Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
This Abraham/Isaac story is a disturbing story.
But I’d like to suggest that the reason we think it is disturbing is because of the story itself. In other words, we are disturbed by this story because of how this event on Mount Moriah so powerfully shifted human consciousness that now we are instinctually repulsed by human sacrifice; because of this story we feel the way we feel about this story.
That wasn’t always the case. There was a time before this story was told when human sacrifice was a recognized part of a community experience. This is not to say that it was frequent, or pleasing to victims or perpetrators, but rather it was a piece of what people believed was required to satiate fickle and capricious gods.
This Abraham/Isaac story marks a moment in time. It marks a shift from the belief that people must assuage cruel and unpredictable gods with gifts, which at the extreme, included human sacrifice; to a perspective where humanity came to understand that God provides, and is pleased to do so.
That is what this story is about… it marks the tectonic shift away from fickle and capricious gods, to a God of relationship, who knows us by name. “Abraham, Abraham,” God calls out. That is what this sermon is about; the shift in our collective human perception about God.
Now to understand this shift it may be helpful to start with a short lesson on the history of religion. Rob Bell, in his book What’s In The Bible, has very much informed my thinking on this.
When humanity decided, for whatever reason, that it was better to grow crops than chase game, they quickly realized that this farming business depended on sun and rain in just the right proportions. Too much or too little would result in disaster. They also realized that they had no control over the sun or the rain. Its power came from something bigger than themselves.
And yet, humans being human, they sought control over this source. This is true for all agricultural communities the world over; and their strategy was the same: to offer gifts to the gods that controlled the sun and the rain. In this way religions developed.
Yet, as these institutions matured, with time, over the generations, they came to realize that they couldn’t map the cause and effect results of their offerings. This produced anxiety. And so, as is often the case, when one doesn’t know what to do, they just do more of the same; more sacrifice, and better sacrifice, until communities the world over, at their extreme, were sacrificing their most precious commodities, their offspring.
This idea of sacrificing humans became so well entrenched in cultures, it was just what was done to please cruel and fickle gods. It didn’t mean people liked it, or even did it often, it just meant they did it because that is what you do. It’s just the way it was in Abraham’s day 3,500 years ago.
Until we come to this story, when God said to Abraham: “Go take Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed.” Does that sound like a cruel and fickle God? Well, let’s wait and see. I’d like to give you a little more information.
We’ll start with Isaac. You may be surprised to hear that according to the Jewish Bible he was 37 years old when this took place. You might ask, why then did Abraham call him a boy? Well, he didn’t really. In Hebrew the word is na’ar, which more closely resembles “lad” or “servant.”
This should remind us that 3,500 years ago the primary organizing structure of a community was the tribe, not the nuclear family. And so, it is easy to imagine that the father and son relationship was not anywhere near what we know it to be today. And so, decisions were made based on the needs of the tribe. Isaac knew this. He was a servant to the tribe like everyone else; and a lad to his father like all the other young men. Abraham loved them all, after all they were his tribe, they were his responsibility. Everyone knew this.
Naturally, Isaac would have been anxious and fearful walking up Mount Moriah. I am sure he had some mixed feelings about Abraham, But tribal survival was the higher priority. That reality was just the water that Abraham and Isaac swam in. Isaac was a man. Isaac understood his role. Isaac walked willingly to the sacrifice, which is why this may be the most Christ-like story found in the Old Testament.
Just as Jesus carried his cross, knowing full well the outcome of his fate, and yet refraining from doing anything about it, though he could have easily done something about it; so too, Isaac carried his wood, knowing full well the outcome of his fate, and yet refraining from doing anything about it, though, as a 37 year old man being led by a 137 year old man, he could have easily done something about it.
Here is the bottom line- Isaac knew what was going on. It was just the water he swam in. And so did Abraham. But here is the twist with Abraham, he also carried with him a revelatory perception of God. He knew that God knew him by name. They had a covenant. God had promised him ancestors more numerous than the stars. God had saved his son Ishmael. Abraham did not believe his God was fickle and capricious; his God, the great I AM, could be trusted.
And so, as Abraham went up Mount Moriah he held in tension two ideas:
1) that human sacrifice was what one did when one must do so;
2) and that God can be trusted.
We see the first hint of this as Abraham leaves the hired men with his donkey, saying: “Wait here. My son and I are going over there to worship, then we will come back.” And then we will come back. You notice the plural pronoun is applied to the departure and the return?
And so, even as Abraham is set on sacrificing Isaac, he also fully trusts that God is going to do something. Because of his experience of God, Abraham can hold within himself this tension between living into the expectations of the culture, while simultaneously trusting God.
Isaac, on the other hand, is just carrying with him the culture. As of yet he doesn’t know in his bones, like Abraham, that there is a God who provides. Isaac is just going off to be sacrificed so the sun will shine and the rain will fall in right proportions upon his tribe. He might not like this, but it’s not about him, nor is it about Abraham. Everyone knows this.
They come to the top of the mountain. The wood is set. Isaac offers his hands to be bound, and lies across the pyre. Abraham lifts his knife, committed to the expectation the culture has for him, and yet, at the same time trusting God. Had Abraham not been fully committed this story would not mark the moment in time when humanity’s perception of God shifted from fickle and capricious, to trustworthy and pleased to provide.
With the knife arching through the air toward Isaac suddenly a voice called out: “Abraham, Abraham.” And a ram appeared in the bushes. Who do you suppose was most surprised? Abraham? Not likely. He was expecting something from God.
No, it was Isaac who was surprised, because this entire event on mount Moriah was done for Isaac’s sake. This is the moment when he became a patriarch. It was Isaac whose world shifted. It was Isaac whose paradigm was smashed. It was Isaac who told this story over and over again, because it was Isaac who now knew, as his father Abraham did, that God can be trusted; that God cares; that God seeks relationship; that God provides.
It was not enough for Abraham to know this to the core of his being; Isaac too needed to have this experiential shift, so as to own in his bones this new understanding of God.
It is through Isaac that the world hears this story. By his mouth the paradigm moves. This was why this story is included in the Bible, because it marks the moment in time when everything changed. And because of this moment in time, we are repelled by the tale itself. It is repugnant, because of the shift in human consciousness that it marks.
But less we get too smug and look upon this Abraham/Isaac story as an interesting historical artifact, I wonder did we fully make the shift in human consciousness? Are we there? Have we truly given up sacrificing human beings?
Yes, I know we are not burning people on heaps of wood, but if some anthropologist 2,000 years from now looked back on our world what would make her gasp and shake her head? What water are we swimming in that we can’t see? Will she be astonished that we let 16 year olds drive cars? That we eat what we eat? That we fill our bodies with poison to get healthy? That we burn fossil fuels or invest in for-profit prisons? That we make all our children all learn the same curriculum in school?
Are we like Isaac, not tasting the polluted water we swim in? Or are we like Abraham, swimming in the pool vigorously, but also trusting in God? Maybe that is the best we can hope for, to hold in tension the culture of our time, living into it, but also being faithful to the deeper reality that God provides.
Or maybe we can hope for a little more…That we can trust God just a hair’s breath higher than our allegiance to all of the little gods, the fickle capricious little gods that demand sacrifices that produce horror we don’t fully see.
With unreasonable confidence Abraham trusted God. What if we lived with those high expectations of God? What might we be ready to see through or cast out in favor of a new consciousness?