins to offer up a prayer? Why is it that he has access, as it were, to the council/counsels of God? Has he been inducted into the order of the angels (read=Melchizedek priesthood)? What does this text have to do with Isaiah 6, which is at the heart of the Isaiah chapters as Nephi takes them down? Is it significant, for example, that Isaiah received a stone in his encounter, and Abraham received a new name in Gen 17-18 (cf. D&C 130; Rev 2)?

And then, if this can be taken back up into the question of the three-fold appearance and its connections with the typological, the Trinitarian, and the Abrahamic, how can we see these three angels as types of the mystery of the Trinity? Does Abraham first get an understanding of the Trinitarian play here? How does the Word, spoken by the Breath/Spirit, by the Father play out in this story?

Does this break into infinity?

3:02 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

A few scattered comments about Genesis 18:

vs. 1-2 “And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] . . . And he [Abraham] raised his eyes and saw, and three men were standing before him.”

The JST does make some effort to sort out the confusion in these verses about whether or not Abraham is speaking to one person or three (evidently there are even inconsistencies in how the Hebrew verbs shift erratically from the singular to the plural), the Lord or his angels. Nonetheless, it seems to me that some obscurity remains (esp. concerning the transition in vs. 22-23).

But I think that this opacity is felicitous here. The play between one and three, God and his messengers, is productive. It may indicate a kind of proto-trinitarian play, but especially, I think, it nicely illustrates how our relationships with any other person or angel may be understood as a relationship with God (tout autre est tout autre). Is Abraham dealing with God, angels, or just regular men? In a sense, it doesn’t matter – his reaction will be unconditionally the same. At least initially, (vs. 3-8) Abraham apparently doesn’t know that his visitors are divine messengers (or the Lord himself). What is exemplary about Abraham’s hospitality is that it did not depend on their identity: he simply responds unconditionally with hospitality.

vs. 4 “Let a little water be fetched . . . let me fetch a morsel of bread . . . and Abraham ran and fetched a tender and goodly calf”

As Robert Alter notes, the modesty of Abraham’s promised help (a little water, a little bread) contrasts sharply with the excessive feast that he then sets in motion. And, “with good reason, the Jewish exegetical tradition makes Abraham figure as the exemplary dispenser of hospitality.” (Alter).

Nomadic, childless, and aged Abraham (100 years old!) “running” to prepare a feast for three complete strangers – this is the very figure of hospitality. (If I remember correctly, Nibley somewhere talks about this passage moving him to tears.) It is perhaps not coincidental that it is in light of this hospitality that the angels/men/Lord promise Abraham a child “this very season” (vs. 10).

Also, we might see in this hospitality the figure of an Abrahamic ethics: an ethics that overflows obligation (a little water, a little bread) with the excess of its response. His ethical response is not reasonable or proportional or conditional (and, hence, in a sense, not rationally “ethical”).

vs. 9 “Where is Sarah your wife?”

Could we read this question in verse 9 as an attempt by the men/angels/Lord to include Sarah in the meal, conversation, and hospitality?

vs. 14, “Is anything beyond the Lord?”

God’s response to Sarah’s internal “laughter” is to raise the key issue that also shows up in connection with another pair of improbable conceptions: Mary’s and Elisabeth’s miraculous conceptions. See Luke 1:37: “For with God nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37 is the verse quoted most often by my mentor, John Caputo, as license for a Derridean approach to religion.) In both cases the crucial issue is one of horizon: what appears to us as impossible, as exceeding our horizons, is not impossibly beyond the Lord. (His ways are not our ways.)

In particular, in both cases, it is a question of something new happening: a new life that will embody the promise of what, until then, had only a type to foreshadow it.

vs. 19, “For I have embraced him [Abraham] so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham all that He spake concerning him.”

