Lectionary woes

Really, seriously, what are we supposed to say about this?

What can we say about a God who asks a father to sacrifice his son? What can we say about a father who agrees? How do we not turn this into further violence by saying God later does the same thing to God’s own son, except without the providing-an-alternate-thing-to-slaughter bit?

Before I give up on this passage and decide to preach, er, Romans or something, I want to mull it over. Is there a word of grace here? Thoughts, people?

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20 Responses

  1. Quickly – get hold of a copy of Leonard Sweet’s Out of the Question….Into The Mystery. In that book is the best exegesis of Abraham and Isaac that I’ve ever heard. In short, Abraham passes a faith test but fails a relationship test. Abraham had gone from a true faith (questioning, arguing, wrestling) to a blindly obedient faith.

  2. I’ve always liked “The Last Temptation of Christ” because it *does* re-create the Isaac sacrifice by offering Christ a choice. Not saying I like the sacrifice, but the parallel is neat.

    Personally I was going to go with the Gospel and talk about “radical hospitality.” There are just some passages that I am not far enough along in my pastoral journey to know how to frame them professionally and holistically.

  3. Have you read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling? Not that you have time to read it in a week, but it is a good take on the Isaac event 🙂

    Also, I have a book by Elizabeth Achtemeir, “Preaching the Hard Texts of the Old Testament” that has a chapter on that passage. If you would like, I can scan it and send it to you.

    Let me know

  4. @Will, I’m off to a bookstore later today anyway, so I’ll check it out. Thanks for the rec!

    @Jeremy, hmm, radical hospitality and hospitality of the radical? But yeah, there’s a reason we get three or four texts to choose from.

    @Heather, I have Kirkegaard on my bookshelf, which should come as no surprise, but I might like to take a look at that chapter you mention if it’s not too much trouble.

    Thanks, folks! Ask and you shall receive, right?
    Becca

  5. My sermon for this passage is called “I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That” (with a nod to Meat Loaf), and I’m approaching it as a story showing that for Abraham and his descendents, child sacrifice was not acceptable. I’m contrasting this with common pagan practices of that ancient day, and, of course, trying to correlate that to how our culture seems to affirm “child sacrifice” (in a different sense), and how the Church needs to repudiate that and provide a ‘safe sanctuary”.

  6. Wanna know what I think? Well brace yourself, ‘cause it’ll take a minute.

    This was always one of those passages that made me squirm a little (especially since I love the Sarah/Isaac story so much). Sorta like the whole killing little kids things or the homosexuality parts – it’s one of those parts I’d like to gloss over. Like, “Oh, was that in there? I must’ve missed that part. Huh, shucks.” Or, “Are you sure? Gosh, I’m pretty sure that’s not in *my* bible…” Because my God is a loving God, so surely *my God* would never ask Abraham to kill his only son – not when Isaac’s own name reminds us that God laughs. See! God laughs! God loves! God doesn’t want us to kill our kids! That just doesn’t make any sense!

    And I never really knew what to make of Abraham, either. I wanted to jump into the story and yell, “Whoa, Abraham, buddy! What are you doing?? You can’t be serious! You’re not actually going to *kill* your *son* just because you think God wants you to, are you?? Get real! Come on, what kind of God are you worshipping, anyway??” I could never help but be mad that Abraham followed so blindly, like a goat to slaughter, as it were. And at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder what that must be like – loving and trusting God so much that I’d sacrifice my own child. And wonder if somehow I was at fault for not believing as strongly. I mean, what would *I* do if I was in Abraham’s shoes…or sandals…

    And speaking of which, what’s the point of this whole story anyway? Why would God put Abraham through that? Isn’t God supposed to know everything? Can’t God read our hearts and minds? Then what’s with the crazy testing thing??

    (And that’s to say nothing of what poor Isaac must’ve said after Abraham cut him free!! “Gee, thanks Dad, you’re a real pal, you know, only *almost* killing me and all. Remind me never to ‘worship’ with you again!” Don’t you think *that* put a bit of strain on the rest of their relationship?? Imagine Sarah, “Hi, Isaac honey, how was your day?” “Oh good, you know, nothing big…dad tied me up and tried to kill me for God, but it’s okay, we slaughtered a ram instead.” “Oh, well that’s nice. Dinner will be ready soon.” Seriously!)

