JMS Sunday School Lesson #9

February 21, 2006 | 16 comments
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Read Genesis 22:1-13

A few data points before we discuss:

–Note in v1 that the JST changes “temptâ€? to “try.â€?

–Note also that it appears that the Mount Moriah of v1 is the same place that will ultimately be the site for Solomon’s Temple. If you think this, it opens up possibilities of seeing this story as a temple-like experience and might be interesting to think about more.

–See Hebrews 11:17-19, which suggests that Abraham knew that his son would be brought back from the dead. Whether he thought this would happen immediately or eventually is an open question. Also note that v17 (‘accounting’) translates a Greek word meaning ‘considered’ or similar, which suggests that Abraham makes a rational, deliberate decision, which is interesting since we often think of him acting by faith (i.e., the opposite of reason).

–Also read D & C 132:36.

–Also read Jacob 4:5.

–Consider v5, where Abraham indicates that they both will return—Is this his confidence in the resurrection, is this his confidence that God won’t make him go through with it, is it him lying (what would they have done had he announced his plans), or is it a play for pathos as he speaks without consciously realizing that Isaac won’t return with him?

–Based on data from surrounding chapters, it appears that Isaac is between 6 and 35 years old.

A small minority of people are OK with this story; the vast majority are horrified by it. We usually work as hard as we can to deny that horror, but I’m not sure that is the best approach. We might borrow a useful approach from Islamic scholars of the Koran (HT: danithew), who approach a difficult text by focusing on the mas’ala (problem or issue) and what it can teach us. In other words, you aren’t wrong to be horrified by this text; that’s supposed to be the first reaction. The text then asks you to work through that reaction to see what you can learn from it. So: let’s see what we can learn from our discomfort with this text.

The big question: What can you learn from your discomfort over this text?

–Elder Oaks explained:
This story also shows the goodness of God in protecting Isaac and in providing a substitute so he would not have to die. Because of our sins and our mortality, we, like Isaac, are condemned to death. When all other hope is gone, our Father in Heaven provides the Lamb of God, and we are saved by his sacrifice. “Bible Stories and Personal Protection,� Ensign, Nov. 1992, 37.
This may be a BIG point: our horror at the story is what our horror would be in real life if it were not for the atonement.

–Facing our deepest fears about what God might ask us to do. Ask: Anyone have experiences to share where they had to face up to their fears of what God would ask of them?

–Obedience—it isn’t obedience if it was something you thought was a good idea anyway. Ask: Any experiences where you made a decision to be obedient and were later blessed? How can one become more obedient?

–Note that God does not require anything of Abraham that he wasn’t willing to do himself. Abraham was given the opportunity to become god-like in that he would experience what it felt like to sacrifice a child. Ask: Any experiences where you have drawn closer to God through sacrifice?

Other thoughts

–Why does an omniscient God need to test Abraham’s faith?

–Note that Abraham is in a weird way forced to identify with the fathers who had tried to sacrifice him—what to do with this idea?

–We always talk about the parallels between this story and the atonement, but the big difference is that Isaac doesn’t offer himself up. What to make of this?

–Since Abraham thought (?) that he would have to sacrifice his son, this actually is a story about great mercy: God spared him.

— Do you think this incident provides God with new information? If not, what is its purpose? What are some tests that you have endured (no details!) and what did you learn from them?

–The first verse requires us to take God’s perspective—not Abraham’s–on events, as we know this is just a test. But he didn’t. (Or did he?) What can we do to try to take God’s perspective on events in our own lives?

Comparing Hagar and Abraham

We find many similarities if we compare the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness with the story of Abraham and Isaac in the wilderness:

(1) The sacrifice reflected God’s will.
(a) God told Abraham to listen to Sarah (21.12), who cast out Hagar and Ishmael (21.10), condemning them to death in the wilderness.
(b) God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (22.2).

(2) Previous events make these events ironic (and especially trying).
(a) Hagar’s previous experience of running away (16.6) and being commanded to return makes this experience rather ironic.
(b) Abraham’s previous experience of being almost sacrificed to a false god by his own father makes this experience rather ironic.

