Friday, April 06, 2007

Abraham 2

Sorry to be so late posting this. I've really struggled in deciding what to focus on. (Also, make sure you notice the last few comments on the previous post by Rosalynde and Joe.)

The hermeneutical challenges in knowing how to even approach the Book of Abraham are practically overwhelming for me to consider. There's a certain sense in which writing about this chapter is very much an unreasonable act of faith for me--how am I to read, write and interpret without having a good sense of how any of these tasks should be done? It is tempting to just focus just on these hermeneutical challenges and how they mirror the challenges of faith that Abraham himself faces.

It is also tempting to focus on Abraham's prayer for his father in verse 17. I think this is a very rich verse that makes me feel Abraham's (and so, symbolically, the Father's) deep pain regarding his father's unfaithfulness--a pain that is posited against the need to make a sharp break from Bablyon in order to start something new. I think this image of Abraham pleading to God to have mercy on his father--when God has just barely explained that he will destroy those who have been unfaithful to him--is ripe (or is it rife?) with possibilities.

But, in the end, I've chosen to focus primarily on the episode where God tells Abraham to tell Sarah to say in Egypt that she is Abraham's sister (vv. 22-24).

It seems the Lord advocates this lie for the purpose of preserving Sarah's life and therefore Abraham's family. There are several ways we might think about the "cost" of this lie, but it seems we must think about this cost as being inflicted more on the Egyptians than on Abraham or Sarah. It is the unyielding importance of preserving Abraham and Sarah (and their posterity) that seems to justify the lie. Although a little lie offered in order to preserve the lives of Abraham and Sarah might pale in comparison to the horror we feel at the thought of Abraham sacrificing his son, it nevertheless seems that at root we see the same kind of suspension of the ethical in both of these episodes. Furthermore, an important difference is that--if we join the Genesis account to this one--the unethical act in this case is carried out whereas the sacrifice of Isaac is not. So, although we might think about "God's nature" in such a way that it would never have allowed Abraham to slay his own son, the text here forces us to open ourselves to a God who is not bound by any narrow views of ethics. For anyone who has read about Nephi's slaying of Laban, this is not a new kind of irruption, since we see essentially the same thing occurring there. But in all this, I think I am just restating Kierkegaard. Is there anything new we can say about this?

Looking more carefully, we might notice that in both of these ethics-suspending accounts, we see an important role being played by family, records and priesthood. Nephi is told that God "slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a whole nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Ne 4:13). This seems familiar from our reading in Abraham 1:17 where God tells Abraham that he will destroy those that raise an arm against him "because they have turned their hearts away from me." And then in the next verse (Abr 1:18) God continues, "I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father." Again, it seems the Lord has little concern for those who are not interested in becoming part of the Priesthood community he is establishing. In describing an event, as it might be conceived ontologically, Adam said in his "Earthen Vessels" article (Element v. 1.2), "The world's horizons are forced to bend and twist in ways that reconfigure the rules according to which things get counted." Applying this thought to the Book of Abraham, it seems that only those that are willing to turn their hearts toward God will be counted--and we see that those that are not counted can in fact be destroyed and lied to....

More on Priesthood: In the previous chapter, we saw Priesthood discussed primarily in relation to the fathers. In this chapter, we see Priesthood discussed in terms of it becoming a blessing to all nations (v. 9 esp., but also key terms "ministry" and "Gospel" occur in vv. 6, 10, 11). This description of how the Priesthood will come to make other nations count seems quite interesting and important. We see Abraham, it seems, fleeing from land to land, wandering (as the children of Israel will later), encountering Babylon over and over again, praying--perhaps vainly--for those in Babylon, not only for his father with whom he must be close, but for the relative strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Going back and rereading the events related in Genesis, events which occur after this chapter leaves off, I'm more inclined to look carefully for how this policy of lying to those outside the newly-forming community plays out. It seems there is no honest or peaceful coexistence possible with Pharoah, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or even with Hagar and Ishmael. Only with Abimelech do we see the beginnings of a possibly peaceful and honest coexistence, though this seems to have come about contingently, as a result of Abimelech's fear of God. In Genesis 23 I think we finally see the beginnings of a peaceful and honest (relatively speaking, since much of the dickering we read about may just be for show...) coexistence that is not contingent on others having a fear of God. It is here, it seems, that we finally see the need to lie to others cease. It is here, that I think we see the seeds being planted for the fulfillment of the promise about the ministry of the Gospel going to all nations.

Of course there is much more of interest in this chapter that we could consider, and I'd encourage any discussion of these other passages, but I esp. want to encourage discussion of this tension between the trans-ethical commitment that God seems to have for Abraham and Sarah, even if it means sacrificing those that do not show any faithfulness toward God. How do you think this issue in this chapter might help us answer the 4-key seminar questions?