    So I was thinking about it, and thinking, “Damn, I’m glad *I* don’t have to preach about this passage. It sucks! What with all the head games, the near death experiences, the uncomfortably demanding and not-quite-so-cuddly God… Shit, man, she’s got her work cut out for her!”

    And then it hit me: maybe I was missing the point. Maybe the point isn’t that God made this demand and Abraham was ready to follow through at any cost. Maybe it’s not about sacrifice and trust at all (and how did Abraham get Isaac tied up, anyway? “Hey, son, c’mere a sec…yea, just, uh, hold this rope behind your back. I wanna, uhm, practice for the, er, lamb.” Smooth, Abe, real smooth).

    Maybe the point is that no matter where we are, no matter how horrible a turn of fate may seem, no matter what, God provides. God is always with us. The Lord will provide. Like the Footprints poem (though I’m sure that horse was beaten to death somewhere along the way). I can’t imagine anything more terrible than having to choose between my love for my family and my love for my God, and there, when I’ve made the wrong decision (because there can be no right decision, really) when I’m at my worst and about to take the plunge – literally – God provides. God never abandons us, never asks too much of us, and never leaves us without a way back to the light. All we have to do is trust (though hopefully not blindly) and the Lord will provide. Wherever we are on the mountain of the world, whatever our need is, and no matter how dark the situation seems, the Lord will provide.

  7. …did you know there’s a little smiley face in the gray border of your webpage… look over by “archives”.

    🙂

  8. @ru,

    Yes, I’ve seen the smiley face and I have no idea how it got there or if it’s supposed to be there or what, but I like it.

    As for the rest of what you wrote, I think that’s most of the sermon right there. I may have to quote you. At great length. You wanna come give it? Those are exactly the sorts of questions I ask about this passage. Let’s not forget that Abe and Sarah had been hoping for a child *for like, a hundred years* and now he’s just going to kill him? Yeah, the blind obedience here is what’s killing me. I’m pretty sure that if God ever told me in a vision to kill Ari, I’d tell God to soak ‘his’ head and go check myself into a mental institution.

    Actually, it’s not the obedience. It’s the praise. God insists that Abraham did the *right* thing in almost killing his son. I’m at a loss there.

    Becca

  9. I’m working through this, too.

    Every passage in the lectionary touches on it this week. Jesus saying that the ones who love their families more than him are not worthy of him; the Psalmist declaring his trust in the Lord though the Lord seems far from him; Paul telling the Romans to radically give up the life they knew and become slaves to God.

    As far as the Genesis passage goes, the first reaction is to see it as a parallel to Christ–Isaac bears the wood of his sacrifice, etc. However, that’s not what this passage is about. That rendering seems artificial to me.

    A few interesting things, in my opinion:

    *The fact that Isaac is a “miracle” baby and the angel refers to him as Abraham’s only son (he has 2 sons!)

    *A repetition at the end of “since you have not withheld your son, your only son…” leading to 2 provisions from God: the ram and the promise, that is to say, the reminder of the promise. 22:11-18

    *God’s provision

    It seems that we are reminded that is by nothing we do that we have anything, but by God’s provision that his people grow. I’m not sure right now how that preaches. I think I’ll be more ready to tackle this one it’s next time around.

    (to add to the difficulty, I’m filling our pulpit this week and we are having a “patriotic” service. The Gospel reading might take us down some crazy roads..”if you love_________ more than me, then you are not worthy of me….” oi).

    For this week–maybe it’s Romans….

  10. […] Posted on June 24, 2008 by Becca Clark Replying to my sister’s comment from my previous post, and still thinking about it, I got the nugget. I think I figured out not […]

  11. @Jim, those are all great points, and I think God’s providence is central to all of the passages as well.

    And the Gospel + patriotism! Ouch, but that does hit pretty squarely.

    Blessings as you prepare the sermon; no easy task!
    Becca

  12. What people don’t get is that it was a two pronged test- Isaac was being tested as much as Abraham was. Isaac was not a little child at this time- he was fourty years old. Abraham was a far less sprightly 140 years old- if Isaac did not go along with it, do you think that Abraham could have overpowered him and bound him on the alter?

