Scripture: Genesis 22: 1-14 Nigel Bunce
Father, Son, and Sacrifice
Today’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is an appalling story about a Father, Son, and sacrifice. God commanded Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his only son, Isaac.
Abraham did as God commanded. He travelled to Mount Moriah. That took three days. There, he built a pile of wood. He tied Isaac up and laid him on it. At the last moment, God told Abraham not to kill Isaac. Instead, a ram appeared, caught by its horns. So Abraham used the ram as a burnt offering in Isaac’s place.
What does this story tell you about God?
That’s a big question. If you take the Bible literally, you might see a sadistic god, who forced Abraham to choose between obeying God and saving his only son. Because Isaac was more than simply Abraham’s only son. He was the son that God promised to Abraham and Sarah, so that they would be the founders of a great nation.
Most sermons I have heard on the Abraham and Isaac story take the literal approach. They explain that it demonstrates Abraham’s faith and obedience towards God. Therefore, God fulfils his promise to Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the sea shore.
But what might have happened afterwards if we took that literal approach? How would Abraham’s conversation with Sarah have gone when he returned home without Isaac? “What did you and Isaac do while you were away on your trip?” says Sarah. “Oh, nothing much, I just sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah.” “Oh, really,” says Sarah, “that’s nice, dear.” Or not!
Also, how do we think that Isaac might have related towards Abraham after the trauma of being placed on top of a sacrificial pyre? I’d expect some pretty dysfunctional family relationships. And that’s what we see. In the next generations. Isaac’s son Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright. Then Jacob’s eleven sons leave their youngest brother Joseph in a pit, and tell Jacob that wild animals killed him.
Perhaps the story isn’t so much about God but about us
But if you accept that the Bible is the work of many authors, the story tells you nothing about God. Instead, it tells you what the various authors’ believed. For the writer of Genesis Chapter 22, God must have been stern but capricious. Like the gods of Greek mythology. They interfered in human lives as a kind of sport. In today’s reading, God seems to behave like a sadistic prankster. He teases Abraham, tells him to sacrifice Isaac. Then at the last minute, he says, “Don’t worry, just joking.”
An especially troubling aspect of today’s reading is that it involves human sacrifice. That would be anathema to Jews, in this day or in Biblical times. But Abraham and Sarah had settled among the people of Canaan. Psalm 106, verses 34-39, criticized Israel for mingling with the Canaanites, who sacrificed their sons and daughters to their gods. So maybe Abraham’s test was this. “Would you make the same offering to me, your God, as the Canaanites make to their gods?”
Another possibility. Perhaps this story is a kind of parable. A moral dilemma, not a real event. To disobey God is a sin, yet to kill the innocent Isaac is clearly immoral. Should Abraham obey God and lose his child, or preserve his child and disobey God? In our own lives we often get caught between competing principles. If we only ever had to choose between a morally good and a morally bad option, there would be no dilemma in the choice.
The Bible had many images of God
I have said before that in a ‘Progressive’ approach to Christianity, the various depictions of God reflect the views of the writer. So we find stern and vengeful images, especially in the earlier part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Later, we see images of a God who cares for [his] people. Think of the God of Psalm 23 or Psalm 139. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me. You know my sitting down and rising up. You understand my thoughts from afar…”
But by the same token, what we see in the Bible is like holding up a mirror to the sacred text. It reflects ourselves. Do we believe in a judgemental and vengeful God, always looking out to say “Gotcha!” every time we make a mistake? We can find that God in the text. Or do we view God as a loving presence who shares our joys and comforts us in sorrow? That God is the text too.
Another story of Father, Son, and Sacrifice
The subject matter of today’s reading from the Book of Genesis appalls us. John Holbert called it “a nasty little tale”. But the story of Abraham and Isaac is not the only Biblical story about a Father, Son, and sacrifice. It’s pretty close to the standard Christian interpretation about the death of Jesus. Did God the Father knowingly send his only Son Jesus into the world as a sacrificial offering?
Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. However, in the conventional reading of the Christian story, God actually followed through with the sacrifice of Jesus. Our Book of Common Prayer specifically calls him, “a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Paul was an ex-Pharisee
I have addressed this question before. The idea that Jesus was sent by God as a sacrifice comes not from the Gospels, but from St. Paul. Paul was a devout Pharisee before his conversion on the Road to Damascus. He argued that we ordinary mortals – sinners, Paul calls us – can only become righteous to stand before God specifically because of the death of Jesus.
Paul must have seen a parallel between Abraham and Isaac vs. God and Jesus. He was a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. The idea of Father, Son, and Sacrifice would probably have come naturally to him. Paul saw Jesus as a substitute for humanity, just as the ram was a substitute for Isaac. But that posits God as a sadist, who sent his beloved Son to death. And worse, planned it all along.
The Gospels tell a different story
But as I said already, we don’t find this explanation in the Gospels. Think, for example, about Jesus’ last words before he died. Matthew and Mark both record him as saying, “My God, why have you forsaken me.’ Luke remembers it as, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” And then “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” John reports only, “It is finished.”
So, the Gospel writers did not record Jesus saying anything like this. “Father, take me, because I am fulfilling your will. Let me die for the sins of the whole world.” And although Jesus anticipated his death several times during his ministry, he consistently stated that he would suffer at the hands of the Temple authorities.
We return to the question: How do individual Christians imagine God?
So I have to conclude that Paul invented the idea that Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity. But why did it become so popular among Christians? Perhaps Christians cannot really believe that God is all-loving and compassionate towards us. Maybe, deep down, like St. Paul, we think that we are unworthy and deserve punishment. Again, maybe this perception once again says more about us than it does about God.
Personally, I completely reject the idea that Christ died to assuage my sins and those of the rest of humanity. The Gospels make it crystal clear that the Temple authorities wanted to get rid of him. That was their sin. Good Friday was not the day when God intervened in human affairs. That happened on Easter Sunday, when God stepped in with the Resurrection.
So I put it to you like this. If you truly believe that Christ died for your sins, be sure to attend church on Good Friday. It’s the highlight of the year for you. But if you believe in a loving and compassionate God, come on Easter Sunday. That’s when Christ burst the chains of death, letting us know that physical death is not the end.