The enigma of Abraham and Isaac

In my opinion, there is only so much one can learn from simply reading the Bible alone. To get real value out of the Bible, you have to participate in a Bible study.

Otherwise, it’s too easy to cheat. For example, for years I simply ignored verses or whole chapters in the Bible that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want to think about a God who wanted blood rituals or human sacrifices.

In fact, I tended to avoid the Old Testament, preferring the personification of God as being the loving, kind, and forgiving Jesus, not the apparently cruel and  vacillating Yahweh of the Old Testament. Once upon a time, I was kicked out of one Bible study group after saying that Yahweh and Jesus almost seemed to be two different Gods.

But later, in a different, much smaller group that studied the book of Genesis painstakingly line by line, I was forced to confront a chapter than had always bothered me. Bible study inspired me to turn the story into a chapter in my first published book.

In Divine Evolution there is a chapter called “Misunderstanding God”, which begins by quoting the first verse of Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited, which reinterprets the story from Genesis 22:

Ah, God said to Abraham, Kill me a son
Abe say "Man, you must be puttin' me on."
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but 
The next time you see me comin' you'd better run.
Well Abe say, "Where you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

The song gives Dylan’s colorful interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac — but the central fact remains unchanged. It was a great honor that the future Nobel Prize winner in Literature would so graciously grant me permission to quote him in my book for the nominal fee of $100 — well worth the price, in my opinion. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard charged me $5 more to quote a verse from one of their songs, and I won’t complain about that, either.

Loosely translated, the song describes what Genesis 22 says. No one can deny the obvious, which is that God ordered Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and offer his only son Isaac, as a human sacrifice. Now, why would Yahweh, assuming He exists and is a benevolent creator, make such a deplorable demand?

As literally told, the story seems horrific. Yahweh appears to be capricious and unimaginably cruel. And Abraham acts somewhat doltish. Why doesn’t Abraham protest, or even question whether or not God really wants Isaac to be killed and burned as an offering?

Keep in mind that later, in the book of Judges, Gideon asks for multiple signs with dew and fleece to confirm that he’s actually received God’s command. But with far more at stake Abraham is told to kill his son in a murder ritual, and he gets up early the next morning, without a word of protest, determined to follow those incomprehensible instructions from Yahweh without hesitation.

Why? It seems that at least these five possibilities exist, and maybe more.

  1. The story is false.  God, Abraham and Isaac could be fictional characters. We may safely assume that the incident never occurred.
  2. The story isn’t meant to be read literally, but is allegorical.
  3. The story is true, but nonsensical. God is both creator and destroyer.
  4. The story is (sort of) true and accurate. Abraham was delusional, and had murderous intent toward his own son. Only through divine intervention was a tragedy averted.
  5. The story is true, accurate, and extraordinarily concise. Only by reading previous chapters, and making a few logical assumptions, can we have the story make sense and be true.

Atheists and secular readers usually gravitate toward the first alternative as the most plausible and consider the last option as least likely.

Option #1 is the simplest, and therefore the easiest explanation to believe on face value. Did the author believe the story was true or know the story was false because he was making it up? As the published author of three novels as well as three nonfiction books, I can attest to the fact that writing nonfiction is much easier. Research is not hard. Making up a plausible story from one’s imagination is much more difficult. The third and fourth options are both problematic because they acknowledge the existence of a creator, but offer no explanatory value. Neither the story itself nor the subject make any sense.

And Christians ought to be troubled by all five of these options, shouldn’t they?

Not in my opinion. According to my theory (that originated in Bible study) the fifth and final option is the reasonable answer, and therefore is probably correct.

Of course that would mean the story is essentially true and accurate, but extremely concise because the author doesn’t want to say things that paint Abraham, the father of Israel. in a negative light.

The key to this interpretation lies in what isn’t there — any sort of justification or detailed explanation of why God would test Abraham this way.

