It is a familiar story. God asked Abraham to take his son – his only son born within the covenant – and sacrifice him. Let’s be honest. It is a horrifying story! I pulled out a book of Bible stories for children to see if it was included. And it was. I thought, “This is not a kid friendly story! I don’t want children to have to wrestle with the God who is presented here – God who demands a child sacrifice. It’s a hard enough story for adults.” We might wonder how engrained this violent story is in our religious consciousness. How has this story influenced the way children were and are perceived in the church or even in the wider culture? How do we imagine God? As the blood thirsty One who demands sacrifice? Is that not the way the crucifixion is often interpreted? God demanded a blood sacrifice – and his Son Jesus was crucified to satisfy God’s hunger for justice.
A few weeks ago I spoke of the danger of reading the Bible as if it were science. There is also a danger in reading the Bible as if it were a history book. I often refer to the need to consider the context of a passage. That context is not only the surrounding story or passage; it is much broader. The context includes the culture and the perceptions of the people who remembered and valued the story. The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says that although this story dates back to pre-Israelite days; it was shaped through the years, shaped by the experiences of the Israelites. So, what we have today is not purely historical. It is a theological story that tells us about the Israelites and their experiences.
The danger of seeing this as merely the telling of something that happened in the past is that we lose sight of its pull on us. We lose sight of the ways it has influenced our understanding of who God is and what God demands of us. We don’t acknowledge our discomfort with a god who would demand a human sacrifice. We don’t acknowledge our anger at a father who was willing to follow such a god. Yet, without wrestling, honestly, with the problems of this story, we can then easily accept the idea of God who would demand the sacrifice of God’s very Son – and say, “Yeah, that’s OK.”
The Interpreter’s Bible suggests that the Israelites in exile saw themselves as a combination of Abraham and Isaac. As Abraham, they were those who had heard God’s promise. Yet, they had, they were, experiencing the pains of exile. Like Isaac, they faced an uncertain future. Many had died. In the exile, they were tested. Would their faith endure?
We know that this story presents a test for Abraham. His faithfulness is being tested. Why? The test is to help God know whether or not God can move forward to fulfill the promise and the intent of the promise that God had made to Abraham. Could, would Abraham continue to trust God so that God could bring about the future God intended? God is waiting to see. Walter Brueggeman says that this “is not a game with God; God genuinely does know…”
“God genuinely does not know.” God made promises about the future and invited Abraham to be the means of bringing that future to life. But, their relationship was characterized by many ups and downs – times of faithfulness and times of doubt. God needed to know if Abraham could trust enough to continue the journey.
That question may have contributed to the importance the exiles placed on this story. In their context, the story of Abraham offered hope. After the testing, if they were faithful, there would be redemption and renewal. Abraham found an animal to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead: the exile would not be the end of Israel, but God would restore them. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son becomes less a story about a vengeful, bloodthirsty God and more about a story about the relationship between God and God’s chosen ones.
“God genuinely does not know.” That’s a fascinating observation – and theological proposition. “God genuinely does not know.” We tend to describe God as all-knowing. The Calvinist tradition made that a bedrock of its theology – resulting in the fear inducing concept of pre-destination. Since God is all-knowing, God knows who will be saved and who won’t be saved. I have heard theologians suggest that this theology developed when Calvin’s theological works were re-organized. The idea of pre-destination was the only way to make sense of the flow of concepts.
The idea of pre-destination may not be in the forefront of our ideas about God. But do we not refer to God as the One who is totally in charge? Accidents or illnesses are perceived to be God given, God planned. If God is in charge, if God has given us certain leaders or systems, then we must be accepting of them.
We speak of free choice, of freedom – and then proclaim the God who is totally in charge. So, when things go wrong, we are resentful of the God who has “inflicted” us.
The “God is in charge of everything” theology leaves no room for human brokenness and human sin. It leaves no room for the idea that, like Abraham, sometimes we live according to God’s call and sometimes we walk away. The Interpreter’s Bible suggests that, like Abraham, God was being tested in this story. God needed to know if Abraham was capable of the life to which God had called him. God had taken a risk in calling Abraham. God wanted to know if Abraham was willing and able to trust the promise God had made.
The Israelites in exile feared that they had been cut off from God’s promise. God was asking them, in their exile, if they could continue to be God’s people, trusting that God would provide a future where there seemed to be no future. And, perhaps, in the exile, God was asking God’s self if this people could be trusted to be carriers of the promise. When their future seemed bleak, just as the future had seemed bleak to Abraham, the Israelites proclaimed their faith.
God is vulnerable to our faithfulness. That is a fascinating idea. I’ve always wondered in the Advent Christmas stories, “What if Mary said no?” Well, maybe there were others who said no, making God look elsewhere. So, God’s promise was fulfilled – through the one who said yes to God’s plan, to God’s vision. It couldn’t happen without Mary’s yes. And, later, it couldn’t happen without Jesus’ unwavering yes even as he faced death. The promise is trustworthy. But, we human beings always have the freedom, the power to deny that promise, to cut ourselves off from it.
One of the best reflections on the passage suggested that we not read or hear this story as a legalistic test. This testing takes place within a relationship. Abraham says “yes” to God’s call, not out of the blue, not out of some extreme legalism, but out of past experiences of God’s providence and goodness. He says yes to this challenging, horrifying, request because he trusts God. And God finds that Abraham can be trusted to continue to follow God’s plan.
It may be hard to hear a story that speaks of God’s vulnerability. We sing and proclaim the Almighty, the Omnipotent, Omnipresent God who rules over the world. The Biblical witness testifies to the Creator God who shaped the world and created its inhabitants. But it also testifies to the God who in love allows those inhabitants, particularly the human ones, to make mistakes – to even reject God’s love and God’s plans. God loves us. But that great love means freedom, not coercion. It means God continually takes risks – calling us to live in trust, but accepting the reality that too often we turn away.
The risk taking, vulnerable God is not the God of which we speak often – or sing often – or pray to often. We want the God who is in control, making all things the way they should be. But, that isn’t the God of love. Such a god is the despot god – who dictates the ways of human beings and does not allow them freedom. The risk taking, vulnerable God is the God who says “I love you so much that I give you the freedom to be with me – or apart from me: to accept my ways and be part of my plan – or walk away.”
There may be something comforting in proclaiming God as the One in charge, the One responsible for the way things are in the world. But, then, how do we reconcile that image with the injustice and suffering and violence that is so much a part of this world? When we proclaim “God fully in charge” we often find that proclamation used as an excuse to do nothing – to be silent in the face of injustice, or to proclaim suffering to be God’s will, or to accept violence as the way of the world. If, instead, we begin to see God as lovingly waiting for our acceptance of God’s ways, maybe we begin to see our own responsibility in the world’s brokenness. Maybe we begin to see the brokenness not as something to be borne but something that calls us to trust in God so that we may be part of God bringing forth healing and transformation.
Paul wrote of the need to “grow up” in the faith. Sometimes growing up means hearing the old familiar stories in new ways. Growing up in the faith may mean that we move from seeing God as the all powerful parent who directs and controls all that we do. Growing up in the faith means we accept the parental love that allows us freedom – and, ultimately, that we accept the parental wisdom that invites us to join in God’s good work. The testing is daily. We always have before us the opportunities to choose between the ways that lead to destruction and brokenness and the ways that lead toward the promises God has made to this world. And God is asking, “Will you join me? Are you willing to give yourselves to my vision and my ways?”