Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Passing Faith: The Sacrifice of Isaac

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 22:1-14:

I know this is not going to come as a surprise, but men and women are different; this does not mean that one group is better than the other, just that we are different.  As a general rule when women talk about highlights that are not referring to what they watched on ESPN the night before and when a man says he is going to hang a rack in his house, it probably has more to do with a dead animal than with spices.  Or as Dave Barry has said, something appropriate for today’s passage, “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there is a man on base.”  We are different.  Now there are many debates about who wrote particular books or passages of the Bible, with some scholars looking for clues that might indicate that one of the authors may have been a woman.  I think that we can unquestionably solve the debate about today’s passage.  This story could have only been written by a man, simply for the fact that there is not enough information given.  He is a masterful storyteller, there is no question about that, but even as a man at the end of this story I want to ask questions in order to get more information.  Was Abraham’s conversation with God really that short?  Did he not ask more questions?  What did Sarah say?  Did she even know?  What were the servants thinking when Abraham and Isaac went up on the mountain?  Did Isaac really just go along with no resistance?  Did Abraham have no doubts whatsoever about carrying out this request out?
The Sacrifice of Isaac
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The beginning of this story tells us two important things.  The first is that God is testing Abraham.  We know this and God knows this, but Abraham does not.  That means that Abraham has to take everything that God is telling him to do seriously.  The other thing we are told is that the test happens, “after these things,” and so what were those things?  The first is that Abraham was called by God, and this actually mirrors today’s passage, because God calls Abraham, and says “Go.”  And where is he to go?  To the land that God will show him.  Abraham’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Abraham also begins with this call.  Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife, in order to try and save his life, thus not trusting in God, and he does this twice.  He and Sarah go around God in order to get an heir to fulfill God’s promise of descendants more numerous than the stars, by taking Hagar, his slave, and having a child with her, who is Ishmael.  Abraham argues with God in order to try and save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He and Sarah have Isaac, and then in the passage we heard last week, Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and his son Ishmael into the desert, which he does.  What we see in these stories is that God has always been faithful to what God has promised to Abraham, even when Abraham has tried to play around with how those results are going to come about, and as that statement implies, Abraham has not always necessarily been faithful to God, or at least has not always trusted God to do what God says will happen.

But here God calls Abraham again, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”  This is a statement which sort of holds this story together, and the Hebrew word means not just “Here I am,” but there is also a level of attentiveness that this answer indicates.  But the conversation between God and Abraham is incredibly brief, which has led to a Jewish Midrash, which is a biblical interpretation or story, which seeks to fill in some of the conversation with God.  It takes the phrase “take your son, your only son, whom you love” and adds lines in between as if it were a dialogue between God and Abraham.  So when God says “Take your son,” Abraham responds “which son?”  “Your only son,” God says.  “But, I have two sons” Abraham replies.  “The one whom you love,” God says.  “But Yahweh I love both my sons,” Abraham says, then God answers “Isaac.”  That dialogue certainly helps some with the missing pieces of the story we may be seeking, but the sparseness of the story also serves the specific purpose in forcing us to put our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs into the passage.

Now there are some commentators who say that Abraham loved Isaac too much, that he began to love him and to put more trust in him then he put in God which is why God wants this test of his faithfulness, but there is no indication of that in the story.  Instead, in another Jewish Midrash, it is said that this test is not whether Abraham loves Isaac too much, but the test is whether Abraham will tell Sarah or obey her commands about what to do because she loves Isaac too much, which can be seen in her demand that Abraham expel Ishmael and his mother Hagar, which we heard last week.  And so when we hear God say that Isaac is Abraham’s only son, we must remember Ishmael and what happened to him, for Abraham has in fact already lost one son to a seemingly irrational demand made by another.  But at least in that situation, we are told that Abraham was distressed by the demand to expel Ishmael, there is no similar distress mentioned here.

But, keeping this all in mind we must also remember that we are told by God that Abraham loves Isaac.  We don’t know if this love was any more than the normal love that a parent has for a child, but it is enough to make the demand difficult to undertake.  And that is where the real test begins.  If Abraham hated Isaac or had no feelings for him at all, this would not be an adequate test, and we can be assured that God would not have asked this of him.  It is because of his love for Isaac that the test holds any meaning.  If God were to ask me to give up peas, that would be easy because I hold no affinity for peas.  If on the other hand I were commanded to give up rooting for the Yankees that would be much tougher and would be a true test.  But remember, we know this is a test because that is how the story begins, but for Abraham this is a strikingly real situation.  All he knows is that God has told him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.

