David P writes:
My problem is this:
a) Prior to the Enlightenment, everyone pretty much read the Abraham/Isaac passage literally (right?).
b) After moral reflection on God’s nature and other things, modern thinkers say the passage should be taken metaphorically. Then they proceed to point out features of the text that support their conclusion.
Maybe the text does support their conclusion (but what led them to consider the conclusion was not the text itself or the internal textual evidence). But why did God see fit to allow all the pre-Enlightenment readers to take it a different way?
To begin with, a) is only partially correct. It is correct that the text was widely read as an accurate historical narrative prior to the Enlightenment. But it is incorrect to think that this, or other morally problematic biblical texts, did not present a moral challenge to readers of scripture prior to the Enlightenment. Whether it be this text, the imprecatory psalms, the Exodus from Egypt or the Canaanite genocide, for centuries Christian exegetes have proposed additional spiritual (e.g. allegorical) meanings for these various texts as a sort of pressure valve to lessen the cognitive dissonance they present to a faith formed by Jesus.
The problem arose that after the Reformation many of these classic exegetical methods were rejected leaving us with the ethical-historical problem laid bare.
This problem has been heightened over the last two hundred years by marked moral growth in the western world. We now believe it is not permissible to have slaves, to deny women the vote or claim they are morally and/or intellectually inferior to men. We agree it is wrong to inflict suffering on animals in a wanton fashion and that we ought not target non-combatants in war.
Bring these two factors together — no spiritual pressure value and increased moral awareness — and it is no surprise that these texts present unique problems to us.
And now to your question: “But why did God see fit to allow all the pre-Enlightenment readers to take it a different way?” To answer that let me go back to an illustration I’ve used before: asking questions of a film by a great director when you’re in the middle.
“Psst, Randal why did the director not introduct the protagonist until forty-five minutes into the film?”
“I don’t know David. But he’s won best director at the academy awards more than any other director so I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”
While I don’t know why deepened understanding has been so slow in coming, I do know that I don’t want to return to invoking spiritual interpretations that really only serve to obscure the moral offense with the texts.