18 Comments:

Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I'd like to swallow up Robert's reading in a broader reading of chapter 2 (which will not be surprising for Robert). I really think this question of "lying for the Lord" is caught up into a broader reconfiguration of "the rules according to which things get counted." At home (I'm not at home as I'm writing), I have a kind of catalog of the differences between Gen 12 and Abr 2, and these differences follow an undeniable pattern. I'll retrieve that later and post what of it seems relevant. But the point of the whole of it seems to be this: Abraham's journey through Canaan towards Egypt is in Genesis the trek of the confused wanderer who attempts to fulfill God's promises to him, and in Abraham the trek of the confidently covenanted son/father who counsels with the Lord in a very direct way. In short, the Book of Abraham essentially undoes what Jim argues in his paper on Genesis, not by suggesting that these themes are not to be found in Genesis, but by trumping the Genesis text itself.

What fascinates me here is that one could call the distance between Genesis and Abraham the distance between the "mere" sign and the type. If this is taken back into our work on Abraham 1, how might we think about the place of typology and subjectivity, or of typology and the role of the grace/works distinction (or the uniquely LDS take on grace we have not yet worked out).

But I wander, here, too far from Robert's initial problematic: the suspension of the ethical. Might one read this last pericope of chapter 2 (and ultimately the last strictly narrative pericope in what we have of Abraham) as the climax of a series of typologically re-oriented bits of Genesis? That is, might one read the majority of chapter 2 as working towards the ethical dilemma of these last few verses? How might we think about the typological re-ordering of the ethical? How does this differ from "the teleological suspension of the ethical"? This might be a way of approaching Robert's problematic that avoids simply repeating Kierkegaard.

Perhaps it is worth bringing the historical question into all of this as well. There is evidence that Joseph translated all of chapters 1-2 except for this story about lying in 1835-6. It seems quite clear that the remainder of the Book of Abraham, and hence, the story about lying with it, was not translated until 1842. This raises a number of questions, to which some rather unorthodox answers have been given. The questions (without the unorthodox answers): Why the six-year gap? And why does Joseph return to the story by beginning with the story of lying, and specifically about marriage? Is there something of a gap between the content before this story and the content after? If there is, how is the lying story connected with the revelations in chapters 3-5? Why, if Joseph translated this story in 1842, does it remain half-done? Is Joseph giving us highlights of a much broader text, just the parts we are ready for? If so, are they in order? If so, how long before approaching Pharaoh's house does this revelation come, and why is it followed by the full-blown revelations to come? Does this collapse/typologization of the ethical dilemma open Abraham to the full revelation of things? Etc., etc., etc.

Obviously, there is much to sort out here. I'm very interested in seeing what we develop here.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Some scattered comments.

1. Robert says:

“It is also tempting to focus on Abraham's prayer for his father in verse 17. I think this is a very rich verse that makes me feel Abraham's (and so, symbolically, the Father's) deep pain regarding his father's unfaithfulness - a pain that is posited against the need to make a sharp break from Babylon in order to start something new.”

I appreciate your pointing out this verse in particular. It indicates, I agree, a deep tenderness of soul.

And, perhaps, it helps us to re-conceptualize the meaning of grace in a narrative that is both first-person and causally explicit. Perhaps a Mormon conception of grace shifts the emphasis from grace received to grace given? Rather than the theological emphasis falling squarely on God’s gifts of grace to Abraham, the emphasis is on Abraham’s yearning to grace the lives of others?

Though this is, I think, largely a matter of emphasis, narrative deployment, etc., rather than a substantial theological difference (maybe). The reception of gifts and the giving of gifts are two sides of the same coin and need to be thought together. For instance, the gift that is promised to Abraham in vs. 9 is that of the priesthood: that is, his gift is a gift of serving or “ministering to” others (others meaning: the whole world!). His gift is that, through him, “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (see 2.11).

Could we (too bluntly!) formulate a “Mormon” conception of grace this way: grace is received as grace only to the degree that it is given away graciously? (I.e., you can have/hold the light only by being a conduit for that light, a mirror that reflects it?)

This also strikes me as the central issue with respect to “posterity” and “seed,” which is the very core of the covenant at stake here. What structures our relation to our parents (and Parents) is the reception of a grace that could not have been earned or merited: life itself. Central to the proper assumption of this grace, to its proper reception, is the mirror (typological?) relation of giving that unmeritable grace (life itself) again to someone else.

Let’s put it this way. Where salvation is the proper assumption of unmeritable grace by the act of giving unmeritable grace, sin is the refusal of this original grace and the dependence that it so unremittingly marks (Pride! I can do it myself! On my own! I can merit my having been born! I can self-create!).

If sin is itself nothing other than a response to (a refusal of) an original, unmeritable grace (the gift of life from a parent to a child), then how could the drama of life and salvation and sin be anything other than the drama of the family itself?!? (And, here, I’m tempted to say: the Oedipus complex! – Properly understood, of course.) The gospel is nothing other than an attempt to work through the tangled complexities of the grace given to us from parents/Parents by taking up this grace as something that we ourselves give. Sin is refusing or economizing this grace – in our cases, either as a child or a parent. (Terah tries to economize the gift of life he gave to Abraham by calling in that chip through an aborted human sacrifice? Abraham marks no debts and wants nothing other than to save his father and endlessly give the gift of life to countless seed?)

2. Robert says:

“So, although we might think about ‘God's nature’ in such a way that it would never have allowed Abraham to slay his own son, the text here forces us to open ourselves to a God who is not bound by any narrow views of ethics.”