But what Abraham does and doesn’t do is striking.  He doesn’t argue with God, which he did to protect the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we are not told that he distressed, as he was with Ishmael, instead he rises early the next morning, exactly the same as when he expels Ishmael, and takes Isaac along with two servants to go to the mountain that God will show him.  After traveling three days they arrive at the spot, and Abraham tells the servants to stay behind while he and Isaac go on, and then for the first time, Isaac speaks.  “Father”, he says, a reminder that this is the child of the promise, and Abraham’s answer?  The same as it was to God, “Here I am,” with one addition, “my son”.  Abraham’s name means father of many, and those many are to come through Isaac, who is set to be killed.  But Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.  And I think we should ask here whether Abraham says this in order to shut down the conversation, to get Isaac to stop asking questions, or does Abraham actually believe this?  After all, God has never failed him before, even when the promise seemed incredible or even impossible.  Does Abraham think that God is not going to allow him to go through with this?  I think it’s also fair to ask if God is wondering the same thing, wondering if Abraham is actually going to do this.  And then they get to the spot, and Abraham builds the altar and builds up the wood and then binds Isaac.

How old do we imagine Isaac is?  I think we imagine him as a young boy, or perhaps as a teenager, since he carries the wood, but some traditions hold that he was in his twenties, others that he was 33, the same age Jesus when he died, and other say he was older.  The text doesn’t say, but this is pondered because people wonder, if Isaac was young, then he could have been a truly innocent victim, or a victim of violence as Abraham overpowered him to bind him.  But if Isaac was older and therefore could have overpowered his father and didn’t then Isaac might be a willing participant in the whole thing.  Even though we know what’s going to happen because we know the end of the story, there is still the sense that we wonder not if Abraham will pass the test, but will Isaac survive?  Because Abraham takes the knife, and he raises it above Isaac, his son, his only son, whom he loves, prepared to kill him, and the knife glistens in the sun, Abraham poised to make the final plunge, and we want to yell out stop, which is what God does.  “Abraham, Abraham,” and Abraham says, “Here I am.”  And it doesn’t say it, but I imagine that Abraham drops the knife, and perhaps falls to his knees in relief, and he stops what he is doing before he sees the ram which is caught in the thicket.

A typical interpretation of this story is to say that God does not call for child sacrifice, and there are later laws given in scripture against child sacrifice which we know was practiced in the area at the time, so perhaps this is just one of those stories, but I think this story should also make us confront the ways in which we sacrifice our own children for worse things.  We sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of national pride and power, on the altar of capitalism and commerce, and on the altar of religious fervor.  We take some of our children and train them to be soldiers and send them elsewhere to kill other children trained for the same tasks, and sometimes it is even literally children that are killing and being killed.   And sometimes we sacrifice them for even less significant causes.

Some of you might remember the story of Jessica Dubroff who died in a plane crash at the age of seven trying to become the youngest person to fly roundtrip across the country.  The idea to do this was her father’s, who also died in the crash.  Jessica died in order to satisfy the desire of her father and of the national media which reported the story in great detail before and even greater detail after her death.  She was sacrificed on the altar of parental ego and the national cult of celebrity.  In response to her death, Russell Baker writing for the New York Times commented, “Parents who make their children's lives hell in order to make the parents proud of themselves are a commonplace of American life.  Theater mothers push 6-year-olds to become Broadway stars. Tennis-crazed parents push them toward stardom at Wimbledon. Fathers far gone in dreams of basking in the glory which a World Series winner would bring the family often turn Little League baseball into a nightmare for sons.”  We see children sacrificed as pawns between warring adults in the midst of divorce.  We see children sacrificed on the altar of academic excellence, and the demand that they get the right grades so they can get into the right school, so they can get into the right profession, the profession we choose for them.  And we see them sacrificed as victims of sexual and physical violence, neglect and homelessness, child labor and poverty, and in the current arguments about immigration, let us not forget that these are children, real children, and not sacrifice them to either side of the issue.  The simple fact is, we sacrifice our children all the time in many different ways and too many different things, but we do so without a command from God, which takes us back to Abraham.

