Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sermon, Proper 8A, Genesis 22:1-14

And God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him there as a burnt offering."

What are we to make of this passage? What are we to take from this ancient story of Abraham and Isaac? How are we to look on this passage of a God who demands human sacrifice, of a father who would willingly perform such a deed, and of a child who makes no protest at being prepared for a horrible death? For the past three weeks, the sermons have been focused on invitation, evangelism and the proclamation of the good news. What is the good news of a God who says, "Give your only son as a burnt offering to me?"

This passage, alternately known as the Testing of Abraham or the Binding of Isaac, offers plenty of questions. It also can induce a visceral and emotional response that makes many people cringe. It has been the subject of probably tens of thousands of writings and interpretations over the centuries. It has also generated many hundreds of pieces of artwork over that same period. And it is the point at which the Judeo-Christian religion diverges from Islam, that latter tradition recording that it was Ishmael who was bound.

In short, this passage has informed a vast majority of the world as only few other passages have. And because of its place, because of its impact, because of its questions and problems, we need to deal with it.

One interpretation of this story is that, up to this point, Abraham hadn't really been tested. Sure, he had left his home in Ur, traveled where God told him, and been party to a covenant with God; but he had also used deception and relied on his own resourcefulness to advance his cause.

He lied to both Pharaoh and Abimelech about Sarah and used the results of those lies to gain wealth. And he wasn't exactly the picture of belief when told Sarah would have a child; don't forget, Sarah wasn't the only one who laughed at that idea. One might conclude that God doubted Abraham's loyalty. God might be thinking, "Let us test whether or not Abraham is really committed to me. Let us see if Abraham really trusts me or if he is only using me when convenient."

In some ways this is like a man or a woman wondering if their significant other "really loves me," so they set up a series of tests designed to answer that question in their own mind. It's also like some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters who state that you can't simply be baptized, or simply say you love God, but that you must be able to prove it by satisfactorily performing some church-approved test.

The theological argument here goes back to last week's gospel: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. We have heard this before in many ways -- sell all you have and follow me, take up your cross and follow me, and other quotes that explicitly state that God comes first.

The isue, then, is whether or not Abraham loves God more than his son. Does Abraham truly trust God? Does he truly put God first? One way to determine this would be to test him. And what better test than to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on an altar of fire?

We can theologically parse this story out as an example of God asking a man to trust him, and as that man willing to put family secondary to God. This story is nothing more than an example of a man willing to put God first; an extreme example to be sure, but an example we should be willing to learn from and follow. In our lives, what things or people do we give a higher place to or more prominence to than God?

We can spin this story any one of a number of ways, but the fact remains that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. And the question remains: What are we to do with this passage?

Another way to read this story of the Binding of Isaac is within the cultural context in which it took place. Whether we like it or not, the surrounding culture influenced the myths, stories and writings of the bible. It was not written in a vacuum to be held in stasis where all writings apply to all people in all cultures all the time. Things like polygamy (the multiple wives of King David), slavery (Paul insisting on slaves obeying their masters), or the view of women as property to be used as men desired (Lot offering his daughters for gang rape), were all common in ancient cultures, and have all been reevaluated by our culture.

One of those customs in ancient cultures was that of child sacrifice. This was the practice of offering up a child, usually the first born, to a god for appeasement, as a barter, or to gain favor. The person would sacrifice their child proving to the god that it -- the god -- was more important than a human life.

This was done by the Incas and Moches in the Americas. There is evidence it was practiced in Carthage. And in biblical cultures, it was practiced by the Moabites and Ammonites, and probably by other Canaanite area tribes. We may recoil in horror at that, but in those cultures it was part of how they understood and worshiped their gods. We aren't talking an "every Sunday" type of event, their civilization wouldn't survive; but this probably happened on very special occasions or after a particularly bad harvest. The gods demand a sacrifice, and what better way to show fealty than by offering a child?

It was into this culture, the argument goes, that Abraham was raised. Child sacrifice is what you did. And while unpleasant for all involved, that was simply the way it was. It was how people connected with their gods to ensure a better and safer life. In Abraham's mind, then, this was somewhat normative; especially at critical junctures.

How critical was this juncture of the Binding of Isaac? Here's a scenario for you to consider: Abraham has been wandering for many years. He has lived through a famine. He has presented his wife as his sister on two different occasions. He had to fight off a marauding band of kings who captured his nephew, Lot. He impregnated a slave girl who bore a son, both of whom were forced out of the clan into the wilderness after Isaac was born. He saw the aftermath of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In short, he has seen both God's generosity and his wrath. He has both obeyed and been less than honest. In a culture where you understand child sacrifice as an act of appeasement and ensuring favor from the gods, Abraham may have come to the conclusion that this was the time to sacrifice Isaac. After all, he had already produced two sons; sacrificing one should ensure a third, as well as a safer and more prosperous life.

But here's something to consider: This act of sacrificing Isaac, rather than being an edict from God, may have been how Abraham understood how he was to act towards God because of the cultural influences around him. Those influences may have pushed Abraham to hear God, and act on those influences, in a certain way.

It was with this mindset that Abraham loaded up the supplies, his men and his son and headed out. After traveling for three days, Abraham and Isaac go off alone to the sacrificial site. They leave the hired hands behind. Isaac carries the wood of his burning, while Abraham carries the fire and knife of Isaac's death. When they reach their destination, Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac. Isaac, aware of the cultural requirements in dealing with the gods, submits so he doesn't bring shame on his father, or bring down God's wrath for being an unacceptable sacrifice.

Abraham takes his child and lays him on the altar. Isaac looks at his father, determined not to embarrass him. Abraham looks upon his son, seeing in him the hope of a better future. Abraham draws his knife and touches Isaac's neck, measuring out the exact trajectory needed for a swift and accurate strike.

He pauses.

He draws the knife upward, creating the energy needed for one quick, downward thrust that will kill his son.

Just then, the angel of the Lord cried out, "Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him."

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."
"I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice."
On the sixth day, God created humanity in his image, blessed them, and saw that we, and all creation, were very good.

"And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in my name will not lose their reward."

This is the God of the good news that we proclaim. This is the God who values all human life. This is the God who takes no delight in sacrifices. This is the God who desires that all come within his loving embrace and who welcomes all people into the kingdom -- tax collectors, sinners, Democrats and Republicans. This is the God who looks upon our culture, sees where it is lacking and where it needs to be changed, and says, "No more. Do not lay a hand on him."

What are we to make of this passage? Instead of seeing it as the Testing of Abraham or the Binding of Isaac, what if we saw it as God's Intervention against a misguided cultural practice?

Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac to gain God's favor, who are we willing to sacrifice to gain God's favor? Who are we willing to ostracize or ignore or marginalize in an effort to be holy? We need to examine our own religious culture and realize that the kingdom of God and the good news we proclaim isn't predicated on following the expectations of a holiness code that hurts other people.

Instead, the kingdom of God and the good news we proclaim is predicated on God's desire to save people from death.


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