    The thing is, God had to show very clearly that human sacrifce was not allowed- even when the victim was willing! The whole point of this test of Abraham and Isaac was not to test how much faith they had- but to show that human sacrifice ANY human sacrifice was completely abhorrent to God. The reason a ram was was sent was so they would know that animals are appropriate to sacrifice- animals never are!

    The whole incident was a major paradigm and cultural shift. They lived in a society where human sacrifice was common- merely wagging a finger and saying don’t sacrifice people to me would not have been a visceral enough lesson- it required a graphic incident that would embed itself into the psyche of the forefathers to drive this lesson home.

  13. What people don’t get is that it was a two pronged test- Isaac was being tested as much as Abraham was. Isaac was not a little child at this time- he was fourty years old. Abraham was a far less sprightly 140 years old- if Isaac did not go along with it, do you think that Abraham could have overpowered him and bound him on the alter?

    The thing is, God had to show very clearly that human sacrifce was not allowed- even when the victim was willing! The whole point of this test of Abraham and Isaac was not to test how much faith they had- but to show that human sacrifice ANY human sacrifice was completely abhorrent to God. The reason a ram was was sent was so they would know that animals are appropriate to sacrifice- animals never are!

    The whole incident was a major paradigm and cultural shift. They lived in a society where human sacrifice was common- merely wagging a finger and saying don’t sacrifice people to me would not have been a visceral enough lesson- it required a graphic incident that would embed itself into the psyche of the forefathers to drive this lesson home.

  14. Thanks for your honesty, Becca. I can fully understand where you’re coming from.
    When I think of the Cross of Christ, my thoughts turn to the words of Charles Wesley – I expect that, as a Methodist, you’ll be familiar with them: “How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? ‘Tis mystery all!” I can’t get my head round it , yet there is something about the Cross of Christ which prompts me to go beyond “‘Tis mystery all!” to the much more positive yet no less mysterious words, “‘Tis mercy all!”
    I suspect that what I have written – on my blog (“Sixth Sunday after Pentecost … “, posted on June 16th) – for this Sunday will not be what you’re looking for. You’re welcome to have a look and see what you think. – Is there a word of grace here?
    I’ve also included some notes on the other passages. Hopefully, you’ll find something that may be helpful to you.
    Using the RCL readings, I put some notes online for each Sunday. These notes are not really “sermons”. They are taken from my notes on the whole Bible, also posted at my blog. Following the RCL readings, the notes are drawn together under headings which draw attention to some connections between the readings.
    Throughout my notes, I come more from the “We preach Christ crucified” angle than, I expect, you are comfortable with. You may find it interesting for this Sunday and, perhaps, for other Sundays, to consider the Cross-centred perspective.
    Perhaps, even in Genesis 22 (strange though this passage may be to us), you may catch ” a glimpse of ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world … Christ … the Lamb whom God will provide.”
    If unpersuaded by the suggestion that we might catch a glimpse of Christ in Genesis 22, you could pass over that passage without comment (Do you feel duty bound to include all of the readings – even if you don’t comment on some of them?)
    Like me, you can hardly begin to understand the mystery of the mercy that is revealed in the Cross of Christ,. Perhaps, you could suggest that, in a way that transcends our understanding and is very difficult to put into words,, there may be, for us, the possibility of catching a glimpse of Christ in Genesis 22.
    If you can say something as tentative as that and then move on from the Genesis reading, I think you will have indicated that there is mystery in the mercy of God without suggesting that you have fully understood what’s going on in Genesis 22.
    If, however, you feel that you cannot comment on the Genesis passage without expanding on your misgivings about a more traditional interpretation, it may be that Jim’s advice is sound – “For this week – maybe it’s Romans.”
    On this occasion, the old adage, “the less said the better”, may be apt. It would certainly be preferable to saying some things which, when you look back, you may find yourself thinking, “I wish I hadn’t said that.”
    I don’t know if all that I have said is helpful to you. I do, however, wish you all the best for this Sunday and for the future. If you do find anything helpful in my blog for this Sunday, I hope you’ll visit it again and, perhaps, find something that will help you to bring Christ to your people.
    Every Blessing.
    Charlie

  15. @Jim,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I like what you say especially about the story being visceral enough to make a point that this God is not one who demands or even allows human sacrifice.

