So I keep an eye on, and occasionally participate in, this Mormon blog, where people discuss their doubts and discomforts about various issues in Mormonism today. Naturally, polygamy is a constant sore spot.
One correspondent there noted that while Joseph Smith was struggling with his “Doctrine of Plural Marriage”, he claims to have received an angelic visitation commanding him to take additional wives (Journal of Discourses, Vol.20, p.28 – p.29). In an essay released by the church in 2014 on its official website, this visitation is described as follows:
“Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage….During the…final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”
The correspondent continues,
When releasing this recent essay, the Church rejected a unique opportunity to move away from the polygamy doctrine which has plagued it for nearly 200 years. It could have emphasized the statement Gordon B. Hinckley made in 1998, where he said that polygamy “was not doctrinal.” The LDS Church could have moved away from the 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants saying that if Joseph had “ten virgins given unto him” it would not be adultery. The same section threatens Emma Smith with destruction if she would not agree with Joseph marrying and, in many cases, having sexual relationships with other women.
Well, as you can imagine, this story has generated a lot of debate.
But I was interested in the fact that the Mormon Church asserts that angels are occasionally sent by God to force people to obey. I was a little surprised at this, and asked, “Does God ever force anyone to do anything, in the Bible?” The answer, of course, is No, but I asked the question, just to see what people would say. To my surprise it generated a fair amount of discussion.
At one point a guy who’s sometimes pretty perceptive wrote,
And yet God famously commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Would this not have been “morally repugnant” to Abraham? Or is your point that God did not “force” Abraham to kill his son?
And this provoked the attached response from me (about 5 pages), mostly a meditation on the story of Abraham. I was surprised at what came out.
Do please read this, and let me know what you think of it in the comments below.
Did God Command Abraham to Kill Isaac?
Well, the first verse of that story is really crucial. The writer states right off the bat that God was “testing” Abraham (22.1). Telling us that, he makes it clear that God has no actual desire for Isaac to die; his intention is only to prove something about Abraham and his faithfulness— faithfulness being the trait that most defines Abraham in the Bible. But what is faithfulness?
Most people think that God just wanted to find out whether Abraham would do anything God asked, even to the point of killing his own son and heir. Abraham showed that he was ready to do it, and so we should be ready and willing also, if somehow required, to make a “burnt offering” of whatever is most precious to ourselves.
But this leaves a couple of questions unanswered. First of all, since God doesn’t usually talk to people so openly these days, who else might have the authority to tell us to kill our children? And in any case, even if God himself were to tell us to do so, should we? Is it really even ok for God (let alone Abraham) to be so cavalier with the life of an innocent human being, moreover one who is Abraham’s only son and heir, “whom he loves” (Gn 22.2), moreover the heir with whom God himself has promised to make an “everlasting covenant” (17.19)? Can Abraham seriously think of doing that with a good conscience? Can God even ask it with a good conscience?
Don’t— just don’t!— tell me that “God’s ways are not our ways”! Let’s just admit that God’s demand is insane. But before we move on to something more reasonable, let’s also note the usually overlooked fact that if God, who had promised to establish his covenant precisely with Isaac, did in fact want Abraham to kill Isaac, then he wasn’t planning to keep his promise. And that means, he’s a deceiver. And how can Abraham be faithful to a deceiver? Well, he can be personally loyal— but in that case, what he does with Isaac won’t have anything to do with conscience.
And what makes the story horrific— what gives it its particular force— is that God is staking a claim precisely on Abraham’s conscience. How can a man kill “his son, his only son, whom he loves” (22.2)? If Abraham would murder his son in order to be faithful to God, he must also murder his own conscience as well. And if he does that, and if his God is thus not only a deceiver but has no trouble demanding an innocent life, what else will either of them not do?
So (to answer your question), yes, my (previous) point was that God didn’t force Abraham to kill his son. In the Bible, God never forces anyone to do anything, although he sometimes stops them from doing things— for example, from killing Isaac. But in particular, he never forces anyone to act against their conscience. But might he?
Well, the question of “forcing” is the wrong one to ask about this story, because God neither threatens, nor even so much as warns Abraham of consequences in this case at all. In fact, the only consequence in view is the obvious, if implicit one, that if Abraham does obey, then his son— “his only son, whom he loves” (22.2), the sole heir of God’s own promise— will die, and die childless. And if Isaac dies childless, then God was being deceitful when he promised to make with Isaac “an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).