(3) These events, although divinely inspired, seem that they will make fulfillment of the covenant impossible.
(a) Leaving Hagar and Ishmael to die makes the divine promise of posterity (16.10) appear futile.
(b) Killing Isaac makes the covenant promise of posterity (17.4) appear futile.

(4) Location, location, location.
(a) Hagar and Ishmael go alone into the wilderness (21.14) to face a great test.
(b) Abraham and Isaac go alone into the wilderness (22.6) to face a great test.

(5) What greater fear could a parent have?
(a) Hagar fears the death of her child (21.16).
(b) Abraham fears the death of his child (22.2).

(6) The turning point.
(a) At the peak of despair, an angel speaks (21.17).
(b) At the peak of despair, an angel speaks (22.11).

(7) God intervenes by opening their eyes.
(a) Hagar, eyes opened by God, sees what will save Ishmael’s life (21.19).
(b) Abraham sees what will save Isaac’s life (22.13)

(8) The lives are saved with symbolic reference to the Savior.
(a) Water—a symbol of Jesus–preserves Ishmael’s life (21.19).
(b) The ram (used for the sacrifice) saves Isaac’s life (22.13).

Ask: if you took these stories as a template for thinking about what kinds of trials you might face, what would you conclude?

–Trials are not accidental; they reflect God’s will. So walking around asking ‘why me?’ isn’t useful.
–Expect trials to be The Worst Possible Thing with layers of irony
–On (3), a great trial would be one that makes you think, “God couldn’t want me to do that, because then . . .� This forces us to realize that God’s fulfillment of a plan may bear no resemblance to our thoughts about it.
–On (5), expect trials to be hard—the hardest thing possible. Basic, obvious, but overlooked.
–On (6) and (7), remember that God will comfort us.
–On (7) and (8), remember that it is Jesus who helps us through our trials, and who ultimately saves us.
–Comparing stories, we realize that God cares as much about a slave girl as about a major figure, as much about a woman as a man, as much about someone outside of the covenant line as the keeper of the covenant.

16 Responses to JMS Sunday School Lesson #9

  1. Jonathan Green on February 21, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Julie, thanks for the informative notes. Don’t forget to schedule at least 5 minutes for heated but inconclusive discussion of how old Isaac was; someone from the twentysomething faction always seems to raise the issue.

  2. Mephibosheth on February 22, 2006 at 1:38 am

    Facsimile #1 enriches the context of this story. Based on his personal experience, what would you bet were Abraham’s true feelings towards human sacrifice? And then God turns around and asks him to do the very same thing to his own son.

    As Julie said, one of the take home lessons is that God sometimes asks us to do things that are against our own personal value system –this story is even briefly mentioned in D&C 132:36, shedding some light on the polygamy issue as well.

  3. Mephibosheth on February 22, 2006 at 1:40 am

    According to the Book of Jasher, Isaac was 35, and went along willingly with Abraham to be sacrificed.

    ~Card-Carrying Member of the Twentysomething Faction

  4. Ariel on February 22, 2006 at 2:56 am

    An EFY teacher a few years back bore his testimony to our group that Isaac was 33, like Jesus. (That tidbit is probably worth about what you paid for it.)

  5. BrianJ on February 22, 2006 at 9:36 am

    Julie,

    Two quick comments: We all know this story is important to three religions, but I wondered how they each view it. What I learned (briefly):

    Judaism: I asked my friend who is a very studious and faithful Jew about this story and he said that one of the most important points in Judaism is that Sarah died while Abraham and Isaac were away. She knew why they went and she died of heartbreak. In this way she also took Isaac’s place as the sacrifice. (By the way, if Sarah died while they were away, then that would make Isaac exactly 37–for those who thinks this matters.) Even more interesting (to me), was that my friend had no idea at all that this story was so important to Christians. He was completely baffled as to why until I walked him through each bit of symbolism.

    Islam: you mention muslim scholars above, so I thought I would add what muslims say about this story. First, they believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac who was taken. They point out that the text says, “Thine only son,” and that there was never a time in Isaac’s life that he was Abraham’s only son. Second, they do not believe that God commanded Abraham to do this, but rather that Abraham was tempted and tricked by the devil. (They are understanding the “God tempted Abraham” passage similarly to the way we read like passages in Job.)

