Friday, May 01, 2009

Abraham's ordeal

A post I did got derailed in the combox. I’ll pulling this exchange out of the combox since it’s really a separate issue deserving separate treatment.

There are no honor killings in Scripture. And the reference to child sacrifice is equally ill-conceived.

Secular regimes like Stalinism and Maoism are "scary" too.

4/30/2009 6:24 AM


“Not sure where Stalinism and Maoism come in.”

You talked about the “scary” consequences of Biblical ethics. I draw attention to the “scary” consequences of secular ethics.

“Honour killings are right there in the Mosaic law.”

Those are hardly honor killings. Don’t you even know how to define the term?

An honor killing is the execution of a family member or clan member because he brought shame on his family or clan (or some equivalent social unit). This sanction is applied even if the family/clan member is personally innocent of any actual wrongdoing.

By contrast, in the Mosaic injunctions you quoted, the offender is not executed because he/she dishonored her kin. Rather, the offender is executing for actual wrongdoing.

“As for child sacrifice, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The standard explanations seem to skirt around the obvious.”

Now you’re being devious. The “sacrifice of Isaac” is a hypothetical command. In actual fact, God prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son.

By your fallacious arguments you’re doing a fine job of illustrating the irrationality of atheism. Thanks for corroborating the Christian critique of atheism.

4/30/2009 8:56 AM


“I agree with the first part of your definition, and it fits perfectly with Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which explicitly identifies the sin as a sin of bringing dishonour - a ‘disgraceful act’ in ‘her father's house’.”

i) Your argument seems to turn on a particular translation. But as standard commentaries explain, the Hebrew word (nebalah) means a “heinous thing,” “foolish thing” or “folly.” Cf. J. Currid, Deuteronomy,369; J. McConville, Deuteronomy, 340.

She’s not condemned because she did something “shameful” or “dishonorable” in the merely extrinsic sense that it brought shame or dishonor on her family–even if she was personally innocent of any crime.

No. Scripture regards sexual misconduct as inherently sinful. Adult males guilty of adultery were also subject to capital punishment.

She didn’t commit a crime by merely shaming her family. Rather, she committed a crime which is culpable in its own right. Since she was living at home, that has the additional consequence of dishonoring her family. That’s an aggravating circumstance. But that is not a crime in and of itself. And that’s not the underlying crime.

“(I'm not sure what you had in mind by ‘applied even if the family/clan member is personally innocent of any wrongdoing’.)”

Why do you not know what I have in mind? Do you still have no grasp of what an honor killing refers to?

In an honor killing, the family/clan member is executws regardless of his guilt or innocence. He is executed simply because something he either did or was done to him brought dishonor on his family or clan.

To take a paradigm example, if a Muslim girl is raped, she may be executed to save face because there’s a stigma that attaches to rape in Muslim culture even if the girl is the innocent victim.

“Re: child sacrifice & Abraham/Isaac. ‘Hypothetical command’ is just the kind of contrivance I'm thinking of when I talk about skirting around the obvious.”

To the contrary, you’re the one who’s skirting the obvious through your contrived appeal to Gen 22.
In the narrative itself, God prevents Abraham from carrying out the command. Therefore, the command is, by definition, a counterfactual command. That’s a necessary implication of the very narrative in which it occurs.

“If such a thing is acceptable or even laudable (praised as great faith), then in effect God could command anything, and who are we to question it?”

Now you’re shifting ground. Having lost the original argument, you change the subject.

Who are we to question what? A command given to a second party?

4/30/2009 10:26 AM


“It turns on a particular understanding of the culture of the day. You say dishonour was just an aggravating issue, but this is a modern western assumption, not an ancient eastern one.”

I exegeted the specific details of the text, and compared that with other passages where sexual sins are punished the same way–absent any reference to dishonoring one’s kin.

You are not beginning to offer a specific alternative interpretation. Instead, you’re now falling back on generic, sociological truisms about honor/shame cultures.

“Any command purportedly from God. To me, to you, to anyone. If it was right of Abraham just to go ahead with the sacrifice, on what moral basis could I object if you told me, say, that God told you to sacrifice your child?”

I see you’ve shifted from actual objections to hypothetical objections. Since you lost the argument on actually objectionable features of Biblical theology, you must fall back on hypothetically objectionable features of Biblical theology.

For every hypothetical objection you raise, I can give a hypothetical answer. And for every hypothetical objection to my position, I can raise a hypothetical objection to your own position.

If you intend to go that route, you better start a large pot of coffee.

4/30/2009 1:59 PM

The Bible distinguish between voluntary licit sex (e.g. marital sex), voluntary illicit sex (e.g. premarital/extramarital sex, sodomy), and involuntary illicit sex (e.g. rape).