Of this verse Alter notes: “This is the first time that the fulfillment of the covenantal promise is explicitly made contingent on moral performance” ( . . . keep the way of the Lord . . . [so] that . . . ). Joe suggests that the Lord may be deliberately “testing” Abraham in the verses that follow (a la Genesis 22). This possibility may be born out by the way in which the central issue of Abraham’s “bargaining” with the Lord is righteousness and justice. These two words literally (and in cognate forms) resonate throughout the rest of the chapter (vs. 20-33).

Is Abraham’s willingness to unconditionally stand-up for justice (even if it’s to the Lord himself) a way of demonstrating his unconditional commitment to justice? He’s willing to risk the Lord’s anger (even the loss of his promised posterity?) for the sake of people he doesn’t know (as Jeff notes, the bargaining never makes any mention of Lot)? Only if the nameless and faceless stranger is more important to him than his own promised children will Abraham be “worthy” of those promised children?

If so, the key appears to be the unconditionality of Abraham’s commitment. The Lord will make possible what the conditions of Abraham’s situation make impossible (the conception of a son) if Abraham will himself break with the conditions/horizons of his own interests to defend unconditionally the necessity of justice and righteousness.

In this sense, the kind of “conditionality” that is introduced in vs. 19 is very peculiar: what is required is a reciprocal unconditionality, what section 93 calls receiving “grace for grace.” If Abraham will break with the conditions of his situation and the conditions of his own interest, then he will have entered the realm of the unconditional and anything is possible. God lives in this “beyond” and so there is nothing “beyond” him.

A few final comments about some of Jeff’s own initial comments:

Jeff says:

“We do learn something about the nature of faith from Abraham’s example in this chapter. Abraham teaches us, at least implicitly, there is some kind of moral standard outside of God’s actions, a moral standard that humans have the ability to call upon when questioning God.”


“If Abraham can do theology, and can use that theology to call God to account, perhaps this front is not as bleak as we may otherwise suppose.”

I really like both of these suggestions and wonder if it indicates the necessity for every genuine relationship with another person to be “triangulated” with some third thing. Here, our relationship with God “triangulated” with justice itself. Our relationships with our spouses “triangulated” with God. Our relationship with “every Other” triangulated by a third (perhaps unseen) Other. So that even our relationship with God himself needs to be punctured or interrupted by the Other (the “Other than God”). This dovetails nicely, I think, with the Christian insistence that it is only possible to think a divine unity as a multiplicity (minimally: a trinity).

And Jeff says:

“Moreover, Abraham’s theological questioning of God does not involve Abraham telling God that one of the righteous men in Sodom, Lot, is his kin. All that seems salient to the Lord is righteousness, and the salience of even that feature has already been called into question. If Abraham’s familial relationships play a particular role in his relationship with the Lord or in the covenant the Lord has made with him, that role does not seem to be clearly demonstrated here. Abram apparently deals with the Lord on his own, without his wife, and without his kinsman Lot.”

I don’t’ have anything to add to this except to say that it prompted some of my above speculations about Abraham’s commitment to justice exceeding the conditions of his own family obligations. (Though I’ve argued, at least implicitly, that those family relations do themselves have an unconditional meaning only to the extent that Abraham’s commitment exceeds them in their particularity. This is the problem of the unconditional: once one commits to the unconditional, there are no conditions left to circumscribe it – the commitment disseminates endlessly to the whole world and everyone in it. My unconditional commitment to my own daughter simultaneously commits me to running in front of truck in order to save someone else’ daughter – even if that robs my own daughter of her father.)

11:02 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Just a note about Nibley and tears. You can watch this on FARMS' website (farms.byu.edu). It was during his presentation of his paper "Abraham's Creation Drama" at the Abraham symposium at BYU in 1999. He completely breaks down. Having known Brother Nibley a little, having read much of him, and having watched his lectures on DVD, it was rather shocking to see him so emotional!

2:48 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


Thanks for reminding me of this. I actually attended this conference session as an undergraduate. No wonder that image has always stuck with me.

My best,

6:13 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...


