glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Who's Testing Whom?: A Sermon on the Binding of Isaac

When I started seminary back in the stone ages of 1995 I became aware of a book that has shaped the way many read the Bible, or at least certain passages in it. It’s called Texts of Terror and was written in the mid-80s by a feminist scholar named Phyllis Trible. It focuses on biblical stories in which women are victimized, seemingly with the blessing of God. For the most part, these are stories that we don’t hear read in church, because they are so shocking, so far from how we would expect people of faith to act, and certainly far from how we would expect God to act.

Trible’s book has had a profound impact. She gave people license to wonder about whether the God that’s represented in certain stories really can be called God, or whether it is the construct of a people who valued (or disvalued) women and life in a very differently than we do today.

Trible doesn’t address the story of the Binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac that we have just heard this morning, but I think it’s fair to say that it, too, is a “text of terror.” As you probably know, the customary interpretation is that God was testing Abraham, to see how much he loved God. God knew all along that he wouldn’t allow Abraham to kill Isaac (it says at the beginning of the passage that it’s a test), but he had to be sure that Abraham was worthy and that his faith was unflinching enough to become the father of God’s people. At least that’s what I’ve always been taught. But for a long time, I never gave it much thought, to be honest. Of course I knew that it was a difficult passage, but I was never too invested in it, one way or another.

But over time, my perspective about the Abraham and Isaac story has changed. I’ve moved from indifference to horror. Today, I am appalled by the suggestion that the God I am supposed to believe in behaves like a tyrant, playing with people and their emotions, testing their true loyalty, terrorizing them. Rather than love and compassion, rather than justice and hope, the God we find here is a lot like a medieval king, or maybe even the Southie mobsters in the news lately, demanding that people do whatever horrible thing they think up, to prove their faithfulness and allegiance. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s honestly the way I feel hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac.

And I would imagine that those of you who are parents feel just as strongly and probably exponentially more so. Just think: if anyone today were to act in the way that Abraham appears to have, claiming that God commanded that he kill his son, and attempting to do it, he would be locked up for life and we’d see coverage his trial on CNN. What’s more, it’s passages like this—calling people to swear unflinching allegiance to a god no matter what—that give rise to all sorts of fanaticism, in people like Jim Jones and his followers in Jonestown, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and most recently, of course, Al-Qadea.

The good news, though, is that the traditional interpretation of this passage is not its only or even its definitive interpretation. In fact, there is no definitive interpretation of any story in the Bible, because they are just that—stories. It’s up to us to figure out the meaning. So, maybe, there’s another way to read this story: a way that is less offensive and a little more hopeful.

Some of you may recall that when Anne Minton, your former interim priest, came back to Emmanuel last fall to lead a couple adult education sessions on Islam, she suggested that Christians and Muslims tend to read our respective scriptures in a way that our Jewish brothers and sisters don’t. We tend to accept things at face value, “what the Bible says is what it says” in a literal kind of way, while in contrast there’s a long tradition among Jewish rabbis of struggling with the text and finding new, different, and hidden meanings. It’s called “Midrash.” That Midrash tradition is really wonderful in that they are not afraid to argue with the text, to propose unusual readings, and even to wrestle with what it seems that God says. They try to fill in the gaps and imagine what was going on in the characters’ and God’s minds. They break a passage apart, especially a tough passage like today’s, so that some rays of sunlight can shine through.

Since the story of Abraham and Isaac was first a Jewish story, I thought we might look at what Jewish interpreters have to say. Now, many rabbis read it in much the way we tend to, as a test of Abraham’s faith. But others have suggested that there’s more, or perhaps that the test was different than we might first think. For example, some have suggested that Abraham must have been hallucinating if he thought that God would demand such a thing; others that it was God’s punishment of Abraham for abandoning his older son, Ishamael; some that Abraham really did kill Isaac, but that he was resurrected. And others still have argued that human sacrifice was so common in the age in which Abraham lived that the fact that God interceded to prevent it is what makes this story so profound, marking a shift in the way humans thought about God—toward a God who is appalled by senseless killing and human sacrifice, rather than demanding of it.

A contemporary Jewish scholar named Lippman Bodhoff, in Midrashic fashion, employs some creative thinking and suggests that perhaps God and Abraham are really testing each other—but not in the way you might think. To understand his point, we have to go all the way back, almost to the beginning of creation, and the story of the brothers Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons. You remember that Cain, who was jealous, killed Abel. God is appalled and decrees killing wrong. After the great flood, God reiterates that to Noah, saying: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that one's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Moving ahead several generations, today’s hero, Abraham, holds God to that standard when he intercedes for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the grounds that God’s plan to destroy the towns would have the consequence of killing innocent people. Abraham argues with God so persuasively that God promises to spare the towns if even five righteous people are found within them. Apparently there weren’t five righteous people, since God destroyed the towns anyway, but he did lead to safety the few who were righteous--Lot and Lot’s wife, and their daughters, though Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back against God’s command.

That brings us to this morning’s passage in which it seems that God is requiring that Abraham show his fealty by sacrificing his beloved son. This really puts Abraham in a bind, since he knows that what God asks of him is actually against God’s laws, as declared to Noah. Does Abraham comply with God’s order, horrific as it is, or does he follow God’s law? Bodhoff suggests that Abraham knows that he can’t kill Isaac, but he also doesn’t feel that he can argue with God again. He doesn’t want to test his luck and insult God, but he hopes that God will change his own mind.

