Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Put ourselves in Abraham’s sandals. God said, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one I promised you, the one you waited nearly your whole life for, the son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’(Genesis 22:1)
What do you think would happen if any one of us were to walk a child three days into the wilderness, place them on a pile of wood, and raise a knife intending to kill them? Right. Yet here it is in Genesis 22. In fact, this shocking story about Abraham is so central to scripture it is one of twelve readings appointed for the Easter Vigil every year. You know we read only seven. Yet, I don’t remember the last time we chose this one—if ever.
As children we learned to call this the testing of Abraham—and to shift attention away from the traumatizing violence and betrayal of Isaac. I wonder, did Isaac ever trust his father the same way again? Why would he carry on in the faith? Perhaps in confirmation we learned this story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadows God’s willing sacrifice of his only Son Jesus on the cross. Yet is the God we worship really capable of ordering a hit on both Isaac and Jesus? Or was it the religious leaders whose authority he questioned who wanted him dead? Wasn’t the demand to crucify him rooted in the human rejection of grace common to us all? Isn’t is we, not God, who deny Christ Jesus again and again? But then, if God didn’t demand that Jesus’ die, who told Abraham to head to Moriah with wood and a knife? (Hold that thought a minute.)
Perhaps what we have here is simply conclusive evidence we’ve changed. In the four thousand years since this story was first told we’ve grown up. We instinctively value the life of every child. We preserve, protect, and celebrate all lives equally. Human sacrifice is a thing of the past. Right? Well…except of course, for some people, born in remote parts of the world who provide cheap labor for our factories, or others whom we regard with suspicion. I wonder what George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin would say? And on this Pride Weekend, I wonder what trans men and women would have to say about how our economy, our political system, and our society continue to value the lives of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and marginalized?
Last month former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged the U.S. to push ahead reopening the economy despite the pandemic because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He compared it to the loss of lives during the two World Wars. We sacrificed those lives “knowing that many of them would not come home alive…We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life,” he said. “In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” (Chris Christy, CNN interview with Dana Bash, 5/04/20)
Later that same week, Whoopi Goldberg asked Christie when he appeared on “The View,” to name which of his own family members should die. “So, I’m asking, since you’re suggesting that I sacrifice, who are you sacrificing? Who are you going to give up in your family?”
We no longer sacrifice children and marginalized people for the sake of religious ritual, but we seem perfectly comfortable doing so for the economy, for wall street, or so we don’t have to wear a mask. The Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign remarks, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
To hear the gospel in today’s Old Testament story we must first climb down from our high horse and acknowledge that human sacrifice remains an ugly part of our world too. We must stop ignoring this story in our bible. We must push past the false theology and pious window dressing that’s been erected over the years to shield us from facing into it. Like every passage in scripture, the answer begins with the question, what was the plain meaning of this story? What did it mean to those who first heard? We are so fortunate to live in a time when archeologists, philologists, and historians can help us better answer this question.
One of these scholars writes, “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads,1996, p. 140). It is immensely helpful to know that child sacrifice was actually common in Abraham’s time and place. Our horror at thinking about ritually killing a child was no shock at all in Abraham’s world. In the text, Abraham hears the Lord, Elohim, call him to Moriah, but the voice of God, Yahweh, tells him to stop and provides the stag caught in the bush.
Abraham passed the test of faith not by listening to the voice of the false gods of sacred violence at the story’s opening, but by listening to the voice of Yahweh, “the LORD,” at the story’s close. Abraham heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, and our neglect of the innate dignity of all human lives are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if four billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is really all about?” (Paul J. Nuechterlein, Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, June 26, 2011)
Abraham learned what Christ Jesus proclaims. For Abraham the unveiling of sacred violence meant the unveiling of our false gods and an end to the glorification of all violence among people. In Jesus and Christ together, the God is made known who is both deeply personal and cosmically universal, who has counted even all the hairs on your head. Whose greatest reward is reserved not for the keynote speaker, the celebrity prophet, or the charismatic star at the microphone but goes to the person who serves. It goes to the one who hears the doorbell and opens the door. It goes to the one who hangs up the coats, washes the feet, pours the cool drinks, and sets and clears the table. “The small gesture and the invisible kindness are what please God, who sees everything we do in secret… Why? Because it is in the offering of such simple, essential gifts that Jesus’s kingdom announces itself. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and that life begins with the most elemental of gestures. “Even a cup of cold water?” Yes, even that.” (Debi Thomas, Welcome the Prophet, Journey with Jesus,6/21/20) And for the truth made real in our lives and in our society that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter because every life is precious to God.