After all, isn’t this the same Yahweh who abhors the worshipers of Baal for their child sacrifices?  Is it safe to assume Yahweh only loathes child sacrifices to other gods? Interestingly, the Bible prefaces its description of the incident found in Genesis Chapter 22 with these words: “Some time later God tested Abraham.”

Some time later than what? Herein lies the beauty of Bible study, chapter by chapter, line by line.

Read the last section of Genesis 21.  It tells the seemingly banal story of a treaty made between Abraham and Abimelech the Philistine, at the well called Beersheba. The account includes one rather odd detail. Abraham accuses some of Abimelech’s people of stealing a well he claims to have dug, and demands return of the well as part of the treaty. Abimelech denies any knowledge of the issue. Then for no apparent reason, to placate Abimilech and sweeten the deal (while swearing that he was being truthful) Abraham sets aside seven ewe lambs to give Abimilech as part of the deal.

Did Abraham rightfully own the well?  If so, why would he offer to pay for a well that he already owned?

It’s also very interesting to note what the author of Genesis 21 says about Abimilech’s reaction to the last minute inclusion of the well into the treaty — he was afraid of Abraham’s God, so he didn’t argue the facts. With the application of deductive reasoning, it seems that Abraham may not have only been the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes, he may have also been the father of tough negotiations and driving the hard bargain.  Genesis 21:33 doesn’t elaborate. It simply reads, “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the eternal God.”

A plethora of questions spring into mind, such as….why were these two stories included in the Bible? What is the significance of the treaty with Abimelech?  Why mention the added detail of the disputed well? Could this be the reason God decided to test Abraham? 

And what the heck is a tamarisk tree?

Tamarisk tree, but not Abraham

My theory, which is sheer speculation based not on what’s in the Bible, but what isn’t there, nevertheless seems to provide the only rational explanation that might tie these two accounts together and “justify” the near sacrifice of Isaac.

If we ever do agree that my theory to explain the enigma of Abraham and Isaac is reasonable, there will be plenty of other stories need that need to be studied in order to gain some measure of understanding. The Bible is a mysterious book that describes a mysterious creator God. It is an indispensable tool in our search for truth, and answer to the existential questions.

Why were we created?  Is there a reason we exist? Does humanity serve some unknown purpose?  

Inquiring minds want to know…

Contemplating the crucifixion and resurrection

cross_2Unless these are the first words I’ve written that you’ve ever read, you probably know that I’m not particularly shy about admitting that I consider myself a Christian.

By that, I mean specifically that I believe Jesus really lived roughly two thousand years ago, and was crucified and died on a cross.

Furthermore, I believe that God raised him from the grave, and Jesus ascended into heaven, just like the Bible says.

And today is Easter Sunday, the holiest day on the Christian calendar. In my opinion, it’s not a bad idea to contemplate the resurrection on an Easter Sunday.

On the basic points concerning Christian beliefs, I believe it is safe to say that the vast majority of other people who considers themselves a Christian would agree with me about the divinity of Jesus, and that his resurrection really happened.

Where we may or may not agree is on the question of why Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. Those who, on faith, accept the Bible is literally true, and without error will assert the answer is original sin — in other words, it’s Adam and Eve’s fault for listening to Satan, and partaking from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I will admit that I have my doubts about that particular belief, but I will explain why in a moment.

My approach to reading the Bible is rather straightforward — I assume that what I am reading is true. The problem with that approach, of course, is the content of the Bible itself. How do you reconcile when two accounts contradict each other?

There are clearly instances where the same story is told more than once, but the details changed from one version to another. In fact, one has to look no farther than the first two chapters of Genesis to find two separate accounts of the creation story.

In Genesis 2 God creates Adam and Eve, and then animals. The creation order is reversed in Genesis 1. How can both chapters literally be true and disagree with each other?

There are also “problematic” stories, like the one I have called the enigma of Abraham and Isaac. A literal interpretation of the story without proper context can lead one to ask some very uncomfortable questions about God — such as, why would God do such a thing?

