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Cover image: “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt and “Job on the Dunghill” by Gonzalo Carrasco.
Imagine General Conference without President Uchtdorf’s airplane analogies. Or Elder Oak’s talks organized with the precision of a legal brief. Or President Monson’s heartfelt stories of service to the poor and forgotten. It would be like putting your favorite meal in a blender: the nutritional benefits might still be there, but the texture and variety and appeal would vanish.
Casual readers of the scriptures sometimes don’t even notice the variety of voices within the canon. Closer readers do notice these differences. And because the scriptures are a record of various cultures, peoples, and concerns, the differences do not always stop with matters of style: sometimes they even include different perspectives on matters of substance. Sometimes there are even outright disagreements. How should a reader think about these differences? Usually, readers treat these points of tension like a wrinkly shirt: they reach for the iron as quickly as possible and do their best to smooth out the differences. But is this always the best approach? What if we thought of these various viewpoints not as wrinkles but as texture? What if these differences are intentional and should be examined and appreciated? What if we approached diverging viewpoints within scripture itself as—to borrow a metaphor from the tech world—not a bug but a feature?
That’s the theory behind a book I recently shepherded called As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture. I invited scholars from a broad array of disciplines to imagine an encounter between two people who might, based on what is recorded by or about them in the scriptures, disagree about an important topic. I was awed by the fictional dialogues which resulted. While imaginative, these writers attempted to hew closely to what is known from the scriptures while highlighting and exploring the point of tension between the conversation partners.
They didn’t iron out the wrinkles; they analyzed the texture. For example, Mark T. Decker places Jacob (from the Book of Mormon) and Joseph Smith into dialogue about the propriety of polygamy (compare Jacob 2 with D & C 132). But on another level, the discussion is not about polygamy at all but rather considers how we think about rules and exceptions: At what point do the exceptions swamp the rule? This is a profound question to ponder. Heather Hardy imagines Joseph (from Genesis) and Nephi discussing the problems of sibling rivalry and the possibility of reconciliation. But, once again, a deeper topic is contemplated: the role of expectations in calibrating our emotions and responses. Each essay in the book explores its topic in a similar way.
My hope for this volume is that it will engage Latter-day Saint readers who want to explore the texture and the various voices of scripture. Here is an example:
“Abraham and Job: Suffering”
By Michael Austin
Perhaps no story in the Hebrew Bible is as perplexing and potentially disruptive as the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22:1–19. When God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham binds his son, places him on an altar, and takes a knife in hand to perform the sacrifice—all without a word of protest towards the Almighty. The story has a happy ending, of course. An angel stays Abraham’s hand, and the Lord provides a ram to be the sacrifice instead. But the narrative does not resolve all of the questions, the largest among them being, “Why would God command a man to sacrifice his son, even as a test, and then reward him for being willing to go through with it?” and “Why would Abraham meekly comply with God’s order instead of protesting loudly and refusing to murder his son?”
People of the book have invested substantial time and energy into explaining what seems, on a first reading, to be an immoral demand by the Lord and an unconscionable acquiescence by a prophet. Christians, of course, read the story typologically: God required Abraham to sacrifice his son in anticipation of God’s own sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In Jewish thought, the Akedah has become a symbol of both ultimate faith and of the sacrifices that have always been required of God’s covenant people. And yet, the questions persist.
In her wonderful 2009 book Subversive Sequels in the Bible, the Jewish scholar Judy Klitsner makes a remarkable proposition about the Akedah. What if, she suggests, God was wrong to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, even as a test, and Abraham was wrong to go along with the command? And what if later Jewish writers, knowing that the story sent the wrong message, created a “subversive sequel” to the story—a refashioning of the original narrative designed to correct its mistaken understanding of God and human responsibility? Klitsner believes that this is precisely what happened, and that the subversive sequel to the story of the Akedah was the Book of Job.
The writer of Job, as Klitsner points out, consciously incorporates surface elements of the Abraham story into the narrative. For example, several of Abraham’s named kinsmen—such as Uz, Buz, and Cased—are repurposed in the Job story as place names. More importantly, though, both stories feature “God-fearing men who face a mortal threat by God to their offspring.” As they deal with these crises, the two men enact and embody very different forms of faith. Abraham’s faith proceeds from perfect trust in a God with whom he has made a solemn covenant. Job’s faith, on the other hand, takes the form of resignation to a greater power, with perhaps the hint of ultimate justice that Tennyson points to in In Memorium:
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete.
The following dialogue imagines a conversation between Job and Abraham along the lines that Klitsner draws. Job, who lost ten children to the whims of a capricious deity, confronts Abraham for passively accepting—and even being willing to participate in—Yahweh’s unjust demand for the life of his son, while Abraham insists that faith must be something more than angry resignation to a greater force.
