This restores my soul….
“Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love-Isaac-and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there…”
This passage is a classic example of the kind of story you find in the Bible that causes many people to ask What does a story like this about a man named Abraham and his son possibly have to to teach us? And to be more specific: What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son?
That’s the question isn’t it? I’m writing this section because there’s an answer. A clear, black and white, unequivocal answer to that question right here in this story.
To get to that answer we’ll need to first spent some time on the history of religion, then we’ll notice a few details in the story, and then we’ll answer the question.
The history of religion, then, in one paragraph: Early humans came to the realization that their survival as a species was dependent on things like food and water. And for food to grow it needs sun and water in proper proportion. Too much water and things wash away, not enough and plants die. Too much sun and plants wilt, not enough and they die as well. These basic observations brought people to the conclusion that they were dependent on unseen forces they could not control for their survival. (Which was actually a monumental leap at that time…) The belief (I use that word intentionally) arose that these forces are either on your side or they aren’t. And how do you keep these forces on your side? The next time you have a harvest, you take a portion of that harvest and you offer it on an altar as a sign of your gratitude. Because you need the forces (gods and goddesses) on your side. Now imagine what happened when people would offer a sacrifice but then it didn’t rain or the sun didn’t shine or their animals still got diseases or they were unable to have children-obviously, they concluded, they didn’t offer…say it with me now…ENOUGH. And so they offered more. And more and more. Because what religion had built in to it from the very beginning was something called anxiety. You never knew where you stood with the gods. The gods are angry, the gods are demanding, and if you don’t please them they will punish you by bringing calamity. But what if things went well? What if it rained just the right amount and the sun shined just the right amount-what if it appeared that the gods were pleased with you? Well then, you’d need to offer them thanks. But how would you ever know if you’d properly showed them how grateful you were? How would you know you’d offered ENOUGH? If things went well, you never knew if you’d been grateful enough and offered enough, and if things didn’t go well clearly you hadn’t done…enough. Anxiety either way. (This is why the book of Leviticus is so revolutionary-we’ll get to that later…). Now, stay with me here, because this is where things get dodgy: Whether things went well or not, the answer was always sacrifice more. Give more. Offer more. Because you never knew where you stood with the gods. And so you’d offer part of your crop. And you’d offer a goat. Maybe a lamb. Maybe a cow. Maybe a few cows. Maybe some birds. The very nature of early religion (Early? And not now? More on that in a bit..) is that everything escalated because in your anxiety to please the gods you kept having to offer more. And what’s the most valuable thing you could offer the gods to show them how serious you were about earning their favor? A child. Of course. Can you see how child sacrifice lurks on the edges of the Old Testament? It’s where religion took you. To the place where you’d offer that which was most valuable to you.
Now, to the Abraham story.
When God tells Abraham to offer his son, he isn’t shocked, because
early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey
Abraham gets right to it. He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t protest, he doesn’t drag his feet. He clearly knows what to do and so he does it.
Of course. That’s how Abraham understood religion worked. The gods demanded that which was most valuable to you. And if you didn’t give it, you’d pay the price. That’s what the world was like at that time.
(Awful, I know.)
So Abraham sets out, and
he reaches the place on the third day.
So for three days he and his son travel, three days in which his son is a good as dead. (Hmmmmm…)
When they get to the mountain, what does Abraham say to the servants? (Come on now, you know this!) (Actually, I wouldn’t know either if I hadn’t read it.)
He says to them
Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.
Wha…..? Abraham is going to offer his son, right? That’s what the story is about, correct? God telling Abraham to offer his son and so he does it-or at least proves that he would do it-that’s the point, isn’t it?
But what Abraham says to the servants is that he’s going to go offer his son and then come back with his son. (All the lights on your dashboard should be blinking by now. There is something else going on in this story. Just below the surface. The story is subverting itself, begging you to see something far more significant going on.)
As they walk up the mountain Isaac asks Abraham where the sacrifice will come from-this is so morbid, isn’t it? Because in the standard reading of the story he’s going to his death because his dad loves God so much. (Please tell me you find this utterly repulsive. I remember a well known preacher telling me that when his son was a teenager he took his son up on a hill and read him this story and then the preacher told his son that he would always love God more than him. He told me the story like it was an admirable thing he did to teach his son about devotion to God. I wanted to throw up.) But we’ve already seen Abraham tip his hat that something else is up. So we’re not buying that angle.
Abraham’s answer? God himself will provide.
Clever. It’s a non-answer answer. Abraham is in on the joke. Or whatever it is you’d call it.
And then Abraham gets ready to offer his son but he doesn’t because God stops him and then he offers a ram instead. End of story.
Except that it isn’t.
An angel shows up and says that Abraham is going to be blessed and
through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…
So, back to our original question: What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son?
Now, an answer: Not this one.
The other gods may demand your firstborn, but not this God.
So if God doesn’t want Abraham to offer his son, why the charade?
First, the drama is the point. Abraham knows what to do when he’s told to offer his son because this is always where religion heads. So at first, this god appears to be like all the other gods. The story is like the other stories about gods who are never satisfied. The first audience for this story would have heard this before, it would have been familiar. But then it’s not. The story takes a shocking turn that comes out of nowhere. This God disrupts the familiarity of the story by interrupting the sacrifice. Picture an early audience gasping. What? This God stopped the sacrifice? Huh? The gods don’t do that!
Second, the God in this story provides. Worship and sacrifice was about you giving to the gods. This story is about this God giving to Abraham. A God who gives? Who provides?
Third, this isn’t a story about what Abraham does for God, it’s a story about what God does for Abraham. Mind blowing. New. Ground breaking. A story about a god who doesn’t demand anything but gives and blesses.
Fourth, Abraham is told that God is just getting started, and that this God is going to bless Abraham with such love and favor that through Abraham everybody on earth is going to be blessed. This God isn’t angry or demanding or unleashing wrath, this God has intentions to bless everybody. Abraham is invited to trust. To have faith. To believe. To live in these promises.
Can you see how many game changing ideas are in this one story? Can you see why people told this story? Can you see why it endured? Can you think of any other stories about a son who was as good as dead for three days but then lived in such a way that the story about him confronted the conventional wisdom of the day that the gods are angry and demanding with the insistence that God blesses and gives and provides and all that’s left to do is trust that God is really like that?rb”
Ann Carole Tremain Smith
- The views expressed here are solely my own, are a work in process, will change over time, & don't necessarily reflect views of any specific person (husband, family, friends) or entity (employer, church, school) associated with me.
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