On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

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by Neil Godfrey


My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers.

The story of Saul offers a reverse reflection of the story of Abraham, whose faith was praised in Genesis 22 because he had been willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. However, we need to read our text carefully; we might easily grossly misread a simple, delicate story, constructed from horrific motifs. Yahweh is not a God who likes killing children, or demanding that fathers do it for him! No more does the Yahweh of the Saul story reflect a God who likes decapitating enemy kings in order to give lessons in obedience. Both the gore and the terror, however, do belong to the Saul story. Nevertheless, they are disastrously misunderstood if historicized. So too, the picture of Yahweh as uncompromising godfather. Saul’s story, like Abraham’s, is a morality tale. They are both variations on the theme of piety’s commitment to the divine will. They shock to draw their theme. They preach to their audiences: ‘Walk in God’s will.’ Abraham passes his test, demonstrating unshakable confidence that ‘God will provide.’ Saul fails his for lack of that quality. In any real world, Saul would be a great man: we do not have enough soldiers like him. And Abraham would be ostracized. In the world of story, however, Saul fails and Abraham succeeds! Saul fails the only test he was ever given: to be Yahweh’s servant. The plot draws on stories of battles and kings, stories of bravery, honour and personal integrity. It is, however, cast in the spirit of early tragedy, at the heart of which is a rather unworldly piety that calls for allowing the gods to rule one’s life. (p. 95)


It is extremely important for understanding the intention of the story to notice that we do not go on this journey of faith with Abraham. Abraham is alone. We watch the performance, but we are not participators in it. From the very start of the story, the audience is informed that Yahweh is only testing Abraham. This is a literary device. It is used with even greater effect in the Book of Job. There the audience is privy to the meeting of Yahweh’s divine council and overhears Yahweh making his bet with Satan. The religious sensibilities of the audience are being protected throughout, by their being clearly informed that the test is only that: a test. This story is of the same type as the medieval legends of the saints or the early Church’s stories about the martyrs. It is comparable to an imitatio Christi. It is a parable, ending with the implied: ‘Go, do likewise.’

The story of Abraham in Genesis 22, and the story about Joseph being guided by divine providence as well, are not hagiographic. They do not encourage the audience directly to have similar faith and trust, as the stories’ heroes had. It is true that we are led to admire and to focus on Abraham’s great faith, but it is an admiration as for a hero in a saga. Abraham’s faith is admirable in exactly the same way that Lot’s hospitality to the two strangers at Sodom in Genesis 19 is. It isn’t, of course, that Lot valued his daughters so little. Rather it is because he valued them so much, that they are offered to the townspeople for rape. The kind of admiration we, the audience, have in such stories is the awe and wonder of entertainment: an awe and a wonder that cannot survive if taken too seriously. It is in just such an unserious, unmoral but, nevertheless, reflective and theological way, that we admire — with horror but none the less with real admiration — Laban switching brides on Jacob, or Jacob’s own duplicitous bankrupting of Laban. So too do we admire Rachel’s quick wit and luck in feigning menstrual cramps, thereby limiting Laban’s search, and succeeding in her theft. This list can easily be extended. If these stories do something so serious as teach, they teach the way that most stories teach: by educating the emotions in a safe place and in a safe way. It is rash and foolish to jump to the conclusion that the protagonists of the stories of Genesis are intended to be emulated, or even that they are in any special way praiseworthy. They do, however, have their high spots. Certainly Joseph is always to be admired, except when he ‘narks on’ his brothers, or when he enslaves the people of Egypt.

It is not a good idea to believe in a god when he is a character in a story! Don’t think for a moment that the narrator of Genesis or his audience ever believed in or prayed to that kind of a god. This is the world that the teller has created for his representation of old Israel, where sometimes iron does float on water, and where sometimes God is awful. The understanding of God that the narrator implies can be likened to Joseph’s consolation he gives, weeping when his brothers ask him for forgiveness. What humans see as evil, God means for the good: in the case of the Joseph story – as with the greater story of Israel’s remnant – ‘to change it to good, that many may live’ (Gen. 50: 20). (pp. 302-303)


The potential for emulation is certainly there, but can we seriously think of these stories, or of stories such as that of Jacob using extortion against his starving brother, or deceiving his blind, dying father, as stories dedicated to simple moral teaching? That would both pervert them and destroy them as stories. 

