Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did Abraham Lie?


I recently finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town. In it she relates the story of her crisis of faith. Raised with the certainty of a Bible Belt Fundamentalist and trained to defend biblical inerrancy, she came to question the doctrines she held dear. In the process, she grew into a new faith, one that embraces ambiguity and mystery. If this sounds the least bit interesting to you, I can recommend the book.

There may be a certain irony here, or it may just be a testament to my eclectic reading habits, but the same shipment that brought me Rachel Held Evan’s book also contained my copy of the Apologetics Study Bible. The notes to this Bible harmonize discrepancies  among the various writings of Scripture and provide allegedly logical reasons to believe. For example, there are footnotes to Matthew 27 and Acts 1 that give a familiar explanation for the differing accounts of Judas’ death.

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why I spent the money on the Apologetics Study Bible. Curiosity is part of the answer. I generally feel that apologetics, as it is presented in this Study Bible (and as Rachel Held Evans was taught it) is a waste of time. But, I once heard someone say “I want to understand my opponent’s view well enough to teach it.” So, that is the rest of the answer. I may not agree, but I want to understand.

On Monday, I was reading chapter 22 of Genesis which tells the fascinating, horrifying, difficult and ultimately important story that the Jews call the ‘Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In this tale, God asks Abraham to offer his beloved only son, Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham then travels with Isaac, two servants and a donkey to a remote place. Abraham leaves the servants at a certain place saying,

"Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you." (Gen. 22:5 HCSB)

Abraham and Isaac go a little farther. Abraham builds an altar, places wood upon it, ties Isaac up hand and foot, and raises the knife to kill him. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord stops Abraham from killing his son and God provides a ram for the sacrifice.
A footnote in the Apologetics Study Bible raised (and answered) a question that had not occurred to me: Did Abraham lie? The note in question reads:

“22:2,5 Since God wanted Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (v. 2) some have charged that Abraham lied in telling his servants, ‘The boy and I will ... come back to you.’ (v.5). However Hebrews 11:17, 19 clarifies that Abraham’s response to God’s test of his faith was to believe that, if necessary, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead.” (Apologetics Study Bible, p. 37)

And in fact, that is what the book of Hebrews says. Reading the New Testament backwards into the Hebrew Bible is a suspect strategy, but, in this case, if one wishes to defend Abraham against the charge of lying, it may be effective.

Interestingly, the Jewish Study Bible offers a similar explanation (which I have bolded below) of Abraham’s apparent lie as one possibility among others:

“5. Abraham may be concealing the truth from his servants (lest they prevent him from carrying out God’s will), from Isaac (lest he flee) and from himself (lest the frank acknowledgment of his real intention cause his resolve to break). Alternately, he may be expressing his profound trust in God’s promise, casting his faith and hope as a prediction.” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 46).

I like to think that I am a careful reader. Still, it never occurred to me to question whether Abraham lied to his servants. I simply assumed that he did. After all, he had a track record as a liar. In Genesis 12, Abraham (then known as Abram) tells the King of Egypt that  his wife Sarah (called Sarai at this point) is actually his sister. In chapter 20, Abraham tries the same stunt with King Abimelech of Gerar. Abraham “was practiced at the art of deception” as Mick Jagger sang.

For about 10 years of my ministry, I served as chaplain to a home for troubled children. We had 60 kids in residence, most of them adjudicated to us by the courts, and all of them from dysfunctional homes. As I told the stories of the Patriarchs to these children, I realized just how messed up the home lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. These were not paragons of virtue. They were fallible, sinful and all-too-human. They could (and did) lie, cheat and steal. And I love them the more for it, because I too am fallible, sinful and human. The kids at the home related to the Patriarchs and their families in very real and profound ways.

I understand the temptation to sanitize the character of Abraham. Who wants to believe that God would choose a liar to be the recipient of promises and to become the “father of nations?” But God did not choose Abraham because Abraham was better than anyone else. God chose Abraham for God’s own reasons. Perhaps it was for Abraham’s outrageous faithfulness, which included a willingness to sacrifice even his beloved only son. It certainly wasn’t becausw he always told the truth.

You may reduce the Patriarchs to Sunday School flannel-graph cut-outs or make plastic action figures of them. Me? I’ll take my treasures in earthen vessels. I like my Patriarchs with the bark still on them.

The Scripture quotation is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible because that is the translation used in the Apologetics Study Bible. The Mick Jagger quote is from the Rolling Stone’s 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I took Chagall's painting of the 'Akedah from this website. I loves me some Chagall.


  1. Good morning, Brant!

    Pastor mentioned your blog at one of our studies of “Love Wins,” so I had to check it out. I am glad I did!

    I totally agree with the idea that it is good to know that the characters of the Bible are real, flesh and blood people, with all our same strengths and weakness. For me, it is a powerful witness that the characters in the Bible ARE flawed. If you were going to make this stuff up, I would think you would make up better heroes – not ones that lie, cheat, talk back, run away etc., etc.!

    But I am not sure I agree Abraham was lying in this case. If he was, then was he lying when he said to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb”? Danette and I were talking about this (your blog was a hot topic!), and she said, “No, he wasn’t lying – he just failed to add, ‘…and your it!’”

    It seems Abraham truly believed somehow God would keep his promise to give him a son and make him the father of many nations. Somehow.

    But as I have been thinking of this whole story, a deeper lesson came to me. God asked Abraham to sacrifice the thing Abraham held most dearest. In Isaac was the embodiment of all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams – and God asked him to sacrifice it to Him, to let it go, give it all back to him – and to trust that in doing that, still God would keep His promise. The test was, was Abraham willing to let go of the thing he held dearest, let go of his dreams and his ability to make them happen himself - and put God first, put his trust completely in God, even though he couldn’t see how in the world it could possibly happen?

    Am I?

  2. Hi StoryGuy!

    I can't tell you how much I appreciate your comment. You obviously gave a great deal of thought to what you wrote. Danette's remark made me laugh out loud. Well, about as loud as a Lutheran ever laughs. :-)

    I'm glad to have sparked some thinking and discussion.

    In the end, of course, we really don't have enough information to decide whether Abraham was actually lying. The ambiguity of the text, and the interpretive possibilities are what make this horrifying, wonderful story so compelling.

    I truly believe that this is one of the many places in Scripture where God invites us into a dialogue.

    By the way, I thanked your pastor for his kind words.