A Most Difficult Text
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
26 June 2005
There is a statue that memorializes those who died in the Kent State massacre. The statue is a modern day representation of the sacrifice of Isaac. It is a reminder to the country that it sacrificed its children both in the massacre and in the war in Vietnam.
I suspect that some of us feel like we have been sacrificed by our families. Some parents claim obedience to God and their interpretation of the Bible in order to destroy their GLBT children. A few weeks ago there was a website making the rounds on the internet. It was the blog of a teenager in Memphis whose parents had put him in one of those programs that was supposed to change his homosexuality. The kid was despairing as he wrote about the program. I teared up as I read what he wrote. And so often you hear stories of gay kids who are thrown out of their homes, beaten by parents, or that commit suicide because they cannot face being gay in a culture that oppresses them.
I feel that this story is not suitable for children. I read a few years ago that in the minds of children, this story can become abusive. When I was taught it as a child in Sunday school, Isaac was portrayed as being obedient to his father and to God and that Isaac was willing to be sacrificed. That interpretation is nowhere in the Genesis account. Plus, it says to a child that an authority figure can abuse them in the name of God. That they should be obedient to the parent or minister or elder who abuses them.
This story is known in Christian circles as “the Sacrifice of Isaac.” Jewish circles call it “the Binding of Isaac.” The Jewish name is much more appropriate, for Isaac is never literally sacrificed, he is not killed.
This story is also one of the most important and powerful in the faith traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Its meaning and interpretation have been debated by scholars for thousands of years. Despite no firm consensus on how to read the story, it always seems to figure as a key story for understanding the nature of faith.
When I looked at the calendar and saw that this was the OT lectionary text for the day, I knew that I would preach it. I think that this story is a horrible story. Yet, it is one of my very favourite stories. I think I favour it so much because it is full of paradox. How to interpret this story that on the one hand seems to be essential to understanding faith and on the other hand seems to be one of the most terrifying in the Holy Bible?
As a starting place, consider Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Beloved is a powerful story dealing with the effects of slavery upon former slaves. It handles the psychological and social trauma with images of the paranormal. The main character is a woman Sethe who has escaped from the South with her children. The most shocking scene of the book comes when the overseer from her plantation tracks her down. Sethe, running, snatches up her children and gathers them in the woodshed. The book reads:
Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a . . . woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time . . . . Right off it was clear, to [the overseer] especially, that there was nothing there to claim. . . . Two were lying open-eyed in sawdust; a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one . . . she’d gone wild . . . .
One can’t help but be shocked by this scene. Sethe stands over her bleeding children. The reader is rightly disgusted and horrified. That was Toni Morrison’s point. She wanted to convey the message that slavery was such an awful blight upon a person that that person can be reduced to such extremities. Sethe will kill her children before she will allow them to be taken back into a life of slavery.
As much as we are horrified by the story Beloved, it has an explanation. It seems much harder, though, to do that with the story of Abraham. Can you really picture yourself offering your child in a sacrifice to God? In fact, how would you respond to someone claiming that they killed their child upon a word from God? We would lock them up or sentence them to death. And that gets us to the crux of this story. I think that when we approach this story that the first thing we must admit is that the action of Abraham is horrible, terrifying, maybe even evil. Only when we admit that about this story can we get at its power.
Commentators point out an interesting fact about Abraham. In chapter 19, he argues quite strongly with God, in hopes of saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, in this story, Abraham does not argue to save his own son.
But Abraham isn’t simply a murderer. No, he’s a man of faith. What turns this would-be-murderer into a man of faith?
It is that his action is commanded by God, that it comes from God.
And isn’t it God that we end up being shocked at? Be honest. I mean, sure, we are horrified by the actions of Abraham. But ultimately we are all horrified by the actions of God.