So if Abraham obeys, he accepts that God is a deceiver, and just goes with it. In that case, he shows that deceiving has a divine origin, and there’s no further need for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness! And yet— if he refuses— again he shows that he thinks God is a deceiver— whether or not he was serious about the covenant, or whether he really wanted Abraham to kill his son or not, is immaterial; he was deceiving!— and again, if God is a deceiver, there’s no further use for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness!
That’s the test, then— not just “will Abraham sacrifice what is most precious to him”, but— “what kind of God does Abraham obey, and what kind of obedience does he obey him with?” And the test is really clever— a kind of double bind— although, as we’ll see, there’s one way out, which will save both Isaac and God’s honor at the same time. But strangely enough, the outcome will depend on God, not on Abraham.
For his part, Abraham makes only one comment in the whole story, and it shows that he’s no more interested in killing Isaac than God was when he decided to “test” Abraham. “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.” At this point, Isaac, apparently not yet aware that God has demanded his life, asks, “‘My father! my father!… Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering for himself, my son'” (22.6-8— most translations have “God will provide”, but the Hebrew verb is “see”, in the sense of “see to it”). Abraham’s only comment is, “God will see to it”. He says nothing to Isaac about having to die.
From our viewpoint (and, we may surmise, from Abraham’s as well), God seems to have laid a morally repugnant, unconscionable, insane demand on Abraham, but precisely because Abraham is “faithful”, he accepts it without the least mental reservation— and indeed, to act without mental reservation is the meaning of hᵉyêh ṯāmîm— “be thou perfect/wholehearted”— the requirement God laid upon him in 17.1. But Abraham’s apparent prevarication to Isaac shows that he accepts this new demand of God only in full view of the promise God earlier made to him: “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).
So what’s Abraham doing?
By not telling his son, he isn’t just protecting Isaac’s feelings or his own. He leaving open the possibility of another outcome. And in the space of his prevarication, Abraham is calling God’s bluff. He has accepted the test, but only as a very high-stakes game of chicken. Who is even testing whom, at this point?
But this is Abraham, that wily merchant who just a few pages earlier, dared to bargain— with God!— over Sodom: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18.23,25). And even though the city was very wicked, he even secured God’s assent: “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten” (18.32). Abraham knows whom he’s dealing with, and he isn’t afraid to play hardball— with God!
But God is testing Abraham. What he wants to know isn’t, as I said and as people usually suppose, just whether Abraham is so incredibly faithful that he would even go so far as to sacrifice “his son, his only son, whom he loved” (22.2), if God asked him to do so. If that were the end of it, he might be a nice moral example for the kids in sunday school— but the grownups would be left with a rather serious question as to just when, exactly, we’re supposed to draw the line. After all, what if somebody— a respected religious leader, perhaps— comes to a woman and says, “In the name of God you have to sleep with me even though you’re married to another man”? The test isn’t to see whether Abraham would actually kill his son for God. It’s to see just what kind of obedience Abraham has; in what way he will be obedient.
And again here’s the game: If he trusts God, he will do as required, and kill the heir of the Promise. But if he does as required, he proves God can’t be trusted. If he refuses to do as required, he proves he doesn’t really trust God. But if he doesn’t trust God, then the covenant, whose only condition was trust, is finished. Again, if he goes through with it, he shows that he worships a powerful, but deceiving God, and is prepared to do so at the price of his own conscience (not to mention his son’s life). But again, on the other hand, if he bases his refusal on his own integrity, and chooses to live without God, he forfeits the promise.
And remember— the promise was not just “I will multiply thee exceedingly… [and] make thee exceeding fruitful” (17.2, 6), but “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (12.3) with the same blessing. In other words, In thee, the sin of Adam will be undone, and the blessing Adam lost will be restored— for the entire human race.
So God has thrown down just this gauntlet, and now it’s Abraham’s move. Fully conscious of God’s promise, Abraham climbs the mountain, lays out the wood, binds Isaac, seizes the knife, grasps Isaac by the hair and pulls his head back, and—
Suggestively, for our discussion here, he even sends an angel, not to force Abraham with a knife, but to stop him from wielding one. God admits defeat, and Abraham sacrifices a ram that God provides, just as Abraham said he would, and together with his son Isaac, whom he loves, worships a faithful God with a pure conscience.