Voluntary illicit sex is punishable. In the case of involuntary illicit sex, the rapist is punished, but not the rape victim.

Therefore, the Bible distinguishing between what you do and what is done to you (without your consent).

That is not a distinction in honor-killings.

4/30/2009 3:21 PM


“The hypothetical is like this: If you accept that God told Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham had to obey and furthermore should be praised for his faith, then how can you say child sacrifice is inherently wrong? And if you can't say it's inherently wrong, then what's to stop us considering it? In effect there are no absolutes, since God could always decide to command us to do something outrageously immoral and we'd just have to get on and do it until he told us otherwise.”

i) Of course, that just begs the question of whether a counterfactual command to sacrifice his son is outrageously immoral. Where’s the argument?

ii) The question at issue is not whether child sacrifice is inherently wrong (or not). Rather, the question at issue is whether a counterfactual command to sacrifice his son (involving God’s ulterior motive) is right or wrong.

iii) Moreover, God reserves the right to command the execution of sinners.

iv) Furthermore, who is the “us”? Abraham?

“I think that makes using the Bible as a final authority a bad way to establish morality.”

Sure…if you like to assume what you need to prove.

“Don't know what the problem is with using hypothetical arguments.”

Did I say it was a problem? No. I said that if it’s a problem for one side of the debate, then it’s a problem for both sides of the debate. Each side can try to pose hypothetical dilemmas for the other side.

4/30/2009 5:00 PM


“It was the child sacrifice I called outrageously immoral, not the command. Granted, a so-called ‘counterfactual command’ couldn't be on quite the same level as the act itself. It's still hideous.”

At this point you’re simply emoting. No argument. Just a flurry of sentimental adjectives.

“Because God had said so.”

Because God said so–and because he had a good reason for what he said.

“It also seems to me that by explaining away the story in this way, you're negating one of its central lessons, that Abraham was right to go ahead with the sacrifice.”

I haven’t explained the story away. To the contrary, I’ve drawn attention to the story. What the story actually said about the nature of the command–and God’s ulterior motives. That’s in the story itself. An integral part of the story. Key to the correct interpretation of the story.

“He was literally within an inch or two of the deed. And apparently being with an inch of slaughtering a human being - one's own child - is commendable, praiseworthy, a sign of trust in God?”

It’s commendable to obey a tough command. Anyone can obey an easy command. The psychological difficulty of the command is what makes obedience to the command significant. Abraham trusted God, and God showed himself to be trustworthy.

“If this kind of despicable thing is within the limits of moral acceptability for you, I won't try to convince you otherwise. I just find it beyond reason.”

Actually, you don’t find it beyond reason. You can’t give a reason for finding it “hideous” or “despicable.” You simply emote.

Far from finding it beyond reason, you’re reaction is irrational. You express your feelings, that’s all.

“I just wonder what then, in theory, could be morally unacceptable. What else could God command? Pretty much anything, if child sacrifice is your standard.”

Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac. You’re just as dishonest at the end of this exchange as you were when you introduced this verse at the outset.

“Basically, if it's in the Bible, God said it, so you have to concede that it's morally okay. Which brings me back to my initial point - the Bible, treated as an absolute authority, is a terrible basis for morality.”

It brings you back to your initial tendentious assertion. So, yes, you’ve come full circle: a vicious circle.

5/01/2009 10:49 AM


“If you're going to accuse me of being dishonest, at least don't misrepresent what I said. I did not say Abraham sacrificed Isaac. I asked what else God might command. No one's disputing that God commanded a child sacrifice, are they?”

i) Yes, you’re being dishonest. What you said was “Pretty much anything, if child sacrifice is your standard.”

Of course, child sacrifice was not the standard since God actually prevented Abraham from going through with it.

You continue to play this shell-game when you think no one is looking.

ii) BTW, “child” is ambiguous. Isaac was not a “child” in the chronological sense. He was a teenager. This was consensual.

“If it is wrong to slaughter a child as a sacrifice to God, then it is wrong to tie that child up, hold a knife over him and get to within an inch of killing him. If you want to get biblical, didn't Jesus say that thinking something in one's heart was just as much a sin as doing it? Imagining adultery as much a sin as the act itself? Cursing a brother as much a sin as killing a brother? Why then does Abraham get a pass on tying up his son and preparing him for sacrifice?”

i) It is not wrong for Abraham to obey a counterfactual command.

ii) Appealing to motives won’t help you, for Abraham’s motives were unimpeachable. He trusted God.

ii) Appealing to adultery won’t help you. Abraham wasn’t imaging a forbidden act. Just the opposite: he attempted to obey a divine command, not violate a divine prohibition.

You keep grasping at straws.

