A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 16, 2013
Genesis 22:1-14 GNT
I am going to be completely honest with you this morning. The biblical story that I just read to you about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is for me one of the most troubling stories in the Bible. Of all the chapters in the Bible, I (and many others like me) find Genesis 22 to be one of the most challenging. To put it bluntly, I don’t like the story. As one theologian has stated, this passage “is perhaps the most admired and the most troubling of all the stories in Genesis.”1 That is putting it mildly.
Of course, the traditional interpretation of the story for most Jews, Christians and Muslims is a commendation for the great faith that Abraham had in God. Faith that he would do what he thought God required, going so far as to sacrifice his and Sarah’s only natural heir. Traditionally Abraham is held up because of his great faith and willingness to do whatever God might ask of him. In this passage, Abraham is portrayed as the supreme model of one who has faith and is obedient to God. But in order to do what Abraham is convinced (in his own mind at least) that God wants him to do, he must be willing to sacrifice his beloved son of promise. So in the traditional view, God chose to test Abraham to see if he was really worthy of inheriting the promises that God had in store for him. The promises of an everlasting name, a land, and descendants that would number more than the stars of the sky and grains of sand on the seashore.
But looking at this story from another angle, it raises a lot of red flags in my mind, and also gives rise to many questions. If someone were to do today what Abraham was ready to do with his son Isaac (that is, offer him as a child sacrifice), all of us would be appalled and outraged. Thus, from a contemporary viewpoint and a time when child abuse is in the news almost daily, the text presents a lot of problems. But even from a historical and biblical viewpoint the text is problematic, since child sacrifice was abhorrent, condemned in Israel and in other biblical passages. If that was the case, then why would such a story be included in the Bible to begin with?
And so, a number of questions have been raised and a number of explanations have been offered to account for this unusual and troubling story.
- If something like this really did happen, did God really tell Abraham to sacrifice his son to test him? Or, was it that Abraham thought this is what God wanted him to do, as was the custom among some peoples of that time and place?
- Or, was the biblical writer who wrote the story hundreds of years after Abraham lived remembering the story in his own way, putting words into the mouth of God? Who was there to write down the events of that day just as they happened anyway?
- If we were to concede that it really did happen as the writer says it did, who of us would want to worship a god that would call for child sacrifice, or even make one’s willingness to consider child sacrifice a test of faith?
- Does the story go too far in attributing human characteristics to God, or making God in the image of the gods of the Canaanite culture and of that time and place?
- Or, was the story intended to be an allegory, written for another purpose altogether, such as a word of encouragement to Israel in exile several hundred years later, and addressing their own test of faith and faithfulness? In other words, was the writer trying to say that as Isaac (and hence, the people of Israel as Isaac’s descendants) was saved from extinction by a merciful God, so would Israel be saved from extinction and redeemed from Exile? Such is one line of thinking that many scholars choose to follow today. It is the line of thinking toward which I tend to lean myself.
So, you see, looking seriously at this passage opens a big can of theological worms.
But let’s consider for just a moment the idea that this story is historically true. What if we tried to identify with the boy Isaac? “Dad,” Isaac questions as they walk along, “we have wood and we have fire, but where is the animal for the sacrifice?” They arrive at the place where the sacrifice is to be offered, and Abraham builds the altar for burning the sacrifice. But still there is no animal. Still Isaac wonders. Then when Abraham takes Isaac by the arms and starts to tie him up, Isaac begins to panic. By the time Isaac is placed on the wood, surely he is crying and pleading for his life. “Dad! Really, Dad! Is this really what we are supposed to do?” Isaac shrieks. Considering the story from Isaac’s perspective, it really isn’t a very good story at all, is it?
And if we consider the story from the good father perspective, it isn’t a very good story from that angle either. As a dad, this is not one of Abraham’s finest hours, in my opinion. There is another story, you may remember, that comes just before this one in the biblical text where Abraham doesn’t excel as a model father either. In that story Abraham agrees to send Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and her son Ishmael (fathered by Abraham) off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Sarah had become so jealous of Hagar and Ishmael that she could no longer stand to have them around, so she demanded that Abraham send them away. Abraham caved to Sarah’s demand and sent the mother and son off with nothing but a bit of food and skin full of water. Abraham might have had faith, but he was far from perfect in his skills as a father.
Well, jumping from Abraham as a father to fatherhood in general, the truth is, there is no perfect father. All fathers make mistakes, biblical fathers included. Every morning I get a short devotion from the United Church of Christ. This morning’s devotion was on this very topic, and the writer noted that there are no perfect models for fatherhood in the Bible. Abraham was mentioned as one who didn’t qualify. One of the most dismal failures as a father mentioned in the Bible is none other than beloved King David. David made numerous mistakes as a father, and his family was rocked with scandal and problems.
And there are no perfect fathers today. My father made mistakes. I made mistakes. And my son, as a father, has and will make mistakes as well. I am guessing the same is true with you and your father. That’s the way it is. But hopefully we all learn from our mistakes and try to do better. I am of the opinion that grandchildren are a second chance to correct some of the mistakes we make with our children. The good news in all of this is we are all in this imperfect boat together with Father Abraham. We are all mistake ridden. But we are all beneficiaries of grace as well.
So today, as we are remembering dads on this Father’s Day, we also bear in mind that there is no perfect dad. But we love our dads anyway. And those of us who are dads realize and confess we are not perfect either. But another side of that is those of us who are dads maybe shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for at least some of the mistakes we have made along the way. Most dads’ good qualities far outweigh the weaknesses and mistakes. And so, today we celebrate dads, even though they sometimes fail and make mistakes, but who try their best and learn from their failures and mistakes and do better in the future. Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 42.