And so, Abraham puts God to the test. He thinks to himself, I have found God and my tradition and experience have revealed Him and made Him known to me as an all-powerful, all-knowing, just and compassionate God. But I need to be sure that this is the God to which I truly wish to dedicate myself and my progeny and my followers for all time. If the God I have found demands the same kind of immorality that I saw in my father's pagan society, I must be mistaken. I must look further. To obey such a God is not a moral advance at all.” What he doesn’t know is that God is testing him, too. Only God isn’t really testing him to see if he’ll sacrifice Isaac, rather God’s testing (or tricking) to see if Abraham will refuse to do it, as he should.

After God’s command, Abraham is in no rush and takes his time getting around to it (he’s stalling, in other words). He has men accompany them on their journey, and when they get closer to the mountain he asks the men to wait for their return. Notice Abraham doesn’t say for “me” to return, but for “us” to return. It seems he planned to return with Isaac all along. As he and Isaac are making their way, Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice and Abraham responds that the Lord will supply it. Even at this late stage he trusts that God will not make him go through with this horrific plan.

Meanwhile, God watches in horror (just as we do) as Abraham makes his preparations. God wonders when Abraham will call it all off, when Abraham will fight back, like he did for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham stalls for as long as he can, waiting for God to call it all off, wondering what kind of God he had come to believe in, what kind of covenant he had agreed to follow. It’s a divine game of chicken, really, with poor Isaac caught up in the middle.

Ultimately, God flinches first. He tells Abraham to stop, to drop the knife, untie Isaac, and sacrifice a ram instead. God knew, of course, that he would never let Abraham take things too far. God appreciates and honors Abraham’s loyalty, but is also perhaps disappointed that Abraham didn’t fight back, that he didn’t protect Isaac, that he didn’t reiterate God’s law against murder. In a sense Abraham actually failed that test.

But not really, because God didn’t know that Abraham was testing God at the same time. You see, Abraham had no intention of killing Isaac. To do so would break one of God’s laws. If God had not intervened when he did, Abraham planned to drop the knife and abandon this cruel, false god, in favor of the true God who is actually loving and caring, the God who is life-giving not life-taking. But Abraham never really thought it would come to that. And he was right. In the end, both Abraham and God passed the test, in spite of themselves, so much so that God blessed Abraham and Isaac, and their descendants became greater in number than the stars in the sky.

Well, is this Midrashic interpretation any better than the traditional one? I don’t know. But it is in keeping with an ancient understanding of God—who did not read human thoughts, but who could be bargained with, and who put people to the test. Really, he’s a smaller, more human-like God than we tend to believe in today. In any case, it helps us to consider this passage in different way. It’s no more official than any other interpretation, but maybe it’s less offensive, since we know that neither God nor Abraham were willing to see Isaac killed.

Like Abraham and Isaac, throughout our lives we are asked to make choices and swear allegiances. We are told that some authority, perhaps even God, wants us to act in a certain way, when deep down we struggle with how this could possibly be true. If you heard any of the debate about marriage equality in New York this week you might have noticed that several Roman Catholic lawmakers said that they struggled with their church’s teaching on the one hand and what they thought to be right in terms of justice and equality on the other. While senators came down on both sides, several bravely said that they ultimately chose justice and equality over the church. It doesn’t mean that they love God any less, but perhaps that how God speaks to them may be different than they have traditionally thought. In a way, that’s what this new interpretation tells us that Abraham did as well. He wanted to know if the God he had come to follow was truly a God of love and compassion or not. He wanted to know if God would support him, sustain him, and bring him abundant life, and not only him, but also his son Isaac, and for all who would follow them, or if the god he had come to believe in was no better than all the other false gods that people before him had followed. In the end, both he and God chose right.

And that, I think, is our test, too. It is up to us to decide if something is of God, or some other authority, telling us it is God speaking, urging us to do or believe something, but is actually far from what the true living God would want. Sometimes we may even find those other voices speaking to us through the church or the Bible. Often, those voices seek to divide and hurt us, and those we love. But here’s the thing. We like Abraham, like the prophets, like Jesus, believe in a God of love, a God of compassion, a God of hope, and we can know with confidence and assurance that the true God will never terrorize us or ask us to make choices that call us to hurt those we love; rather, the only commands that God gives us will come from love and result in love, they will come from compassion and result in compassion, they will come from hope and result in hope. We know that because that’s who God is, it’s how God acts, and it is who God wants us to be. That’s the God I believe in, and I hope you do, too.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell


  1. Liked the sermon with it's Jewish interpretation! Makes me wonder about Jesus' "sacrifice"--is he testing God? Does God pass the test with the resurrection? I don't think God is in the business of testing our worthiness for God's love but Life certainly tests us a lot for our courage and faith. By the way 1995 is not the Stone Age!--Bill Bradbury

  2. Bill, I don't think God tests us in that way either, but clearly the author of Genesis thought so, in some way.... It's an interesting question about Jesus testing God. I'm intrigued.

  3. Thanks for tackling this "text of terror" head on. I think that your honesty in your struggle with the text breaks open new hermenutical possiblities.