Are there any OT1 vs. OT2 variations with respect to Gen 18:17-22? I'm having a really hard time understanding the JST here.

I was looking at James K. Bruckner's Implied Law in the Abraham Narrative: A Literary and Theological Analysis (JSOTS SS #335, 2001) and he takes Gen 18:19 as a key passage in explaining the underlying purpose of the ensuing discussion about Sodom and Gomorrah. Here's the NRSV of 18:17-19 (emphasis mine):

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?? No, for I have chosen? him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

Bruckner ventures that God's motivation for explaining the destruction is to show Abraham an example of how cries of injustice should be dealt with--namely, that they should be responded to and seriously investigated. Abraham's ensuing questions are then interpreted as an important learning experience for Abraham regarding how the process of "righteousness and justice" should work--injustices need to be addressed, although righteous people can spare an entire city from total destruction.

I'm explaining this very poorly, but I imagine you get the general direction he takes. I think there are very interesting possibilities in this direction, but it seems that the JST closes off these possibilities. Surely there are other possibilities with the JST, but I have a hard time knowing how to read the JST. It seems to me that in the JST the angels tell Abraham what they're going to do in order to show Abraham what God is doing for his (Abraham's) benefit. Here's the Inspired Version of the same passage above (emphasis mine):

And the angel of the Lord, said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which the Lord will do for him; seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him. And the angel of the Lord said unto Abraham, The Lord said unto us, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will destroy them. And I will send you, and ye shall go down now, and see that their iniquities are rewarded unto them. And ye shall have all things done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me. And if ye do it not, it shall be upon your heads; for I will destroy them, and you shall know that I will do it, for it shall be before your eyes.

I italicized the "for him" that I think establishes a key departure from Bruckner's reading of the NRSV (as I explained above). The other italicized phrases are ones I'm intrigued by but am not sure how to interpret. In particular:

* What is the cry "of Sodom and Gomorah" if it's not the cry against Sodom and Gomorroh (the Inspired Version follows the KJV here, however, so perhaps of can be read as against?).

* Notice the "see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me" phrase of the NRSV (which idea is also quite clear in the KJV) is changed to "see that their iniquities are rewarded unto them" in the Inspired Version. The emphasis seems to shift to an establishment and carrying out of justice rather than an inquiry into what has happened. How does this affect the interpretation of Abraham's ensuing "questioning" of God's justice? I'm inclined to think that Joseph is taking this passage as both an exploration of how God is both just and merciful, and as a foreshadowing of the "righteous remnant" theme that becomes so important in later scripture (BOM esp.).

* What is the significance of the "it shall be upon your heads" phrase? I'm inclined to read this in terms of stewardship which seems a very important idea, one that is related to Priesthood, for Joseph. That is, via the stewardship of the Priesthood, responsibility (and accountability) for establishing justice is transferred to the angels.



3:45 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Due to some internet troubles, I've been only able to check up on things away from home for the past few days. I will get to the JST manuscripts tonight and hopefully have something to say about that. As I seem to recall, though, the inspired version follows things pretty closely.

For now though.... I think the JST presents some fascinating difficulties here. For example, how ought we to read the narrator's ability to probe the internal thoughts of the angel (and how does this change from the narrator's ability to probe the internal thoughts of YHWH)? Is the angel intimidated by Abraham? What should be read into that? Why does the angel feel it necessary to let Abraham know about their charge? That Abraham goes on to petition the Lord on behalf of the hypothetical righteous in the cities of the plain seems perhaps to suggest that the angel was hoping Abraham could win the Lord over, or some such thing. How should that be read?

The point of all of this is to say that though Bruckner's reading is "distracted" by the JST reading, the JST in turn grounds a whole series of interesting questions that deserve careful attention. (Why has no one done any serious textual work on the JST?... Or the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Abraham, or the D&C for that matter?)

