*Originally preached for Central Presbyterian Church, June 29, 2014 – my church home for the last 4 years in Austin, TX.
The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, 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.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, 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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
Gracious God, startle us with your truth and make us bold to know you. Amen.
‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, 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.”
These are indeed startling words. This is one of those passages in the Bible that I
feel uncomfortable describing as “holy wisdom” or as “the word of the Lord.” How could we not feel uncomfortable about a story in which God commands God’s most faithful follower—the father of three major faith traditions today—to kill his beloved son, the embodiment of the very covenant he and God so recently made together?
Week after week in this sanctuary we talk about and worship a God of love and
justice and grace and endless mercy. We praise and seek to emulate a God who lifts up the most vulnerable in this world, who willingly entered into human vulnerability just to be reunited with us. And this story of near child sacrifice dares me to question: how can that God also be this God?
I know I’m not alone in my struggles with this text. Many have attempted to make
sense of this story and the vision of God it presents us with. We comfort ourselves that this command is merely a test. We tell ourselves that God never planned to follow through with it. We focus on Abraham instead and his unquestioning obedience. As the forebear of our faith, we instinctively look to Abraham as a paragon of faithfulness. And so we praise his silent obedience to God’s cruel command.
In fact, philosopher and theologian Soren Keirkegaard writes extensively about the
value of Abraham’s obedience. He calls him a Knight of Faith, one whose faithfulness to God moves beyond human ethics and even sanity in its steadfastness. Kierkegaard suggests that this is precisely the kind of faithfulness we should seek to embody.
All due respect to Kierkegaard, but I disagree. I disagree with our traditional
emphasis on the virtue of silent obedience in this story and I disagree with our glorification of Abraham in this text. In fact, if there is one thing in this story that disturbs me more than God’s startling words… it’s Abraham’s silence in response.
The covenant God establishes with Abraham earlier in Genesis represents a
paradigmatic shift in the interactions between God and humanity. Prior to this ceremony, God offers command and mercy, but with the covenant, God offers truly intimate relationship, partnership. We see this shift played out when Abraham argues and bargains with God to spare the cities of Sodom. Not only does God allow this challenge from Abraham, God responds to it!
And that makes Abraham’s silent, unquestioning obedience when asked to sacrifice
his son even more disturbing. Though God calls on “Abraham,” it seems that the man who responds is Abram, the man who had not yet encountered the relational, conversational God of the covenant. In refusing to speak, Abraham essentially denies his sacred relationship with God. Shouldn’t Abraham know God better than this? Shouldn’t we?
After all, we know a much larger story of God than this episode. Isaac may be the
first son laid on the altar but he won’t be the last. We know that long after Abraham raises the knife and the angel intervenes, the son of God will hang dying on a cross. And his death and resurrection reveal—not a God who would blindly sacrifice his own son—but rather the holy parent of us all who will not sacrifice or abandon a single one of us—not ever—though the journey to gather us up lead beyond the boundaries of death itself. Such is the desire of our God to be known by us.
It makes me wonder if just maybe what God is testing in this story is not Abraham’s
obedience, but his trust in their relationship. Maybe God wants to see that Abraham knows God well enough to challenge such an uncharacteristic demand. Maybe God wants Abraham to say no. No, I will not sacrifice this child whom I and you love. Instead, Abraham chooses silent submission to a command that singularly contradicts what he knows of God.
If we want to find an exemplar of true faithfulness in this story, then let’s talk about
Isaac. It is, after all, Isaac who questions Abraham about the lamb for sacrifice, whose knowledge of God allows no room to conceive of inhuman cruelty or abandonment. It’s Isaac who calls on his father’s conscience and draws attention to the relational stakes of the situation. And it is Isaac who—having been spared—climbs down off the altar where he was laid in the name of faith and proclaims faith in that same God. Who can claim a more powerful faith than that?
We have much to learn from Isaac. I wonder why we spend so much time on
Abraham and so little on him. Some scholars suggest that the disproportionately small amount of attention paid to Isaac in the Bible might be because he suffered from mental illness or mental disability. In other words, he has been silenced and diminished because he did not fit the normative ideal, even though it is his devotion to God that allows the faith to continue and to flourish in the wake of this trauma.
When we talk about Isaac, when we listen to Isaac—this story can speak to us in a
powerfully different way. It suggests a God for whom intimate relational dialogue and true knowing are the cornerstones of faithfulness. It suggests a God who stakes everything on the vulnerable, marginalized, and discounted and on our capacity to speak for justice and mercy. And it challenges us to consider that, perhaps, if we are looking for leaders in faithfulness—we might just be looking in the wrong place.
Isaac’s story might be ancient, but it is also very present. There are many Isaacs in
our midst. Those whom we have bound and laid on the altar in the name of blind faith, those whose suffering we have silently enabled and perpetuated in exchange for an easy faith rooted in lifeless obedience rather than dynamic engagement. We diminish their stories as uncommon outliers, but their resilient faithfulness has much to teach us.