    Oh, and a third comment: I really like how you brought in the horror from Isaac’s point of view. Once again, you have made a definite stamp on my lesson plan. I have a bunch of questions I that I hoped you might address about Sarah, but I’ll post those after I’ve had time to organize them. Thanks again for a great post!

  6. BrianJ on February 22, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Errata, post #5: I noticed that in my haste I excluded an important disclaimer: it is non-traditional muslim scholars that believe Abraham was tricked. Mainstream Islam says that it was indeed a test from God. Nevertheless, I thought it interesting to compare this test to Job’s test.

  7. Jim F. on February 23, 2006 at 12:19 am

    Julie, thaks for these. I especially liked “Comparing Abraham and Hagar,” which I am going to steal for my lesson.

  8. BrianJ on February 25, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    Julie,

    I’m still torn about what to do with this lesson, but I may do as Jim here and steal from you. As I mentioned above, I have some questions from the reading that you don’t address in your lesson, but I wondered if you might want to wiegh in on them:

    The Word “Hearken”
    It seems that there is an opportunity to compare Adam to Abram. The effects of the Fall on Adam are introduced as, “Inasmuch as you have hearkened to your wife…� How does one interpret the Lord’s use of the word “hearken� here? Does that interpretation change after reading what the Lord says to Abram, namely, that he should hearken to Sarai in all her requests regarding Hagar?

    Dismissing Hagar
    Why does Abram leave the decisions regarding Hagar up to Sarai? Abram is married to Hagar, so is he shirking responsibility here? It may be argued that he is just bowing to the first-wife status of Sarai, but that doesn’t appear to be according to any social law: if it was Sarai’s prerogative all the time to dismiss a second wife, then she wouldn’t be asking permission.

    Sarai versus Hagar
    When the angel stops Hagar from fleeing when she is pregnant with Ishmael, he admonishes her to submit to Sarai. Why doesn’t the angel also–or only–visit Sarai to tell her to lighten up on Hagar?

    Sarah’s Beauty
    Why do we keep hearing stories about Sarah’s beauty? Is this just the typical male way of praising a woman: i.e. to show her value in terms of her beauty? Or is there something more to her beauty that the recorder wants us to know? Notice that the stories (Pharoah and Abimelech) involving Sarah’s beauty both end with Abraham receiving great wealth. Is the recorder trying to show that Abraham was wealthy because of Sarah? Abraham buys the field of Machpeleh for 400 shekels of silver–a very large sum, but just a fraction of the wealth he received from Abimelech on account of Sarah. This is the first land that Abraham owns, as opposed to living as a wealthy nomad in tents.

    Abrahamic Covenant Hinges on Sarah
    To further the point made above, it seems that much of the Abrahamic Covenant is made possible only through Sarah. Consider the three major parts of the Covenant: Posterity, Land, and Gospel. Posterity clearly requires Sarah. True, Abraham has posterity through at least two other women, but the Lord makes it clear that Sarah’s seed is the chosen line. As far as possessing his promised land, Abraham gains wealth and buys land because of Sarah. Only the gospel portion of the Abrahamic Covenant does not seem to require Sarah (although I may have missed something that shows that this, too is dependent on her). One may make the argument that I am reading too much modern, Western feminism in to an ancient, patriarchal society, but I would counter that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, so the central importance of women is not such a foreign or modern concept.

  9. nhilton on February 25, 2006 at 8:13 pm

    Sarai clearing represents the House of Israel, Abraham representing Christ–the marriage metaphore so common to the Bible. So, perhaps this reference to Sarai’s beauty is demonstrating that she’s (House of Israel) worth all that Abraham (Christ) goes through in rescuing and enduring her? The take-home message is that Christ will rescure, remain faithful, redeem, humor, tolerate, protect, provide, etc. for His people.

    Some people believe Sarah beat Hagar back in the last lesson. Does anyone concur with this? I think this is a stretch and casts Sarah in an ugly light when in fact she’s suppose to be a “noble woman.” This wouldn’t be noble behaviour.

