Monday 6 July 2009

Four-year-old theology: Abraham and Isaac

My four-year-old daughter handed me one of those big children’s Bibles. You know the kind I mean: set in a dour Calvinist typeface and filled with big angry ink-drawn pictures of bearded unsmiling Americans, with stories punctuated by thunderous pronouncements from a brow-furrowed Baptist-preacher God. The kind of children’s Bible that has you scared to go to sleep, lest divine horrors invade your dreams or you are woken, like Samuel, by the summons of that shrill and unfamiliar Voice. (It’s no coincidence that today’s Hollywood directors – so obsessed with brutality, fear, and a kind of pure excessive violence – were brought up on this species of children’s Bible, together with its close relative, the hellfire gospel tract.)

Anyway, my daughter had opened it to the story of the binding of Isaac, and she asked me to read. The picture darkly portrayed Isaac bound to an altar, his father’s knife raised high above him, and in the foreground a white ram tangled in brambles. I had mixed feelings about the way the story would be presented, but eventually I went ahead and read it: God’s command to Abraham; Abraham’s all-too-willing obedience; the angel’s last-minute intervention; the provision of the ram; the final triumphant bloody act.

As I read all this, I wondered what my daughter must be thinking. When the story was over, she looked intently at the picture for a few silent moments, and then finally said (in a voice filled with sympathetic concern): “The poor goat.”


roger flyer said...

I empathize with her.

And poor Isaac! And poor Abraham! and not to mention poor Sarah!

I feel bad for everybody in the story; including YHWH.

I know we have made up some neat 'midrash' about faithfulness in this story, but honestly--for me, it's mostly a very sad story.

I'm glad Isaac made it through, but that's a nasty memory of dad.

Rev. Jeremy Smith said...

Hilarious! I laughed out loud!

...and I'm thankful she focused on that and not on a God who seems to demand child sacrifice.

gbroughto said...

I'm concerned that she seems to be channeling Girard at such a tender age... I blame her fathers's library, and not the chidlrens bible!

kim fabricius said...

If she'd said, "The poor old goat," that would have covered Abraham - and YHWH.

I presume you went on to explain to her the "teleological suspension of the ethical," and added, "Tomorrow, sweetheart, I'm going to tell you all about the doctrine of penal substitution."

By the way, what would you have done if she'd asked, "What would you have done, Daddy?"

Anonymous said...

[I presume you went on to explain to her the "teleological suspension of the ethical," and added, "Tomorrow, sweetheart, I'm going to tell you all about the doctrine of penal substitution."]

Isn't that just good parenting???


Carl W. Conrad said...

My daughter is now in her 40's, but I still remember vividly her horror at the slaughter of the Big Bad Wolf at the end of the Goldilocks story.

Ian Packer said...

Ben, have you ever read Paul Borgman's Genesis--The Story We Haven't Heard? As a literature prof, his dealing with this story at the culmination of the long 'dance' between Abraham and Yahweh is pretty darn good. Much better than coming to this story as though nothing has happened before and just 'being offended'. The conclusion to the story "Because you have done this" is also a good kick in the groin to pious Protestantism also...

And, now I must go and eat meat...

kim fabricius said...

Hey Carl, Goldilocks legged it from the bears; it was the pig in the brick house who lured the poor unsuspecting wolf down his chimney - and into a pot of boiling water. At least that's how the New Lupine Critics read the story, against conventional Porcine Theory.

roger flyer said...

Kim-How does the Lupine orthodoxy defend the wolf pretending to be the grandma in the Goldilocks story? He was martyred for the cause?

tortoise said...

Carl and Roger - you appear to be operating from a deutero-canonical text in which aspects of the Goldilocks epic have been augmented by material from the Red Riding Hood narrative. The source-critics would have a field day!

roger flyer said...

Tortoise-I beg to differ. The source material in the Goldilocks manuscripts never refer to the wolf as the 'big bad wolf', which only appears in the Three Little Pigs manuscripts which were interjected into this thread by Kim Fabricius, whose project is clearly misguided.

All that to say, the wolf's intentions as put forth by Aesop and co. is a seriously misunderstood character, as Kim alluded to in his famous Lupine letters from prison.

roger flyer said...

Tortoise: After consulting with my memory of the original texts, I must stand corrected, sir. We are most certainly mixing several fabled texts.

To be clear: Goldilocks messed with bears. The Big Bad Wolf appears in Little Red Riding Hood, and the wolf (not necessarily big or bad) gives it up in Three Little Pigs.

I retract my earlier pious post.

(Wouldn't it be wonderful if theologians were so quick to retract?)

roger flyer said...

Aaargghhhh...Wrong again! Before someone from Lupine orthodoxy lambasts me: Please switch the Big Bad Wolf into the Three Little Pigs narrative and the wolf( without adjectives) into the Little Red Riding Hood story!

The poor wolf!

tortoise said...

Yes, I suspect we've all allowed secondary embellishments of the character of Wolf to distort a proper conception based more rigidly upon the primary texts. I blame Milton!

kim fabricius said...