“Steve, I'd like to see you not be emotive if we were talking about a person in the 21st century tying up their child and preparing to slaughter them. You'd quite rightly be horrified, and would quite rightly be horrified if I tried to exegete the details of the situation so as to excuse the offender. But because we're talking about a holy book, we have a completely different set of rules?”

i) Moralistic feelings mean nothing unless they can be justified. Different agents can have opposite moralistic emotions.

ii) You’re also equating the epistemic situation of a hypothetical 21C agent with the epistemic situation of Abraham. Someone in Abraham’s epistemic situation would be warranted in doing the same thing. But a 21C agent is not in that epistemic (or redemptive-historical) situation.

iii) You deliberately disregard the context of the action in Gen 22. Abraham had a special role to play in redemptive history. And he had a special relationship with God.

Not a different set of rules. Same rules, different experience, different situation, different rationale. Try not to be simple-minded.

iv) Once again, Abraham’s ordeal was supposed to be an ordeal. It was supposed to be a tough command.

v) BTW, the alternative to Biblical ethics is moral nihilism. Once you ditch Biblical ethics, then anything goes, including real child sacrifice.

5/01/2009 2:33 PM


“Read the whole paragraph I wrote, where it's clear I was talking about the limits to what God can command, instead of snipping out one sentence and misconstruing it.”

A counterfactual command has built-in limits.

“Epistemic situation? Redemptive-historical situation? Obeying a counterfactual command? Smokescreens to get around the obvious - that a man tied up his own child, held a knife over him and was prepared to make a human sacrifice of him for his god.”

i) Using the word “smokescreen” is not an argument. Indeed, using the word “smokescreen” is itself a smokescreen to obscure the intellectual poverty of your objections.

ii) Am I trying to get around the obvious? No, I don’t deny “that a man tied up his own child, held a knife over him and was prepared to make a human sacrifice of him for his god”–although I’d put “god” in the upper case.

iii) A counterfactual command is not a smokescreen. Rather, that’s a necessary implication of the narrative. You came to the narrative with a hostile, preconceived agenda. Hence it’s convenient for you to isolate certain details to the exclusion of the whole narrative arc.

You don’t like it when I accurately describe the nature of the command since that gets in the way of your set speech.

iv) One’s epistemic situation is not a smokescreen. Whether we’re justified or unjustified in a particular course of action is often dependent on our epistemic situation. If Abraham knows that God is speaking to him, then he’s justified in taking an action which would be unjustifiable if God were not speaking to him.

But that gets in the way of your set speech–even though its philosophically incontestable that one’s epistemic situation is often morally relevant to one’s course of action.

v) One’s historical-redemptive position is not a smokescreen. This was the age of public revelation. That is over and done with. This was the age of types and shadows. That’s over and done with.

These are not ad hoc distinctions on my part. These are Biblical distinctions. They’re pertinent to the interpretation of Biblical narrative.

What is permissible for Abraham is not permissible for a 21C father. A 21C father doesn’t have the same role in God’s economy. A 21C father is not the recipient of public revelation.


You keep resorting to adjectives because you ran out of anything resembling an argument long ago.

“In any other context I don't doubt you'd agree with me, but because it's your god and your holy book, you'll make excuses.”

A stupid objection on several counts:

i) If one God is real and another “God” is unreal, then, yes, the real God can impose moral obligations which the unreal “God” cannot.

Likewise, I have filial duties to my parents which I don’t have to a fictitious set of parents in a novel. So, yes, it actually makes a difference which “God” we’re talking about–just as it makes a difference which parents we’re talking about. If they’re my real parents, then I have filial duties to them which I don’t have to storybook characters.

Your objection only goes through if my God is unreal. For that you need to make a compelling case for atheism in general, or the falsity of Christian theism in particular.

ii) By the same token, yes, it actually makes a difference what book something is written in–whether it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

If I have good reason to believe the Bible is divinely inspired, then that makes a difference–as well it should. All books are not co-equal.

iii) You’re simply appealing to emotion. So what? I’m glad I didn’t have to go through Abraham’s ordeal. It was meant to be an ordeal. When we read that account, it’s not supposed to fill us with warm fuzzy feelings.

iv) At the same time, Christians often have to make gut-wrenching decisions–in the waiting room of the local ER, &c.

v) If I did not believe in my God and my holy book, that doesn’t mean I’d share your position. Once we ditch Biblical ethics, the sky’s the limit on what’s permissible. Consider the position of a secular ethicist like Peter Singer:

"The notion that human life is sacred just because it's human life is medieval," he continued, talking about the treatment of the hopelessly ill. "The person that used to be there is gone. It doesn't matter how sad it makes us. All I am saying is that it's time to stop pretending that the world is not the way we know it to be."

Singer believes, for example, that a human's life is not necessarily more sacred than a dog's, and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled, unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.