    @Charlie,
    Wow, thank you for introducing me to your blog. Your notes are very thorough. I do usually pick one text and preach on that, unless I feel a special connection between them (as I did last week between God’s care for the sparrow and for the cast-aside woman and child). I plan to stick to just Genesis 22, I think. My congregation often responds positively when I share my wrestling with Scriptures, and I think it gives them permission in some ways to struggle with texts they don’t understand and not put them aside until they see the grace and blessing in those texts. I honestly believe that there is blessing in even the most difficult texts, but sometimes we have to really struggle for a while before we see it. Indeed, it is all mystery, and I can’t wrap my head around it, but I hope that by faith, my heart can understand a little.

    Blessings,
    Becca

  16. This is how I see it in the larger context of Abram/Abraham’s life and what God expects from us.

    God wants obedience (doing what God says to do), faith (trusting and acting on the belief of what God says he will do), and righteousness (doing the right thing). Abraham is great at obedience, not very good at faith, and downright horrible at righteousness.

    Abraham always does what God tells him to do. No questions, he just does it right then and there.

    God: Abe, drop everything and go where I tell ya.
    Abe: Already packed, Lord.

    Abraham kinda believes God in what God has promised. You know, father of a great nation and all that. That is, until he thinks he’s gonna get killed.

    King Abimelech: Hi.
    Abe: Yes you can sleep with my wife, I mean, sister. Just don’t kill me.

    Righteousness…well, he knows it when he sees it, but isn’t so hot at doing it. And example of his unrighteousness is when he listens to Sarah when demands Abe kicks out Hagar and his only son Ishmael. He doesn’t even argue; he just sends them out to die.

    However, he does know unrighteousness when he sees it, even in God. Now, Abe knows that God is righteous. And he knows that killing the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah along with the guilty is not righteous. When he notices the dissonance, Abe is gutsy enough to challenge God on his righteousness.

    Abe: Hey, uh…God? Isn’t killing good people a bit, you know, wrong?
    God: Is it, now? (Finally! I’m getting through to him!)

    But then Abe screws the pooch at the end.

    God: Hey, go up that hill and kill your son.
    Abe: Hey Isaac! Grab some sticks.
    God: …

    I’m not entirely sure, but I think after that episode, God never speaks to Abraham again. I think the relationship gets kinda strained after that last go.

    I think it shows us why our faith has to be reckoned as righteousness. And why our faith has to be a gift from God. It’s a story–a first of many for this family–that shows us how utterly depraved we are. The greater our sin, the greater our Savior.

    As a side note, at Perkins, I was in an interfaith dialogue group with some Muslim women. When I told them of the Old Testament story of Abraham, they were astonished that Jews and Christians alike saw one of God’s prophets in such a poor and fallen light. In their tradition, Abraham was nearly sinless.

  17. @Kurt,
    Wow, those thoughts are very helpful! I especially like the way you tease out the difference between obedience and faith, which I think we so often conflate.

    I don’t think God and Abraham ever speak again (in fact, it’s not even God who stay Abe’s hand, but an angel). I don’t know that Isaac and Abraham ever speak again, either.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.
    Becca

  18. Becca,

    A friend of mine posted a great story from the Islamic tradition about this very story on my facebook wall. Check it out.

    TLS

  19. Becca,

    This is obviously too late for the sermon you already gave, but your post made me think of two books we read for a soteriology class I took last year. I couldn’t think of the titles before, but I just found them as I was unpacking. They are “The Nonviolent Atonement” by J. Denny Weaver and “Saved From Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross” by S. Mark Heim. Though I don’t agree completely with both authors on all points, it is some interesting reading and great food for thought on this subject. Hopefully, you will find these books useful for future study and for your own theology.

    Grace and Peace!

  20. @Seth,

    Thanks for the book recs, and I’m sure I’ll be back to this post when Abe is back in the lectionary, so I’ll check out those books then!

    Peace,
    Becca

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