You know the passage from Genesis 22:1-18. This is the story of Abraham and Isaac, with Abraham taking Isaac up on the mountain to sacrifice him to God.
I really would rather talk about something else, but this passage kept coming back, Abraham up on that mountain with Isaac. It bothers me.
Now I might say that the Lord led me to share this passage with you, and I would be standing in the mainstream of a long religious experience to use that form of expression. You know the approach I mean, as in ‘I felt the Lord led me to share this’ or ‘I felt the Lord leading me to say that we need blue carpet’ or some variation. We make claims on an awful lot of power when we use this language, though we cloak it in apparent humility. It might be a speaker opening with the public prayer of ‘Lord, speak through me.’ In private, that is a very fine prayer; in private, it means what it says. In public, it means, ‘I speak for God, and if you disagree with me, you disagree with God.’
When God is, in fact, at work in something or someone, if we believe that God is at work in each person, then those who have the Spirit of God at work in their lives will recognize it. No trumpets needed.
The thing is, I don’t know whether the Lord led me to this passage from Genesis or not. It could be just my own fascination. I don’t know whether God would have me share anything with you about it. I am sure that God can find something useful in it, with or without my dialogue.
There are two main things I’d like to offer. One is how this passage might help us to get our minds around the development of the Old Testament. The other is how we might carry away something of the only three things that the Bible talks about: who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.†
First, this passage concerns the life and times of Abraham, aka Abram, pivotal in the story of the chosen people.
The stories of Abraham mark the beginning of historical narratives in Genesis, emerging from a more vague pre-history background. We find details, something more concrete in the stories, something more clearly anchored in what we label the first half of the second millennium BC–perhaps 2000 BC to 1500 BC. It is virtually impossible to date the Abraham stories more precisely.
Thus emerges our first problem in grappling with the text. We think we are reading history. Alternately, from place to place in scripture and from reader to reader, we act as though we are reading a science text, a legal brief, a collection of poetry. In fact we are reading theology–who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.
So there was an event, the life and times of Abraham. Then there were stories about the life and times of Abraham. The stories were collected, joined, preserved, all in later times. The preserved stories were edited again, again at a later time, and finally some time a few centuries after Christ arrived in the form we find the stories today.
It is a layer cake. Layer one, Abram aka Abraham walks around. Layer two, people went about telling stories of when Abraham walked around. Layer three, people wrote the stories down. Layer four (plus some), the stories are edited, preserved, recorded in the form we know. Overall, the process took a couple of thousand years to get to what we recognize as the book of Genesis.
What we end up with sounds like history. It is actually theology.
That leads us to the second thing, how we might understand something of the theology we’ve just read in Genesis. Those of you who have heard me blather on for some time are accustomed to the fact that I often report to you from the minority view of theology. We know the mainstream view of Abraham taking Isaac up on that mountain, preparing an altar, and then preparing to sacrifice his son to appease the demand of God. An ocean of sermons have been preached on the obedience of Abraham, and there are many good points to be taken from them.
I have a problem with it–the focus on obedience, that is. Insisting on that focus means that God really did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac just to see if Abraham would do it. I have a problem with believing God would have an interest in human sacrifice, and I have a problem with God putting blind obedience above love.
I just do not believe that God works that way. If it were just me, you could safely ignore me. As it happens, I’ve got a pretty good authority to rely on. Jesus said that the
most important commandments were loving God and loving one another. Nothing in there about blind obedience that conflicts with love. And how about the prophets asserting that God wants steadfast love and not sacrifice?
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6
But wait, you say, here I am delving into later Old Testament theology and later New Testament teaching to explain Abraham and Isaac–surely that is not well done, is it? That is quite a trajectory, after all, to get from Abraham on the mountain with a knife poised to kill his son all the way to Jesus teaching the people about love.
Quite a trajectory, and that is one of the best words to use to describe the Old Testament–it follows a trajectory.
I believe that God starts with us where we are. (It may be that even God can start nowhere else.) Abraham, roaming the ancient near east, was surrounded by fierce peoples and primitive religious practices. Human sacrifice, child sacrifice, was not that uncommon in his day, particularly in the worship of deities viewed as very powerful. Nobody had to explain the concept to Abraham, draw him a picture. He knew the practice long before his God-experience led him up that mountain.
I don’t think God was testing Abraham’s obedience. There is something in that understanding that makes God petty and monstrous, even if God did stop the sacrifice at the last moment.
I think God was teaching. God was teaching Abraham, teaching Isaac, teaching all their descendants, teaching us.
God was teaching Abraham who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.
Against that backdrop of violent people and dark and bloody pagan ritual, God was teaching that above all God is love. Abraham would never again consider sacrificing Isaac, nor would any of their descendants in faith, including us.
I’m not going to tell a child that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill Isaac, to see whether Abraham would be obedient or whether Abraham loved God more than Isaac. To be honest, I’m not sure what that teaches a child about the nature of God, but it frightens me.
I’m going to tell a child that God was making sure that Abraham knew that God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac, and sometimes the only way we can teach people something important is to show them.
God is love.
† I am not sure where I first found this summary of what the Bible is about: who God is, what God is doing, our relationship to God. It is possible that I thought it up, but I doubt it. Most good ideas have been thought before. I’ve tried searching on Google, the electronic fount of knowledge, but I haven’t found the source. If you know it, please let me know, and thanks!