A couple of weeks ago I preached at MBCC for the first time in a while. We’d decided to use the lectionary for the summer, so when I started studying the passages, I discovered that the OT passage was the Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac story. Awesome. Well, that’s an easy one. Abraham almost killed the son of God’s promise, but at the last minute God intervened b/c Abraham was obedient. The end. Let’s pray.
That’s the interpretation of my upbringing, and pretty much the standard thought on this story, but it will come as no surprise to anyone who has met me that this is not enough for me. This story pisses me off. My first couple of options for my sermon title were, “God’s Kind of a Jerk” or “Not Cool, God. Not. Cool.”
I’m a person who believes that scripture is indeed living & active and something to be wrestled with rather than blindly accepted. No, I am not comfortable with God saying to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and sacrifice him to Me at a place to be determined.” Umm..why? The passage begins by telling us “After these things, God decided to test Abraham.” Ok. Reason, please? Just for fun? Is God up there saying to the angels, “Check it out – watch what I can make him do.” It seems capricious and mean.
Then there is the whole issue of the effect this had on Isaac’s relationships with Abraham and with God. Isaac is not a major player in the story after this incident. We see his marriage to Rebecca and the rocky relationship of his sons, but that’s pretty much it. The story almost skips a generation from Abraham to Jacob. It makes me wonder if Isaac bowed out of a lot of the family stuff after this. Maybe not – this is just personal conjecture. If I were Isaac, I would never accept a hiking invitation again.
I can only look at this story through my white, female, American, 21st century lens, and through that lens, this story sucks. It was recommended to me to read a sociologist called Rene Girard, a professor at Stanford, and someone who has done a great deal of work on the relationship between violence and the sacred. He suggests that God intervening in this situation was actually a profound statement to the surrounding people. Human sacrifice was normal and expected during this time, which explains Abraham’s lack of protest at God’s direction. Girard says that with the provision of the ram, God is saying that no more should there be a connection between violence and worship. I can totally get on board with this and that definitely helped me interpret this passage differently. It doesn’t explain God telling Israel later to kill lots of people, but that’s a whole other thing.
Girard’s interpretation certainly helped me with the end of the story, but not so much with the beginning. “After these things, God decided to test Abraham.” After what things? I went back to the previous chapter and read the story of Hagar & Ishmael being cast out of the house by a raging jealous Sarah. This is one of the less popular Sunday School stories, because I can only assume that it would be awkward to try to explain the idea of a concubine to a room full of wide-eyed 3rd graders. The story goes that Sarah decided to help God along with God’s promise to give them a son. I’ve usually found that giving God a helping hand is a BRILLIANT idea, but I still do it, so I don’t blame her. Anyway, she tells Abraham that since they’re so old, he should just sleep with her maid Hagar, have a son, and that should fulfill the promise, done. So Abraham does it. Like who wouldn’t? So Hagar has a son, names him Ishmael.
However, Sarah does get pregnant eventually as promised. She gives birth to a son named Isaac, which means laughter. When he was weaned they threw a big party for him and at the party Isaac & Ishmael were fighting, as brothers do. This straw apparently broke Sarah’s jealousy camel’s back because she declared that Hagar & Ishmael were to be turned out and she didn’t care what happened to them. Scripture tells us that Abraham was very upset by this, which is interesting because it doesn’t say that he was upset when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac. But, again, Abraham does it. I get the feeling that Sarah has the upper hand in this relationship. Hagar & Ishmael are left in the desert to die, but God intervenes, saves them & tells Hagar that Ishmael will also be the father of a nation, which becomes the Arabic people.
After these things, God decided to test Abraham.
After he was mowed over by Sarah. After he didn’t stand up for Ishmael. After he was willing to let someone who couldn’t defend themself die. After these things.
Could it be that after these things God decided to test Abraham’s passion for justice? When God said, “Take your son, your ONLY son, whom you LOVE..”, was God saying, “You’re down to one. Will you stand up for him?” As the story goes, Abraham did not stand up for him. Abraham chose placating Sarah over standing up for Ishmael and now he wasn’t going to stand up for Isaac. We know that there was a ram intervention (ramtervention? I’m still working on that one) but was it because God was saving Abraham from another incident of injustice?
I wonder if Abraham had stood up for Ishmael, would we have this story? More importantly, what would that simple act of justice done to curtail a conflict that is thousands of years old?
My takeaway for this is when I stand up for justice in a small way, what bigger conflict down the road am I preventing? Where am I setting a person or a relationship on the way to long-term healing as opposed to long-term damage? When I am being tested, am I considering what has come before and what the outcome could be?
The story of Abraham & Isaac looks different to me now than it did in my youth and I hope it will continue to open, change and evolve for me, but I think I have enough to chew on for the moment.