* * * * * * *
JOB: I cannot countenance, sir, what you did to your son.
ABRAHAM: But surely you know, friend, that I did nothing at all to my son. Isaac lived to a ripe old age and had many descendants.
JOB: But you bound him. You placed him on an altar. You set your own knife to his slaughter. And you did it without uttering a word of defiance. You were willing to give up of your own accord what was ripped away from me because I was too weak to prevent it. God never asked me if I was willing to see my children dead. He never gave me a chance to refuse His command.
ABRAHAM: And what if he had? What if God had asked you to . . . .
JOB: I would not have harmed a single one of my children. Never. If He had commanded me to slay them, I would have refused. I would have suffered anything rather than allow even one of my children to come to harm. But they were all slain anyway, and I still suffered everything.
ABRAHAM: Oh come now, you made out alright. If I recall, you became wealthier than ever—and God restored your children in the bargain.
JOB: Did I hear you correctly? Are you really suggesting that children can simply be replaced, like goats?
ABRAHAM: Well, not exactly. But God made everything right with you, didn’t He?
JOB: I had ten more children, if that’s what you mean. But that did not “make it right.” It just means that God killed half of my children instead of all of them. I will never get over, or forget, the ten babies that God took from me in a single day.
ABRAHAM: But at least you had children while you were young enough to enjoy them. My wife was childless until I was a hundred years old. And even her handmaid, Hagar, did not bear me a son until I was eighty-six. I lived almost my entire life without the blessings of children or the possibility of posterity. Isaac was the great miracle of my life.
JOB: And yet you were willing to kill this great miracle with your own hand? That is something that I could never understand. Or forgive.
ABRAHAM: That is because you do not really understand what it means to have faith in God.
JOB: How dare you say that! Did God not once call me His most faithful servant on earth? Did He not appear to me in all his fierce glory and demonstrate his awesome power? And did I not repent in sackcloth and ashes when he contradicted me? In all of these things, I demonstrated my faith in God.
ABRAHAM: You demonstrated your submission to God. That’s not the same thing. You learned to bow before a superior power. But you never learned to trust His goodness. Without trust, there can be no real faith.
JOB: I saw very little of His goodness.
ABRAHAM: You saw as much as any man who ever lived. You were the greatest man in the East. You had wealth, land, and family. And even after you lost it all, God blessed you again. Do you not realize how many people have lived and died in this world without any of the comforts you enjoyed for all but a few months of your life? God simply allowed you to experience, for a brief time, some of the misery that defines most people’s entire existence.
JOB: You speak eloquently of the suffering of others, but when did you ever suffer? You were rich too. And God walked before you all of your life removing the stones from your path. You never suffered as I did. And when God told you to slaughter your son, you didn’t even complain. You just tied him up and popped him on an altar like a sack of lentils!
ABRAHAM: You speak of something that you do not understand. Binding Isaac was the most terrible thing that I could have imagined. I would a thousand times rather have been commanded to slaughter myself.
JOB: Then why didn’t you fight back, man? Why didn’t you demand that God explain himself? Why did you just go along with God’s plan to shed the very blood that runs through your veins?
ABRAHAM: Because I trusted the Lord. That is what faith means. I did wrestle with Him, once—as He prepared to destroy the Cities of the Plain. I convinced Him to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men. But when I searched the great city, I did not find even one. And I realized then that the destruction that seemed so terrible to me was, in the eyes of God, a mercy to future generations. That is when I finally learned to trust the Lord.
JOB: But your own son?
ABRAHAM: That’s the point. I had to trust God in everything—even the hard things—or it wouldn’t have been faith. And I had a covenant with God. He promised me that my descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. I knew that God would keep His covenant. And I knew that Isaac would be my heir.
JOB: Are you saying that you knew God would send an angel to stay your hand?
ABRAHAM: I did not know how God would keep His word; I knew only that He would. God made a covenant with my house, and I knew that God could not, would not, violate that covenant. That was, and is, the essence of my faith.
JOB: I once thought much the same way. I made no complaints when I lost my wealth or when I developed lesions all over my body. All I ever wanted was to understand why I was made to suffer—I wanted to know why God had set His hand against me. The men who came to comfort me talked as you do now. They assured me that God had a plan for me and that everything would work out for the best. But it did not. God required everything of me, as He did of you. But I was never allowed to understand why.
ABRAHAM: But in the end, you stood justified before God, as I did. We were both rewarded for having faith.
JOB: But we weren’t standing in the same position at all. You were rewarded for doing what God told you to do. And you could draw a straight line from your obedience to the material well-being of your family. You knew that God was testing you and you even understood the nature of the test. When it was all over, you had a tidy little cause-and-effect narrative to hold on to: you kept God’s commandments; he gave you a reward. Oh, and by the way, your son doesn’t really have to die after all. That was just a little joke.
