Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Was Abraham Thinking: Lost in Translation

What was Abraham thinking when he pulled out the knife and proceeded to slaughter his son Isaac? Was he really going to go through with it? How did he reconcile God’s order with God’s promise that Isaac will produce the promised offspring? I am sure many students of the Bible have commented on that over the centuries. Obviously, the most authoritative view on what Abraham was thinking (at least for Christians) is St. Paul (assuming that he is the author of the letter to the Hebrews.)  Hebrews 11:17-19 King James Version reads:
[17] By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
[18] Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
[19] Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

It is that last phrase: “from whence also he received him in a figure” that I want to focus on here.
Verse 19 in the New American Bible reads: “He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.”
The footnote reads: As a symbol: Isaac's "return from death" is seen as a symbol of Christ's resurrection. Others understand the words en parabole to mean "in figure," i.e., the word dead is used figuratively of Isaac, since he did not really die. But in the one other place that parabole occurs in Hebrews, it means symbol.

Neither of these explanations seems satisfactory. They seem out of context. The natural progression of the verse and the logic is to tell us what made Abraham reason that God was able to raise from the dead. I first read this verse in Arabic many years ago. The Arabic reads something like: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from whom he received him also in an example”). It seems the words “en parabole” in Greek are very similar to the corresponding Arabic. They mean: in an example, or in a figure, or in a parable. I always thought that it should read something like: “from whom he has – in a sense - received him.” Arabic does not have an equivalent to “in a sense” I thought that if it did the meaning would be so obvious. Sadly the English did not use “in a sense” but the Greek is very consistent with it.  So if you replace verse 19 with:  “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whom he has – in a sense - received him.” does the source of Abraham’s faith become obvious?
No, not yet. We have to overcome one more linguistic road block and we will get there.

Paul tells us that it should not be so difficult for Abraham to believe that God can bring Isaac (back to life) from the dead because Abraham has already received Isaac -in a sense- from the “dead”. In Arabic, the expression “raising from the dead” always uses the plural for dead meaning dead people. “The dead” in English can mean that too, but in the context of raising from the dead it is taken to mean raising someone out of the condition of being dead.  So now read: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead (plural); from whom he has – in a sense - received him.”  You can now understand St. Paul’s great parable.- the dead here being Abraham and Sarah, because they were old and barren. St Paul had just used the word “dead” a few verses before. Verse 12 talking about Abraham says, “Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.” He also uses the words dead and deadness to describe Abraham and Sara in Roman’s 4:19: “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb”. St. Paul says that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead because Abraham has already – in a sense - received Isaac from the dead.

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