Yes, I think Carl's confusion arose from the number three - three bears in the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" story, three little pigs in the, er, "Three Little Pigs" story.

As for "Little Red Riding Hood", most of us know the Brothers Grimm story, but there are numerous versions of the fable and numerous interpretations of the numerous versions. In all of them, however, the wolf gets a bad press, as a paedophile, a rapist, a granny-grunter, or all three. Okay, wolves are violent sons-of-bitches - but then so too is Stanley Hauerwas, and he's a pacifist. So I hazzard the Girardian interpretation, that, in fact, the wolf, working to overcome his baser instincts, is actually looking for love, as Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs saw clearly in their hit single of 1966 (the year I graduated from high school), and that he's been scapelupined by a bed-scene the evidence of which is all circumstantial. However, in a culture of vengeance, paedophile panic, and rampant feminism, I recognise that this thread-crapping line of thought is unlikely to convince anyone - except, perhaps, iconoclasts like Roger.

Tyler Wittman said...

this was all highly entertaining

Francis.a.t said...

Some of the fairy tales by the Grimm brothers are just as bad.

I always remember as I got older reading that story and think what would I have done if my dad put me on an altar. I can't imagine I would have been happy about before or after.

roger flyer said...

Thank you for that compliment, Kim.
(I think.) I shall wear the mantle of iconoclast proudly.

And damn, high school in 1966. You are an old goat! But still a boomer, big brother.

A little levity does not a thread crappy make...although a bit more levity brevity might...

kim fabricius said...

Thank you for that compliment, Roger. (I think.)
I shall wear the mantle of "old goat, but still a boomer" proudly.

In fact, I think I'll take it to my next Elders Meeting, to have it put next to my name on the church notice board. I'll argue it as outreach to local Satanists.

Anonymous said...

If there is anything of the divine in us, it is compassion and concern for the goat, the big, bad wolf, all the fallen (us), all of creation....-Ann

Anonymous said...

Amen, anon. And there is no harder thing when we are so nice and good!

roger flyer said...

The real truth behind the Sam the Sham:

Samudio, who is of Mexican American descent, made his singing debut in second grade, representing his school in a radio broadcast. Later, he took up guitar and formed a group with friends, one of whom was Trini Lopez. After graduating from high school, Samudio joined the navy and lived in Panama for six years, until his discharge.

Back in the States, Samudio enrolled in college, "I was studying classical in the daytime and playing rock and roll at night" he recalled. "That lasted about two years, before I dropped out and became a carny."

Sounds like a fine role model for you.

Unknown said...


At four, they display concern for the goats. At five (almost six), they go straight to arguing with you vehemently about core theologoumena. Case in point: The other day I was driving in the car with Zoe in the backseat and we were discussing "the greatest commandment" (which we had read about the previous night). This conversation ensued:

Zoe: "So, Daddy, God tells us to love him and to love each other, right?" [There was a digression here as to whether or God was or was not a "he." Her solution: He is and he isn't.]

Me: "Yes."

Zoe: "At the same time?"

Me: "Yes. In loving one another we are loving God."

Zoe: "So does that mean we're supposed to love everybody? How do we do that?"

Me: "Well, because God is love; God loves everybody, and so if we love God when we love each other, that is how we are loving everybody -- by just loving the people we see every day."

[And here is where it goes off the rails.]

Zoe: "Daddy! GOD IS NOT LOVE."

Me: "What do you mean God is not love."

Zoe: "Because God has a body. You know, Jesus! God loves us through Jesus, but God is NOT love!"

Me: "Well, it is because of Jesus that we can say that God both is love and that God loves us."

Zoe: "Daddy! Argghh. You just don't get it! God has a body. God is NOT love. God loves us THROUGH his body. Just like we love through our bodies. But we're not love. So God is NOT love."

Me: "But that's the whole point. We are only able to love through our bodies because love itself took on a body like ours in Jesus."

Zoe: "Arrghh...Daddy, I'm trying to understand. You know about these things because you read the bible. But the bible tells us that Jesus loves us and that Jesus is God and he had a body. So God CANNOT be love. Tell me how God can is love."

Me: "Well, the bible tells us that God is love."

Zoe: "Where? Show me when we get home."

About 10 minutes later we arrived home and I read her 1 John 3:7ff. At around v. 13 she stopped me and said:

Zoe: "Oh, I get it! It's because of the Holy Spirit!"

Me: "Yes! Exactly!"

Zoe: "Well why didn't you tell me that in the car? I wouldn't have had to yell at you then!"

roger flyer said...

One amazing daughter, that Zoe (Love).

Wow! Can't wait to hear some of the songs she will write.

Colin said...


I hope my kids (when I have them - we are waiting a few years) ask my wife and I the same sorts of questions! What a sharp little girl.

byron smith said...

I assume Ms Myers' mention of the goat was in reference to Matthew 25, which is where her mind went when the ram was mentioned.

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