Your Help is Welcome

Please help me understand this:

In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The word used in most translations to describe this act of God is that God “tested.”

In James 1:13, we are told that God does not tempt anyone.

What’s going on here?

Is there a difference between “tempting” and “testing” that you can help me see?  I found this (to me) lame attempt.  This strikes me as just another of those “we are proving there are no contradictions by telling you there are no contradictions” lines of alleged argument that some Christians have actually made a living off of.

To distinguish between testing and tempting here seems really, really strained to me.  Or is it only testing, not tempting, a man to sacrifice his son because it is God who makes the request?

Or maybe it is like this.  If I were told to offer up my child as a sacrifice, I wouldn’t consider it a temptation because there would be not a bone in my body inclined to do so.  Temptation, then, carries with it an assumption that “this is something that you would (or might) like to do though you know you ought not do.”

So when James writes that God does not tempt, as opposed to test (which Genesis 22 clearly indicates God does [or did]), could he mean that God does not nudge us, lure us, draw us toward things we know we ought not do but we have some urge to do anyway?

I look forward to your input.

17 thoughts on “Your Help is Welcome

  1. Seems to me you’re on to something. If you haven’t already (which I’m sure you have) look at verse 14 of the James passage.

    “14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. ”

    Temptation comes from our “own evil desire”. Temptation isn’t temptation unless part of you wants to do it. For example, I dislike liver. So no matter how you dress it up or prepare it…. nothing is going to create a desire in me to eat it. Temptation ultimately comes from within. The enemy may whisper in our ear to get us thinking about something… but ultimately it’s the “you know you want to…” part of the temptation that is the real root.

    Also consider that God knew He would stop Abraham before the act reached fulfillment…. although granted, Abraham did not.

    As for the whole “contradiction” debate, I don’t see this as an issue at all in this passage. I think the other side of that debate is that those who want to find contradiction will find it everywhere simply because they want to. I’ve seen many purposefully twist and mis-translate just so they can have a fight. Kinda like conspiracy theorists….

    • Let me make sure I follow- since God knew God wasn’t actually going to let Abraham kill Isaac, God wasn’t really tempting Abraham?

      and if temptation comes from “our own evil desire,” and not from God, then God telling/calling us to do something we would not otherwise do is testing but not tempting?


  2. I suppose the point here is that we’re supposed to believe that “God knows better than we do about what the right thing to do is, so even if it’s something ‘we know we ought not do’ — and, even, if we have NO ‘urge to do’ it — we’re supposed to go ahead and do it if he says so (don’t worry, he’ll stop us just in time if it’s ‘only a test’).”

    I, for one, just don’t think this is a healthy message. Don’t you think the world would be better off, generally speaking, if the message were, instead:

    How about we refrain from doing those “things we know we ought not do,” *whether or not* we have any “urge to do” them, and *whether or not* we think our refraining will go into the ledger books as “failing a test” or as “successfully resisting a temptation.” It doesn’t matter!

    And how ’bout we (and God) stop wasting time with these silly games.

  3. An interesting perspective I heard recently on the Genesis 22 passage suggested that it might be a retelling of a common sacrifice parable/story. Being as child sacrifice was not entirely uncommon in Abraham’s day it would not be shocking for a god to require something precious be sacrificed to fulfill the promise of more offspring; i.e., Abraham has been promised descendants as numerous as the stars, Isaac was born, as a sign of devotion and trust Abraham sacrifices the first born (first fruits) to appease the gods and in hopes of future offspring.

    Also, the use of God as opposed to LORD in the beginning of the story may suggest something other than YHWH tempting Abraham.

    If you read the sacrifice story and remove verses 11-13 the story reads as a seamless child-sacrifice story. But with the addition of those verses as well as the angel of the LORD calling out to stay Abraham’s hand could be an indication of God changing the way people interact with the divine. Instead of sacrificing children or grain needed for survival God asks for the sacrifice of humility, justice, and mercy (Micah 6:8).

    So, the “testing” in Genesis 22 could be seen as a test of devotion as opposed to a temptation to sin. I don’t have much problem with distinguishing between temptation and testing with the same Hebrew or Greek word.