This nicely summarizes and recapitulates some our earlier concerns raised in particular by Genesis 22 and by Jeff’s earliest post. Reading Genesis and Abraham/Joseph Smith, I’ve just been struck again and again by how our expectations of God as flawlessly “ethical” simply don’t fit the text. God tends to show up in these stories as a more or less (super! but recognizably) “human” person. I agree that this can be theologically problematic, but it may be worth noting that it is something that the text itself is never (or rarely) worried about. It might be worth pursuing at length the question: why doesn’t this seem to be a problem within the text itself for the text itself? (Though the killing of Laban in 1 Nephi might be a notable exception – there seems to be some intra-textual hand-wringing there.)

3. Robert says:

“In describing an event, as it might be conceived ontologically, Adam said in his ‘Earthen Vessels’ article (Element v. 1.2), ‘The world's horizons are forced to bend and twist in ways that reconfigure the rules according to which things get counted.’ Applying this thought to the Book of Abraham, it seems that only those that are willing to turn their hearts toward God will be counted--and we see that those that are not counted can in fact be destroyed and lied to....”

I cite this snippet because: (1) as a rule I try to quote myself being quoted whenever possible, and because (2) I agree with Robert’s suggestion here, but would like to add a caveat or two.

In general, what the event does by recoding the rules according to which things get counted is that it forces the situation/world to include within its horizon that which had previously been excluded. In other words, though an evental-truth might be “militant” in its re-ordering of the situation, it does so for the sake of the situation and for the sake of everything that ought to be included – but isn’t.

To frame this in NT language: the event may make the last first and the first last, but it does so for the sake of both. Though it may not appear, at first, to the first that this reversal is to their benefit as well. What Jesus recognizes is that both the master and the slave need to be freed from slavery. Saying how that all works out here, however, would be a lot of work.

4. Joe says:

“What fascinates me here is that one could call the distance between Genesis and Abraham the distance between the ‘mere’ sign and the type.”

Maybe we could say: the difference between Genesis and Abraham is that, in the book of Abraham, Abraham is aware of his being a type? Whereas in Genesis, he is simply a type for us? Maybe.

5. Joe says:

”How might we think about the typological re-ordering of the ethical? How does this differ from ‘the teleological suspension of the ethical’? This might be a way of approaching Robert's problematic that avoids simply repeating Kierkegaard.”

I really like this way of framing a potential difference with Kierkegaard and think that it will be worth some more thought.

6. Joe also says:

“Perhaps it is worth bringing the historical question into all of this as well. There is evidence that Joseph translated all of chapters 1-2 except for this story about lying in 1835-6. It seems quite clear that the remainder of the Book of Abraham, and hence, the story about lying with it, was not translated until 1842.”

This has always been central to my understanding of this section of the book of Abraham. Though this raises questions about what exactly Joseph means by “translating,” we can legitimately address the issue at least in terms of the way that revelation and the specificity of an urgent need for that revelation in the current situation intersect with each other. This certainly seems to be the case here.

In many ways, however, this intersection sharpens all of the “ethical” dilemmas we’ve addressed so far and that Robert raises in this post as well. I don’t lose much sleep about Abraham lying to the pharaoh about who he is or isn’t married to, but I’m likely to lay with my eyes open a few more minutes at night when the same question applies to Joseph Smith. At any rate, the sheer specificity of the revelatory fit between this addition to Abraham and Joseph’s own tangled circumstances circa 1842 strikes me as terribly important both for the text and for the general issue.

My best,
Adam

12:28 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Great thoughts, as always--tough to keep up.

Adam, I've esp. been thinking about this grace-given / grace-received bit you've expressed so well. I was already thinking about this from my Sunday school reading, so it was a bit uncanny reading your thoughts. Here's some discussion I just posted at the Feast blog (feebly) trying to think about this in light of Matt 16:18. Also, I didn't mention this there, but I also have your marriage paper in firmly in mind, how being given a new name might be symbolic of being married to Christ and creating something that is genuinely and everlastingly new, and yet maintaining or even establishing a difference, in the sense you describe.

(I think D&C 88:32-33 might also help us read this gift bit better in Abraham, though I need to think about all this much more....)

8:21 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

I think the discussion here about re-orienting the ethical versus suspending the ethical is quite interesting, but I wonder if it's what the text is doing. In the two non-Isaac cases mentioned (Nephi and Laban, Sarah's lying) the text, if we are now using the Abraham account, doesn't seem to suspend the ethical so much as give us other ethical principles through which to justify the act. In both cases, the Lord seems to give patently consequentialist reasons for his action: the greater good will result from an act which, all else equal, would be immoral. Believe me: there's no one who would be more inclined not have utilitarianism or consequentialism enshrined in holy writ than I am, but God here seems to be doing just that. Nephi is told that Laban's murder will result in a greater good and is thus justified and that Sarah's lie will result in Abraham's survival and is thus justified. These two cases seem less like re-orienting of the ethical as they do a case of the Lord giving Nephi and Abraham exceptions to general ethical principles. (One could make the argument that the ethical is re-oriented in that, whereas Abraham seems to be operating from a deontological ethical structure, God commands him to abandon it in favor of another. It would be interesting to see textual evidence for the kind of ethical theory one thinks Abraham is operating under prior to these events and what he operates under after them.)

