Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year! Let's Talk About Human Sacrifice!

Perhaps faith should be redefined as being able to love God even after reading Genesis 22: 1-14. This scripture passage, “The Binding of Isaac,” always puts me on edge.  This is the passage traditionally read at the Rosh Hashanah holiday.  Which starts tonight.  Happy New Year!  Let’s read how Abraham nearly sacrificed his son!  Hooray!

It just so happens that this was the topic of the sermon this past Sunday at church.  I’ve studied it before, and always leave it behind without being able to say, “Oh, now I understand.”  There are only two lessons I can truly claim to get from this passage:  1) God is inscrutable and 2) Life contains paradox.  It is difficult for me to say that the nature of God revealed in this passage is one I can claim to want to worship and adore.   

The basic story: God decides to test Abraham, and tells him to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there.  Abraham binds Isaac as a sacrificial animal, raises the knife to kill Isaac, and at that moment God stops Abraham.  There is a ram nearby and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac.

Our pastor quoted John Chrysostom as saying that in this passage, the command of God conflicted with another command of God.  The pastor didn’t spell out which commands, but I’m guessing they are 
     a) You shall have no other gods before me = Obey me, versus 
     b) Do not murder.  
“The faith was fighting against the faith.”  There is the paradox.  I agree – this passage is an unsolvable conundrum to me.  And that is true of many things in life.

Why did God test Abraham?  I have heard the pastor say in a previous sermon that God wanted to test Abraham, not to prove something to God, but to prove to Abraham himself that Abraham had the necessary faith.  Some scholars say that this was God’s way of driving home the point that the Hebrews were not to engage in child sacrifice.  My father conjectures in his commentary on Genesis that God needed to know if Abraham had faith in God just because of what God had promised him (descendants and land), that is, for the reward, or if he would remain faithful even without the prospect of such a reward.  (If Abraham kills Isaac, then there will be no descendants.)  This Sunday our pastor said that the test is not a pass/fail test, but more like a test pilot taking the airplane out to find out what the limits of the plane are. 

Perhaps these are good explanations, but they still don’t sit well with me.  Of course, nobody said that we have to like scripture.  If that were the case, scripture would probably look more like a Hallmark card.  That would be equally awful in the other direction.

There is a glaring inconsistency in the text, which the pastor did not mention.  Often in church we don’t notice these Biblical inconsistencies because we only read one snippet of scripture.  The part we read says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love...” (Gen 22:2). But from our study of Genesis two years ago, we know that Isaac is not Abraham’s only son.  Ishmael supposedly was 14 years old when Isaac was born.  Does Ishmael not count as Abe’s son any more because 
     a) he has been banished  or
     b) his mother is just a slave-girl   or
     c) he is considered a man because of his age   or
     d) the inheritance will not be passed on through him.  
Maybe these reasons passed muster to the ancient tribes hearing this story while sitting around the campfire, but they offend my modern sensibilities of how a father’s love is supposed to work.

The pastor tried to convince us that in this story everything turns out peachy keen at the end.  Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, and so everybody is happy (except the ram).  I say, not so.  I think Isaac would have been one messed up dude after this near-death experience. 

So this Presbyterian enters the Jewish New Year hoping and believing, against all the evidence I see in this passage, in a compassionate, merciful, and loving God.  And may we show those qualities, as parents, to our own children in the coming year.


Angie Kay Dilmore said...

Great commentary! I've always struggled with that story, too. One of many, I suppose.

Mariah Reed said...

Yes, I always wondered about Ishmael . . . I guess I have to go back and check the story but I am assuming, without going back and checking the story, that Ishmael and Hagar have long since been banished. These stories suck in more ways than I can bother to count. Do we know any bible scholars familiar with those times?