We would also do well to avoid seeing the God of Genesis or Yahweh, who plays a role in so many of these stories, as identical to the God or Yahweh of the theological tradition that uses these stories with purpose. In Genesis, Yahweh’s roles are as varied as the stories he appears in, though his function is ever that of old Israel’s god. I have a personal and quite horrific reaction, as well as a sense of resentment, toward a god like that in Genesis 22, if we must mix him up with belief in the God of the real world. Can this be? A God, who sees into men’s hearts, and then, for a game, would so pitilessly toy with a father’s deepest feelings? The story when read, not as an act of God but as a story, is wholly without objection. However, I ask those of you who are parents: If this were truly God, would you even want to forgive him if you were Abraham? And how would you feel, at the end of reading about Job’s trials, with your replacement set of children? Such a God of story needs a theological understanding and interpretation to remain viable. (p. 304)



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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended”

  1. Although what I may say may be irrelevant to your post, I grab the opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on the “Binding of Isaac”.

    Almost the whole story is composed by E (Gen. 22:1-10, 16-19) expect from the divine intervention which saves Isaac which is composed by J (Gen. 22:11-15) (Friedman, Sources 2003). Friedman also mentions that the E story probably sacrificed Isaac (Friedman, Sources 2003 p. 65 notes).
    Considering the possibility that the Pentateuch is written around 270 B.C. (Gmirkin, Berrosos 2006) and that the writers applied a Platonic filter (censorship) on their traditions and myths (Gmirkin, Plato 2017). This leads to another observation, that J is censoring E and that the program of censoring continued by Jews in the prophets, cause the prophets as it looks like did this (Gmirkin, 2006, p.37-38). I said Jews cause Samaritans believe only the six first books (Gen. – Josh.). Also the prophetic books includes polemics against the Samaritans by using those observations mentioned by Theophrastus (for Theophrastus and the prophets see Gmirkin, 2006, p.38).
    The prohibition of astrology is in 7:17-18 but if you read 7:12-15 you can see that this functions as explanation of centralization in Jerusalem, which was the major program of the writers of Josh. – 2 Kings. (Hjelm, Rise 2004 p. 26) and “we find Jeremiah’s wish for a reconciliation of Israel’s tribes in Jerusalem (Jer. 30-31)” (Hjelm, Rise 2004 p. 10) of course there are accusation against Judah too (Jer. 8:2) but the Josh. – 2 Kings blamed both.

    Anyway, I stop here cause I haven’t finished reading Hjelm, Rise 2004, but even without using the prophets, applying Gmirkin’s Plato filter on Genesis, looks like it is logical to positions J after E, but in the end I bet that I am just in the laypersons’ favorite place, the “fringe theory zone”.

    1. I’d be careful with Gmirkin’s theory. He really only provides evidence about Genesis and Exodus, but he extrapolates his theory to the entirety of the Pentateuch. If you believe that the Primary History was collected/compiled/written as a single work (which I do), parts of it (including Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) were likely written later than 270 BCE as there are additional anachronisms that are at least 50 years later, as well as information that likely could have only originated in the Seleucid kingdom and would not have been available in the Great Library of Alexandria.

      Also, I personally would abandon the attempt to determine which “source” was later or earlier. If the compilation/harmonization of the Primary History was done at one time by multiple people (e.g., a “school” or other collection of scribes/authors), there is no real evolution of the document, only several redactions and additions, some of which have been identified.

      1. Have you read this series on his book Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible”? I think I have given ample indications that Gmirkin goes well beyond Genesis and Exodus for his specific comparisons (not extrapolations from Genesis and Exodus) with Greek philosophical and political writing.