To me, this makes it all the more interesting that no plausible ethical theory I am aware of can justify God's command to Isaac. In other difficult cases, one can respond with fairly straightforward (or at least fairly common) ethical reasoning. In Isaac's case, nothing plausible seems to suffice.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jeff,

I agree and I think your final comment nicely points out the way that it may be impossible to describe the akedah as anything ethical (re-oriented or otherwise).

This is, in part, Kierkegaard's position: the full ethical force of the command not to murder must remain in play if the (attempted) sacrifice is to have any spiritual validity. Though I get the impression that you might not agree with Kierkegaard that the ethical conundrum is a good thing. I'm sure we'll have to discuss this at length soon enough.

I wonder, in light of our Abraham 3 discussion, if this doesn't lead us to think of God as engaged (necessarily) in a kind of ethical bricolage? Doing the best with pieces available, despite their fit being far from optimal?

Is our desire for a flawlessly unconditional ethical procedure the result of bad metaphysics? Of choosing a classically metaphysical One over the more properly Mormon metaphysics of a material infinity? Is this will to the One over an infinite Two itself a product of a sinful disposition?

At any rate, I'm generally in agreement with you: I'd much rather have my ethics served with a dash of the deontological than with a utilitarian flavor.

My best,
Adam

9:48 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

(Please pardon the long post: I find moral dilemmas unbelievably interesting.)

The basic problem seems to stem from our desire to have a uniquely action-guiding moral theory. That is, we want an ethical theory that gives us all and only correct results and, recently, these results generally have to coincide with our “moral intuitions” (this latter requirement is particularly at odds with any religious tradition which sees human beings as fallen or flawed). This desire aims at the creation of a moral “science,” where all and only the phenomena are predicted.

There is great intuitive and psychological appeal to this desire—what could be better than to have some kind of formula or algorithm where one inputs circumstances, intentions, and perhaps consequences and a moral “output” is generated: obligatory, permissible, impermissible? Moreover, if such an theory can be formulated, moral disagreements become ultimately disagreements about less hoary creatures than values such as psychological states and other facts. When you and I have all of the relevant data in, we can both come to the same ethical conclusion or, failing that, one of us can be rightly accused of irrationality. On this view, there is always a right side to be on in moral debates, and it’s a side that rational third-party observers can determine.

I would imagine that most of us on this blog are fairly unsympathetic to the view that such a moral science is possible and, more strongly, that it is desirable. There seems to be something to tension, difference, and the anxiety that they produce that make human life what it is. But we also give something up in abandoning this theory. For one, we face a dilemma: either we say that our inability to find this theory is ultimately an epistemological matter or we say that there is something in the nature of reality that makes this so. For the former, when end up acting occasionally in inexplicable ways, when, as Kierkegaard points out, the hallmark of the ethical is that it is shareable. I for one am highly suspicious of claims involving objectively wrong actions that are somehow justified but not in a way that I have access to. I suppose this means that I would put Abraham in jail. More importantly, it makes our ethical life seem at least occasionally irrational if not fundamentally irrational. Most Mormons I know would be loathe to admit this claim; until recently, I’ve always heard that there was a reason (and not just one relying on divine stipulation) that coffee is impermissible while hot chocolate at the same temperature is not, but that God chose not to reveal it. This is much different claim from the one that we’d be required to go with here, that God couldn’t reveal it, at least to such persons as ourselves.

The other path, holding that this inability is part of the nature of reality, has it’s own problems. For one, it seems to require changes to the definitions of our moral terms. If a theory is not uniquely action-guiding, that means that there are some actions for which it either generates no results or generates more than one result. But what would it mean for an action to be neither obligatory, nor permissible, nor impermissible? Worse still, what would it mean for an action to be obligatory and impermissible? Here we seem stuck with outright contradictions, not just difficult practical consequences. The existence of genuine moral dilemmas—one action that is obligatory and impermissible—seems straightforwardly self-contradictory. But an ethical theory that is not uniquely action-guiding leans heavily in that direction, particularly if we see the problem as lying in nature rather than in ourselves.

To me, Abraham’s case is an (empirical? actual?) example of precisely such a moral dilemma. He both should and should not kill Isaac. But I admit that that this example leaves me with nothing but an abyss, facing outright contradiction on one side or the straightforward abandonment of ethical language on the other. Perhaps that’s why I find Kierkegaard (and Abraham) so simultaneously enthralling and revolting: the paradox seems built into the heart of reality but, as Nagel said about the prospect of theism, “I don’t want the universe to be like that.” What do we do though, as Adam hints at, if we are “stuck”—thrown—in just such a universe?

1:37 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Interesting issues Jeff, I look forward to digging into all this more deeply during our Kierkegaard reading. A couple quick thoughts in passing:

1. I think it's worth thinking carefully about how the Book of Abraham recasts the Genesis ethical dilemma. The fact that Abraham was on the verge of being sacrificed himself significantly weakens the ethical tension of Genesis 22 on my reading. That is, child-sacrifice to gods did not seem to be an unheard of practice back then like it is for us now. (Of course this raises other fascinating hermeneutic questions, like how are modern readers in general supposed to read an ancient and very foreign text in a meaningful way?)

