Monday’s Sermon: Isaac Without Easy Answers

Mondays' Sermons, Theology

I dislike seeing sermons show up in my news feed from last Sunday. By the time Monday morning rolls around, I’m over it. A more charitable preacher might be interested to know what her colleagues working with the same text came up with. I find that after a week with the text I’ve said my piece and I’m ready to move on. This is something I’d like to change about myself.

Part of the reason is because while some of my work may have ended on Sunday morning, the work of the broader congregation has just begun. I may have had a whole week to research and think about the text but most folks are just beginning to think about it on Sunday morning. Not to mention the fact that after Sunday morning, the sermon changes. It’s not just about the delivery shifting with the energy in the room. It’s about what people tell me at the door. It’s about the questions asked I hadn’t stopped to think about. It’s about the questions I wish I had found a way to incorporate. Finally, it’s about what hits me in the quiet stillness of Sunday evening. Occasionally its anxiety about something I forgot to say, but more often its finally receiving the good news I, myself, most needed to hear.

With that in mind, I want to revisit Sunday’s sermon, and a few of the things folks gave me in reply afterwards. The semicontinuous lectionary track saddled us with Genesis 22 last Sunday, the binding of Isaac. I attempted to talk about 3 things: (1) our potential shock at the story, (2) Abraham’s seeming calm, and (3) God’s seeming ambivalence. The story is shocking to us in the unrecognizably violent demands God makes. We may be disgusted that Abraham seems to concede, though I believe we are capable of the same concessions and sacrifice our own children to idols of wealth, power and security all the time. We may be afraid that God or someone in our life might demand too much of us. Abraham does not seem afraid. The narrative refrains from recording any explicit terror. Perhaps Abraham knew the end of the story (after all, he tells his men to expect both he and Isaac to return after worship, and he anticipates God’s action when Isaac asks him what they will sacrifice). Perhaps Abraham was used to the idea of child sacrifice in the religious culture around him. Still, why would God put Abraham and his family through this? Is God an insecure trickster? Had Abraham misunderstood or been influenced by a lesser god, a demon or idol? Does anything present itself from the experience as a gift? Does the near-death experience of debt-forgiveness, the disposition of offering one’s life to God and having it returned, the experience of being bound and then released offer anything to the characters or listeners? Is there a gift in being wrong about what God desires? Is there a gift in God’s display of change in heart and mind?

In speaking with folks afterwards most were interested in trying to get a clearer handle on the historical context of this story. Some commentators such as Nahum Sarna resist the idea that this story is written simply as a polemic against child sacrifice. Sarna notes that animal sacrifice is already established by this point in the Torah and needn’t explore any transitional period away from human sacrifice. I simply try to avoid any explanation of a scriptural story that confines it to one particular interpretive corner or another. Yet the specter of child sacrifice is key to a Girardian interpretation of this story. Rene Girard writes about sacrifice as a purely human necessity and invention, a way to veil the horror of human violence behind an aura of the sacred. He interprets Genesis 22 as a tale between two gods, one a false idol from Abraham’s past religious experience, denoted in the text by the descriptor “elohim,” the generic word for “god”, while the angel at the end of the story comes as a messenger from “YHWH”, the LORD, the personally named God of Israel. In this interpretation, God substitutes an animal in for the sacrifice which the human assumes to be necessary. Girard takes this all the way to the cross: Jesus as a substitution for a sacrifice we assume to be necessary, for the sake of exploding our ideas of what sacred violence may or may not be good for. (Feel free to correct my Girardian interpretation in the comments, I never feel like I’m getting Girard quite right.)

Another parishioner offered Kierkegaard’s take on this story: Abraham believed God because it would have been more difficult to live in a world where God required this heinous thing than to live in a world without God. This parishioner likened this interpretation to growing up in an alcoholic family where it was easier to believe what your parents said about you (that you were worthless) than to negate their existence. In a similar vein, Ellen Davis has preached about this story likening it to a marriage: God is there with Abraham through the worst of it. Both of these perspectives bring us back to Girard’s question: who is perpetrating the violence? Is it theological or anthropological?

Another parishioner said, only half-jokingly, “No wonder our youth don’t want to come to church with stories like that!” It makes me curious about how our teens hear this story. What they may relate to. What they might reject or embrace. In the Koran, Abraham’s child (unnamed, and often interpreted to be Ishmael) is a willing participant in the proposed sacrifice. In some Jewish interpretation, Isaac is actually in his 30’s when this story occurs.

What about this: what if God is willing to play the part of deity hungry for sacrifice for the sake of moving us beyond our violent ways? What if God is willing to appear vulnerable and willing to change his mind for our sake, for the sake of gradually replacing our old outdated religious notions with something new? If that’s the case, what outdated theological holdovers might we be called to leave behind as humanly invented idols rather than God-given revelations? What if its as much a matter of life and death as it was for Isaac?

What other questions does this passage leave you with? You can watch the original sermon below and leave questions or comments on the page for further discussion.

2 thoughts on “Monday’s Sermon: Isaac Without Easy Answers

  1. This is a very thought-provoking reflection on one of Scripture’s most difficult passages. Some very human questions I am left pondering: How did this near-death experience affect Isaac (whose name apparently means “laughter”)? Was his trust in Abraham analogous to Abraham’s trust in God, and was it shaken or strengthened by this experience? And where was Sarah in all of this? Would she have taken Isaac up the mountain?

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