The text says that God wanted to test Abraham’s faith. We respond, “hadn’t Abraham proved his faith?” I mean, he first left his homeland and travelled without a road map to the destination that God chose. Then he overcame famine, war, and infertility, all waiting for God to fulfill God’s promise. In fact, in this relationship, I’d say that God is the one that needed to more clearly demonstrate God’s fulfillment of the covenant, not the other way around. God seems to hold off on fulfilling the contract to deliver a child and many future blessed generations. And now, in this moment after the child has been born and God seems to have fulfilled the obligations of the covenant, God comes demanding that the child be killed.
What do we do with this God? Theologically I tend to the liberal side. And central to my picture of God is the claim of I John 4:8 that “God is love.” I relish those stories that show a compassionate Jesus. Or that have God crying over Jerusalem through the prophet Jeremiah. Or that illustrate a tenderness, like God speaking to Elijah with a still, small voice. But then I have a difficult time with so many other texts. What about Elisha sending the she-bear to massacre a group of children? What about God’s command to Joshua to commit genocide, now defined as a “crime against humanity?” What about the Flood, that Holocaust of all creation? And what about the Binding of Isaac?
I am a Baptist. And one of the essential things that means for me is that I am a person committed to the scriptural text. As I have grown more mature I have taken that to mean that I am committed to the whole text, with all its difficulties, nuances, and contradictions. I cannot use “God is love” to whitewash the wrathful God of the Flood. I cannot use the compassionate stories of Jesus in a way that eliminates the testimony of the Book of Joshua. I must take this whole sacred text and wrestle with it. What does that mean? It means that sometimes there aren’t answers. I can’t explain certain parts of the Bible. I’ll probably never be able to, and, you know, probably don’t want to. The journey of wrestling with the text is more enjoyable, more satisfying than having the answer would be.
A text like the Binding of Isaac reminds me of three things. First, it reminds me of the power of sacred scripture. This book is a powerful, awesome book. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a dangerous book. It is dangerous because it is imbued with the transcendent, the sacred, and we humans have a poor record of dealing with the sacred. We are likely to use it to justify our wars, hatreds, and prejudices, probably more likely than we are to use it to create beauty, goodness, and truth. It is dangerous because it holds the awesome power to transform life. In its pages a lost person can find herself. In its pages is the amazing story of one named Jesus who told us that we could be so much more than we are. And it is a dangerous book because it calls us to be radicals who do not live by the standards of this world. Our greatest goal is to live in the kingdom of God. So this book of sacred scripture is dangerous and powerful.
The second thing this story reminds me of is that I cannot keep God in a box. My temptation is to keep God in my liberal “God is love” box. But, oh no, God is SO much more than that. The Binding of Isaac and stories like it remind me that God is a mystery. That ultimately, I will never understand God; that there are things in God’s nature that are incomprehensible to me. Consider the hymn we will sing after the sermon. It is, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” Though this is a classic and familiar hymn to many, it really poses a picture of God that is alien to my understanding, even though the image has been important and influential in the history of Christianity. That image is of a God who is removed from the creation -- notice the line “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” Even though I don’t fully agree with the idea suggested in this hymn that God is so removed from creation, the hymn does suggest something I want to emphasize, that ultimately God is mystery. Contrast this with another classic and favourite hymn, “This is My Father’s World” which gives a much more intimate picture of God as active in the creation. The hymn tells us that “all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” It also says “in the rustling grass I hear him pass.” Our Christian hymnody is full of hymns with varying images of God. I’m far more comfortable with the intimate image in “This is My Father’s World” than I am with the distant image in “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” But I still sing this hymn. Why? Because I am reminded that God is so much more than what I understand God to be. And that’s what happens when I read the Binding of Isaac. Yes, I’m shocked, I’m horrified, but I am also left in awe and wonder and am filled with a powerful sense of mystery.
Finally, there is a third thing that this story reminds me of. But to get at that I want to consider the outcomes of this story. There are four main characters – God, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah, who is present in her absence. What effect does this event have upon these four? Let’s begin with God. In the Genesis text, God never speaks to Abraham again. They had communicated so closely and so often before, but not again; the intimacy of their relationship seems to be lost. But we also know that God has fulfilled the covenant God made with Abraham. And, from now on, God will have a new name “the God of Abraham.”
