You see, this coming Sunday, the lectionary my church uses has appointed Genesis 22:1-14 as the Old Testament reading. And Genesis 22 is one of my least favorite parts of the Bible: the (near) sacrifice of Isaac.
This is the type of text that I usually preach on because there are elements to it that I just can't let pass without some kind of commentary. But the elements that make this passage so difficult also make it hard for me to shape into a decent sermon*. So after much thought I decided to wrestle with it here instead.
For those who are not familiar with the story, God chooses to "test" Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only remaining son, Isaac, who was a miracle child and meant to start a great "nation" of people. (Abraham's semi-legitimate son, Ishmael, was already sent off in another troubling episode.) Abraham obeys and gets so far as placing his bound child on the altar and raising the knife to slay him when God steps in and stops him.
I'm bothered by the text because of the connections it holds with two problems that are sadly still relevant today: child abuse and violence in the name of God. When we continue to see children abused and exploited and when suicide bombings, apartheid, and KKK lynchings backed by religious beliefs are current or in recent memory, it's troubling to read a story of God promoting this type of behavior and a person of God who is willing to do both -- and is commended for it.
There are many explanations of this text that seek to ease some of the tension in it:
- God had invested a lot in Abraham in making him the father of promise and needed to know that he would be faithful regardless of the task.
- Abraham's Schwarzenegger-esque words to his servant--"We'll be back"--suggest he expected that God wouldn't actually make him sacrifice Isaac and both would return.
- God was using this episode to condemn child sacrifice (which was practiced by many of Israel's neighboring religions) and show Abraham how his God was different from other gods.
- Isaac was likely a teenager and Abraham was over 100 years old and couldn't have over-powered Isaac. Therefore, Isaac wasn't a victim, but a willing participant. (In fact many early church leaders used this story as a foretelling of Christ, who also willingly carried the wood to be used for his execution up a hill expecting to lose his life.)
But none of those explanations answer the biggest problem I have with the story: Why did God feel the need to test Abraham? Was God feeling cranky? Was it morbid curiosity? Shouldn't God have already known whether Abraham was faithful? (Abraham had already left his family and home and moved hundreds of miles at God's request.)
I want to believe that Abraham got the message wrong. I want to believe that between the time the events happened and they were written down, the detail of God testing Abraham was added by the scribes. But I believe that the hard parts of the Bible can't just be brushed off because they're hard or we don't like them. We have to deal with them.
But we don't have to deal with them in a vacuum.
One of the parts of Lutheranism that I love is how we read scripture and one of the key parts of how we do that is the premise that "scripture interprets scripture." Martin Luther, who was often arguing the meaning of scripture with his opponents, knew there were parts of the Bible that didn't seem to agree with each other and so insisted that difficult or confusing texts be read in the context of the whole Bible and especially in the context of the words of Jesus.
In that light, Genesis 22 is easier to swallow. Elsewhere, God clearly condemns child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10), God speaks through Hosea to say "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers" and "Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them." Regardless of whether God tested Abraham or why, I look for solace in the fact that in the end, God's true nature won out. God stayed the execution and kept Abraham from killing his son. That is some good news in an otherwise difficult text.
I still feel very uncomfortable with this text, but faith, like life, is rarely simple and God, if the Bible is any indication, is quite complicated. I sincerely pray often to know and understand God better, but Abraham knew God well and that didn't seem to make his life any simpler either. Just one more troubling thing to wrestle with.
“I’m not sure if anybody understands.” -Fun., “Some Nights”
*To me, a sermon is the Living Word of God encountering human reality and creating new life. That sounds kind of vague and fluffy, I'm sure, but what I mean by it is that a sermon is not the same as a lecture. A lecture passes along information; a sermon creates an encounter with God's law and gospel. Every attempt I made with Genesis 22 felt like a lecture.