"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."
We looked at this passage in our Bible study on Thursday and were shocked by it. What kind of father would sacrifice his own son? What kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son?
A common Christian understanding of this story views it as pointing to the sacrifice of Jesus. The lamb that God provided, the perfect sacrifice, would be God’s own son, Jesus.
What kind of God would sacrifice God’s own child?
Human sacrifice was widely practiced at the time of Abraham. Sacrificing children was common. While to our minds in 2020 the thought disgusts us, we have to consider that we too live in a world where children are readily sacrificed in many ways by adults: children are sold as bonded slaves, children are trafficked into sexual slavery, children are stolen from their families, children are sent off to war, children are left to starve to death, children are locked away in detention centres and refugee camps, children are sent into factories and down into mines, children are sexually exploited and abused. The impacts on their lives are devastating.
We tend to think of human sacrifice as a religious ritual to appease the gods, or to gain favour. Meredith Filihia, in an article titled ‘Rituals of Sacrifice in Early Post-European Contact Tonga and Tahiti’ (The Journal of Pacific History), concluded that ritual human sacrifice in Tonga and Tahiti was used as a tool of power and authority, albeit couched in religious terms. Sacrifice was manipulated as a political tool. Those at the top of the social structure were able to instil fear in those further down and manipulate people through violent religious ritual. Children may not be killed in cold blood and burned as offerings to our gods today, but we still sacrifice them in other ways to our gods of power and wealth.
In the beginning of this story Abraham may have believed God wanted it but by the end of the story Abraham knew that God did not want human sacrifice. The stories of Abraham are not just stories of his incredible faith and trust in God they are also stories f how Abraham is discovering that this God Yahweh is different to all the gods. The mountain is a place of vision for Abraham. Abraham had his eyes further opened.
I find it helpful to ask what Jewish theologians think about the stories in the Old testament. How do they understand and interpret them? Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has an interesting insight into this story. He says, “… let us attend to God’s voice in this story. ho is it that is testing Abraham? Who is it that summons Abraham to kill and sacrifice his son?” The word ‘Elohim’ is commonly translated as God in our Christian Scriptures but Rabbi Artson says “that technically ‘Elohim’ means “the gods.” When Abraham hears “ha Elohim”, the gods, he hears the conventional powers of his age and he hears the force of convention commanding him to sacrifice his son to prove his loyalty, to prove that he belongs.” Rabbi Artson then writes, “Haven't we all felt that pressure in our lives, the entire weight of family and culture and religion pushing us toward practices we would otherwise not want to perpetrate, making us act in ways that we would ideally want to resist?” Haven’t we all been told, “Just go along with it. just do it, everyone else is doing it. This is what we have always done. Tow the line.” Perhaps we have told others to do the same.
Abraham hears the voice of the gods, of social conformity. Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac an angel of the Lord calls to him from heaven saying, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." The Hebrew word here translated as The Lord is Adonai, a word used to refer to the most high God Yahweh. This is the voice of Yahweh speaking, God the most compassionate, the voice of God who welcomes and cares for all children, and who hates the suffering caused to children in our world, the God who suffers with them and for them.
We don’t have to go to the mountains to hear God’s voice but hearing God’s voice is very important if we are to distinguish between the voices of our modern day gods of fear and power and wealth and their demands and the God of love and compassion. I have mentioned a number of times lately that the method of bible study we are practising is called ‘Lectio Divina. ’ Cynthia Bourgeault in the book ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing’ says that this method has been developed to help us move from literal interpretations of Scripture and even beyond seeing all Scripture as pointing to Christ, to listening for the divine to speak through Scripture to us in the language of love and compassion and more than that, to let the divine move us to love and compassion for all God’s children.
Prayer O God of light, from whom all life flows, may we glimpse the shinings of your presence in all things. In the dark places of fear and terrible wrong, and in the darkness of our own lives, in times of confusion and doubt, may we glimpse the shinings of your life-giving presence. -from Celtic Treasure: Daily Scripture and Prayer by John Philip Newell