This is often called a test of faith for Abraham, and in many ways it is, but not in the way we typically understand it.  Faith now-a-days, is usually reserved almost exclusively for religion, and it has connotations of believing in the unbelievable or believing in something without any proof to support that belief, or believing in a certain set of propositions, but that is a modern understanding.  That would not have been how the writer of this passage would have understood faith.  Faith was about loyalty and allegiance, and had nothing to do with a set of beliefs.  The word itself comes to us from the Latin fides, from which we get other words of a similar meaning like fidelity.  Faith was about putting your devotion behind something or someone, and in that sense this is a test of faith.  God is testing Abraham’s loyalty.  Is he going to be more loyal to God or to Sarah?  To God or to Isaac?  And, we are told, God does not know the answer, which is the nature of the test.   People often get upset when I say this about some of the stories we find in scripture, but in this story God is not omnipotent.  We might try and read that into it, but it’s not there, because we are told that now at the end God knows the answer to the test.  Walter Brueggemann says that this test “is not a game with God; God genuinely does not know… the flow of the narrative accomplishes something in the awareness of God….”  If there is any learning that takes place in this story it is on God’s part not on Abraham’s.  Abraham does not have more faith or trust God more because of this exercise, and perhaps he has less because God and Abraham never speak again, but now God knows that Abraham has total loyalty, that is faith, to God.  He clearly puts God before everything else, and because of that God also learns again that God can trust Abraham.  But I often wonder if this is what God actually intended at all?  I can actually imagine that when God first asks this of Abraham, that God expects Abraham to reject it.  “Get behind me Satan” seems like a better answer, and then once Abraham starts the journey I can imagine God saying “O myself,” because God can’t say O, My God,”  “Is he actually going to do this?  Is he crazy?”  And then God looks for a way to solve the problem.  I imagine that because I don’t want to imagine that God was serious about the demand.

In the introduction to his seminal work Fear and Trembling, which explores this story in great depth and from different angles,  the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, says that he loved this story as a child, but that paradoxically as an adult he came to admire it more and more while at the same time understanding it less and less (III 61).  And that may be true with some of us as well, although most people tend to want to avoid this passage, and yet I keep coming back to it again and again.  Other than the Christmas and Easter passages, I think I have preached on this passage more than any other, and I still don’t know what to say, and yet I still have so much to say.  I reject a literal reading of this passage because I reject that view of God and I reject that view of Abraham.  If God was to ask me to sacrifice my daughters, I would say no, emphatically no.  And yet at the same time, I recognize the ways in which I already sacrifice them, knowing what they will go through as the children of a ministers, knowing that the outcome for most pastor’s children is to either become a pastor themselves or to become alienated from the church and from God, neither outcomes which I would like to see.  And yet I also see this as a story of faith and an exploration of our relation to God.

A man comes up to Jesus and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells the man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.  And then we are told that the man goes away sad because he has many possessions.  At the end of that story I think we are supposed to ask whether we serve God or our things.  Whether we truly have faith that God will provide for us, or whether we put our trust in God, that we are willing, as we often say, to “let go and let God.”  And I wonder if we are supposed to say the same thing here?  Is this a test of Abraham and his loyalty to God, like it was for the man who approached Jesus?  There is no question of Abraham’s faithfulness to God.  He has a passing faith when it comes to this test, but his faithfulness troubles me, as does God’s demand to even require this of him, and so that’s where I am.  Yesterday as I was trying to find a write a good ending to this, Marianna asked what the sermon was on and said, “you really seem to be struggling with it,” and I was and I am.  A good sermon is supposed to build up our faith in some way or ask us to do something, and I don’t think this one does either of those, and I could not come up with a way to tie everything is a nice little bow and the end, except to say that I am struggling, and I have lots of questions without a lot of answers, and perhaps that maybe the purpose of this story.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Ending Update:  I just found a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor, a week too late, which might have led to a better ending, she says of difficult texts: "Where (certain Biblical passages) are obscure, troubling or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way.  Who are we after all to defend God?... Our job is not always to explain them…. The discord – like the silence – is God’s problem, not ours."

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