    In researching Abraham’s journeys I turned to Map 2 in my quad. My husband’s quad is a newer version with a different map showing these journey’s & places Ur in two possible locations. They’re hugely different in location & would impact the story a lot. Does anyone know anything further on where Ur is currently considered to have been?

    Where are you finding the Hebrew meaning of the names as posted in previous lessons, i.e. Sarah meaning wife of Elohim?! Does Isaac mean “to laugh” or “to rejoice” in Hebrew? re: JST translation of “laughed” in Gen. 17:17.

    Do you think Sarah was inspired to have Abraham wife Hagar or a lack of faith on her part? Of course Ishmael wasn’t an “accident” incident to Sarah’s choice. God may have not only known it would happen, but wanted it to happen. How should Hagar’s posterity view themselves as they realize they’re NOT the chosen people?

  10. BrianJ on February 25, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    nhilton said, “Some people believe Sarah beat Hagar back in the last lesson. Does anyone concur with this? I think this is a stretch and casts Sarah in an ugly light when in fact she’s suppose to be a “noble woman.â€? This wouldn’t be noble behaviour.”

    Hagar was a slave/purchased servant, and you and I don’t consider having slaves to be noble either. My point is that we have to look at Sarai’s behavior from the context of her society. Was corporal punishment permissible in her culture?

    For a very long time, Ur was thought to have been located in Northwest Mesopotamia. In the early 20th Century, Charles Leonard Woolley discovered some things that led him to believe that Ur was in the Southeast. His assertion that the southeastern city was Abraham’s home is considered controversial. I don’t know much more beyond that, but that would at least give you a place to start looking.

  11. Julie M. Smith on February 25, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    BrainJ–

    Your thoughts on ‘hearken’ are interesting; I’ve never thought about that before. I don’t have anything else to say except that I need to think about it more!

    I have no good answers on the issue of dismissing Hagar. I sense that there are elements of this story that reflect Abraham, Sarah, and/or Hagar messing up and other elements that reflect them being inspired but I’m not certain which are which.

    Your other questions are also _excellent_ and I need to think more. I appreciate your posting them; they are really interesting. I hope you’ll be back next week with more!

  12. nhilton on February 26, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Are we safe concluding that Shem is Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20) & is there any Hebrew etymology regarding the name Shem with Jerusalem? See Bible Dictionary under Shem & Melchizedek. So, if these two are the same, do you find it strange that in just 500+- years people could become so wicked when they still have a passenger of the ark (Shem) around to bear testimony about the dire consequences of not following God & the living prophet. What do you think of this?

  13. nhilton on February 26, 2006 at 11:14 am

    RE: JST Gen. 14:25-40 as we see Abraham giving tithes to Melchizedek, do you see this as Abraham giving only 10% or living the United Order?

  14. Marti Calder on February 26, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    Most biblical scholars (Orson Scott Card refers to them in his book “Sarah”) agree that Sarah WAS beautiful. They think, however, that somewhere along the line, the “kings” got confused. Most agree that it was probably Pharoah who wanted her. she was young and beautiful. At the time of the later story, she would have been nearly 100 years old. I’m going to present it this way to my class.

  15. Aaron Brown on February 26, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    “A small minority of people are OK with this story; the vast majority are horrified by it. We usually work as hard as we can to deny that horror, but I’m not sure that is the best approach.”

    I agree. However, in my experience, when we point out that Isaac was probably around 35 years old, rather than a little kid, we are somewhat mitigating the horror. Whether the teacher (or class participant) does this intentionally or unintentionally, it will frequently have this effect on some. Which is why I’ve never liked the point.

    On the other hand, portraying Isaac as an adult allows us to make a point about his valiant obedience that wouldn’t be as strong were he instead a little child.

    Aaron B

  16. Julie M. Smith on February 26, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Aaron, I think it must remain an open question. All we know about his age is what we know from the text: old enough to have been weaned and to form coherent questions, under 35 or so because his mother will die in the next chapter. Any effort to be more precise about his age is just speculation.