    Then again, I also don’t struggle much with contradictions in the Bible…they exist – it’s bound to happen with so many different authors.

    • Thanks for thoughtful stuff, Dave. Having also read Jason’s comment, I haveto admit I hadn’t thought to notice the difference in the god/God reference.

      Not sure I get the distinction between test of devotion and temptation when the act at hand is killing your son.

  4. “So, the “testing” in Genesis 22 could be seen as a test of devotion as opposed to a temptation to sin.”

    I’m with you on that one for sure.

    And as for “God telling/calling us to do something we would not otherwise do.”, God does that all the time. He calls us to not be of the world and calls us to die to ourselves…. which is counter to the grain of our human nature.

    • Let me clarify my thought on “God telling/calling us to do something we would not otherwise do.” The context was negative behaviors – we could be tempted toward those negative behaviors we might feel inclined toward. On the other hand, the suggestion (or command) of negative behaviors toward which we fell no inclination would not, in the same sense, be temptation.

      For instance. I have no inclination to rob a bank – thus, suggesting I do so would not be tempting to me. I do, sometimes, have an inclination to eat too much and unhealthy food – thus, suggesting a trip to Shipley’s would tempt me in a way suggesting we rob a bank wouldn’t.

  5. To add to Dave’s comments, I would throw in the “Griradian view” to that point: (The following is pasted from:

    Very important to a Girardian reading of this crucial passage is the idea that the God at the beginning of the passage who demands the sacrifice from Abraham is a different God from the one at the end who stops it. This possible reading actually has warrant in the text! Elohim is the name used for God in vs. 1, 3, 8, 9, and twelve. In crucial vs. 11 and 14, however, the name for God is Yahweh only (not even the common combined form of Yahweh Elohim, “LORD God”). Here is the JPS Tanakh translation of Gen. 22:11-14:

    Then an angel of the LORD [Yahweh] called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God [Elohim], since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13 When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that site Adonai [Yahweh]-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD [Yahweh] there is vision.”

    Is this story trying to sort out the gods? Abraham begins hearing the common tribal gods of ancient polytheism who demand human sacrifices. On the mount of Yahweh-yireh, however, he begins to hear and envision the one true God who wants us to stop that nonsense.

  6. I think context makes so much difference in reading these stories. I admit not being an expert on the original texts — I don’t read Greek OR Hebrew — so how can I know a god/God difference that is not spelled out in the English? However … it’s kind of like us trying to go back and understand how the American Founding Fathers can conceive of and write the Constitution, and basically be known to find slavery distasteful, and yet own slaves. Human beings are embedded in our contexts, and the more foreign the context is to us, the harder it is to understand 1) the human characters in the story and 2) the way God interacts with those people.

    I think it is important to remember that God always deals with us Where We Are. In God’s mercy, He doesn’t expect us to have the “God’s-eye view” before receiving guidance, purpose, and mercy. Abraham lived in a time far removed from us, in a time when human sacrifice was not yet unthinkable. Context.

    I also think that we don’t fully realize the extent to which culture shapes our understanding of religious texts. We had a rousing discussion/disagreement about a Christian view of the death penalty, in S.S. a couple of weeks ago. I personally don’t have a problem with the state putting someone to death for certain crimes. I don’t regard it as a deterrent, I regard it as justice. Others in my S.S. class believe that because grace and redemption are offered to all people and that it is possible for anybody to repent, Christians should not take a life. I see their point and respect their beliefs. While I maintain my viewpoint, in the last couple of weeks I have contemplated how my culture — rooted in white rural Texas — and its “warrior ethic” have contributed to my coming down on this controversial issue in this particular way. Of course, there are other determinants — the others in the class also are white and live in rural Texas.

    I don’t really “get” the Abraham story. Believing that God IS (rather than WAS or WILL BE) and that there is continuity between Old Testament, New Testament, and today, is a matter of faith for me rather than understanding. I hope understanding will someday come … but on some issues, understanding may be what eternity is for.