Why would the Creator of life demand that Abraham sacrifice his only son? A superficial reading of the story makes God appear to be capricious and  unnecessarily cruel, which may cause the reader to develop a misunderstanding of God.

Back to the concept of original sin — what exactly are the issues I have with it?

My first problem: the perception it creates of God as being unjust, cruel, and vindictive. Would a loving and compassionate God really inflict eternal punishment on an innocent person for the crime of another? The Bible also says that there are none righteous, not a single person, and that all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. Those I can believe, but the idea of original sin simply makes no sense to me.

Probably nothing offends our modern sense of injustice that the idea of an innocent man being executed for the crime of another person. Frankly, it would be grotesquely unfair for God to condemn me to Hell for something Adam did.

On the other hand, it isn’t difficult for me to realize that by the standards set by God and Jesus the Christ, I richly deserve hell for some of the things I’ve done. The nature of Adam does indeed live inside me — sinful things like pride, vanity, and greed. Furthermore, the capacity to lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, and even murder exists within every human.

Our second greatest gift from God after life, is free will. Humans can choose between right and wrong, moral over immoral, and good over evil.  We can resist the temptation to do the wrong thing, if we want.

In reality, Adam has become our scapegoat, humanity’s excuse for failing to live up to God’s expectations. We deserve hell for what we do to each other, and not because of Adam.

My second problem with original sin: the story of Noah and the flood — why didn’t the flood wash it away, along with the majority of humankind?

Why wouldn’t Noah and his family have been given a clean slate on original sin at that point? Does God really hold that much of a grudge against humanity? What exactly was in that piece of fruit that condemned us all?

Third, there is the problem of all the people who lived between Adam and Jesus — how are they supposed to get into heaven? Jesus specifically said that he came to earth for the Jews. What about all the Gentiles, before the crucifixion? Did God really care less about them than he cared for the Jews?

It is true that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies of the Hebrews, but Jesus really came for the whole world, because that is what God created.

Finally, there is what I call the “parent” problem: I have a son, and I love him very much. The whole idea that the Father of Jesus would want and even demand that his only son suffer an unbearably painful death — just watching The Passion of the Christ was an ordeal in itself — but especially for a crime someone else committed, is simply unfathomable to me as a father.

In my mind, there has to be more the explanation than blaming the need for the crucifixion other than original sin. The whole idea that in order to preserve grace for mankind, Jesus had to suffer an unjust death simply doesn’t compute.

To me, requiring that Jesus suffer and die for Adam’s sin is about as rational as it would be for me to spank my grandson, because my dog peed on the carpet. I cannot believe the suffering of the Christ served an irrational purpose. I’m certain that God is infinitely more intelligent than me, and not less rational.

All of this speculation leads me back to the “Bigger Picture” question of why Jesus had to suffer and die like he did on the cross for me to be absolved of my sins, and get into heaven. To me, it’s not really a question of “if” he did, but why he did.

Maybe it’s because I write detective novels. I’m obsessed with motive.

Jesus remains the ultimate role model that ever lived. He wasn’t a hypocrite. Jesus showed us how to be kind to each other, and how to stand up to human authority. He led by example, both with how he lived and died. If the crucifixion of Jesus truly served some purpose, what else could it possibly have been, if it was not to absolve the entire world of original sin? What about individual sin?

Now if you have read me before, you probably have figured out that I am fascinated by the evidence of corroborated veridical NDE (Near Death Experience) events.

These are incidents where people who were temporarily declared dead or known to have been in a near death state experienced either a euphoric bliss and described what they believed was heaven, or a state of abject misery they called hell.

Jesus died for my sins — I’m okay with the concept, I suppose, and live with the guilt. But I wonder, could the purpose of the resurrection have been to give us virtually irrefutable evidence that death is not like a light switch, and our soul continues to exist, even after death?