Abraham is not a daredevil who takes his son’s life lightly, even when God requires it. But God himself initiated the contest, and Abraham had no choice but to play. But Abraham trusted that whatever else he says, God will be faithful to his own word. But he trusted God, faithful to his own conscience too. That’s why he said to Isaac only, “God will see to it” (22.8).
But he can trust and be faithful to both God and his conscience only if God himself is trustworthy and faithful. If the God who set the contest keeps his promises, then to keep his promise to Isaac, God will have to blink. Abraham may have to go all the way to the mountain, but “as it is said to this day, On the mountain of the Lord, it will be seen” (22.14). “To this day”— because Abraham has shown, once and for all, that when it comes to conscience, that’s what God is looking for.
Of course it has to be the mountain of the Lord, not just any mountain. But on that mountain, where the Lord has authority to demand, Abraham had to obey. But as a righteous man (15.6), who once held even God to conscience (18.23,25)— he obeys in view only of a righteous God. A slave does what he’s told because he fears consequences. But, as it turns out, it was precisely the conscience of his covenant partner that the righteous and faithful God wanted to prove— so that he could, in the end, show his respect for it.
The point of this story, then, is not so much that God could say, as he does at the end, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gn 22.12)— rather, the point is that, having seen that Abraham fears both God and his conscience, he stayed Abraham’s hand. And in doing so, he revealed his own faithfulness once and for all. God was faithful precisely to Abraham’s conscience. That is why “Abraham called the name of that place Yhwh-yireh [The LORD has seen]: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen” (22.14).
Now, the remarkable thing is the way in which, by making his demand, God actually invited Abraham to participate in and to constitute God’s own self-disclosure in the world. If Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, he would have shown that God was a deceiver. If he had stood on his own integrity and cut himself off from God, then his last word about him would again have been that God is a deceiver. God put his own honor at great risk, making it dependent on the response of a mere man. But that is what was at issue in Abraham’s choice. God “tested” Abraham (22.1), to see if he had faith with conscience, not just faith for its own sake. And Abraham took it right to the mountain, to test whether God would honor his promise.
For all who believe, now, in this God, themselves, Abraham’s test has settled once and for all whether they would ever have to violate their own conscience out of obedience to God or to anyone else. By accepting the demand and playing chicken, Abraham was faithful to God’s promise and to his conscience, and he made God expose his own faithfulness— and thereby to show that he respects the consciences of those who are in covenant with him. As to those who are not— well, God is One: he respects conscience— but for their part, they’re on their own.
But if an angel appears and demands that we do something contrary to our conscience, we can be sure, after Abraham, that that angel is a demon. And if someone says that such an angel has appeared, he is saying it either to take advantage of someone, or to cover his ass for having taken advantage already. The faithful God does not violate a person’s conscience.
But returning to the issue of whether God forces people to do things— whether against their conscience or not— you also ask,
But really, isn’t most of Christianity at bottom exactly the sort of “forcing” you mention? Isn’t God saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment?
(To which someone responded, “Amen!”)
At this point, I hesitate to say much, because I don’t want to appear sectarian, but we’re going to have to make some distinctions if we want to avoid defending the indefensible, or overlooking the key facts. But let me offer the following as information— it’s up to you to make of it what you will— but the answer to your question lies at least partly in history, and there are different histories, and they’ve had different consequences.
So— “most of Christianity”. . . .
Have you ever noticed that conditions we consider permanent are often of more recent origin than we think? Did you know, for example, that less than 100 years ago, pink (as a shade of red, an aggressive color) was considered more appropriate for boys, while blue was better for girls? I suspect it’s not even possible to dress a baby boy in pink today!
But how possible is it that what we think of as “most of Christianity” is actually only about a thousand years old, and much of it only five hundred years old, and an awful lot of it even less than that? Yet facts are facts.