2. I have only a very superficial understanding of ethics in the analytic tradition, but your post has me wondering all over again about this Continental/analytic divide. I recently read Critchley's A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy, and throughout the book he casts the difference in terms of knowledge and wisdom, which we might translate as faith and reason. So I'm inclined to think of Kierkegaard's notion of faith as flying directly in the face of an analytic-view of ethics. I know my understanding is extremely oversimplified, so I'm anxious to become better educated, and I hope you will help me out (either here or perhaps on lds-phil or even lds-herm).

3. Since I don't see how we can meaningfully read the Akedah from an analytic ethical perspective (without effectively putting Abraham in jail, or perhaps arguing for a radically society-based, contingent ethic, building on my #1 above...), I'm left thinking more in terms of a Levinasian relation/obligation-to-the-other type of ethic. What strikes me as the main difficulty from this perspective is how one should know whether a call to do something is really a call from God (and a call that should be heeded) vs. a self-deception, or a call from a party that should not be heeded. And I think this question is basically the question of the Third, something I have basically no understanding about in Levinas.

4. Regarding a utilitarian ethic, I don't see that the given utilitarian explanations necessitate a utilitarian ethic. Abraham and Nephi obey not because of the explanation given, but because God is asking them to do it--the explanation, on this more Levinasian/relation-to-God view, might be interpreted more as a crutch for their faith, or some such thing. However, I do find it very interesting and significant that these explanations are given in the Mormon texts whereas the Genesis text is more silent. I take it back, in the Genesis account the reader is given a sort of explanation, albeit after the fact, it's just that this explanation is given in terms of faith ("fear of God" more specifically). This is fascinating and I think gets again at the crux of the matter: how can faith be explained? Isn't this the same question all the Continentals keep asking in one form or another: what can coherently be said about faith beyond the fact that it is incoherent-to-the-mind a la Kierkegaard, what does it mean to be a la Heidegger, what does it mean to respond to an incomprehensible other a la Levinas, how can we approach God iconically rather than idolotrously a la Marion, etc. Furthermore, I think this is the main issue underlying questions 3 and 4 of this seminar. (I'm afraid I'm stating the obvious here, but it's very helpful for me to try to restate these questions and issues as I see them recurring, esp. since I'm so new to thinking about these things--so thanks for indulging me everyone....)

9:34 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

"Is our desire for a flawlessly unconditional ethical procedure the result of bad metaphysics? Of choosing a classically metaphysical One over the more properly Mormon metaphysics of a material infinity? Is this will to the One over an infinite Two itself a product of a sinful disposition?"

Adam, I think I vaguely follow what you're saying here, but I suspect I'm not the only one that would appreciate some elaboration on this One vs. infinite Two. I've been trying to follow this discussion between you and Joe, but I only have a hazy notion of what you're getting at. I take it you are associating a complete and coherent ethical "system" with a One type of view. It's less clear to me make sense of "an infinite Two," esp. as it relates to this ethical dilemma we're discussing. I take it you mean something like Jim's notion of an unconditional covenant that he mentions in his Akedah paper, or the idea you're getting at in your paper on marriage. In this sense, I think I follow what you're getting at. But, again, this only makes sense to me in the absence of a Third, and I tend to think about ethics in terms of a way to mediate these third-party interests in particular, and I don't see how this infinite Two addresses the problem of the Third. (Perhaps I'm more or less understanding you, and I'm just restating the main unanswered issues we're trying to get at; however, I suspect I'm missing much of what you're trying to say....)

9:54 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I really like the way Robert has recast this: a kind of deontology remains (in the direct command), and what appears as a kind of utilitarianism is rather an attempt (on God's part!) to explain faith (phenomenologically?).

But let me recast it further. Might God be, rather than explaining (doing something ultimately abstract, theoretical [outlining alternate futures?], or even philosophical), doing (doing something concrete, etc.) with His words? In other words, might His words be taken, not as laying out reasons for the commandment, but as imposing the commandment in a particular way?

Let me articulate a possible way of reading this into the story by taking up something Nibley says (I think it was in his article "Patriarchy and Matriarchy"). Because the words of concern about death and of hope about Abraham's soul living are here in the mouth of God, they establish a particular relationship between Abraham and Sarah: Abraham's life is contingent on Sarah's willingness to obey the Lord (and only through Abraham... boy does this make me think of Emma!). That is, God's way of putting the commandment puts Abraham at Sarah's mercy, a mercy she is to extend by putting herself at his (to obey her husband).

Let me see if I can draw all the richness of this reading into a single statement. The dilemma, then, is ultimately Sarah's: is she willing in infinite grace to give up autonomy by accepting the mediatory role of her husband, an acceptance she is to confirm precisely by verbally denying her marriage before the world and thereby putting herself at the risk of rape or adultery, and all of this to save this poor, wandering, fatherless, childless (was she barren, or was he, anyway?) man (and she, a princess!)?

I think I know where I'd like to focus my own writing when we get to that point....