    “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor. 1:25)

    On a lighter note, Rabbi Bob Alper asks the question, “How can we be certain that Isaac was 12 years old when Abraham took him to be sacrificed?” to which he answers, “Because if God had waited til he was 13, it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice.” (To all the parents of teens out there :))

  7. Greetings!

    I want to start off saying that I recognize my utter failure yesterday to dig into a very deep issue but instead went with a surface rendering that fit into the scant few moments I had before starting work! Looking back, it would have been far better for me to wait….. to be “slow to speak” if you will. A surface discussion is wholly inadequate!

    As such, now with more time I’ll dig deeper into this issue. I also now have the benefit of other perspectives and quite a bit more time to think and ponder, and yes, even pray!

    The first thing I’ll touch on is the initial link set forth in the blog post itself. I agree . It’s horribly lame. Explaining that a Greek word can be translated either tempt or test and stating that in of itself resolves any/all conflicts is utterly preposterous and certainly ignores the very passage we’re looking at. Feels almost like the scene from the Wizard of Oz…… “No No… Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…..” I think God wants us think and dig.

    So that being said. I’ll expound more upon my line of thinking. If I fall into error anywhere along the way, gently smack me in love and send me off in a new direction!

    I’ll start with my assumptions and give some explanation for them. If for some reason anyone feels they shouldn’t be assumptions, I’m all up for debate.

    In a straight forward reading of James, I think he puts forth the notion that there is indeed a difference between testing and tempting. I agree with this idea, as testing has a far different purpose and perhaps even a diametrically opposed one at that, to tempting. In testing, we’re trying to figure something out. Is it strong enough. Is it good enough. Does it measure up. The purpose of tempting is get it to fail and if we look at the language James uses, about being lured and dragged away… there seems to me an element of laying a trap for the very purpose of causing a failure.

    Next assumption comes from the idea that James puts forth, that God does indeed test us! We’re told to count it all joy when all manner of trials come into our lives for it works to build our faith. But then why does James jump right into the idea of clarifying that God doesn’t tempt? In my reply yesterday I touched on the idea that temptation comes from inside us, supported by James words about temptation being conceived out of our own desire. I used the illustration of liver. Perhaps not the best illustration as there certainly isn’t anything sinful about eating liver. So let me put it another way. If I’m at a store and notice someone leaves their wallet on the counter, this is absolutely no temptation for me. My gut instinct is to let the person know they forgot their wallet and return it to them. But what about the guy next to me who is a klepto? His gut reaction is far different than mine. Probably the first impulse through his head is to look around and see if anyone noticed so he knows if he can safely pocket the wallet for himself. For him the forgotten wallet is a huge element of temptation, but the desire itself came from within himself. So the first thing to realize is a temptation is only a temptation if it’s something you internally desire. The next is what I’ll call “situational reaction”. I think James points this out right when he does because James knows that during every trial or test that we’ll face, we will always have the opportunity to respond to it in a sinful fashion. Our human instinct will kick in and the possibility to respond sinfully is likely. Maybe God will allow me to be in a situation where I’m out of work and can’t pay the bills. The point of the test then is perhaps, “will you trust me to provide for you”. My reaction might be to trust, or maybe instead I’ll get overwhelmed and respond with anger toward my family. Maybe I’ll be filled with frustrated anger and rage and smash things up or be short and nasty to my wife and children. God allowed the situation, but my reaction to it is not His fault.

    For my next assumption, I’ll jump to 1 Cor. 10:13. Where we’re promised that God will never allow temptations beyond what we can handle and will always provide a way out. I believe this would also touch on the idea of being tested and isn’t exclusive to temptation. What it means is, in any difficult situation or temptation God will ensure that it is not something that you have no chance of succeeding at, and He will ensure a way through it or out of it is available. So God will not test you to failure. What does that mean? I work for a manufacturer that works with steel and aluminum and rotomolded plastics. After we create a product, we have a set of standards and strict test methods that are adhered to. One thing we do is a load test. What this means is, we add weight (load) to the item. First we add what the load at expected usage will be. Then we check to see if the item is warping or creasing. We check to see if welds are holding up. Is there any indication that it’s breaking down. Then we add more weight, all the way up to maximum usage, and repeat the examination. Once there, we could be done. We know the item functions within our desired and stated guidelines for the product. But we always test to fail. What that means is, we keep adding weight until it does break. Until something gives, so we know then how close our maximum recommendations are to the breaking point. Unlike us as a manufacturer, God will not test you to failure.

