Rev. Teri Peterson
the word of the lord???
Genesis 21.1-14, 22.1-14
15 September 2013, NL4-2
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
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.’
This past Thursday on the patio, we talked about why we call the Bible the word of the Lord, while other books that seem to tell stories of love and redemption are just novels. After all, the Spirit can and does speak through literature and movies and other media. The stories of Harry or Aslan or Frodo or Buffy or any number of other characters offer us windows into the relationship between humans and God. But none of them are scripture. None of those stories are the ones we gather around each week, base our lives on, and insist are the unique and authoritative witness to God’s love and power. There is something about scripture that causes us to proclaim that it is the Word of the Lord.
That something is actually several somethings. Among them: that these stories of God and God’s people have been held for millennia as the Most True—capital T—words about who God is and what God does, and who we are and who we are called to be. The cloud of witnesses gathered around these texts highlights the sacredness of the stories. In these pages we encounter God. And every word is filled with the Spirit—as is our understanding. The purpose of the stories, laws, poetry, songs, letters, prayers, and speeches we find in this book is to point us toward God’s most perfect revelation: Jesus the Christ. Anything we read that does not point us to the love and justice of God as revealed in Jesus, we are reading wrong. So yes, this book is the word of the Lord—not the words of God, written by lightning bolt or divine finger, but the word of God as it is known and lived and heard and told and practiced by a community of people, a means of revealing God’s power and love.
And then we get stories like this one. That, frankly, make me want to toss the whole thing out all over again. Who on earth thinks that putting not one, but TWO consecutive stories of child sacrifice into a holy text is a good idea? After all, church is supposed to be family friendly. We love children. Jesus said “let the little children come to me.” And here we are, reading about one kid sent into the desert with just a flask of water, and the other dragged up a mountain and very nearly burned as a sacrifice. It’s really hard for me to affirm that this is the word of the Lord.
And it should be. Because we know that every word in these pages should point us to the love of God made visible in Christ, and there’s not a lot that’s very loving or Christ-like about this story. After all the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah, after all the effort Abraham and Sarah made to follow those promises, or even to fulfill them on their own, now we have this: one child cast aside as unworthy, and one demanded as proof of faithfulness. Whatever happened to the unconditional covenant, where God simply promised and was faithful to that promise? Nowhere before has God insisted on proof or payment or anything in return. Now, all of a sudden, Abraham—who argued and bargained with God several times before this—is perfectly willing to trudge three days away to tie Isaac up on a pyre. Thankfully, at literally the last moment, Abraham and God come to their senses, and there’s a ram ready for the slaughter instead.
THIS is the word of the Lord?
It’s important to remember that Abraham lived in a culture where the gods asked for sacrifices all the time. It would not be unusual for him to watch his neighbors offer a child at the high place. In fact, there are other places in scripture where God has to remind the Israelites that they are not to sacrifice their children—so the practice was definitely around.
It’s also important to remember that often God’s voice comes through the voices of others. Abraham had heard God speak directly, and in the voices of strangers.
The text says this was a test. It’s hard to see how a test that plays with someone’s life is a signpost pointing toward the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Unless perhaps it’s a test of just which god we follow? When Abraham knew he was talking directly to God, he often talked back, bargained, asked questions. This time, he obeys the voice silently—most uncharacteristic of his relationship with God up to this point.
Could it be that this is a story of Abraham hearing the voice of another god, through the voices of his neighbors, and then the One True God stepping in and calling off this horror? We know that God is a God of abundant life, of love and justice and grace and freedom. Any interpretation of this story that insists that God demanded this sacrifice as proof of Abraham’s faithfulness is an interpretation that does not point to Jesus—to the God who sacrificed himself on the altar of our stubbornness, not the other way around. So perhaps here we are reading of a human being testing the boundaries—how different is this new God anyway? How meaningful is this promise? And in response, God puts a definitive end to the practice of human sacrifice, grabbing Abraham’s hand—and by extension, our hands too—and taking the knife away. It is not okay for us to sacrifice one another on any altar.
Even when the voices of our many gods call out, it is not okay for us to sacrifice one another on any altar. Make no mistake—there are plenty of voices we, like Abraham, think are perfectly reasonable. They ask us to sacrifice our children on the altar of prosperity, of national security, of morality. They ask us to sacrifice our children for the sake of our military reputation, our economy, our global power. They ask us to sacrifice our children for profit, for safety, for our understanding of what is right. They tell us it’s okay to sacrifice some children, those people’s children, or some poor people, or some elderly people. They tell us it’s okay to sacrifice the well-being of another to prove we are right or to make ourselves feel good. These false gods surround us, asking us to forget that fifty years ago today four little girls were killed in Sunday School when their church was bombed because their skin was the wrong color—sacrificed to self-righteousness. They ask us to forget that poverty fuels violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of children in our county alone—sacrificed to apathy. They ask us to forget that the things we buy often perpetuate a cycle of violence and despair that destroys the lives of children—sacrificed to convenience. These false gods shield our eyes from the reality that more people are enslaved today than at any time in history, that sporting events are also sex-trafficking events, and that the vast majority of people affected are children—sacrificed to instant gratification and low prices.
The voices are all around us, suggesting that the ways we sacrifice our children, or, more accurately, other people’s children, are perfectly normal. What’s one more time? It’s good for us, it’ll prove something, it’s cost effective, and it’ll all be okay.
So the test: will we listen to the voice of the God who says: Give me the knife. It is not okay to sacrifice one another on any altar. period. No more. No more. I am a God of life, abundant life. I am Love. I am hope and justice and peace. My faithfulness is not contingent on your faithfulness—and good thing! Those other gods may have compelling voices, but their call always leads to destruction, and my call leads to life. This I promise.
That is the word of the Lord. May it be so.