Just at the time of the final split between Eastern and Western Christianity, Anselm (11th c) was rethinking the atonement in terms Western European feudalism. He sought to understand God’s justice within the context of honor and satisfaction, where justice played out in the world he knew. By breaking God’s rules (and who hasn’t?), he reasoned, we have insulted God. But for Anselm, the magnitude of an offense is measured by the honor of the person offended, and that is the measure of the righteous wrath that has to be appeased. So if you offend your neighbor, you say “Pardon me!”, but if you offend the king, you crawl on your knees and say, “Pardon me”, and offer a great gift!
God is infinite, though. We finite creatures can never appease or satisfy or atone for the insult we’ve given him, because we have no gift commensurate with his infinity. But since he’s infinitely just, God can’t just let us get away with it; his wrath must be appeased. But he’s infinitely loving at the same time, and wants to save us as well. However, justice requires satisfaction; and wrath, appeasement. That’s why, as Anselm and the Scholastics who followed him explained, he sent his Son, the only person who could appease his wrath by offering infinite satisfaction.
Anselm’s theory caught on and became the ruling paradigm in Scholastic theology; and both Luther and Calvin (16th c) were highly trained in this style of thinking. That’s how it came about that in “most of Christianity”, we now have a Savior who saves us from a feudal God (a friend of mine calls him “Zeus”) by taking the punishment we deserve. That’s the “atonement”, in “most of Christianity”.
But of course, behind this, the story is still “follow God or be punished forever”, as you put it. We don’t really follow God very well, so we simply can’t avoid being punished forever— unless of course we accept that Jesus took the blow for us. Jesus is our Get Out Of Jail Free card.
The Book of Mormon strikes me as informed by this Scholastic-Reformation theory only in a general way, as one would expect if it had been written by a frontier American who got his theology mostly from popular preaching rather than, say, a university-trained theologian living in Vienna or Rome. And in many respects, the writer actually seems a little confused. In addition, Mormonism also advances its own peculiar take on the atonement, centering on his agony in the garden more than on the death of Christ. In various ways it seems that the American culture in which Mormonism emerged was no longer quite in sync with feudal ideas of honor and satisfaction, and all of this looks like an effort to explain anew something that no longer quite makes sense, but nobody can quite put their finger on why. But I honestly think that the “Zeus” of Anselmian and Calvinist scholasticism is still more or less by default the God who still appears in, or is assumed by the Book of Mormon and related literature. That’s why the Book of Mormon is so chock-full of threat and punishment (plus of course lots of miracles for the believing). 1st Nephi provides as many examples as any, but 18.20 put it quite succinctly: “There was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts”. The “power of God”, because the Book of Mormon is for the most part about the God of power.
To be fair, God’s threats are generally addressed to unbelievers who always seem peculiarly obtuse in the face of prophetic proof, and generally they appeal to their better sense of things. They don’t usually demand a suspension of conscience— although Korihor (Alma 30) provides an interesting example to the contrary. But precisely in those endless stories of threat and punishment, the book seems to share this idea of God-as-Zeus with “most of Christianity”, and certainly with the part of it that was common in American frontier churches in his day. Nothing convinces me that the church Smith founded doesn’t share it with “most of Christianity” even now.
But here’s where we rejoin our discussion of Abraham: Because Smith and the average American frontier Protestants with whom he was speaking both more or less thought of the biblical God precisely as the kind o’ guy who would “shock” people (1Nephi 17.53) and threaten them with drawn swords anyway, Smith could readily tell people that an angel with a drawn sword forced him to enter into a union that he claimed was (initially) against his conscience and morally repugnant to him. That was to be expected! But it strikes me as no accident that just as people are starting massively to question the idea of God-as-Zeus in other churches, Mormons are starting question this story of Smith’s as well.
More generally, though, something doesn’t quite add up when, as you put it, “God is saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment”. Such an ethical regime entails all the morality of “Obey or die, slave!”— and seems particularly suspicious, if not odious, when Zeus is telling us to violate our conscience or die.
Yet isn’t that the demand of the angel with the fiery sword— the demand Smith acquiesced to, and then imposed on Emma and other reluctant church members— for an obedience which, in the face of deadly threat, is willing to renounce its own conscience?
To the extent that God is like Zeus, this is understandable. Zeus is power, and conscience has nothing to do with power.