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

Robert,

1b. I guess I’ve been focused more on the tension that the story of Abraham and Isaac puts me in rather than on the tension Abraham himself may have felt when given the command. It’s true that child sacrifice may have been common in Abraham’s day and in his surroundings, as his horrifying account with his father shows. But the horror I feel stems more from the fact that I see child sacrifice as morally wrong regardless of the prevailing cultural or societal winds. So I’m continually drawn back to the tension of God commanding the unethical, the sacrifice of an innocent child.

I also think that Abraham’s experience could actually speak in favor of this tension: after all, if he had been through the undoubtedly horrifying experience of being nearly put to death, he may be much more unwilling to put his beloved son through the same event. Perhaps you could argue that Abraham knew that just as he had been delivered so too would Isaac be delivered. But I think Kierkegaard’s right on this issue: unless Abraham actually believes he will have to kill Isaac, the situation becomes utterly ridiculous, with God commanding Abraham to go through the motions of killing Isaac without ever actually planning on killing Isaac.

(None of this speaks to your parenthetical remark, which I take to be very important: what role should the “original intent” (for lack of a better term) play in our reading of scripture?” If we don’t want to get into hoary issues of authorial intent, then another issue could simply be “Can scriptures which were written 2500 years ago to dramatically different audiences be said to be meaningful today without serious eisegesis?”)

2b. There’s no doubt that the story of Abraham and Isaac flies in the face of “analytic” ethics (let me stress here my misgivings about such a term—any set which seems to includes both utilitarian and deontological theories should give us pause before thinking it is particularly meaningful). Kant explicitly wrote that Abraham should have replied to God that while he (Abraham) could not be certain that it was God who was speaking to him, he could be certain that he should not kill his son. I’m not aware of any utilitarian treatments of the issue, but it seems pretty clear that on a utilitarian reading the harm done by killing Isaac (the loss of untold generations, the physical pain he would feel, Abraham’s guilt?) would greatly outweigh the benefits (God learns something about Abraham, God gets some kind of sick pleasure?). I would wager that rule utilitarians would be even more likely to label the action immoral, although classical utilitarian arguments against murder seem fairly unpersuasive to me.

I’m not sure about the comparison between faith and reason and knowledge and wisdom, so I can’t help there. If it came from Critchley it’s probably pretty fair.

Kierkegaard’s notion of faith, which necessarily requires absurdity on my reading, would not be palatable to analytic philosophers (although Wittgenstein in particular seems to have found something quite interesting in Kierkegaard’s work, but his relationship to contemporary analytic philosophy is pretty complicated and his religious views have not been particularly influential (at least as my limited readings have shown)). I think one possible argument would go something like this: faith requires belief, and it is impossible to believe in something which one knows to be absurd. Thus, Kierkegaardian faith is impossible. Kierkegaard, for his part, would probably be more than happy to hear that faith is impossible (or at least Johannes de Silentio might be), but analytic philosophers would probably just see this as further evidence to stop reading Kierkegaard. To their lights, the law of non-contradiction is inviolable and Kierkegaard seems at least to skate dangerously close to it if he doesn’t “leap” directly over it. “I believe it because it is absurd” is quite possibly the strangest thing one can imagine coming out of the mouth of an analytic philosopher.

3b. I guess I’d like to know more about what counts as an analytic reading and what counts as a meaningful reading of the Akedah. I’d like to find a reading of the Akedah that makes sense of the notion that an all-good God commands an evil act, but I’m suspicious of any attempt which tries to remove the evil of what God commands. I don’t know whether an analytic account can offer that or not (I’m not sure that a Continental reading could, either.) As far as a Levinasian reading, my questions about your suggestions would be, Why should I always heed a call from God, particularly if that call seems as absurd and immoral as the call in Abraham’s case? Also, how do we rank the relative merits of different calls? We can complicate the Akedah story by seeing Isaac not as willing participant but as captured lamb. Should Abraham have obeyed God’s call in that case? Why not Isaac’s call? If we want to talk about “the Third,” why not the call of Isaac’s unborn children? I guess I’m trying to say that even if we can work out the epistemological problem of knowing when God’s calling you, there remains (at least by my lights) the deontological problem of knowing where one’s duties lie. I have a hard time seeing a way to demand Abraham obey when we routinely praise soldiers for disobeying immoral or illegal orders, and rightly so.

4b. I’m not sure I entirely understand the account here. It sounds like God gives Nephi and Abraham commands without any kind of reasoning behind them, and then, when Nephi’s and Abraham’s faith is lacking, God gives them reasons that aren’t the reasons for which He actually is commanding them but rather reasons that will help them get over their inhibitions. I hope I’m not creating a straw man here. If this is the view, I think complications arise. One, questions arise about why God actually did command them. Is there a reason? Does it matter? Most Latter-day Saints, in my experience, prefer to think of God as a rational being. This may be wrong, and He may not be always rational, but saying He sometimes just commands things troubles me. If there is a reason but it isn’t the utilitarian reason given here, why not give the real reason? Why couldn’t God say, “Well, Laban et al. have already proven they aren’t going to become part of my covenant community, so they cease to have moral status and can be dealt with at my whim in order to bring about what I want for my covenant community”? Obviously the language here is overly rhetorical, but it seemed like that was the gist of the first post about why God could deal harshly with Laban, the Egyptians, and perhaps all the rest of the people in the Bible whose deaths seem utterly unjustifiable by contemporary notions of capital punishment. I find this response troubling, because I don’t like to think that people’s moral status qua people changes because they refuse God. I don’t know if that was actually the claim, but it sounded troublingly close enough to me that I would like to discuss it. (Perhaps the claim was that the scriptures seem to take this position but that this position does not thereby acquire normative status. If so, which scriptures can we rely on for guidance in our moral lives?)

