Friday, June 24, 2005

Sacrificing Isaac

When I was a kid, we had a big red book with black and white illustrations in it, called Fairy Tales for Children.  Every now and then my sister and I would get it out and read some of the stories, and it’d never fail to scare us out of our wits.  Fairy Tales for Children, indeed!  Fairy Tales for Scaring Children Witless and Making Them Do What They’re Told, more like it.  Do you remember Rumpelstiltskin?  First the loving father drops his daughter in it by telling the greedy king, oh, yes, she knows how to spin straw into gold – with the predictable consequence that things are going to look a bit bleak for her if she doesn’t – and then this dreadful little deity Rumpelsiltskin turns up and offers to do the job for her, on condition that once she’s married the king (a fairly dubious honour in itself), she has to turn over her first child to Rumpelstiltskin.  Well in this story the miller’s daughter comes off best because she has a good network of spies and they uncover the secret of Rumplelstiltskin’s unlikely name.  And if little children can go to sleep after that bed-time story, good luck to them.

But it has a certain energy, doesn’t it? Someone told me recently this sort of story is like an onion – you peel off one layer of meaning and find a whole other layer underneath, and then you peel that off and so on.  At the most obvious level there’s the rags-to-riches story with a slightly sinister warning that there’s always a price to pay.  But underneath that is where it starts to resonate with some of our deepest desires and our darkest fears, the troubling undercurrent of child abuse that maybe echoes our culture’s ambivalence towards children, the fearful image of malevolent magic that maybe conceals some of our ambivalence about God and about the basic goodness of God’s world.  Good thing Rumplestiltskin isn’t in the Bible.

Except, of course, it is.  Like the miller’s daughter, Abraham today has to make good on his side of the bargain, Abraham has to sacrifice his only son to an arbitrary and frightening God.  It’s one of the stories in the Bible we wish wasn’t there. Not the only one, by any means.  Stories of rape and genocide, of racism and betrayal – many of them stories we never read in church and probably wouldn’t be bothered reading for ourselves.  Stories that suggest that God commends this sort of behaviour or worse, that God commands it, that God inspires the darkest and most violent human passions.  Stories that we should read with a shudder, because it isn’t too great a distance between the fall of Jericho and 9/11, between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the sexual abuse of children in our own society.  A common Christian interpretation of these stories is that this was God’s old way of doing business, the old deal that was replaced by the new deal in Jesus Christ, or else that in Christ God finally revealed that this sort of thing never was God’s idea. 

But some of these stories won’t go away quite so easily, and the call to sacrifice Isaac is one of them.  A story that has become so deeply embedded in the Christian psyche that it is one of the readings set for the Easter Vigil every year when we remind ourselves of the story of God’s saving acts among humanity.  A story that in some versions of Christian theology is seen as a pre-figuring of the sacrificial death of Jesus himself.

This story is terrifying. This story paints a very disturbing portrait of God. This story says that God tells an old man to murder his own son, simply to see what the old man will do. On the face of it, such a God would not be worthy of our worship, such a God could never be the source and model of our ethics. We’d lock up a person who did what God in this story.  This is a story that Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible calls a ‘text of terror’, and with good reason.  But at the same time we know that at some deep level it rings true, at some level it’s telling us something important about who we are, and about who God is.  It’s a story that won’t go away.

But, what does it mean for us?

The first thing, I think, is that it raises a suspicion.  Is God really telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or is that just what Abraham thinks God is saying?  I have to admit, I often get suspicious when I hear people saying, without any apparent doubt about it, that God told me such-and-such.  How do you know that’s what God is saying to you?  Is it possible that God gets the blame - or the credit – a lot of the time for things that human beings want and human beings decide?  So I don’t really think I can fall for the story-teller’s line that God told this to Abraham, it doesn’t match what I know about the God who created us for love and in love – but I don’t have any trouble believing that that’s what Abraham thought he was hearing. 

Why? 

Well, for one reason, because we know that child sacrifice did happen in ancient Israel:

·        we read in 1 Kings chapter 16 of two kings of Israel who sacrificed their own sons in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle,

·        in Judges chapter 11 we read the dreadful story of the sacrifice to Yahweh of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. 

·        in the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, the prophet argues that God does not require child sacrifice but justice, kindness and humility. 

Over the centuries, there came the understanding that the sacrifice of children was inconsistent with God’s character and God’s priorities.  But even today we still don’t hear God clearly.  Even today, Christians find it hard to agree on what God is saying to us – our own church is bitterly divided right now about whether God approves or disapproves the consecration of a gay bishop in the United States.  And sometimes what we think we hear God saying to us or demanding of us seems downright contradictory - outrageous, terrifying, or even unfair.  And perhaps because God does sometimes seem like that to us, there’s a disturbing sense in which this story rings true for us.  

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about it.  If our relationship with God is a real relationship – a relationship that demands first place in our lives – then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that we find ourselves struggling with divided loyalties, trying to negotiate our way through a minefield of unreasonable expectations, misunderstandings and mixed messages.  That’s another thing this onion-skin story asks us to think about – is it a real, two-way relationship we have with God, and if it is, are we prepared to trust God?  Are we prepared to take the risk of living as though God’s claim on us is for real?

Because, let’s make no bones about it, God has a pretty demanding agenda.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think there aren’t going to be any sacrifices.  God’s demands force us to choose whether we are going to live the comfortable status quo or the risky way of radical love and peace and hospitality that Jesus shows us.  It’s not just a choice we face as individuals.  We regularly face this sort of choice in our life together as a nation – are we going to take the risky way of justice and generosity or are we going to take the safe option of protecting our own interests?  And I think we are facing just this choice as a church right now – the call to go up to the top of the mountain and sacrifice the certainties and the safety of centuries of Christendom, to give up what for so long has seemed to be the only way of being church, much, even, that has seemed to be part and parcel of God’s promises to us.  What familiar treasures God might be calling us to give up so that we can be the incarnation and the container of God’s good news in the 21st century?  What might it mean for us as a Church to trust in God, and not in the history of what God has done for us?  It’s uncomfortable, and it’s scary.

But scary as it is, this story also contains the promise that God’s apparently unreasonable demands will not destroy us.  When it comes down to it, Abraham obeys God – not blindly, but because by this time of his life he has learned that God can be relied on – that God can be trusted.  When we learn to step out of our personal comfort zones, our lives become richer and fuller and more alive than ever.  When as God’s church we learn to trust in the future and not cling to the past, then God’s promises can come true in us.  Because the God who demands that we sacrifice our certainties, our security and even our greatest treasure, promises to be with us every step of the way.  Because the Incarnate God who comes among us and shares our lives with us, the God who sacrifices for us, can be trusted.