        1. Yes, I have read your latest series of posts regarding Gmirkin’s work, but I was speaking specifically of the original theory in Berossus, which he continues to rely upon in his latest book, Plato. In Berossus, he extrapolated from evidence found in only two books to date the authorship of all five books of the Pentateuch, and I am not comfortable with that for a variety of reasons, including those outlined above.

          My issues and concerns about the additions to Gmirkin’s initial theory as found in Plato are different, but I was waiting for you to get to the final chapter or two before voicing those.

      2. Thanks for the answer, very interesting indeed. I just see E as the original attempt to write down the Palestinian mythology which was later edited by Yahwists.
        Can you please elaborate on this “as there are additional anachronisms that are at least 50 years later, as well as information that likely could have only originated in the Seleucid kingdom and would not have been available in the Great Library of Alexandria.”?

        1. Additional anachronisms:

          1. Gmirkin dates the Table of Nations to the time of the First Syrian War (c. 270 BCE) because, in part, he claims that it reflects the geopolitical reality of the time. In fact, the Table of Nations better describes the geopolitical situation c. 200 BCE and seems more likely to have originated in the Seleucid kingdom, not the Lagid kingdom. Gmirkin refused to look much beyond the time of Ptolemy II because he accepted the foundational myth of the Septuagint’s translation during his reign, a myth that comes to us from a late 2nd century BCE, pseudepigraphic (i.e., fraud or forgery) work. The evidence he points to for relying on the accuracy of that myth is a bit shaky and the sources that cannot be directly refuted can be reasonably pushed to the time of Antiochus III (e.g., paleographic evidence). [I am in the middle of writing up the complete argument.]

          2. The stories of the Hebrew kings from Saul through Rehoboam appear to be based on the stories of Alexander through Ptolemy III Euergetes, who died circa 222 BCE. I wrote up my basic thinking here:


          Basically, I view Judges through 2 Kings as a retelling of the Hellenistic people through the time of Ptolemy III, with the Hellenistic peoples recast as Hebrews (which is based on the word apiru, which means “refugees,” an apt description for the Greek diaspora that arose as Alexander conquered foreign lands).

          Information unlikely to have been available in the Great Library of Alexandria:

          1. Berossus’ Babyloniaca was a work sponsored by and written for king Antiochus I of the Seleucid kingdom. The idea that Berossus’ work would be shared with a rival kingdom (one that Antiochus I warred upon during the alleged writing of the Pentateuch) defies belief, needs to be explained and cannot be assumed.

          2. A lot of the information regarding Assyrian and Persian kings that found its way into Samuel through Kings would have been found only in the Seleucid kingdom which, again, would have been highly unlikely to share it with a rival.

          1. Modern day dictatorships and authoritarian states can’t keep things from getting out, I hardly think iron age kings could prevent this. Berrosus’ Babyloniaca was hardly a collection of state secrets.

            Both the Assyrians and Persians ruled Egypt, I don’t see why info wouldn’t come from the horses mouths rather than thru the Seleukids.

          2. Scot, I am struggling to see how deploying the word “apiru” helps your case.

            (1) It appears in ANE texts of the 2nd millennium BCE, but not later
            (2) It doesn’t appear in the OT at all.

  2. John M. Robertson, in The Jesus Problem: A Restatement of the Myth Theory, posits a different purpose for the Abraham & Isaac sorry, viewing it as

    … a finger-post in the evolution of religion, being inferribly a humane myth to promote the substitution of animal for human sacrifice.

  3. I remember being about six or seven years old and my father reading me the Icarus story. In my mind’s eye I can still see the color illustration of Icarus with loosening wings tumbling down over the sea beneath a garrish sun. I remember as he left asking him if it really happened? “It happens every day” he said….

  4. The Akedah: The idea that God would ENACT the tale in history as reality in order to advance a truth about himself and the ‘life of faith’ no doubt served as inspiration for GMark.

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