24 September 2020
Genesis 22:1- 14 Matthew 10:40- 42
On the surface this is a dark, chilling story, fraught with terror. It raises more questions than it answers. it could be taken as the ultimate in child endangerment and abuse. And on the surface, it should be. But stories from scripture, particularly the early, early history of God’s faith community, are multi-layered and complex.
Every so often I hear someone say – well they are really faithful , look they tithe to their church, or they give time to go door knocking to tell their message - there must be something in what they believe. The implication is that by doing this they show their sincerity and therefore what they do is true, it gains credibility. It makes you question your own faith commitment.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that you can be sincere and be sincerely wrong, and that the word credibility and credit have the same origin.
There is a basic understanding that to gain something we have to pay for it. Especially in the area of religions.
Sacrifice is about payment for a reward or to avoid punishment.
I find it fascinating that our courts are measuring remorse in the form of money given by the offender, as distinct from a fine. . If you feel uneasy about that there is very good reason. The motivation cannot be measured. Payment made to get off prison time is entirely different from payment given in response to realising that the victim has been hurt. The first is mechanical, non relational, and for the benefit only of the offender, it certainly does not fit into a Christian world view, he second is transformative for the offender and hopefully helps the victim. .
And there is no way of distinguishing what is happening because it happens in the heart.
The story of Abraham and Isaac challenges the common assumptions. It is known as the akeda – the binding. – It is pivotal in the Genesis story and in Abraham’s faith journey, and therefore the faith journey of Israel.
You may have noticed that the word for God changes as we read through the story. Some people have hopefully suggested that Abraham was hearing a different God and the Lord intervened to stop his action and provided the ram for sacrifice.
One of the reasons we have the NRSV as our preferred translation in this church is that when you read the Old testament stories the different terms used for God are translated differently. You will find God, Lord God and elshaddai, Lord. elohim and others YHWH as the name of God; el shaddai
However all this means that that different names are preferred by different story tellers
It is also clear that all story tellers believed that Israel's God demanded blood sacrifices. Moreover, there is no question that the ultimate sacrifice the worshipper could make, whether they were the worshipper of elohim, YHWH or el shaddai (:-), was that of their eldest (male sic) child.
Child sacrifice was a common practice in Judah as late as the 7th century BCE [Leviticus 8:21]. Sacrifice was not considered a punishment, but an honour. Humiliation and death brought exaltation, both for the victim and the person conducting the sacrifice.
The Law of the First Born held that one must give, out of devotion, whatever one holds most dear, and the first born was considered the best, the most beloved.. In chapter three of II Kings, we read that the King of Moab took his first born son and offered him up as an act of piety. Remember, being chosen to die was an honour for it showed one's ultimate commitment to the deity. This mindset we’ve still got in the terrorists or suicide bombers who willingly sacrifice their lives for what they believe to be a godly cause.
1 Kgs 16:34 refers to eldest and youngest sons Abirum and Segub- human sacrifices to Yaweh at the foundations of fortress gates, of Jericho, a custom that Maori as well as other cultures closer to the ancient Near East also practiced.
Sacrificing your oldest son showed the ultimate in devotion and in asking for God’s power to be with you. You had paid for it.
It can put your own devotion in question when others sacrifice everything. In one battle one of the foreign kings sacrificed one of his sons and the Israelites fell back in dread of what this costly offering would bring against them. And, of course, if you were short of a son, an only daughter would make a suitable alternative. Jephthah we are told in (Judg 11:35). Gave his only child , his daughter as a burnt offering to Yahweh.
Micah 6:6-8, like Gen 22, was intended to oppose such sacrifices. Both were enlightened insights in their social and historic contexts, and while it may be argued that Gen 22 was relatively early, Micah 6: 6 – 8 [With what shall I come before the Lord , - do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”] certainly wasn't. the custom had a very long history in Israel
"Abraham's God (elohim)" is referred to as a covenant God (Gen 17:9), as a healer (Gen 20:17) and as one who gives the barren Sarah a child (Gen 20:2). But he that giveth is also entitled to take away, as the author of Job conveyed in his portrayal of the hero as orthodox believer. [Carley]
So we have a huge leap in understanding about God.
A thousand year later on Mt Moriah where the temple was built, maybe we can picture a child asking "why don’t we sacrifice humans like the other nations. Is our faith not strong enough?"
And being told the story of Abraham's faithfulness when he did not sacrifice Isaac to prove his devotion, but had faith to see that God would provide This God does not require this sort of sacrifice but provided what was necessary.
" the miracle of this text is in its ending, when Abraham hears the voice of the true God which halts the sacrifice of his son and sets him on a path away from human bloodshed, offering the substitute of a ram. False gods demand sacrifice. The true God is working to save us from them, by continually offering substitutes to us that gradually leads us out from under the sacrificial demand." [Baillie]
And that is how the story continues. When the early church were struggling to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus one of the pictures was of Jesus death being the final sacrifice to God. Not even sacrifice of animals was needed, nor any other works we might try to do.
So we discover the ultimate answer is God's offering of Gods own son – not to satisfy Gods own lust for blood, but to stop our perpetual misconception that somehow that kind of thing is necessary or effective. God provides, we are not required to prove our devotion by heroic efforts. We are simply asked to love.
We still see human sacrifice offered up to the gods, for example Mugabe’s insane destruction in Zimbabwe is an offering to the ancient gods of war and human control. Tiennaman Square saw the offering up of young Chinese students. Tanks rolling over them, that’s a bloody human sacrifice to the gods of the state.
In 1978 in Kent State University, the national guard came and shot their own students when they were protesting against USA involvment in the Cambodian war. A statue was commissioned later, the sculptor, Segal, depicted this story, Abraham poised about to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac was shown as a college student age. The university refused to put it in place and it now stands outside the chapel as Princeton. Abraham stopped before he killed, Kent State did not.
Jesus turns the whole notion of sacrifice around into sacrificial love.
A response to God’s own initative towards us.
We are asked to be obedient to a God given wider vision, and to offer love, like Jesus.. That loving involves our whole life, family friends being open to strangers, money time. That can be costly in a world where sacrifice of others is still practised as the way to power and those who love are often the sacrifice. The way of Jesus is still the way of the cross. It is also the way to life for everyone..
Loving one another can look very ordinary sometimes, not heroic like huge sacrifices, which might satisfy us but is not wanted by God, loving can be as simple as giving a cup of cold water to a enemy or thirsty stranger.
References - thanks to Dr Keith Carley for his insights into First Testament Hebrew and Theology.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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