2:39 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Joe asks:

"Why has no one done any serious textual work on the JST?... Or the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Abraham, or the D&C for that matter?"

I wonder if it's a two-fold problem:

(1) a lack of trained, interested investigators?

(2) (this may be more important) the meta-issues about historicity, textuality, etc. are too difficult and/or volatile to allow a serious investigation to begin without addressing them first?


10:21 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

As for the JST text here, I tried to post some comments earlier, but I lost them, so here they are in a bit briefer form:

There are a couple of significant variants in OT1, Robert.

First, it is clear that the text was edited such that what was apparently originally an address just to the head angel became an adress to all three (thee's and thou's became you's and ye's).

Second, there is a phrase that has been crossed out. It is replaced in the normal line of text, so it appears that it was rejected in the original process of writing the revelation down. The crossed out portion is found between "see" and "that" in "go down now and see that their iniquities are rewarded unto them." The crossed out material reads: "wheather they have done."

Third, and most important in my opinion, two parts of the JST text are only inserted above the line, and that seems to me to be suggestive that they were only added after the "original" revelation. Two phrases were added, both in the line "which he has spoken of hi and the Lord said because the cry of Sodom...." The first phrase is "Angel of the" and it is inserted between the words "the" and "Lord." The second phrase is "unto Abraham the Lord said unto us," and it is inserted between the words "said" and "because."

Those are the variants, but they certainly need to be interpreted carefully. As for the third one, it would appear that there is a major shift in the meaning of the passage (the angel speaks to Abraham rather than the Lord to Himself after the angel speaks to himself). Hmmm....

Adam, as for why no serious textual work, I think you are absolutely right. Are we about at the time when this might change? On the other hand, what I'm reading about the conference at Yale this last week, I'm not so hopeful that anything is changing too quickly.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Thanks for the OT1 variants Joe (I almost didn't see this comment---is there an easy way Adam to add a "recent comments" box on the blog page? I guess I could find the RSS feed and have email notifications or something sent so I don't miss new comments on new threads).

Actually, I got the RSC's massive JST book on inter-library loan (from Harvard??) yesterday, though I only get to keep it for a couple of weeks. Let me know if there are particular passages you want to study together (without having to tediously describe every change).

I think the third change is indeed intriguing. In fact, perhaps it helps us understand the "for him" added to verse 17: if the Angel thinks for some reason that God is destroying Sodom and Gomorrah for Abraham, then perhaps the angel has a reason to believe that Abraham can convince YHWH not to destroy it.

But I'm still stuck thinking about the second change: I kind of like the non-JST reading that YHWH is going to investigate the cry made against Sodom and Gomorrah. What I like in the non-JST reading is that I think it provides an interesting way to read the Abimelech encounters in Gen 20-21, with an emphasis on giving an Other a fair test---allowing the other to prove himself. If God goes down to give Sodom and Gomorrah a fair hearing, this establishes a contrast with Abraham's pre-judgment suspicion and fear of Abimelech as being someone who might kill his wife. In the non-JST, I see a whole theology developing regarding faith and trust in terms of giving an Other a fair trial: just as God gives Sodom and Gomorrah a fair trial, God gives Abraham a (actually several) fair change(s) to demonstrate his faith in (or, given the prominence of "fear" as a motif in these several chapters, "fear of") God. This all serves as a corrective to the way that Abraham pre-emptively fears the arm of flesh represented by Pharoah and Abimelech, a fear which almost causes him to lose Sarah (and hence the offspring of the Covenant). In this way, we might consider "fear of man" in juxtaposition with with "godly fear" which can be linked to the kind of faith that passages such as Alma 32 make us think about: giving place to a seed/other to prove itself/himself before we judge it (OK, I know I'm getting a bit reckless here, obviously I haven't developed this idea very well yet).

But with the JST deleting the trial for Sodom and Gomorrah, I think this whole direction I was thinking about (heavily influenced by Bruckner of course) needs to be rethought....

3:53 PM  

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