Written by Pastor Ed
“You want me to do what?!”
July 2, 2017
Genesis 22: 1-14
Really? Did you really think about what we just heard and sang? We read an account of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, and then we sang “Trust and obey” and “until all on the altar we lay.” Anybody else feel some dissonance there, or wonder whether we really mean what we sing? How could you choose that song? (OK. I’ll confess, I chose it.)
The story found in Genesis 22 of God’s testing Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac is perhaps one of the most enigmatic, troubling stories in the Bible. We often refer to it as the sacrifice of Isaac. In Jewish commentary it is called the “akedah” the binding of Isaac. And it’s also found in the Koran, although the son is not named and is sometimes thought to be Ishmael. It’s a story that is somehow foundational to all three Abrahamic religions, and yet is also very troubling. Just to give you some idea of the wide diversity of opinion, let me quote two commentators.
Kathryn Schifferdacker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN says:
“The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son, son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God. For all these reasons and more, this is a story worth preaching.”
On the other hand, John Holbert of the Perkins School of Theology, says:
“In short, this story has become for me far too terrible to use in an act of preaching. Never again will I preach a sermon based on this story, unless I use it to repudiate its horrors in as stark and powerful a way as I can conjure up. We preachers must learn to speak of the demands of faith without resorting to stories that employ the abuse and murder of a child to make a point. My own son has taught me many things, but that lesson is one I needed to learn from him perhaps most of all.”
The account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah provokes all kinds of responses, and has been referenced in all kinds of ways. The Rabbis have a long history of interpretation, but it has also appeared in some rather unusual places as well. Bob Dylan sang about it in his 1965 song Highway 61 Revisited when he sang:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
Leonard Cohen, who was certainly familiar with the Jewish scriptures, coming from a long line of rabbis, wrote a whole song entitled the “Story of Isaac” written from the perspective of Isaac.
“The door it opened slowly,
My father, he came in, I was nine years old;
And he stood so tall above me,
Blue eyes that were shining
And his voice was very cold.
Said “I’ve had a vision, and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain
I was running he was walking
And his ax was made of gold.
More recently a song, “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire was in the soundtrack of The Hunger Games.
Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher devoted a whole book to trying to understand the story, entitled “Fear and Trembling” in which he lays out four different scenarios of how the story could have been interpreted. And interpretations come up with all kinds of possibilities.
Since this incident follows in Genesis right after the account of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister to Abimilech of Gerar, who took her as a wife, one author suggested that perhaps Isaac wasn’t really Abraham’s son after all, and since Abraham hadn’t trusted God in that instance, God demanded a higher level of trust. Isaac then becomes simply an instrument in God’s test and perhaps explains why Abraham didn’t protest.
Others have suggested that maybe, in fact, Abraham actually followed through and killed Isaac, since the story ends with this note: “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.” (22:19) No mention is made of Isaac, although he reappears in chapter 24. It is interesting to note that very little is said about Isaac in the Genesis accounts. We are told about his marriage to Rebekah, arranged by Abraham, and then the story moves on to Jacob and Esau and as I mentioned last week, Isaac and Ishmael appear only briefly at the death of Abraham, perhaps both of them with their own feelings about their father.
Some authors find it ironic that, while Abraham had previously argued vehemently with God when God wanted to destroy Sodom, asking God whether he would completely destroy the city, even if 10 righteous people were found there, in this case, involving his own son on whom the entire promise of a great nation hung, Abraham seems to raise no objection at all. That has caused some commentators to speculate that, in fact, God was disappointed in Abraham because he didn’t object, and God had to intervene at the last moment in order to save Isaac.
So writes Esther Menn at WorkingPreacher.org:
“Is it possible that God was disappointed in Abraham’s unquestioning obedience? God’s last-minute intervention suggests that Abraham’s response was inadequate. Abraham may have deserved credit for his motivation and his devotion, but his behavior called for swift correction in order to spare the child.”
