A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-4
Sunday, June 29, 2014
St. Barnabas Church, Pasadena, CA
The Rev. John Goldingay, Priest-in-Charge
The Rev. Ronald David, MD, Preacher
Sacrifice of Isaac
by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
“But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
In the television series Cold Case men and women of the Philadelphia Police Department specialize in investigating old, unsolved crimes. Each episode of the series begins with a flashback to the scene of the crime and reveals the key characters. Then, the story flashes forward to the present day when new evidence has come to light and the detectives reopen the case interviewing the victim’s family and friends, as well as potential witnesses to the crime.
Today’s Old Testament reading might be heard as a flashback to a potential crime—an attempted homicide. While there is no new evidence compelling us to reopen the case, we are or should be concerned with the aftershocks of this disturbing drama. In particular, we are concerned that this story, which depicts Abraham as a man of deep faith, has been employed to justify the cults of Jewish martyrs, heroic Christian soldiers, and Islamic jihadists. Abraham’s curse has been a silent justification for wars waged in the name of God and country.
Did God intend Abraham’s near sacrifice to be a litmus test of faith, or a justification for the violent sacrifice of a nation’s sons and daughters in holy wars? To answer this question I propose to examine the evidence in this case, not from the perspective of the perpetrator, Abraham. Rather, I will endeavor to discern God’s intentions through the eyes of the victim or victims. This is another feature of the television series Cold Case; at the end of each episode when justice is served an apparition of the victim briefly appears and seems to be finally at peace.
As a preacher I am inclined if not obliged to give Abraham the benefit of the doubt and accept that he is a man of faith. As a detective I am guided more by skepticism. I am a cautious skeptic as I remember God’s promise to Abraham (at Genesis 12:3): “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who cursesyou I will curse.” So let’s just say that I intend to treat Abraham as a “person of interest.”
To learn more about Abraham, I will try to envision him through the eyes of the patriarch’s family, those significant others revealed in a series of scripture readings or flashbacks that we have heard over the last several weeks. The family members are Abraham’s two wives Sarah and Hagar, and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac. Finally, perhaps in folly but of necessity I will question the only surviving witness, God, whom Abraham implicates as an accomplice in the near sacrifice of Isaac.
Arguably, Hagar has been the most easily overlooked member of Abraham’s household and the most chronically abused. After all, she was “just” an Egyptian slave-girl. Hagar was Sarai’s slave and when Sarai fretted about being barren, Sarai gave Hagar to Abram. Sarai instructed Abram to take Hagar as a wife, to “go into” Hagar so that she might be a surrogate mother vicariously or indirectly bestowing honor on the household’s head mistress. Hagar had no say in the matter and Abram made no protest. When Hagar found herself pregnant with Abram’s child, Sarai was outraged, and blamed the whole mess on Abram. Abram replied, “Look, your slave-girl is in your hands. Do to her whatever you think is right.”1 It is no wonder that feminist theologian Phyllis Trible describes Abram as “a wimp and a pimp.”2
With Abram’s cowardly, complicitous consent, Sarai harassed Hagar so terribly that Hagar ran away. In the wilderness Hagar encounters God who instructs her to return to her mistress. As well, God informs Hagar that she has conceived and will bear a son; and God promises Hagar that she would have descendants “beyond all counting.” So Hagar dutifully returned, only to further irritate Sarah after giving birth to Ishmael, and ultimately provoking Abraham to turn Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness.
Hagar is the Bible’s first runaway slave, first woman to hear an annunciation, first woman to call God by name, and the first and only woman to whom God promises descendants.3 Surely this woman, Hagar, would be a credible character witness regarding Abram. What might she say about Abram, her child’s father, her master-turned husband? At best, perhaps being civil or servile, Hagar would hold her tongue. Worse, if Hagar spoke at all I think we would understand if she proved to be a “hostile witness.” In any case it is not likely that Hagar would describe Abraham as a paragon of virtue.
Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son, might be ambivalent at best regarding his father’s behavior. That is often the way of it with fathers and sons. There is a rumor that comes to us in the form of a midrash. The midrash is a commentary with which Jewish Rabbis fill in the gaps found in the Torah. One such midrash declares that Abraham loved Ishmael indeed. In the midrash the conversation between God and Abraham is elaborated. God says, “Take your son.” Abraham replies, “But I have two sons.” God says, “your only one.” Abraham replies, “But I have two!” God says, “The one you love.” Abraham replies, “But I love them both.” God says, “Isaac.” It is only through this midrash that we have any clue that Abraham laments having to make a choice at all.
Still, Ishmael was not there for either the conversation documented in the Bible or as it is interpreted in midrash. What Ishmael did know was that his father Abraham, a man of great wealth, turned Ishmael and his mother Hagar out into the stark, foreboding desert with a single loaf of bread and very little water. Like many a man-child, Ishmael probably spent years yearning to reconcile with his father. While we cannot know if reconciliation was realized we do know that Ishmael would return years later to join his half-brother, Isaac, and bury Abraham at Machpelah.
What about Sarah—Abraham’s first wife, Hagar’s mistress, Isaac’s mother, and Ishmael’s step-mother? Well, we know from her bitterness toward Hagar that Sarah was not entirely happy with Abraham. But one could argue that the greatest offense suffered by Sarah was Abraham’s proclivity for keeping Sarah in the dark about matters affecting her most intimately. It was Abraham whom the angels first informed that Sarah would soon be pregnant with Isaac. Sarah overheard the arrangement while standing near the entrance of the family tent. And she laughed to herself, the very idea of pregnancy at her age being so utterly absurd.
But the real coup de grace, the inflammatory salt ground into the wound came when Abraham stole away early one morning and set out on a three day journey to Mount Moriah with Sarah’s precious and only son in tow. We can be certain that Sarah knew nothing of those desperate, dastardly plans or she would have certainly stopped Abraham dead in his tracks.
In fact, the chapter immediately following the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice begins with news of Sarah’s death. Again there is a rumor in the form of a midrash that offers insight to her dying. “In the midrash . . . Isaac returns home after the [near sacrifice] and tells his mother what happened on Mount Moriah. Despairing and bewildered, she asks, ‘Had it not been for the angel you would have been slain?’” When Isaac confirmed her understanding, “It is said, She had barely finished speaking when she died.”4
At the risk of sounding completely inane, we can easily imagine Sarah’s assessment of Abraham’s character as a husband and father.
And Isaac . . . need we say more? Surely Isaac had an intuition that something was amiss when during the climb up Mount Moriah he asked Abraham, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” Isaac was so frightened out of his wits he did not see or failed to mention the butcher knife in Abraham’s hand. Isaac had to have been struck dumb as he climbed that mountain—either that or Abraham slugged him from behind. How else can we explain Isaac’s failure to struggle and overtake a one-hundred year old man gone mad?
I cannot even begin to imagine Isaac’s heartache in the wake of such a betrayal. What words could he possibly find to describe feelings toward his once-beloved and doting father, Abraham?
That brings us to the last and only surviving witness, God, whom Abraham implicates as an accomplice in this sordid affair. Here is where a detective’s work gets dangerous so I ask you to observe the yellow tape around the pulpit that reads, “Police Line Do Not Cross,” lest lightning strikes and you end up as collateral damage to my investigative folly. But in the spirit of Job and the interest of justice, I am encouraged to carry out our investigation.
So, I ask: “God, did you not judge Abraham a righteous man and promise that you would make him a great nation at least three times before the alleged ‘test’ on Mount Moriah?”
And God might reply: “Yesss!”
And I would timidly inquire further: “Did you in fact instruct Abraham to climb Mount Moriah and sacrifice his son, Isaac?”
And God might reply: “And your point is . . . ?”
And I would respond: “I was just wondering, how long have you suffered from these mood swings?”
And God would reply: “Ronald, I will not have you make sport of me. Not in my Church. Now you stand there and answer a few questions for me!”
