God’s Lie to Abraham

Earlier we determined that commands can deceive and possibly be lies because they can be used to convey deceptions or lies. What is the theological significance?  We have reason to believe that God deceives Abraham, one of His greatest servants. In cases where God or Jesus explicitly deceives in scripture, or seems to (Ezekiel 14:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:11, John 7:6-10 and others), God’s opponents are the dupes. Cases where deception falls upon God’s partisans (Luke 24:28, Luke 24:15-16) are tame. This is not so with Abraham.

Recall that God tests Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22:1-14, NRSV).  Abraham complies, but God intervenes at the last moment, providing a ram as sacrificial substitute for Isaac.

God only lies with His command if He conveys a statement by His utterance, He disbelieves that statement, and He intends Abraham to believe that statement.  I derive these conditions from the “Traditional Definition of Lying” (L1), modified only to allow for the possibility of the statement being conveyed rather than uttered. If these conditions are only sufficient for deception, I trust that doesn’t significantly mitigate the theological interest of our investigation.

I see a few options:

  1. God conveys and intends Abraham to believe, “If I obey, I will lose Isaac.”
  2. God conveys and intends Abraham to believe, “If I obey, I will not lose Isaac.”
  3. God conveys and intends Abraham to believe, “If I obey, my losing and not losing Isaac are both real possibilities.”
  4. God conveys nothing.

I use the terminology of “losing Isaac” rather than “Isaac will die” because Isaac’s death is not necessarily final. God could resurrect Isaac. What is of significance is whether Isaac is lost to Abraham.

I only consider the condition of obedience (“If I obey…”) because the text gives no indication of what would have happened had Abraham disobeyed. That counterfactual cannot be a basis for judging God’s trustworthiness, even though God may have well additionally conveyed “If I disobey…” statements.

Let us examine the options. If option 1 is true, God lies in the same way as in the beer run example in my earlier post because Isaac is not lost, and an omniscient God would know this in advance. It is also initially plausible. The passage begins saying that God “tested” Abraham, so Abraham must believe the sacrifice is of real significance. The test fails if Abraham “calls His bluff” by believing that he will retain Isaac.

This demonstrates that option 2 is implausible because Abraham would be calling God’s bluff.  Option 4 is also implausible.  One cannot lay down a command like God has without expecting the hearer to anticipate what obedience will mean. In this situation, God can’t but convey.

But the matter is not quite as clear-cut as the beer run example because of option 3. Option 3 is more plausible than option 1 because of Abraham’s trust in God (and God’s knowledge of this trust). Surely, Abraham trusted God far enough for him to believe in the possibility that he will retain Isaac.

Furthermore, option 1 seems to commit God to more than the text warrants. Under the hypothesis that option 1 is true, Abraham in obeying, would be forced to resign himself to losing Isaac. The text simply doesn’t tell us that Abraham believes this, so it is better to assume the option that commits God to less, option 3. In contrast to the beer-run example, where the conveyed statement is clear, God’s expectation for Abraham is not so transparent.

Is God off the hook? That depends upon whether both Isaac’s dying and not dying were real possibilities to God at the time of His command. If they aren’t, option 3 implies that God lied because God would know whether or not they were real possibilities.

Are they?  Only if we deny that God plans ahead regarding this action.  God must be to some degree spontaneous; He must be unsure. We should even suspect Him of caprice. How else should we judge someone when He commands a man to undertake an absolutely heart-wrenching course of action and hasn’t yet decided how He will respond to that man’s faithful obedience? I do not think this God theologically palatable to many.

There is some evidence that God is on His own journey of discovery because, at the end, the angelic spokesperson of God declares, “Now I know that you fear God” (22:12).  The most natural reading, is that God has advanced from a position of ignorance to knowledge. But this knowledge concerns Abraham’s mind, not God’s own intentions.