Staying Abraham’s Hand: On Withholding Disturbing Biblical Texts

I am frequently confronted by adults who learn about biblical texts that are disturbing, and who cannot believe that they have never heard of them. They wonder what else they don’t know, and why their educators chose to keep certain texts from them. While I understand their frustration, I also know that one of the most challenging parts of designing a Bible curriculum is choosing which texts to teach. No matter what we choose, we know that we are omitting sections that are essential to the education of our students. Regardless of how many hours are spent on teaching Torah in the school, we still come away feeling that there are very important texts that we have neglected.

While working on the MaToK curriculum sponsored by United Synagogue and The Jewish Theological Seminary, we discussed this very topic: what to include and what methods to use with the different texts. One excellent educator joked that she thought we should spend all twelve years of Torah study in day schools just covering Genesis 1-3. Then, she said, we could really do it well, and include all the areas that we thought were necessary. Though she was being facetious, there was a compelling truth beneath her words. If we had been asked to create a comprehensive curriculum for twelve years based on just those three chapters, it would have been possible.

But any Bible curriculum which is time-limited must exercise textual triage and it is common to omit disturbing biblical narratives. Even those who include these difficult texts often do so in a way that circumvents or minimizes their disturbing nature. I would like to consider, however, the very important role that these disturbing texts might constructively play in Bible curricula.

Biblical texts can be disturbing for a range of reasons. For example, they can make us ethically uncomfortable, they can cause us to look at our “biblical heroes” in unflattering ways, or they can conflict with our modern sensibilities and understanding of the world. But there are ways to deal with such unsettling texts that can apply as teachers of Hebrew Bible discharge their sacred task.

One method of confronting disturbing texts is to look at them in their historical context. That does not mean that one need read them as historically accurate. Rather, when they are consciously read as products of a time period very different from our own, new understandings of the moral or emotional difficulty in the text may well present themselves.

A classic example applies this methodology to the biblical law of lex talionis. The Bible states clearly that there should be retributive justice for murder and injury: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-25). Some feel that this represents a difficult moral concept, as evidenced by the fact that rabbinic law interpreted this text as the need to pay monetary compensation, not literally to maim perpetrators. However, when one reads this biblical injunction in the context of ancient Near Eastern legal codes, it becomes clear that it was actually a major step forward in penal law.

Many ancient Near Eastern law codes, including the well known Code of Hammurabi, base punishments for crimes on the social status of the perpetrator and the victim. Crimes against those of high station were punished more heavily, especially when committed by those of lower social status. Thus, when the Bible states that every eye is of the same value, rather than it being a law we find troubling and in need of reinterpretation, it can be seen as a major moral advance, a truly progressive step in the march of civilization. The statement that every eye is of equal value asserts the value of every human life, and the dignity of every individual. Studying the ancient Near Eastern context allows for an instructive and deeper appreciation of what at first appears to be a disturbing text.

Another method of approaching disturbing texts is to address them anew, from a non-classical interpretive framework. Sometimes, our reading of Bible is filtered through an interpretation that has been passed down for centuries, and our inability to see past that interpretation can lead to difficulty. Approaching the texts anew, without exclusive recourse to its exegetical history, changes the conversation presented by the text.

A good example of this is the very difficult narrative of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Readers of this text have long been troubled by the actions of both God and Abraham. The questions are well known to all of us. How do we understand a God who asks a man to sacrifice his son as a test? How do we make sense of an individual’s willingness to place his son on an altar? Traditional commentators address these questions in a variety of ways. Some portray God as helping Abraham to show how loyal he really was. Others defend God by saying that a test was really necessary based on Abraham’s earlier behaviors, perhaps not focusing on God enough after the birth of Isaac. For many readers, these types of answers do not satisfy our struggle with God or Abraham.

The willingness temporarily to put aside traditional interpretations and address the text anew can lead to alternative explanations. For example, the approach that Abraham was testing God as much as God was testing Abraham paints a very different picture of Abraham. By reading Abraham’s statement to his servants that both he and Isaac will return together after their sacrifice (Genesis 22:5) as truthful and confident rather than evasive and deceptive, we can understand that perhaps Abraham had no intention of sacrificing his son. To the contrary, Abraham wanted to make sure that the God to whom he was devoting his life would not really ask him to go through with this horrific action.