    So, a quick list of my stated assumptions:
    1. Testing and Tempting are not the same thing.
    2. God does indeed test us.
    3. God does not tempt. Temptation come from within. IE: our sinful reaction to the situation.
    4. God will never give us a test we can not pass.

    So…. All this being said, I fully recognize it neither explains nor clarifies the situation with Abraham. What it does is give us a framework within which to judge and hopefully work out a solution.

    I think we can all agree that God was setting out to test Abraham. To prove his metal if you will. But the fact that what we see is a direct command to essentially… Go up and murder your son in my name goes against the third assumption I’ve listed above. Hence the reason for this whole discussion in the first place. Certainly a consideration is, “are the assumptions wrong”. If we say that is the case, then I believe it calls into question much more than I think we’re wrestling with here in this situation at hand and sets us up for a veritable rabbit whole descending down into the darkest roads of apostasy and irrelevance.
    So then we ask ourselves what then is going on. Certainly we know this test has to fall into the realm of a passable test. We also certainly can know that God knew it’s outcome before it even began, but that doesn’t help us with the stated command!

    So what are our possibilities?

    I found the article that was linked to very interesting and intriguing. Truly it isn’t a possibility I’ve ever heard of or considered before. It raises up many questions. I didn’t agree with everything in the article, but as I said, it raises up quite a few thoughts and possibilities. The author does do something that I often do and encourage others to do, and that is to dig into the Greek/Hebrew. I find the usage of Elohim and Yahweh very thought provoking and it’s conclusion does seem to make sense, although I’m not yet ready to bobble my head and say “yep yep that’s it!”. Although it raises a very interesting question!

    So my initial question is, can we find precedence anywhere else, where God set out to test someone and let another entity do the work? I think the story of Job, Where God Himself initiates the challenge with Lucifer in asking, “Have you considered my servant Job?” gives us some precedence! Certainly God know the outcome, like in the situation with Abraham, but that most definitely didn’t negate the trial and it’s difficulty, or the eagerness with which Lucifer carried it out and continually asked for more permission because he thought Job had to be close to breaking. So then, is it plausible that as the article’s author suggests that voice in the beginning isn’t really the voice of God? I suppose, but sadly, I don’t know. Certainly the author of Genesis, and even Abraham himself believed it to be! If he hadn’t believed it to be, then I doubt he would have even begun the journey.

    So my next question is… is there any precedence for a being other than God to be called Elohim? Unfortunately I do not know. I haven’t the time at present to do that digging, but I definitely plan to. It intrigues me to no end now!

    If that research doesn’t pan out, are there other possibilities? Certainly, one (and admittedly I have nothing to support it other than what we see in the text at present) that I can think of, is the possibility that Abraham was deceived and truly believed it was God’s voice speaking. But of course the first question in response to that then is, then why wouldn’t the author have written, something along the lines of…. “Abraham heard a voice and believing it to be God’s…..”

    The polytheist view shared in the article certainly has cultural support as well as common practice of child sacrifice, but from the text alone we can not bear those out, as it is information we just aren’t given.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t a final statement of “X” is the reason. I choose to hold onto the assumptions I set forth, and say that I don’t know. I think there is an answer there, but right now, I’m at a loss. I’m not giving up or blanketing it with the often tired statement of, “It’s just one of those mysteries the world may never know…”. If it can be known, I want to know!

    Anyway, agree, disagree, it is what it is. It’s a conversation I would love to see continue.

  8. Warren,

    I’ve got to process (probably re-read) this comment before taking on the substance of it. Glad to see we are on the same page with the “internally desire” captures it much more succinctly than I did.

    Beyond the meaning(s) of tempt and test, though, I’m still stuck on a God (or god) that commands the murder of one’s son….

  9. Hmmm…. Consider Hebrews 11:17 “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[c] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. ”

    So Abraham fully believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead! This can be seen in Gen. 22:4-5 when he says to those who came with him: “4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.””

    Notice he says WE. Abraham fully believed that He and Isaac would return….

    I know this doesn’t answer the question of the request, but it is indeed more information about the same said situation. Hopefully it helps to shed further light!

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