Reflection: Seriously? September 17, 2017
Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14; John 1:29
Sometimes following a lectionary is great. There are set readings for every Sunday, there are prayers, ideas, stories to go with each reading available in various places, and it gives a preacher the discipline of preaching as much of the Bible as possible in a 3 or 4 year span, rather than picking and choosing the ones we want to preach on.
But sometimes, picking and choosing seems like a much better idea. Here we are, the second Sunday after kids are back to school and church programming has started up after a summer break, and what do we get? We get one of the hardest texts in the Bible. We get Father Abraham ordered by God to take his son Isaac out and offer him on an altar, like a chicken or a cow, to be killed and burnt to satisfy God. Is God really that barbaric? Seriously?
It’s interesting to see how people try to make this story better – try to soften its difficult edges. Some will say, “Well, God was going to provide the ram all along, so it’s alright.” Does that make the suffering of Abraham and the fear of Isaac any better?
Others will say, “Well, God gave his son, so God isn’t asking for anything from Abraham that he didn’t give himself.” (God is always a “he” in this scenario.) That presents a whole other problem. Is a God who would offer his own son to die a horrible death really a God we want to worship?
Some will say, “Well, it’s just a story. It’s a story told to illustrate a shift in human understanding of God. Among early peoples, human sacrifice was considered an acceptable part of human religion. This story shows a change that happened, probably over decades, even centuries. Through this story, God teaches Abraham that the life of a human being is too sacred to be given up; God doesn’t want or need such sacrifice.” Well, that’s marginally better, I suppose. Perhaps even culturally and sociologically true. A wise Rabbi I studied with told us once that “when reading Scripture one needs to distinguish between sociology and theology.”
But the theological message still stands: that God will test us by asking us to give up the one thing, the one person, who means the most to us. Isaac was not only Abraham’s son; he was the key to the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have many descendants – as many as the stars in the sky. Without Isaac, that promise would die.
As a test, you couldn’t get a better one. God made promises to Abraham. Abraham and Sarah had already tried to help that promise along by Abraham fathering a child with his concubine Hagar. That ended pretty poorly for Hagar and their son, Ishmael, and from a Hebrew perspective, Abraham was no closer to the promise. Yet Abraham seems totally accepting of the command he is given. His trust appears to be absolute. Perhaps he learned something from his last attempt to make things work his way. We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling, but we do know that he told his son “God will provide”. Was he sure? Did he wonder? Indeed, God did provide a ram in place of the son.
So perhaps this sermon should be about trusting in God, no matter what. Even when it feels like God is completely absent, or is even sending you more than you can handle, trust in God. That’s certainly how the early church interpreted this passage. They even read the providing of the ram as a foreshadowing of the Son given to save the life of humanity. In this theology, Jesus, the Divine Man, is the offering made to replace the lives that should be given – ie our own. There are variations on this idea, but in theological textbooks it’s called Substitutionary Atonement.
The idea is based on a legal and feudal system in which the higher someone’s status is in life, the more important the honour of that person is. The medieval theologian Anselm argued that the sin and lack of trust humans have shown in God not only dishonours God, but creates disharmony in all of creation. This creates a huge debt to God’s honour, and the only means of restoring that honour is an offering greater than all that is, since all that exists has been derailed by human selfishness and distrust. “What could be greater than all that exists?”, asks Anselm. Only One who is both human and divine. God makes that offering on behalf of all life, so that the chaos of creation can be restored. Jesus, then, was the ram in the thicket, and not the son on the altar, according to early readings of this story. Jesus was the gift of God to keep the promises of God alive.
Lots of us have trouble with these ideas. We don’t live in a culture governed by honour and shame. We don’t live in a feudal system where some lives and some people’s honour are deemed more important than others. We don’t live in an era or a culture where sacrifice, animal or human, has ever been a part of our practice. We don’t live in a time when perfect, unquestioning obedience of a child is owed to a parent, no matter what. So this picture of God is puzzling, even upsetting to us. And so it should be.
There are other understandings of God, of who Jesus was in relation to God and humanity, and his role on the cross. But those take us outside the picture of the story from Genesis. We are left with a God who would test a parent and ask him to terrorize his child. Is that OK, even knowing that the child will not be physically harmed? Can we live with that? Or is this one of those stories that we need to simply say, “I don’t believe that. It might have made sense then, but it doesn’t make sense now. That’s not the God I know.”
You will have to decide for yourselves what to do with this Biblical story, and others like it. There are frightening and bewildering texts in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, and they are a part of our inheritance as followers of Jesus. Rather than pretending they don’t exist, we need to bring them out into the open, name the difficulty, and wrestle with them together. These are often the texts thrown at Christians by those who do not follow the faith; we need to be able to respond with integrity to such critiques.
So what do you think? Is there any Good News in this story?
It is certainly good news that human sacrifice was abolished in Israel; are there outdated religious practices we hold sacred that need to be abolished?
It is good news that we are NOT required to go to our deaths to pay for a debt of honour or to correct the imbalance of creation. That is not what God wants – both the Abraham story and the story of Jesus, the Lamb of God, make that quite clear.
It is good news that Isaac and the promise lived on: especially if we remember that the Apostle Paul saw us as inheritors, along with the Jews, of the covenant YHWH made to be our God, and that we would be God’s people.
It is good news that even under the most dreadful circumstances, continued trust is rewarded with relief and new hope.
It is good news that the promises of God can be trusted, even if they work out in ways that we cannot imagine.
So friends, hear the testimony of the people of Israel, and the testimony of the church through the centuries – then listen for the testimony of the Holy Spirit in your own minds and hearts. May God be with us all as we continue to wrestle with Scripture as 21st century people. Amen.