I Desire Mercy Not Sacrifice

Genesis 22:1-14
June 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

There is a Yiddish folk tale that says that when God went to the angels to get one of them to go tell Abraham that he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, they all refused. They said if God wanted such a horrible thing done then God would have to be the one to tell Abraham. The angels wanted nothing to do with it.

This is a hard story. A couple of the commentators warned that this story should not be read in the service until after the children are dismissed. It’s one of those texts of terror. And for a long time believers have been trying to figure out what to make of this story. Here is a slide of some of the ways people have characterized this story. A. Abusive God,. B. Misguided Abraham, C. Religious violence at its worst, D. A story of faith and obedience.

Here is how one commentator started his comments about this passage. “There are a lot of directions one can run with a Scripture passage like this, but there is one prominent biblical truth that surfaces here, and is reinforced in the Genesis readings for the Sundays on either side of this date, as well as in a multitude of other passages: God will provide. Here is a one-point sermon. We can use these and other readings to provide varied illustrations of this axiom: God will provide.”

I think this passage is a little bit more complex than that simple one point about how God’s providing a ram to be sacrificed rather than Isaac is really about God providing all our needs.

What do you think about this story?

The writers of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament also thought about this story and here is what he or she came up with in that long section in chapter 11 about Abraham’s faith..”By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ Abraham considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back.”

Now there is someone thinking about how there is more to this story than God will provide. You do have to confront the whole notion that God would ask Abraham to kill his son, and then how Abraham was going to deal with that. And for the writer of Hebrews that means Abraham was thinking about resurrection long before anyone else was. God had promised Abraham that his line would continue through Isaac, but God wanted him to kill Isaac. The writer of Hebrews figures that for Abraham, the only way this thing could work was if God raised Isaac from the dead.

While reading and thinking about that I touched the wrong link and ended up coming across this really interesting article about resurrection from a progressive Christian perspective.

It was written by Rev. Bruce Epperly, a Pastor in Massachusetts, and a Process theologian. He says that progressive and mainline spiritual leaders need to reclaim words like ‘miracle’ in new and creative ways. He writes that “We need to be theologically and spiritually bold, expecting great things from God and great things from ourselves.”

He goes on to write that “The most significant historical and biblical meaning of resurrection involves Jesus’ transcending the power of death and living on as agent and subject on earth and in heaven. Process theologians have often been far too humble in reflections on the afterlife; they have made agnosticism and sometimes even unbelief in survival after death an article of faith! Given the plethora of best-selling texts of near death experiences, offering glimpses of heaven, we need to be both humble and hopeful in our preaching and speculation on the afterlife. We are rightfully worried about the temptation of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But, process theology’s affirmation of the interdependence of life and creaturely creativity enables us to imagine a relational, evolving, and creative afterlife, in which new energies of love and artistry, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and transformation will be available to us beyond the grave. In claiming the complex interdependence of life and imagining continuity of personal identity in the afterlife, we can articulate an ethics of immortality, affirming that our life choices today, personally and politically, shape peoples’ experiences now and beyond the grave. Though we must recognize that we see in a mirror dimly, we can be both heavenly minded and earthly good.”

He ends his essay with some thoughts about the Disciple Thomas, who we call a doubter and he calls a hero. He says that Thomas was rightfully agnostic because he missed the resurrection excitement the others experienced. The key is, though, that Thomas remained “faithfully open to what may come. “John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. The faithfulness of Thomas he writes “is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ….But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind. He willingly opens to resurrection when he encounters the Living Christ.”

His essay finishes with this. “[The Gospel of] John concludes with an invitation to imagine the many textures of Jesus’ life. The fullness of Christ cannot be contained by any text, including our Bible. We cannot think small about Jesus; there is more to Jesus than we imagine or contain in the written word. Resurrection expands our minds and inspires unexpected compassion. John’s gospel invites us to be part of the resurrection story and become living witnesses to new life in our worlds. We are writing the resurrection story in our time by our faithful opening to divine resuscitation and willingness to go forth with good news of life-transforming love.” (http://processandfaith.org/ resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-04-27/second-sunday-easter)

So I don’t know exactly what Abraham was thinking about resurrection that day. But one of the things that it is probably important to keep in mind when is the fact that child sacrifice wasn’t an unusual thing in Abraham’s day. All the gods were demanding it. In fact, the weirdness of this story, in its setting, would not have been that Abraham sacrificed Isaac, but that he didn’t. That’s what wouldn’t have made sense to people then. Here is what Brian McLaren writes, “It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive.”

And in coming back down the mountain with Isaac still alive, some argue that is the real faith that Abraham is showing. More from Brian McLaren. “Put yourself in [Abraham’s and Sarah’s] sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship, and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed!”(Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, chapter 7).

I am going to put another slide up here that talks about this. “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.”(Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled).

For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.
For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990’s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.