After all, Jesus wasn’t nearly dead. He was dead, for a couple of days. But then Sunday morning came, and Jesus wasn’t dead anymore.

It’s interesting to think about it, and wonder why these things happened.



Questioning Darwin

Darwin_hopeThis month HBO is airing a program that it promotes as a documentary, called Questioning Darwin

Somewhat predictably, the program paints the picture that Ken Ham and his museum for Young Earth Creationism should be considered the only viable and true alternative philosophy to Darwinism,  completely ignoring brilliant thinkers such as John Lennox, Francis Collins, Connor Cunningham, Stephen C. Meyer and Frank Turek, as well as competing ideas such as Intelligent Design and Old Earth Creationism.

The documentary dredges up the old, tired creationism versus evolution debate once more, reinforcing many of the known, misleading stereotypes and repeating the same mistaken assumptions that have pretty much been hashed to death already.

The narrator begins by claiming that Christians who insist the Bible must be accepted as the literal Word of God are creationists who consider Darwin the antichrist. This was news to me.

Based on my limited knowledge mostly gleaned from biographies of his personal life, I was sort of under the impression that Darwin was sort of a spoiled, petulant rich guy who married his cousin and never really had to work for a living.

Curiously, the documentary  described creationism as a growing branch of Christianity, as if “Creationist” was comparable to Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic.

On the whole, the documentary depicted creationists as stubborn, ignorant and silly deniers of science, while the scientists were portrayed as calm, soft-spoken, rational people. There simply wasn’t an option offered that didn’t fit those two somewhat predictable caricatures, which don’t accurately reflect reality.

For example, Pastor Tim Schofield of Christ Community Church said that God knows “the number of hairs on my head” — which he’d shaved completely bald, making it easy even for me to determine the number of hairs on his head at that moment in time was zero.

In one brief, particularly cringe-inducing clip from an interview, Pastor Peter LaRuffa of Grace Fellowship Church said:

If somewhere in the Bible, I were to find a passage that said two plus two equaled five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then try my best to work it out and understand it.

My initial reaction was probably similar to what I imagine a majority of atheists did after seeing the same clip — a face-palm. Really? I thought to myself.

Even with a subject as simple and basic as first grade math, you wouldn’t even question whether or not the Bible was accurate if it included a claim that you knew couldn’t possibly be true?

But then I stopped to consider Pastor LaRuffa’s comment a while longer, eventually coming to see things from a completely different perspective.

I now think I might know what he meant — after remembering how for years I assumed that the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, had to be allegorical. There was once a time that the story of Abraham and Isaac made absolutely no sense to me.

The problem was one that I dubbed the enigma of Abraham and Isaac, and bothered me for a long time.

Remember that prior to the near sacrifice, only a few chapters earlier in Genesis God had promised Abraham He would build an entire nation from Abraham’s offspring.

Suddenly in Genesis 22, God then somewhat arbitrarily commands Abraham to offer his son as a human sacrifice, a practice deemed “detestable” in other parts of the Bible, when performed by the followers of Baal.

My mind also failed to comprehend the fact that Abraham hadn’t even questioned the order to kill his only son. The Bible appeared to offer no explanation for what obviously seemed to be God’s capricious and grotesquely unjust cruelty.

Of course, a cruel, violent, and pernicious God did not reconcile very well in my mind with the image embodied by Jesus the Christ, revealed in the New Testament, so eventually I decided the story couldn’t literally be true.

While studying Genesis 21 one day, a new thought struck me that allowed both the story to be literally true, and that God was consistent when Abraham hadn’t been.

In my opinion, the key to solving the enigma is found in the preceding chapter, involving Abraham, a Philistine named Abimelech, and a treaty about a well at Beersheba.

So, much like Pastor LaRuffa seemed to be saying, my default decision is always to assume that whatever I’m reading in the Bible is true.

Still not too sure about that whole 2 + 2 equals 5 thing, though.

Just seemed like an unfortunate choice of words, and a really bad analogy.