This has been a big month for equality in our church. And on this Sunday—
celebrated as Pride Sunday in many cities, I think especially of those Christians who are Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, and Queer. The faith of LGBTQ Christians speaks louder than the shouting condemnations of centuries of hate speech disguised as dogma and doctrine. Like Isaac long ago, queer Christians have dared to know God deeply, they have done so even when the church has rejected them and told them that they are dirty, and wrong, and unwelcome. On my own journey of coming out as bisexual during seminary, I have looked to the example of those faithful LGBTQ Christians who have come before me, and I have learned from them in ways that no one else could teach me that God’s love is boundless and reflected in a diverse and expansive multitude of ways. That God’s grace can be found—not merely in spite of—but in the very heart of intimate, mutual vulnerability.
Indeed the church can learn much from such faithfulness, if it is willing to notice and
listen. Like Isaac before them, queer Christians and others who have been bound upon the altar of faith draw our attention to where our conscience has faltered. Their stories, their questions, their challenges, offer us a chance to remember that we know God too well to ever settle for an idol image of faith that contradicts God’s very nature of mercy and justice and love. They dare us to trust deeply enough in that love to challenge and be challenged when our faith falls short of embodying God’s own radical inclusivity.
When we acknowledge that there are still Isaacs in this world—when we see and
hear them and learn to hear the story through their perspective, we must also confront the ways in which we are still the silently obedient Abraham. But just as God was far from done with Isaac on that altar, God is far from done with us. When God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, the living embodiment of the covenant, I think God was waiting for an answer. Abraham gave silent obedience, but I think God wanted something different—something more—from him, and I think God wants something more and different from us.
Several years ago, Mark Ferrari wrote a novel called The Book of Joby—a modern
spin on the book of Job that incorporates elements of fantasy and Christian tradition. In the story, God and Lucifer have been making bets since the beginning of time, starting with Adam and Eve, and culminating in the present day when they bet on the righteousness of young boy named Joby Peterson. The stakes of the bet are high: if Lucifer wins God must wipe out all of existence. When the terms have been established and agreed upon, God tells his angels and other agents of Heaven that they must not intervene on God’s behalf to help Joby, lest the wager’s terms be violated and Lucifer win by default.
As Joby’s life progresses, he is subject to an increasingly terrible string of
misfortunes and cruelties that shake the very foundations of his faith and shatter his innocence. One by one the angels defy God’s command and help the boy. When the day of the wager’s reckoning arrives, the heavenly host gathers to witness the outcome. Those who went against the divine command guiltily await their anticipated damnation, but God surprises them.
When Lucifer insists that they be damned for disobeying God’s will, God says, “Did
they?” and then continues, “It was only my command they violated. Not my will… I will concede that, had they disappointed me by doing otherwise, I doubt you could have lost the wager, Lucifer.” When Lucifer protests in fury, God reveals exactly what he was betting on. “I was betting that, at the core, My creation was so soundly imbued with the laws of love and faith, compassion and real justice, that even if I, Myself, should command it to ignore those laws, it would still not do so.”
In Ferrari’s book, the angels are guided by their love for God and for what God loves.
They are driven to risk damnation to defy a command that contradicts their experience of who God is. The Abraham of this story, by contrast, blindly and silently upholds a singular divine command, though it seems to contradict the very nature of God, which Abraham has encountered intimately through their ongoing relationship.
Like Abraham and like Isaac, we have been invited to know God intimately. We are
invited to know that God is merciful and just and boundlessly loving and that that God wants more for us and from us than silent obedience. We can learn from Isaac not to be silent. We can learn to trust our deep relationship with God instead and cry out against anything in this world that contradicts the God that we truly know—a God of mercy and justice who will not abandon any of God’s children, who wants us to fight for each other and love one another.
10 days ago, I sat in a creaky chair in the COBO Convention Center in downtown
Detroit. I watched as the Committee on Marriages and Civil Unions presented each overture regarding marriage equality to the General Assembly of the PCUSA. I held hands with fellow queer Christians and held my breath as each vote was tallied. We wept together as again and again the votes came overwhelmingly in favor of our full inclusion and the celebration of our relationships.
Through my tears, I saw a church of Abrahams ready to give God a different answer.
Ready to say “No! We will not sacrifice these children. We know you too well to believe that you could want that.” I saw a church beginning to glimpse that its long-neglected Isaacs are not merely deserving of inclusion and embrace and voice, that they may even be the future of our faith.
This is a season of celebration. It is one of reconciliation and renewed closeness with
God and one another. It is a season of hope.
But let that hope compel our hearts toward other Isaacs, other communities whom
we too often sacrifice, neglect, or fail to recognize as the gift that they are. They are many and they are still waiting to be seen and heard. They are transgender and genderqueer. They are those experiencing poverty. They are those struggling with mental illness. They are those with disabilities. They are those who occupy multiple, intersecting spaces of marginalization. And they have much to teach us about faith and about God.
May we listen and respond and learn and grow. May we dare to trust. May we
rejoice in the God that does not abandon, who welcomes dialogue and challenge, who cultivates hope in unexpected places, and who calls us all into sacred relationship with God and one another.