September 19, 2021
You can listen to a preached version of this sermon on Podbean.
Rough story, right? And we skipped over the part where Abraham sends his oldest son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, into the wilderness to die. Fortunately, they don’t die, but that’s all thanks to Hagar and God—no thanks to Abraham.
Now Abraham comes within, possibly, seconds of killing his other son, Isaac. In Rembrandt’s agonizing painting of “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Abraham has one hand over Isaac’s face, pushing his head back to expose his neck, while his other hand is raised in the air, a knife falling from his hand as an angel grabs his wrist.
Caravaggio’s second painting of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” may haunt my dreams. The expression on Isaac’s face bears such agony as his father holds his head down on the altar stone. And again, an angel grabs Abraham’s wrist to stop him from slaughtering his son.
This is a horrific story. It’s a story that makes me uneasy about being someone committed to the God revealed in scripture, about being a member of one of the so-called Abrahamic faiths.
It’s a story so troublesome that I have not preached on it in a dozen years of sermons. I learned this week, though, that my Jewish colleagues in ministry have to deal with it every year. It is the primary text for Rosh Hashanah, one of Judaism’s holiest days. So it’s like the Easter story or Christmas story for us. It’s familiar and constant.
Which means that there are a lot of incredibly thoughtful and insightful reflections available from the Jewish community that deal with this text. Which means that, thanks to my Jewish siblings, I’m not going to throw my Bible away after all.
The medieval French rabbi, Rashi, presented an interpretation that is still much repeated and appreciated today: that, based on the Hebrew terms, it is possible that God does not ask Abraham to “sacrifice” Isaac, but merely to “raise him up.” That really, it was all just a terrible, terrible, misunderstanding. Maybe, at over 100 years old, Abraham’s hearing wasn’t what it used to be.
There is also a school of thought that suggests that Abraham failed God’s test. That just as Abraham argued with God and tried to convince God not to destroy Sodom, so, too, should Abraham have argued with God about sending Ishmael into the wilderness, about putting a knife to Isaac’s throat on Mount Moriah. That God expected—even wanted—Abraham to say “no” to God’s instructions.
And this story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is seen by many as a significant teaching against child sacrifice. Abraham’s was a time when many people thought that the gods demanded extravagant sacrifices, even to the point of human sacrifice. And here, the God of Abraham gives clear instructions that those in covenant with Yahweh are not to sacrifice human beings. God provides a ram. Later in Jewish history, prophets like Micah—who we heard at the beginning of the service—would take that even a step further, insisting that the sacrifice God desires is not a burnt sacrifice at all, but that we live lives of kindness and mercy and justice.
I appreciate these insights into the story. I truly do.
And, they are not enough to make me comfortable with how God is portrayed here. Because even if Abraham did misunderstand God’s instructions, I think God could have clarified the divine intent before Isaac was deeply traumatized by being bound and put on an altar by his father.
And even if Abraham failed the test, what kind of sick god gives someone a test like that in the first place?
And even if this was God’s way of saying “no human sacrifices!” . . . well, maybe a burning bush or stone tablets or something else might have worked to get that message across.
For me, even with the most radical and gracious interpretations, this story presents a god that feels too far removed from the God of love and justice and compassion that so much of the scriptures attest to.
Which takes me to another insight from a Jewish scholar. One of those rabbit trails I went down clicking links when I should have been focusing on the article at hand. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who wrote about Abraham failing God’s test, has also written about the distinction between “God and the character of God as depicted in the Bible/Torah.”
Rabbi Ruttenberg writes: “[W]e, the Jews, don’t get too fussed by the literal descriptions of God as described in the Torah. Rabbinic texts teach that ‘the Torah speaks in the language of human beings,’ . . . meaning the Torah describes God in ways that our puny little human brains can comprehend–not because it’s an accurate reflection of God, just because we can’t handle anything more than that.”
“The Torah”—the first five books of our Bible—“speaks in the language of human beings.”