4:17 PM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

Joe,

Is there a distinguishing feature in the case of the lie that is not present in the Akedah such that, while in the former Sarah ultimately holds the dilemma while in the latter Abraham, not Isaac, does? It seems to me that if Sarah becomes the ethical decision maker in the first instance then Isaac becomes it in the second. But Abraham, not Isaac, is the father of faith. What am I missing here?

I think your idea of God not giving an explanation but rather “imposing the commandment in a particular way” is intriguing, but I’m having difficulty cashing it out. What is the different way in which God is imposing the commandment in the case of Nephi that he doesn’t impose it in other situations where he commands murder but gives no reason (is there such a case, scripturally?)

4:28 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

[Adam, thanks for the new 'recent comments' widget, very helpful!]

Jeff,

1c. I think you're right that this horror-we-feel-today is important to address, regardless of how horrifying it was for Abraham. And good point about the ways Abraham is likely more horrified b/c of his own experience.

2c. I imagine we'll come up against this tension over and over as we move forward. I'm inclined to think in terms of a utility function where an infinite weight is being placed on some notion of fidelity to God (a rule?), and that somehow this 'proving of Abraham' is so important that all other considerations are an order of magnitude less significant.

3c. You say, "I’m suspicious of any attempt which tries to remove the evil of what God commands." I think this puts the issue well: what is at stake is how Abraham views that which is good. And I think this is where Abraham 3 might be taken to help: if God is "greater than them all" then there's a certain sense in which it makes sense to trust Him to decide what is good, even when (esp. when!) it flies in the face of what we think is good. I think this 'man is nothing' relative to God that is the most striking 'doctrine' in the Pearl of Great Price. (Also, I think the 'greater than them all' forms an interesting contrast to the 'descended below them all' notion of Atonement; this might be taken up a bit more analytically as a sort of basis for why we should put an infinite weight on fidelity to God: only He can see all that needs to be seen in order to confidently make an informed ethical decision....)

4c. Good points here. Roughly, I'm thinking more along the lines of the following: "Nephi kill Laban." "But God, that's morally reprehensible!" "Look, Nephi, you're a puny mortal with a myopic view of ethics. Consider, for example, the reverberating effects on the unborn generations--if you consider that carefully, you should be more morally reprehensed by the harm that Laban's wickedness is causing to these innocent future children! But that's just a 'for example'. The point is, you need to learn to trust me. True, I want you to learn to develop your own ethical sensibilities, but it's infinitely more important that you learn first to know what you don't know and to implicitly trust someone who knows more than you when they give you advice.

OK, that was much more cheesey than I intended, but it would take too much effort to restate in some way that is less embarrassing to me....

2:50 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Jeff's question to Joe about other scriptural accounts of murder brought to mind Phinehas. I was wondering about this a while ago in studying the phrase "counted for righteousness" which is used to describe Abraham's faith in Gen 15:6. I think the scriptures that use this phrase are quite fascinating, esp. from a phenomenological/intentions-focused perspective--that is, I think these passages mkae a connection between intent and fidelity which outweighs/outstrips a narrow results-based or ethics-based view....

3:02 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

(Psalm 106:31 uses the "counted to him for righteousness" phrase to describe Phineas's acts, which are described in Numbers 25:6-8.)

3:07 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I think part of the difficulty here is that we are drawing together three stories that are each quite different from the others: Abraham 2; Genesis 22; and 1 Nephi 4. Abr 2 and 1 Ne 4 are similar in that there is some kind of "explanation" of the command, but this is not present in Gen 22. Gen 22 and 1 Ne 4 are similar in that there is murder at work, bu tthis is not present in Abr 2. Abr 2 and Gen 22 are similar in that Abraham is the main character, but that is not the case in 1 Ne 4.

In the end, the only theme that ties these three stories together is an apparent disruption of the ethical. But I think we need to be careful not to let this apparently unity overthrow the powerful disunities at work among the stories. If we are going to think the nature of the suspended ethical, we need to think it in three different stories, not according to an amalgamated story.

In short, we need to think quite a bit harder about each story before we can bring them to bear on each other in any meaningful way. We have not yet done this, and our work is therefore premature.

Another way to put this same point is to say that each of these stories certainly puts us in tension, but they all do it in very different ways. Isaac and Laban are hardly comparable, lying and murder are hard to conflate, and the relationship between Abraham's two experiences is complex at best (is it typological? antithetical? serial? simply the result of a redactor's hand? etc.).

