Does the title inspire discomfort? Good. It was meant to jar you from a baleful sense of self-complacency and moral superiority.
It is all too human to project our vaunted, sophisticated value system on the very category of “God”. What ends up happening is that we create God in our own image, and while we possess the liberty to do so, that image is not really the God that stands revealed in the Holy Scriptures nor is it the God Who Reveals Himself through revelation to man.
In the 21st century, we applaud ourselves for our ethical progress and awareness. From our vantage point, we are the most advanced ethical creatures that have ever graced planet earth. We think that we are, in large measure, “better” than our forebears, who were deeply flawed humans who tolerated racism, bigotry, sexism, intolerance, and a host of other evils.
A problem quickly reveals itself when we contemplate our moral grandeur. As we peer back through the vistas of time, and we open up the pages of canonized scripture, we are suddenly confronted with not only bigoted prophets and preachers of righteousness, but, quite frankly, we find ourselves staring at a God who leaps from the pages as a ravening beast, cursing, killing, and afflicting his chosen people with tests from which we moderns recoil in terror.
How do we reconcile these disparate visions, these outpourings of divine wrath and almost Olympian capriciousness?
Please allow me to submit a solution to the problem.
We simply need to let go of our modern moral conceits and admit that God is above our self-imposed moral categories.
Blake Ostler has written some on this very issue. I’d like to quote from his latest publication, Fire on the Horizon, where he delves into this admittedly difficult subject matter. In the chapter entitled “Human Sacrifice, Plural Marriage, and the I-Thou Relation”, Ostler says the following:
“Before Abraham could walk to Mount Moriah with his only son, Sarai gave him Hagar because Sarai was not fruitful. Even before we confront the horror of human sacrifice commanded by a holy and loving God, we confront a suspension of our moral expectations. Abraham was a polygamist. Perhaps we excuse him because we expect him to be ignorant of the great moral truth that polygyny is tantamount to adultery.”
What Ostler is setting up for us here is the nuanced truth that if we read the scriptures with open minds and hearts, we cannot help but notice the conflicts between our contemporary morality and the reality of life in 2000 BCE. He is gently guiding us so that we can suspend our own moral judgment and biases in order to comprehend the God of Abraham.
Again: “The divine purpose rests in the very fact that God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only begotten son sets the mind in revolt. How could a loving God ask such a thing, let alone command it? Everything in my head screams, “No, that is impossible!” at the very thought of such a command. Can the being who command such a thing really be regarded as just, as good, as holy, as loving… as God? If the answer is even possibly yes, then everything we think we know and every moral judgment we make to give some order to our notions of justice, love, and the holy must be abandoned. But how can we abandon these beliefs without losing ourselves wholly and giving up our own lives entirely? No, it was not Isaac that was sacrificed on the altar on Moriah; it was every hope of making any sense of God in a way true to our own moral judgments” (italics added).
Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? Good.
Ostler continues by tying together the unthinkable command to sacrifice Isaac with the equally repugnant command given to Joseph Smith to initiate plural marriage. He asks why Abraham would even consider filicide, and why Joseph Smith (and his fellow brethren) would even consider taking additional wives? The answer is that they did it because they believed it was necessary for their spiritual salvation. In Ostler’s words: “[T]here is profound possibility embedded in the very command to sacrifice Isaac, and in the revelation to take another wife: to know God.”
“Not merely to know of them, to know about them, or to be acquainted with them – but to know our Father and Savior intimately and intrinsically. The very command forced the Saints to cast off every belief and assumption that they had about God. Only in this way could they encounter God without prior judgments, without expectations, and without imposing their beliefs and demands on God. They were forced to let go of every presupposition, forget everything that they thought they knew, and suspend every notion about how and what God must be to be God – and simply to encounter God as He is, as He reveals Himself” (italics added).
There is profound wisdom in what Blake Ostler has graciously written here. I would commend the reader to pick up a copy of his book, Fire on the Horizon: A Meditation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement for greater details and further insights.
Great spiritual truths are in store for us if we can simply jettison our pride and put aside our contemporary ethical holiness and moral self-sufficiency. Why? Because it will warp and hinder the great revelation that awaits us: God Himself, Who wants to have a real relationship with us, but Who values our moral agency too much to force us to change our conceptions. We must do that ourselves. The God of Revelation waits.