After all, God had already promised that Abraham’s descendants would come from Isaac (Genesis 21:12), and if Isaac were to die, God’s covenantal promise could not be fulfilled. Why, Abraham thought, would he sacrifice his son to such a deity? If, as this nonstandard reading of the Akedah suggests, Abraham were waiting for God to stop him, but ultimately had no intention of sacrificing his son, we are presented with a very different understanding both of Abraham as a character and of the difficulties in this text.

Similarly, we might understand Abraham as having failed the test. What if we assume that God was dismayed that Abraham had been willing to “sacrifice” every member of his family? He already allowed Sarah to be taken by two different monarchs, and he sent away Hagar and Ishmael. Perhaps God is waiting for Abraham to say no, he is not willing to sacrifice another member of his family. Could God be waiting for Abraham to plead to be taken instead of his son? Abraham, however, made no such moves or gestures, and did not stop until God stopped him, thus failing the test. This can be supported by a pattern of distancing evident in the narrative. While God spoke with Abraham in the beginning of the chapter, it was only an angel who stopped Abraham in the later verses, and God does not speak with Abraham again. If we read the test in this way, then, a very different understanding of God and what is desired for humankind by the Divine emerges.

Of course, there is a lot more behind each of these readings, but for our purposes here, what is important is that by putting aside the traditional reading, and reinterpreting, the text takes on new meaning, and the difficulties, though not entirely resolved, are significantly altered.

There are other times that the disturbing nature of the text is such that reinterpretation or rereading do not help us with the difficulties. There are times that our devotion to the biblical text compels us to confront it clearly and honestly. That is, even if it were possible to interpret the text differently, or, to understand it in its historical framework, the current popular understanding is so damaging to modern sensibilities that it needs to be faced. Sometimes, the only answer we have to a disturbing text is to affirm that there are statements in the Bible that seem to encourage behaviors that we do not accept today.

A good example of that is when we read the narratives of Hagar and Hosea. In both of these cases, we have divinely condoned abuse of a woman. Hagar is abused by Sarah, and, after her life becomes so miserable that she flees, she is told by God to return to Sarah and to continue enduring the abuse. In the Hosea narrative (chapters 1-2), Hosea’s relationship with his wife Gomer, which is developed as a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, is described in terms of abuse. Gomer is verbally abused, her food, drink, and travel are restricted, and she is publicly humiliated. There is also a succession of loving and abusive language which parallels what is often seen in abusive relationships.

While commentators have long sought to explain away the difficulties in the story of Hosea and Gomer, insisting that this is simply an allegory, and never actually happened, that does not really solve the problem. The question of whether this occurred in real life is secondary. God condoning expressions of spousal abuse is difficulty enough. Commentators also rightly make the point that this text worked in its original context specifically because it was meant to be shocking. If it were the norm to treat women in an abusive way, this text would have lost its power. We certainly do not need to assume that behaviors described in Hosea were reflective of the norms of the day. That, however, only helps to a point.

What do we do with this dilemma? In my opinion, we need to make a point of focusing on these very difficult texts, study them in all of their contexts, and then be willing forthrightly to state that we are troubled as individuals and as a community by the language and ideas. It behooves us, especially in light of the all too real issue of spousal abuse in our world, to speak up and state that we as devoted readers of Sacred Text, and as a Jewish community, do not support this type of behavior.

Ultimately, in each of these cases, the process involves making a principled point of studying disturbing texts. Showing our willingness to wrestle lovingly, carefully, and intimately with the difficulties in our sacred literature is in and of itself an educational statement. It shows our students that we consider the whole Bible to be Sacred Text, even when we find it complicated. It also gives our students the opportunity to confront those difficulties together with us. Why should we have adults with strong Jewish educations wondering how it is possible that they never heard about some troubling text that was just brought to their attention—wondering if their longstanding relationship to Bible was built on deception and less than full disclosure? Why not provide children the tools to struggle with our most important texts?

By making a point of addressing these complicated texts together with our students, whatever method or methods we choose, we are modeling our closeness with the Bible, which is, at least in my opinion, one of the indispensable goals of study. Yes, we want our students to grasp the text, to be able to understand methodological approaches, and to have some sense of beki’ut. Among our primary goals, however, should also be to develop an intimacy with the Bible that includes wrestling and cherishing, struggle and devotion.&daims;

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is the executive vice president and dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school in Riverdale, New York. She can be reached at

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012