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, he 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 certainly don’t want to read at home. Stories that suggest that God commends this sort of behaviour or worse, that God even 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 the 9/11 fall of the Twin Towers, 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.
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 could never be the source and model of our ethics, such a cruel and manipulative God would not be worthy of our worship. Any person who behaved the way God does in this story would be locked up. This is one of the stories 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 necessary 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 think I can fall for the story-teller’s line that God told this to Abraham, it simply 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.
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 finds it necessary to remind the people that God does not require child sacrifice but justice, kindness and humility.
And I think that in this story from Genesis what we are witnessing is a turning point in the development of human ethics and spirituality. A coming to understanding of what God is like, and of what it means to be human. As with all developmental turning points, the understanding comes painfully. In the story of Abraham and Isaac we see the coming to understanding that the sacrifice of children is inconsistent with God’s character and God’s priorities. And it’s a story that is important for us, because it rings true with our own living memory, with our own history which includes the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the forced separation of child migrants. Our shameful and ungenerous mistreatment of asylum seekers, with the incarceration of vulnerable men, women and children behind razor wire in the most inhospitable parts of our continent. And it reminds us of shameful episodes in our own history as a Church, the present history of the cover-up of child sexual abuse – and the coming to understanding that is still reverberating through the Church that the protection of vulnerable people and children is more important than the pretence of holiness or the protection of our own privilege. The Abraham story reminds us that being God’s people means continually having to learn and reassess our own ethical practices against our experience of the holiness of God.
Even today we still don’t hear God clearly. Even today, Christians find it hard to agree on what God is saying to us. Even today, there are Christians who believe that God requires us to act in ways that are cruel and fanatical, or that offend against common standards of decency and fairness. And sometimes what we ourselves 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.
And so, when it comes to listening to God, and trying to work out what God is saying to us and how God is leading us in our lives – what the Church calls discernment – the history of Christian spirituality lays down some wise guidelines. If God is telling me something, calling me in some way, then it’s likely I’m not the only one who can hear God’s voice. And so the practice of discernment is best done in company, by seeking the counsel of a trusted and holy friend. In prayer and integrity, by holding what we think God is telling us up to the standard of the scriptures. Is what we hear God telling us, consistent with the way of forgiveness and love that we see modelled in Jesus of Nazareth? Does it serve our own purposes, or is it for the good of our brothers and sisters? Following the leading of God – God’s true leading – is never the easy or self-serving option.
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 – but not blindly, 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.