Singer argues that proximity means nothing when it comes to moral decisions, and that personal relationships don't mean much, either. Saving your daughter's life is a fine thing to do, for example, but it can never measure up to saving the lives of ten strangers. If you were faced with the choice, Singer's ethics would require you to save the strangers. "It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away,'' he wrote in his essay.

He has suggested, for example, that parents who give birth to a hemophiliac might be better off killing it, especially if they could replace that dead infant with one who would be "likely to have a better life."…When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

Singer has never been afraid to take pure reason and drive it over a cliff. He asks horrifying questions and then answers them in unexpected ways. If killing baby girls (painlessly, of course) makes sense for farmers in China, then why not kill them?

Militant unbelievers like you delight in ripping Bible verses out of context to disprove Biblical ethics, but I don’t find unbelievers like you quoting philosophers like Peter Singer to disprove secular ethics. Why is that?

“And now I quit this circular conversation.”

Another sore, anti-Christian loser stalks out the door.

5/01/2009 5:14 PM


  1. If you intend to go that route, you better start a large pot of coffee.LOL, insight here into the Steve Hays method.

  2. Forgive me for being slow on the uptake, but I'm still trying to get a grip on Abraham's situation vs. ours. In a previous post where this was brought up, someone had asked if you would kill someone if God told you to. You said 'no' based on the fact that God asking you to kill would go against His command not to murder - it would be like God asking someone to commit idolatry or such. But this is the kind of situation Abraham finds himself in. God was asking Abraham to kill another human being, one who wasn't guilty of a capital crime. And yes, God stopped him at the last minute, but Abraham didn't know that while he was carrying out the order. And I'm not sure Abraham was aware that he was in 'a time of public revelation' such as it were. So what would be the difference between God telling Abraham to kill his son and God telling us to kill someone. Thanks for any light you can shed on this. I'll try and dig up that older post if I can.


    i) First off, this hypothetical stipulates that God spoke to me. Before we go any further, that hypothetical postulate raises the question of how I (Steve Hays) verify that God has spoken to me, and how the evidence for that belief ranks with the evidence for other beliefs I hold.

    If, for example, Scripture prohibits murder or human sacrifice, and a speaker who identifies himself as God tells me to sacrifice my son, does the evidence, if any, for the divine identity of the speaker exceed the evidence for the inspiration of the Bible?

    ii) Put another way, is my religious experience comparable to Abraham’s?

    iii) On a related note, I’m not living at the same time Abraham was alive. And that makes a difference in my religious duties. The age of public revelation is past. The age of types and shadows is past. We’re not receiving the same kinds of commands.

    The command to sacrifice Isaac had a specific function in the history of redemption. There is no comparable situation today. No reason to suspend the general prohibition against murder or human sacrifice.

  4. I think it's probably likely Abraham assumed God would stop him before he did the deed.

    Hebrews 11 says that Abraham reasoned God would raise Isaac from the dead (and I think that would have been a sure inference from the promises God made); this means already that his ordeal was slightly less painful than someone like Kierkegaard imagined it was. It was only an ordeal to the degree that Abraham was sinfully irrational and doubted God's goodness and promises.

    And I don't think it's a stretch to imagine Abraham might have assumed firstly that God would have stopped him, and that, failing that, he would have raised Isaac from the dead.

    But given this important difference (in his epistemic situation), the command was very different from what was prohibited in the Mosaic law: in the Law, it was taken as assumed that the people had no reason to think the humans they were thinking of killing would certainly be raised back to life after the deed. In fact the opposite was assumed about their knowledge. If we lived in a world where anyone killed was immediately resurrected again, perhaps the laws on murder would be different; but we don't, so they aren't.

  5. R.A. Torrey has an interesting take on it. Not sure that I agree, but:

    "It is constantly said by enemies of the Bible that God did command Abraham to slay Isaac, but this is not in reality what the Bible says. Exactly what the Bible says is that God commanded Abraham to “offer him for a burnt-offering” (Genesis 22:2). Literally translated, God commanded Abraham to “make him go up [that is, upon the altar] for a burnt-offering.” Abraham was merely commanded to lay Isaac upon the altar as a whole offering to God. Whether when he was thus laid upon the altar and presented to God, God would require him to go further and slay his son, he did not know. All that God commanded was to make him go up onto the altar, ready to be slain and burned if God should so require. Did God so require? The record expressly declares that He did not. On the contrary, God plainly forbade the actual slaughter of Isaac (Genesis 22:11–12). That the original command was not to kill Isaac but merely to offer him up is as plain as day from the fact that we are explicitly told that Abraham did exactly what God told him to do. “Abraham offered up Isaac” is the Bible statement (Hebrews 11:17), but Abraham did not kill Isaac—that he was not told to do."

    (Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions (Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998, c1996))

  6. Corrigendum:

    "Rather, the offender is execut[ED] for actual wrongdoing"