Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Things Your Pastor Would Totally Avoid Preaching About Were It Not For The Lectionary," Part II: The Binding of Isaac

"Abraham and Isaac", by John August Swanson

Our lectionary texts this week are Genesis 22:1-14 (though the whole chapter is worth reading) and Matthew 10:40-42 (though it is better put in context if you start a few verses earlier--at least at verse 37). I would also recommend Psalm 13, though I am not sure if we will deal with it directly on Sunday--it is one of the absolute most powerful prayers out there, in my humble opinion. You can read all of these texts here.


So, most preachers have commentators they lean on to help them navigate the muddy and difficult waters of scripture interpretation on a weekly basis--"experts" who bring a fabulous combination of thoughtfulness, scholarship, and pastoral sensitivity to the biblical text. This week, however, there was a problem: as I began my study work, I found that many commentators whose insight I appreciate did not write about the first suggested lectionary reading from Genesis 22. Most commentators turned to the alternate suggested reading from Jeremiah (one of the RARE occasions that Jeremiah could be seen as the "soft" text), or else stayed close to the Gospel text on hospitality.

Why, you ask?

Because this Genesis text is scary.


We like stories and texts that give us answers. This one, however, seems to call everything into question and raise more emotional and ethical and spiritual questions than we can possibly answer...perhaps even more than we can ask. The starkness of the story both makes it almost painful to read and invites us into that dangerous place of trying to fill in an infinite number of gaps in the story.

Why did God ask for this?

Why didn't Abraham fight back and argue with God?

What if Abraham had said no?

Did Isaac realize what was going on?

What was Abraham thinking, feeling?

What kind of God asks you to sacrifice your child?

Was God just toying with Abraham?

This isn't the God we know in Jesus, is it?

This was just a one time thing--God would never ask something like this of us, right?

Like I said, scary. Every time I've read this text this week, the tightness in my chest has grown read of this sort of encounter between God and someone God has chosen and (we presume) loves and cares's like looking a nightmare in the face. And even if it has a "happy" ending, there's nothing feel-good about it whatsoever as far as I can see.

So why not go for Jeremiah, or the Matthew text? Something easier...which would be, essentially, any other text?

Well...because this story is here for a reason. No matter how much we've tried to explain it away, to dismiss it as child abuse, to relegate it to the land of the's a core narrative of Judeo-Christian faith and therefore must tell us something crucial about this "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" that we still claim to worship. History has not swept this ugly incident under the rug, and neither can we. There's something key we need to encounter here about the character of our God...and about ourselves as made in that God's image. I don't know what it is yet--and come Sunday, may honestly still not know. It may be many things. But this isn't a story we can shove away, but must wrestle with continually...sit with in the darkness...let speak, even if it speaks words we don't want to hear.

So have courage, as on Sunday we go where few dare to go. I have no idea what we'll find, but I am glad that as the children of God at Broadneck, we'll be making the journey together.



Jeremy said...

Aside from showing us how God wanted a departure from the previously-expected child sacrifice of that day, I'm not sure what we are supposed to get from this story. Two commonly heard things from my childhood about this story are:

Ultimate obedience: Give it all up for God! This seems to be a stretch in this story, given the social context alluded to above.

Trust in God: Again, seems a stretch, since Abram probably fully expected to sacrifice his son, as such things were done to other gods at that time.

Even more horrifying than putting myself in Abram's place (short story there: I couldn't have done it) is the idea of considering the story from Issac's perspective.

I just don't know what this retelling is supposed to teach us at this point. Just makes me feel how we don't measure up to the ancient characters of our faith - and maybe that I don't even want to emulate them, even if I was in the same context.

Bah. How unsatisfying.

Stephen said...

Okay...first of all I agree with Abby that we have to look at this passage. It IS core to our story as God's people. And I share Abby's discomfort; especially since I'll be preaching on the same passage this week while filling a pulpit elsewhere.

I don't think the story is about God telling anyone not to sacrifice their children....there are a bunch of other passages and laws and prophetic pronouncements that do that so much better. If God is doing this as an 'object lesson' about child sacrifice, it's a really crappy way to teach anyone anything.

I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with this story; but I still think it's important.

Again, like Abby, I'm not sure where I'll wind up by Sunday, and I'm going to be really interested to see how we compare. But that we struggle and sweat and argue-even with God-over this story is really really important. I'm glad I'm doing it in a community like this.

J. Travis Moger said...

I've struggled and am still struggling with this passage. Here's where I wrote about it on my blog:

Right now I'm reading and almost through Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, a classic discussion of passage and its ethical implications. K says "a teleological suspension of the ethical" (whatever that means) was necessary for Abraham to obey God. It's a hard book to read and even harder to understand. Like the story itself, it provides no easy answers.

I know I'm not satisfied with the easy answers that are often given to this perplexing text, but I believe if I continue to wrestle with God over it I will ultimately receive a blessing . . . and perhaps, like Jacob, a limp.

Unknown said...

The whole idea of sacrifice is a mystery to me. Why does God, the giver of all things, require sacrifice, from Himself(His Son) and from us? Perhaps, for us, it is to help us detach from the things of this world, to seek first the kingdom of heaven. To find our true self as the contemplative writers say. The 'cost of decipleship' in Luke 14:25 seems to express the same idea. This 'ultimate obedience',as Jeremy says, is perhaps for our own development.