But as we saw with Abraham, such an idea is actually quite at odds with the God of the Bible— and not in a minor way, for that’s actually the point that the Bible is making, in view of a lot of other deities on offer in the ancient world, including Zeus himself, and Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children. Conscience is key. But if “most of Christianity” tends to believe in this Zeus, and promotes a kind of slave morality (as Nietzsche pointed out, only about 50 years after the Book of Mormon was published), then we might ask, was there or is there some other part of Christianity that ever said or says anything else?
We can look behind Anselm and his feudal-Scholastic friends to see how people dealt with the question of conscience and atonement before them. As it turns out, Christianity everywhere, both East and West, taught that even if we have sinned, we were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and that all of us, without exception, will indeed see him— for “unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps 65.2), and “with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Ps 36.9). So “we now see in a mirror, darkly, but then we shall see face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1Co 13.12)— and this is true of both sinners and saints. And when we see God face to face, we will understand that “God is love” (1Jn 4.8), and that he really does love everyone equally and indiscriminately, regardless of their moral status. For “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5.8). God loves everyone with the same love, both the saint and the devil, for “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1.5). We were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and without exception all of us— “all flesh”— will indeed see him.
Whoever we are, then, and no matter what we’ve done, we will spend eternity in God’s light. So the idea that “if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment” is not exactly correct. It may actually surprise you to learn that the doctrine of “hell”, as popularly assumed in our culture (and in the Book of Mormon), was simply unknown during the first thousand years of Christianity, and was not taught in the East at all— nor is it found in the Bible. (Whenever the word “hell” does appear in the Bible, it always translates she’ol or hades, which are simply “The Grave”, the “Land of Oblivion” (Ps 88.12) where the dead dwell.
So we all die and go to hades. But when the veil of this life is removed, the light of God’s infinite love appears. To the righteous, it will appear as “gladome light”, but as “consuming fire” to the ungodly (Hb 12.29). Accordingly, our own manner of being will determine whether our vision of God will be light or fire, heaven or gehenna, reward or punishment. This has nothing to do with a “spiritual feeling” or a “burning in the bosom”, but with our actual transformation from selfish love to Godlike, self-emptying love. This transformation originates in the Spirit, but requires our cooperation.
The question, then, is not whether we “do differently than God wants”, but whether “Christ be formed in us” (Ga 4.19). We ourselves need to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rm 12.2)— then we shall be “conformed to the image of his glory” (St Basil, quoting Rm 8.29 and Ph 3.10, 21). If we’re not so transformed, then “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19-21). This isn’t particularly hard to grasp— lust and hatred have no place in love, but if we prefer them, we may have them— yet in the light of God’s love, the truth of what we’ve choosen will be very painful to eyes accustomed to darkness. So, if we “do differently than God wants”, we will “suffer punishment”, in a sense, but only in the sense that the hell of a conscience that condemns itself and is condemned by itself in the light of love is not at all the same thing as being condemned to hell by a Judge who didn’t like that we didn’t do what he wanted.
One absolutely indispensible condition of the transformation to which God invites us is a pure conscience.
Accordingly, great spiritual teachers are not about telling us “what God wants”— whether polygamy or tithing or fasting on Fridays— but about helping people to purify their consciences, so that the vision of God’s glory will be heaven for them, and not gehenna; reward, and not punishment. That’s why St Paul wrote, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience…” (1Tm 1.5). All other teachings, sacraments, books, and practices have this transformation as their fundamental purpose and context.
But how can this ever work, when angels with drawn swords tell us that God requires us to violate our conscience?
Even with Joseph Smith’s angel story, Joseph still had his agency. He could do as the angel directed or be slain.
I know that isn’t much agency to speak of, but I am not sure how it is appreciably different from the doctrine that we have our agency to follow God or be punished forever.
It seems to me like the latter is even more severe than the former.
Is there really any difference at all between “follow God or be punished forever”, and “do as the angel directs or be slain”? Either way, it’s the morality of slaves. And as Nietzsche announced out, the God of slaves, is dead.
But my point has been only that this mutilated Christianity never existed outside the West and before the Middle Ages, even if “most of Christianity” is unaware of that.
In the Bible and the early church fathers, we find a Christianity in which the ultimate, final, and unsurpassable revelation of God is Jesus, who did not threaten with a drawn sword but said to Peter, who had drawn his sword, “Put your sword back into its place… or do you think that I cannot pray to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26.52-53). For as you know, he didn’t.