What does Abraham do after this event? He becomes the Father of Faith, yet he is a complicated man. Maybe most complicated in his treatment of his sons. He seems willing to sacrifice Isaac. Remember that he also has sent Ishmael into the desert to die of exposure, where Ishmael is saved by God. And Abraham will have six more sons by his second wife, and he will send all of those sons away as well. Abraham, a father of the Faith, is a man who spent his whole life seeking a son, but somehow manages to separate himself from every son he ever had. Notice that verse 19 tells us that Abraham returned to his servants and they traveled back. It does not say that Isaac traveled back with them. It appears that Abraham’s son does not want to go home with his father.
What is the effect on Isaac? He is a broken, defeated, and weak human being. Later in Genesis we see Isaac spend twenty years on his deathbed. His wife Rebekah must run his home. He seems incapable of dealing with his own sons Esau and Jacob. And, most tellingly, Isaac has his own name for God; this God is known as the “Fear of Isaac.”
But what about Sarah? We must imagine that Isaac told his mother what had happened when he returned home. What did she do? She dies. In the very next chapter Sarah dies. Commentators feel that her grief and anger were too much, that this promised son that she waited for and toiled for for so long had almost been taken from her.
Yes, this story is essential to understanding the nature of faith, but it is a story whose characters end up broken and damaged. What does this tell us about the life of faith? That it too is full of mystery just like God, just like the sacred text. Let me read a couple quotes from Karen Armstrong’s Genesis commentary:
[The Binding of Isaac] reminds us that living in God’s presence requires an arduous struggle that can bring us to the brink of despair. The search for blessing, the essence of life itself, involved an encounter with death and the death of meaning. The reality called “God” could manifest itself as a friendly, benevolent presence but also as terrifying and cruel. In our desperate world, where we all struggle for physical or psychological survival, our glimpses of the divine can only be fragmentary, imperfect, and colored by our experience of life’s inherent tragedy. . . . Preachers sometimes give the impression that religion will inevitably bring sweetness and light into our lives. We will feel God’s love and become whole and fulfilled. Our faith will give us a consciousness of God’s presence that will make us serene and joyful. But Genesis indicates that this is by no means always the case.
By no means is it always the case. Our faith does not guarantee for us that everything will be wonderful. Often the life of faith is so difficult and mysterious; we don’t understand what is happening. When I began my journey out, I felt great peace and tranquility, but I also knew that it would be a “dark night of the soul.” As such it would be transformative for me and for others, but transformation is never an easy process. My journey out has been full of blessing, but it has also been filled with pain.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner seems to also convey the mystery of the life of faith. It tells the story of gay men in the eighties in the midst of the AIDS crisis. They all seem to be struggling with their faith. Prior is receiving visions and messages from angels. Joe tries to deal with his Mormon upbringing and the unavoidable conclusion that he is gay. The Jewish Lewis wrestles with love and suffering, guilt and shame. The underlying message of the play and movie based upon it is, “Where is God in the midst of all this suffering?”
Prior, the Prophet, eventually stands in heaven where God has also left the angels who are trying their best to maintain things in God’s absence. Prior stands there and judges God for God’s absence. He says that if God dared to return after “all this destruction,” “after all the terrible days of this terrible century,” then “you should sue the bastard.”
But then this moment is offset by the most tender moment of the play. Lewis and Ethel Rosenberg pray the Kaddish over the villainous Roy Cohn. It is a moment of faith in the midst of great suffering.
Despite all the suffering, Prior still seeks his blessing. He wants more life. He demands that no matter what confusion and suffering lie ahead, he still wants blessing.
At the end of the play the characters who have found some measure of wholeness and healing are gathered at the Bethesda fountain, that symbol of God’s healing power. It is a scene full of hope. In the movie version, Prior looks directly into the camera and speaks these words of benediction:
We are not going away.
We will not die secret deaths anymore.
The world only spins forward.
We will be citizens. Time has come.
You are fabulous, each and every one.
And I bless you.
The Great Work begins.