So maybe, rather than getting too worked up about what this story does or doesn’t say about God, it’s worth taking a step back and considering what it says about God’s people.
Not surprisingly, Jewish writers have a lot of good wisdom here as well. While nothing I read managed to make Abraham a completely sympathetic character for me, there are a few insights that help me view him with a bit of increased compassion.
The first is a literary note. This story of Isaac’s almost-sacrifice starts off at a fast pace. God gives instructions. The next morning Abraham packs up and leaves with Isaac. Next thing you know they’ve been walking three days and father and son head up to “the place that God had shown [Abraham].” All of that takes just four verses. Then we have another four verses that describe just the walk up the mountain. And once they are at the sacrifice site, listen to how slow the action is: “Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” It seems Abraham is taking his sweet time. Not wanting to do this thing he believes God has asked him to do. He’s stalling. Which doesn’t seem like much, but maybe it’s something.
Other insights into Abraham I’ve appreciated come not from the text itself, but from midrash—a Jewish interpretive practice of engaging with questions about the text by filling in gaps and creating new stories that might help us better understand the original stories.
One such story is about a time when Abraham was a child and his own father took him to Nimrod who threw him into a fiery furnace. Like Isaac, Abraham was saved only by Divine intervention.
Another story says that Isaac participated willingly; he told his father to bind him tightly so that Isaac would not make the sacrifice invalid by shaking too much.
Now I’m not saying that these stories about Abraham are factual. But I think they contain truth.
The truth of generational trauma and how our experiences with parents (and parent figures) influence and complicate our understanding of God.
The truth about how desperately we want to please those we love; how willing we are to sacrifice ourselves. How terribly dysfunctional relationships can be.
In Jewish tradition, this story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac is called the Akedah—the binding. And there is an amazing web site called the Akedah Project that includes videos from a variety of Jewish scholars, rabbis, artists. One of the videos is from Abby Chava Stein, a Jewish woman who was assigned male at birth. When she came out to her father as transgender, he refused to accept her. As she explains it, her father sacrificed his child because of his own misguided ideas of what it means to be faithful.
I’m listening to a podcast about the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church—the lead pastor became well known for charismatic leadership and provocative sermons; and also for demanding that none of the women in the church have jobs outside the home and that anyone who questioned his leadership be completely shunned by other members of the church. Looking back on their involvement with this church, many former members are horrified, are heartbroken, about the things they did because they thought it was what was required to be faithful.
Our willingness to sacrifice people, of course, has consequences. Notice that the title of the podcast is “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” And Abby Chava Stein’s father does not get to be in loving, positive relationship with his daughter.
And Abraham. Well. This is the last time in scripture that God speaks directly to Abraham. And the last time we see Abraham and Isaac together—until Abraham’s funeral. And Sarah, Abraham’s wife, dies in the next chapter. So what does this story say about God’s people?
I don’t think this is a “moral of the story” kind of story. I think it’s more of a “life is messy and it always has been” kind of story. There is no clear message, no checklist of do’s and don’ts. But maybe there are a few good reminders:
Like when we think we hear God’s voice, we should make sure we’re hearing it right.
Like the fact that God does not want human sacrifices—and that includes not just us sacrificing others, but all the ways we may be too willing to sacrifice ourselves.
Like how we need to be gentle with each other because who knows what trauma others have experienced; who knows what we ourselves might have done if an angel (metaphorically speaking . . . probably) hadn’t stopped our hand from time to time. We might see what looks like a happy family walking down the road or at the park or on social media but really we have no idea. We might be meeting Abraham, heading up the hill. . . . Or Isaac, on the way down.
Like how important it is to do hard theological work and not skip over the challenging stories for twelve years. Because what we believe about God makes a difference in how we live in this world and how we treat each other every day.
Like the truth that we do not believe in a god who expects human sacrifice, who calls us to violence, who sets up your life as a pass/fail test.
Rather, we believe in and serve a God who reaches down to save us from doing harm, who shows us a better way, who provides what we need.