And without waiting for my reply to any of the questions, God bellows out of the whirlwind. “Did you notice, Ronald, that after I instructed Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah that Abraham seemed to know precisely what to do? Unlike Noah for whom I had to provide very specific instructions on how to build an ark, Abraham acted as if he was quite familiar with the work he was about to engage. Abraham knew to take with him wood, fire, and butcher knife. Do you think it is possible that Abraham created the opportunity, had the means, and may have had an ulterior, albeit unconscious motive?
“And did you notice that Abraham carried out this act without a hint of emotion? Abraham behaved as if he were in a trance.” God might say as well, “I am not in the habit of having others speak for me but one of your own theologians, Professor Bruce Chilton states the case rather well in his book, Abraham’s Curse. Have you read the book, Ronald? Did you read that ‘Abraham plods along on automatic pilot from beginning to end, neither complaining when told to carve up his child and burn him, nor celebrating when he gets to keep his son?’5 What do you make of that behavior? And what do you make of the fact that Abraham had bargained with me previously for the lives of total strangers in the city of Sodom but fell utterly silent when it came to preserving the life of his own child? And finally, Ronald, did you notice that I had to call Abraham’s name twice when he raised the knife to Isaac’s throat. ‘Abraham,’ I shouted to paralyze him with fear and awaken him from his robot-like stupor. Then I called to him as tenderly as I could, saying ‘Abraham, do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him.’”
And then God goes silent, leaving you and me to ponder anew the meaning of Abraham’s near sacrifice.
My intention here is not to merely besmirch Abraham’s character and certainly not to make sport of God. (Though the God I love and worship is not above playfulness.) Rather, my intention is to pave a way for a potentially new understanding of the awful moment when Abraham raises the butcher knife to innocent Isaac’s neck. If Abraham is indeed presumed to be a paragon of virtue in God’s eye, then the “test” to me seems inexplicable.
If, on the other hand, Abraham can be seen as vulnerable and culpable, I can imagine that God intends for Abraham and all of his descendants to learn something . . . something other than faith through fear of God. Like any one of us, Abraham is neither above reproach, nor is he beyond redemption. God worked with and through all of Abraham’s flaws just as God worked with that beloved, yet imperfect rascal, King David.
Bruce Chilton suggests that one of the things we might learn is that “Abraham is a brutal father, whose reckless disregard for the life of his family had to be tamed by God so that he could learn compassion.”6 I think there is another lesson as well. That is, in his very human frailty and vulnerability Abraham was blindly reenacting an age-old practice of child-sacrifice, of stupefying sacrificial violence. If he was a man of faith, his was a blind, thoughtless faith. Perhaps God sought to awaken Abraham from just such vacuous obedience and invite him to a spirited engagement in dialogue with God. Was not Abraham wonderfully mindful, though admittedly fearful, when he negotiated with God for the lives of strangers in the city of Sodom?
Many years after Abraham’s near sacrifice God makes the ultimate sacrifice—Christ on the Cross. From the Gospel according to John (19:30) we learn this: “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘Itisfinished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
What was “it” that was finished? Perhaps “it” was child sacrifice. Perhaps another way to see the Cross is as God’s most poignant and powerful effort to call attention to the utter absurdity and injustice of sacrificial violence. If so, I join with Bruce Chilton when he asserts that “Any voice that calls us back to the mount of human sacrifice, in whatever form [that voice] takes in its various guises, is not God’s.”
Will we ever come down from Mount Moriah? Will we ever put an end to the cults of Jewish martyrs, Christian soldiers, and Islamic jihadists? When will we ever say of the sacrifice we make of our sons and daughters in the name of either God or country, “It is finished?”
1 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: WB Norton, 2004), page 78.
2 Phyllis Trible, Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
3 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), page 28.
4 Bruce Chilton, Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (New York: Doubleday, 2008), page 204.
5 Ibid, Chilton, page 203.
6 Ibid, Chilton, page 221.