Offered the morning after the killing of Tyler Gerth in downtown Louisville KY
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrandt, 1635
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
The past few weeks, we’ve heard parts of the story of the life of Abraham. Today, we’ve heard probably the most well-known of those stories, the one of him almost sacrificing his son Isaac, before God stops Abraham from carrying it out.
There’s no question that Abraham was a person of deep faith and trust in God; that comes through in a number of ways in the various stories about his life. But it’s also clear that he was capable of real human failures, as I suggested when we looked at the less-than compassionate way he treated Hagar and his firstborn son, Ishmael. And now we have to consider his actions in today’s story, too.
I mentioned in this week’s email that this particular story has traditionally been interpreted as an illustration of Abraham’s great faith; as one of his most defining, successful moments. But I really don’t buy that. I think the traditional understanding of this story is a load of BS, and it’s led to a lot of harmful theology and ways of thinking about the nature of God.
The very beginning of the story says that God decided to test Abraham’s trust by telling him to do this horrible thing. I’ll say right now that I don’t believe that God actually does this kind of thing – to test people like that, to intentionally put us in situations of trial or temptation, setting people up in horrible or painful situations, just to see if they’ll fail the test. As if God was just bored and decided to jerk people around just for sport. I think that for God to act like that would be evidence of a terrible, abusive, uncaring God; a God unworthy of our praise, our gratitude, and certainly our worship; a God completely at odds with what we’re taught about God through Jesus, and through the overarching totality of the scriptures. In the Presbyterian tradition, we have a several principles to use to try to understand scripture. Three of those principles are: the rule of Christ – is it consistent with what Christ taught? The rule of scripture – is it consistent with the overwhelming witness of scripture? And the rule of love – is it the most loving interpretation? The idea of a God who plays with the lives of human beings like that fails on all three of those counts. So no, I don’t think that God tests people like that.
But whether I do or not, the writer of this story did. They lived in a time, and in a social and religious context, in which people did believe gods acted that way with us puny mortals. So for the sake of understanding this story a bit better, at least for the moment let’s assume that God does test people like that. Even if that’s true, when God tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son, I believe that for Abraham to have passed the test, he wouldn’t have had to say yes, but no. If this was a test of Abraham, it was to see if he would use his God-given critical thinking skills to question what he’d been told. If this was a test of Abraham, it wasn’t one that he passed; it was one that he failed.
We know that Abraham had the backbone to stand up to God when he wanted to. We saw it in the say he stood up to, and haggled with, God in the form of the three travelers that we heard in previous weeks, when Abraham was upset over the idea of the loss of innocent lives. So why was he silent here? Why didn’t he put up more of an argument when more innocent life was at stake and in this case, it was the life of his own beloved son?
I don’t have an answer for that. But whatever the reason, he didn’t. He just blindly trusted in God’s authority and accepted what God said without questioning whether it was right or not. The truth is that when Abraham went through with getting ready to kill Isaac, and God had to step in to stop him just before he did, God wasn’t pleased with Abraham; he was appalled.
Clearly, Abraham was an imperfect, very human, soul. The story of his life shows that when it came to getting things right, his overall record was win some, lose some, and contrary to the traditional interpretations, and contrary to even the intent of the original writer of this story, locked in their own historical context, I think this story is an account of Abraham’s biggest failure.
So it seemed to me as I read this story again this week, that as we hear this story now, in our own context, that there are two particular takeaways for me.
First, we need to understand the great danger, the terrible things that are possible, by uncritically accepting what we’re told, particularly by authority figures, simply accepting the truth or the acceptability or the goodness or rightness of the thing just because of who’s saying it. God has given us, as a terribly important part of our having been created in the divine image, the ability to critically think and to question and not to simply accept what we’re told, automatically taking it at face value. This means that we not only can, but we’re called to, we must, question and challenge what we’re told, regardless of whoever and wherever the information is coming from. This is especially important in our own time. We need to be a concerned with the harm and loss of innocent life as sons and daughters, children, men, and women, continue to be sacrificed in our neighborhoods and on our streets, every bit as much as Abraham was about the loss of innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. We have to critically question the narratives, the explanations we’re offered to explain or justify these sacrifices in our own time. As a matter of our faith, we need to hold up what we’re told and to weigh it against those same three principles mentioned earlier: does the situation, and what we’re being told about it, square with the rule of Christ; the rule of scripture; and most importantly, with the rule of love? Using our critical thinking skills is one of the most important things we can do as people of the kingdom of God.
The second takeaway to me is one of extreme grace, one of good news. Because even though Abraham failed this test miserably, God still remained with Abraham. Provided for him. Blessed him. God kept covenant with him, even in spite of the fact that his faith was imperfect, to put it mildly – just as my own faith, and your own faith, our society’s faith, is less than perfect, too.
To consider just how badly Abraham could screw up, and still be forgiven and not abandoned by God, is a story of the amazing breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness – it’s a story that affirms to me that given my own ability to get things wrong, and given my own mediocre record of win some, lose some, I, and you, will also remain within that full breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness, just as Abraham did. I consider that the best news ever, and to that, I can only say