June 29, 2014
The Rev. Philip Tierney
Summer must be reserved for the worst biblical stories. As if last Sunday’s Old Testament reading weren’t bad enough, today’s is even worse. Last week we heard the story of Abraham sending his first son, Ishmael, into the desert with his mother, but without adequate resources. He did it, we’re told, because his wife demanded it and because he believed that God approved of it.
Today’s reading from Genesis reflects even more badly upon Abraham and, by extension, upon God than that story did. In this story Abraham believes that God wants him to kill his son, Isaac, and burn his body as an act of obedience and worship. It’s a story that has been made into something of an icon of faithfulness – of putting God ahead of everyone and everything else. Yikes! What’s the difference between that paradigm of faithfulness and fanaticism, I wonder.
One of the things that catches my attention in this tale is the absence of emotion in it. Abraham hears God’s order to sacrifice his son, and without any feeling expressed or argumentation with God or clarification, Abraham just proceeds with a plan to do it. That wasn’t characteristic of Abraham’s previous experiences of God, as when, for example, he haggled with God for the life of his nephew, Lot, in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode. Like some sleep-walker or zombie, he just goes ahead to do what thinks God wants him to do. Likewise, once he and Isaac arrive at the place of the prospective ritual murder, Isaac doesn’t express anything while his father binds him, lays him on the funeral pyre, and raises the knife to slaughter him. They seemed to be dream-walking.
This story is offensive to me. It seems to recommend mindless obedience to God, no matter how dastardly the action called for might otherwise be. In my humble opinion, this is the stuff that sanctions, even commends, mindless acts of fanaticism no matter how extreme or horrendous they might be. No wonder religious extremists have done and still do things to hurt others and then justify them as acts of obedient faithfulness. Beneath this paradigm of obedience lies the notion that God has given humans the capacity for reason mainly to understand what God wants and how to do it, rather than to figure out what our Creator’s intentions might really be. Does God really only want us to act like mindless puppets to prove to him that our devotion to him surpasses all other loyalties?
Today’s story begins with the unfortunate words, “God tested Abraham.” Everything to follow is set in that context. This is the story of a divine test, and the moral of the story is that Abraham passed the test and because he follow his instructions without reservation. So is that the kind of God our Creator is… one capricious and insecure enough to suddenly decide to ask trusting devotees to kill the ones most dependent upon them because He needs reassurance that we love him most of all? I think that wouldn’t reflect very well upon God. I also think it breeds fear rather than love-based devotion, mindlessness, and selfishness. I say selfishness because if I believed that God were calling me to some act like this, among my other reactions, I’d ask God to take my life, instead.
Now, beside what the story says and what traditional rabbinical teaching has claimed — that this describes a divine test —, throughout the generations, scholars have tried to explain it less offensively. The most common alternative Jewish explanation has been that the moral of this story is actually opposite from what it seems. God’s provision of the male sheep caught in a thorn bush actually demonstrated that God did not want human sacrifices, but animal sacrifices instead. Rabbis saw this as a story to prohibit sacrifices of children practiced by devotees to the gods, Moloch and Baal, in the ancient Levant. Alas, the poor animals that were sacrificed to atone for human sin or to ensure human prosperity!
Apart from those, like Paul, who have seen this story as God’s test of Abraham’s faithfulness, many Christian theologians have seen this story as an allegorical foreshadowing of Christ. Like the male sheep caught in the passion of thorns, God has substituted his only Son for us as the living sacrifice for our sins. The ram sacrificed on Mount Moriah prefigured Christ and his self-sacrifice for us.
As sympathetic as I am to this understanding, because I believe that God did provide Jesus to die for us as a substitute for us, still, today’s story does beg a question or two. One is this: Are the stories in the Bible only made up for us to interpret however we want? This you have to answer for yourself. As for me, I believe not. The stories in the sacred scriptures are there for all sorts of reasons, and it is our job not simply to accept or dismiss them according to our own preferences. Our job is to use our minds to understand them; to try to study, imagine, and incorporate them into our faith—into our relationship with God.
That begs the second question: What kind of God is God? The Bible tells us not to test God. But does God test us? When we go through hard times many of us say that it’s a test, presumably by God. But does God put us through hard times in order to test or to tempt us? If God really knows everything, as we also say he does, then the answer must be that God does not test us. He already knows our hearts. Rather, we might well experience our turmoil as tests, and do well to invite God into the process—to help us through them—with divine strength and guidance.
That begs a third question, relative to God’s guidance: Has God given us minds simply to understand divine orders and to figure out how to obey them? Abraham had the thought, heard the words, that God wanted him to kill and burn his son’s body. Was that really God or something else? More than one rabbinical scholar has suggested that Abraham simply got it wrong. He misunderstood. Why would God command a believer to do something wrong? This is the underlying issue associated with the methodologies connected with heresy trials, witch hunts, crusades, modern-day terrorism, and the bullying tactics of modern Fundamentalists of all stripes. The belief is that whatever we do in good faith when God directs us to do it for his purposes, no matter how otherwise wrong it may seem, is inherently good simply because we believe it’s God’s will. Is that true? No. That’s why God gave us minds to reflect, think things through, reason and judge the thoughts that come to our minds. That’s one of the reasons that God gave us the capacity to speak—in order to check our thoughts out with people whose judgment we trust. It’s one of the reasons that God gave us the vast amount of sacred scripture we have—to weigh our impressions against the overall sense of the Bible, and especially Jesus’ teachings.
Sometimes the biblical stories teach us by negative examples, and I suspect today’s reading is one of those times. Elsewhere in Abraham’s saga, he had enough faith in God’s dependability to trust that God could be questioned; could bear honest disappointment; and could be haggled with. In this case, Abraham didn’t evidence that kind of trust in God. Today’s story is not, I think, an icon of faith in God, but of lack of faith enough to wrestle with God over the matter he’d been faced with. It’s not coincidental or surprising that neither Abraham nor Isaac is ever described in the Bible as speaking with God again after this episode. Was that God’s fault or was it Abraham’s for not speaking up when he thought he had been told to do something morally so objectionable and personally so repugnant. He trusted his impression of God’s will more than he trusted God as one to be questioned.
In the end of the story the text simply says, “God provides.” God does provide. God provides minds to think, speech to question, friends to discuss, the Bible to guide, his love to sustain, his strength to endure hardships, and abundant opportunities to wrestle with him over concerns that trouble and confuse us.