7:06 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

(Let me add just that the point of that last comment is not to discourage or disparage in any way, but to clarify and so to urge on to better, more directly engaging work. I have a tendency, I've found, to end conversations when I mean precisely to encourage them to go forward more carefully.)

7:07 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Now, let me respond more directly to the responses directed to me!

Jeff asks: "Is there a distinguishing feature in the case of the lie that is not present in the Akedah such that, while in the former Sarah ultimately holds the dilemma while in the latter Abraham, not Isaac, does? It seems to me that if Sarah becomes the ethical decision maker in the first instance then Isaac becomes it in the second. But Abraham, not Isaac, is the father of faith. What am I missing here?"

I don't think you're missing anything here. Rather, I think you just opened up another quite fascinating facet of the Akedah. Abraham's fidelity is dependent upon Isaac's willingness (which is why we call it the Akedah, the binding). In fact, one might suggest that there is a similarity between the lie and the murder, in that it was Abraham's life that was in jeopardy in both cases: Abraham had seen first hand what happens to the would-be sacrificer when deliverance comes from the Lord. In other words, if Abraham expected Isaac somehow to be delivered, he probably would have expected it to be effected with by his own death. But this perhaps amounts to a reversal of the Sarah situation: Isaac's willingness to be bound and laid on the altar essentially effects Abraham's death (though it is miraculously saved), while Sarah's willingness to be bound and laid on the altar was to save him. Perhaps there is a crescendo here, then? In the first "ethical dilemma," Abraham is given to Sarah's grace in order to live, and he knows it. In the second "ethical dilemma," Abraham is given to Isaac's grace in order to live, but he thinks that he is given to Isaac's grace in order to die. Knowledge in the first instance gives way to complete mystery in the second. There is certainly more to think about here.

Jeff writes: "I think your idea of God not giving an explanation but rather “imposing the commandment in a particular way” is intriguing, but I’m having difficulty cashing it out. What is the different way in which God is imposing the commandment in the case of Nephi that he doesn’t impose it in other situations where he commands murder but gives no reason (is there such a case, scripturally?)"

Here I think we'd have to look more carefully at Nephi's story (re: my comment about conflating the several stories above). For example, it is not apparently what the Lord says to Nephi that gets him to murder Laban. It is the reasoning that Nephi works out on his own (1 Nephi 4:13 is the Lord's reasoning, and verses 14-18 are Nephi's... quite a bit longer and more logical). Nephi's own reflections while holding the sword of Laban center on the earlier covenant given to him in 1 Ne 2:19-24, and the language of his reasoning plays a rather important part in a three-chapter development of the meaning of the word "commandments": it comes both as a climax and as a moment of profound irony. But I'm not sure that the point is primarily to be understood as an ethical question, textually at least (that is, for Nephi). The question to ask, then, is what the "reasoning" of verse 13 does for Nephi, and how it fits into the words the Spirit speaks: how does the Spirit's wording impose the commandment on Nephi? Might it serve simply as a reminder of the earlier wording of the covenant?

Robert says: "Jeff's question to Joe about other scriptural accounts of murder brought to mind Phinehas. I was wondering about this a while ago in studying the phrase "counted for righteousness" which is used to describe Abraham's faith in Gen 15:6. I think the scriptures that use this phrase are quite fascinating, esp. from a phenomenological/intentions-focused perspective--that is, I think these passages mkae a connection between intent and fidelity which outweighs/outstrips a narrow results-based or ethics-based view...."

This is especially important in view of Jacob 4, since Jacob uses precisely this language in describing the Akedah. Moroni 7 picks up the theme as well. When it occurs in Gen 15, it translated the Hebrew hshb, which is the Hebrew verb "to think" (or as close as one gets to thinking in Hebrew), which might point to the responsiveness of the "counting" here ("counting" is always responsive in nature, isn't it?). But to phrase it this way throws us into the difficulties of thinking typology. Gerhard von Rad centers his understanding of NT typology in the Joseph story's phrase "What you intended for evil, the Lord intended for good." In a sense, this well describes everything we had to say together about the Genesis story as we read it: Abraham was trying to do everything on his own, with all his will to power, and God nonetheless turned it around and took it up for good. But isn't this some distance from the Book of Abraham versions? Here Abraham responds more faithfully. In a sense, we could say that the typological relation has already been brought to completion in the process of translation/writing. Perhaps.... More to think about here, Robert.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Joe, good points.

Looking again at 1 Nephi 4, I'm fascinated with the similarities (though I don't want to detract from the important differences!) between 1 Ne 4:14ff and Abr 2:25. In both texts we see the direct revelation given from God added to, and this adding-to is cast in terms of family preservation. In both cases it seems that what appears as unethical is nevertheless God's will precisely because it will allow the family unit to continue. We've noted this before, but this family-centric ethic (and a third case in Gen 22:15ff) is what strikes me as a significant point of contact in all three of these stories: preserving God's family is what is presented as ethical, and it seems any other type of ethic will fail according to God's standards.

I agree that by taking these accounts up solely in terms of this ethical perspective we are running the risk of doing violence to their more important meanings, but I till think these similarities are rather striking and will prove fruitful even after we consider the unique voices of each text more carefully....

12:00 PM  

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