Almost immediately after finishing yesterday’s post, an idea occurred to me that I wanted to chase a little further. I’ve mentioned before my admiration for Thomas Römer, a Germano-Swiss Bible scholar who teaches at the Collège de France and whose lectures are freely available in podcast form. I’ve listened to a lot of those lectures, and I remembered that Römer had made some comments about the rhetorical purposes of the Abraham story that seemed relevant to my wrestling with the story of the Binding of Isaac.
I know Römer best through his French-language podcasts (and one French-language book), but I knew he’d published in English as well and was feeling lazy, so I typed a few English search terms into DuckDuckGo to see if I could find something written that would summarize what I’d only heard in lectures—and would require hours of listening to track back down again. I got lucky and found a copy of his 2012 article Abraham’s Righteousness and Sacrifice: How to Understand (and Translate) Genesis 15 and 22. The article is archived on the research repository of l’Université de Lausanne (UNIL), where Römer had been before joining the Collège de France, so hooray for open access!
As an aside, when I was a Latter-day Saint missionary, I spent a few months assigned to a congregation that had UNIL in its boundaries. My missionary colleague and I somehow realized that UNIL had a theology and religious studies department, and we decided that there might be an opportunity there. We hopped on the M1 metro line (which I have fond memories of), made our way to campus, and hopped on a public-use computer in one of the buildings to write an email to all of the professors in the department introducing ourselves as the local Mormon missionaries and encouraging them to let us know if they’d ever like to talk to us or visit one of their classes. I remember that we two missionaries had a bit of a disagreement on what tone we should strike in the email: He argued for something a bit more flippant and jovial, and I wanted to go for as professional as we could get in a second language. He won out, but even if we had gone for a more professional route, I doubt anyone would have taken us up on the offer—and I’m pretty sure I’d still feel slightly embarrassed (but mostly just amused) by the memory now. As far as I can tell, though, Römer would have already left UNIL for the Collège de France; it would feel even weirder to realize that I had tried to proselyte in the classroom of a Bible scholar whom I would later turn to during a period of re-evaluating my faith.
Anyway, this Römer article I found had exactly what I’d been trying to remember after writing yesterday’s post. Here’s a few paragraphs from the most relevant section:
Verse 1 is usually translated as “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham”. The Hebrew, however, has “ha-elohim”, literally “the God”, and the same holds true for verses 3 and 9. This lexeme appears frequently in texts from the late Persian and early Hellenistic period, and especially in the book of Qoheleth. In this book ha-elohim is used to denote a god that dwells far away from humans and appears to be incomprehensible. The same may hold true for Gen 22. The term—used only by the narrator and not by Abraham—may deliberately denote what Luther called the Deus absconditus or the dark side(s) of God. I would therefore argue for a translation like “the deity” in order to distinguish “ha-elohim” from “elohim”.
This subtle distinction was perhaps also the reason why later redactors inserted the tetragrammaton [YHWH] into the narrative. By doing so they constructed a scenario in which a deity asks that human sacrifice be offered to the god of Israel, who does not want this kind of offering. The god who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son (even if he only wants to “test” him) is called “ha-elohim” (the deity); Abraham first says that “elohim” will provide himself a victim (v. 8). Finally, the human sacrifice is stopped by the messenger of Yhwh (v. 11). After that the redac- tor of v. 14b affirms that Yhwh is the real name of the God that his audience should worship.
Gen 22 can thus be read as a transition from human to animal sacrifice, from ha-elohim to Yhwh.
The conclusions of Biblical scholars don’t always have devotional applications (to be clear, they shouldn’t be expected to). For example, Römer’s analysis of the text brings to the fore the obvious-but-uncomfortable fact that the writers and editors of the Bible have named and conceived of God in different ways. Thus, to understand this analysis, we have to be willing to set aside fundamentalist understandings of the Bible (though, like another example I’ve written about recently, this also ultimately challenges Mormon understandings of deity even if it might initially seem to correspond with them).
However, if we’re willing to set aside those fundamentlaist understandings, I think there’s something for the critical believer in Römer’s analysis. In short, it is one understanding and conception of God that leads Abraham to bring his son up the mountain to be sacrificed. In contrast, it is the self-revelation of another understanding and conception of God that leads Abraham to spare his son. Römer’s conclusion is that the story of the Binding of Isaac may be understood as this ancient people’s turning away from a god that demands human sacrifice to a god that would never demand such a thing. For the believer, we might use this Biblical example to ask ourselves whether we need to turn away from one conception of god to instead embrace another. That’s a recurring theme of my now-four blog posts touching on human sacrifice and conceptions of God in the Bible, so I really like what Römer has to say here. Granted, this reading is mutually exclusive with the one that I wrote about yesterday (since it is ha-elohim that makes the request that Rashi and Alter write about), but I find no reason we couldn’t work with both in different contexts.
You can use click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.