As I noted earlier, the story has a long history of debate among Jewish scholars as well. There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: “Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said’If you want to command death, do it yourself.’”
The rabbis also imagine the scene when God speaks his test to Abraham. God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” He answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.”
Kathryn Schifferdecker sums up the discussion of the passage in this way: “The story named by Christians “the sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews “the akedah” (the “binding” of Isaac) has engendered heated debate over the centuries. Is it a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst? Or is it a story of faith and obedience?”
Certainly the account raises some troubling questions, most particularly in its view that God would demand the death of a child. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist used this story as an argument against religion when he wrote in his book The God Delusion, “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘ I was only obeying orders ‘ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”
For most commentators, one of the points of the story is in fact, a repudiation of child sacrifice, which was practiced by other cultures in the region, and was evidently enough of a temptation for the Israelites that several of the prophets spoke out specifically against the practice. In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walther Eichrodt writes, “The significance of the story is that, without surrendering the affirmation that God is entitled to the most drastic sacrifices on the part of his worshippers, it yet teaches that the divine will is kindly and life-giving, and elevates the substitution of an animal for a human victim to the status of an invariable rule.”
And Esther Menn concurs, “The good news in Genesis 22 is that God does not require the slaughter of Abraham’s beloved son. God desires the child to live as a blessing and a hope for the future. As Christians our daily decisions and our political commitments need to be made in light of God’s attentiveness to the child and of his command ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.’”
I think we need to be very clear that God does not require the death of children to prove our faithfulness. And lest we think that is an ancient problem, we only have to read the newspapers to read of parents who claim that they didn’t seek medical care for their children because they had faith that God would heal them.
While this story is couched as a test of Abraham’s faith, it is clear that God does not sanction the death of children. And Jesus, who shows us more clearly God’s character, welcomed children and condemned any who would cause these little ones to suffer. Child abuse or neglect can never be sanctioned on the basis of this account, or the Bible.
Cohen draws a similar conclusion in the third verse of his song:
“You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now
You hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before.
When I lay upon the mountain and my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.”
As you may have guessed from all of the quotes that I have used, I’m not quite sure how we should read this account, and in that I have a lot of company. But after reading all of the material, and I only touched the surface of what is out there, I was left with a question to ponder, and it’s why I suggested singing that hymn. When we glibly sing, “trust and obey” how far are we willing to take that? What are we willing to sacrifice and trust God to provide?
Our Muslim friends have just come through the month of Ramadan where they fast, neither food nor drink, from sunup to sundown for a month, a practice made even more difficult here in a northern location where the days are extremely long this time of year. Yet they are willing to make that sacrifice as an expression of their faith. I wonder how many Christians would be willing to do something similar if it were a tenet of our belief?
For many years, here in North America, Christians have been afforded a privileged place in society and have been called on to sacrifice very little. That is changing and society is becoming much more pluralistic. Unfortunately, there are Christians who are crying that they are being persecuted, just because other religions are being afforded the same rights as Christianity has been all these years. It belittles Christians in places where, in fact, they are being persecuted, like Syria and Palestine, or Vietnam and China.
Two weeks ago I was invited to speak about Menno Simons to a 7th grade class at Menno Simons School. After talking about his life, the fact that he became a hunted man with a price on his head, and that many followers, even people who provided shelter for him were imprisoned or even killed, one of the students raised a question which I think all of us need to ponder. He said something like, “Why would you believe something that you knew could get you killed?” and pressed it a bit further by suggesting that Menno himself must have felt really badly, knowing that what he was preaching could get other people killed.
Do we believe anything that strongly? What might God ask of us that we would be willing to trust God enough to follow through on? Would we be willing to give up our comfortable lifestyle if God called us somewhere else? Are we willing for our sons and daughters to follow God’s call wherever it may lead? (We do promise that in our dedication, although I suspect most of us assume we will never be put to that test.)
Jesus said, “Follow me.” Trust and follow. Abraham, we are told, passed the test. Would we?