ABRAHAM: But surely you believe that God rewards those who obey Him and punishes those who do not? What could be more basic to any belief than that?
JOB: That’s not how it worked out for me. I was rich and happy, and then I was poor and miserable, and then I was rich and happy again. But I never had the consolation of understanding why. All I ever got from God was, “Can you make the world like I can, Job? Can you catch Leviathan with a fish hook? Do you know how to keep a hippopotamus hedged in a bridal bower?” I got a smashing display of God’s power, but I never saw anything that even suggested a coherent connection between what I did and what I got. And I never understood “divine justice” as anything more than the force of uncontested power.
ABRAHAM: Fascinating. But I must believe that, somehow, God had a plan for you and that, being omniscient, He knew that everything would work out in your favor.
JOB: You and my comforters. That’s what they kept saying to me over and over again: “God has a plan”; “There are good reasons for your pain that you don’t understand” ; “God cannot be unjust.”
ABRAHAM: And they were right, weren’t they? God did bless you.
JOB: Yes, but His blessings were just as random as His curses. He never told me what I did wrong to deserve my suffering, and He never told me what I did right to deserve my reward. It wasn’t as easy as, “obey God and find a ram in the thicket.” I obeyed God as much as you did, but my children still died. God never sent me a ram.
ABRAHAM: Still, God justified you in spite of your complaints, and He rejected your comforters who had been His greatest defenders.
JOB: True. And that’s why I think that He wouldn’t have minded if you had questioned His orders a little bit before binding your son. If anything, my situation shows that God would rather have an honest questioner than a mindless follower. Don’t you think that he would have blessed you, as he blessed me, if you had demanded justice for your son like I did?
ABRAHAM: But we were being tested for different reasons. I was establishing a covenant with God on behalf of hundreds of future generations. Your test involved only yourself and your friends. As far as anybody has been able to figure out, you weren’t even Jewish.
JOB: Well, there’s that. I’ve always been more of a Universalist. I mean, what’s more universal than suffering?
ABRAHAM: But your suffering did not occur in the context of a covenant. You were no more part of the covenant than the Persians and Egyptians who also told your story. My ordeal came as a direct result of the promises between myself and my God. It showed my descendants that God expects much from those He calls His people. And it showed them that they could always trust God, even when it looked like He was abandoning them. This is something that my children had to learn to survive, as a people, in a world that would require them to endure many things worse than the sacrifice of a single child.
JOB: Well, I showed them something too. I showed them that they could never understand God well enough to use other people’s material circumstances to judge their moral worth. I showed them that God’s ways are mysterious and inscrutable. And most of all, I showed them that, while they can’t control what God does, they can sure kvetch about Him to anyone who will listen.
ABRAHAM: Yes, my friend, you did teach them that. Perhaps a little too well.
JOB: It’s a gift.
* * * * * * *
In the end, as we see in the dialogue, Job and Abraham are more similar than they are different. They stand together as the two great examples of a God who devises excruciating tests for those who follow Him. But while their narratives require structurally similar sacrifices, Job and Abraham respond very differently. Abraham acquiesces in everything, while Job shakes his fist to the sky and questions the justice of God.
What makes the two stories remarkable, however, is that God’s responses to Job and Abraham are nearly identical. God commends Abraham for his faithfulness and rewards him with the promises of the Covenant. But God also commends Job. After thundering at Job from the whirlwind for a while, God turns to Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—the Comforters who have been attacking Job and defending God for most of the book—and says, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.”
The final words of God are quite remarkable, since nearly all of Job’s words have been directed as challenges to God. As Klitsner points out, this signals a dramatic shift in the divine perspective. “From the Akedah to the Book of Job,” she writes, God’s responses to the tormented hero have dramatically changed. While God congratulates Abraham for his unquestioning acceptance of the divine will, He commends Job for his insistent challenging of God’s actions.”
Both Job and Abraham were tested by God, and both passed with flying colors—even though their responses could not have been more different. Abraham obeys unquestioningly, and Job complains vigorously. That God ultimately commended both approaches shows us that the Divine Mind is perhaps more open, and more willing to change, than three millennia of believers have understood.
About Julie M. Smith
Julie M. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BA in English and from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, with an MA in Biblical Studies. Julie is the author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels and editor of Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21-22 as well as As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture. She is on the executive board of the Mormon Theology Seminar and the steering committee of the BYU New Testament Commentary series, for which she is writing the volume on the Gospel of Mark. She also writes for Times & Seasons, where she is the book review editor. She lives near Austin, Texas, where she homeschools her children.
 Judy Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), xxi.
 Job 42:7.
 Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible, xxiii.