All around the world today, people will be listening to the story of Abraham and Isaac. And the preachers will preach and the teachers will teach that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son is a model of faith; and so we, too, are called to sacrifice everything for Jesus’ sake—even, if necessary, our own children. And some adults will nod wisely, thrilled by such demands; others will feel sick, and maybe leave the faith; and any children who are paying attention will be horrified. They will wonder why anyone would want to worship a god who might ask their parents to hurt them—and that is an excellent question.
For the usual reading says that God may require the destruction of the vulnerable people entrusted to our care; and that is why, for example, many pastors and missionaries have felt able to work so hard and sacrifice so much of their own children’s childhoods to the work of the gospel. But is there another reading more consistent with the God of love? I think there is; but it requires us to read the story carefully, thinking about its context and looking at language. If we do this, however, I believe we will find that this is a story which celebrates life. Not death, but life.
So the first thing to note is that the story was told at a time and in a context where the blood sacrifice of children was normal. It was the right and good thing to do. In the Ancient Middle East and in many other cultures, children were sacrificed to appease the gods. Indeed, the abduction and ritual murder of children by sorcerers and witchdoctors still happens in some countries today, most notably Uganda. We may feel revulsion at this story, but we need to understand that nobody hearing it for the first time would have raised an eyebrow. Abraham was doing the right thing: called to sacrifice his son, he prepared to do so.
The second thing to note is the changing name of God. The story opens with ‘El’, the generic Hebrew word for god. El is the god that everyone knows, the god like all other gods: and it is this god which demands the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. But it is Yahweh, or the Lord, who stays Abraham’s hand. Yahweh is the personal, relational God revealed to Israel: and it is a messenger from Yahweh who calls to Abraham and says, “Do not harm the boy…”
The third thing to note is that, when this god speaks, Abraham does something brave and radical. For he listens to this new voice: the voice which tells him not to harm the boy, the voice which demands he act differently to everyone else. The normal thing would be for Abraham to sacrifice his son, but he does the abnormal thing, the difficult thing: he comes back down the mountain, bringing the boy with him. And then, one imagines, he has to try and convince all his neighbours and friends and relatives that he has done the right thing, while they, no doubt, are terrified that, in his failure to sacrifice the boy, God will punish them all.
We can get so caught up in the shocking thought that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son that we can miss the point: In context, the shocking thought is that, based on new information and a new understanding of God, Abraham did NOT sacrifice his son. But that is precisely the point: followers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, DO NOT sacrifice their children, and this is a major shift in their understanding of God.
It’s so huge that it is hard to believe. And so, as the history of Israel unfolds, people do fall back into child sacrifice from time to time; but each time the prophets rail against it, and gradually, the refusal to sacrifice children becomes the norm. Abraham was willing to give everything he had to God, and this is wonderful; but what is even more wonderful is the revelation that the God of Israel, Yahweh, does not demand destructive sacrifice. This understanding grows and grows until, much later, prophets reveal that God does not even demand the sacrifice of animals, and seeks only justice, mercy, kindness, and peace. In other words, anything which demands the sacrifice of children is not the God of Israel, our God: instead, it is an idol.
It’s a good thing that we all get this—or do we?
Actually, we don’t. We sacrifice children—our children, other people’s children—to idols all the time. All over the world, children are in armies and sex shops and kept out of school, sacrificed to idols of militarism, and violence, and the patriarchy. Children slave in cocoa and coffee plantations, and factories and sweatshops, sacrificed to the idol of consumerism and our lust for cheap consumer goods. Closer to home, children are sent to remote immigration detention centres, sacrificed to the idols of national sovereignty and border control. Children with autism are threatened with removal from mainstream classrooms, sacrificed to the idols of ‘normality’ and political games. Children are fought over by divorcing parents and controlling families, sacrificed to the idol of adult egos. Children are kept out of many church services, sacrificed to the idol of well-ordered, quiet, cerebral forms of worship. Same-sex attracted and transgender children and young people are bullied at school and excluded from churches, sacrificed to the idol of heteronormative ways of being and relationship. Children are given the dregs of their parents’ time, energy, and focus, sacrificed to the idols of careerism and ‘me-time’. In these and many other ways, children are sacrificed by all of us, all the time.
But our God is the God of life, the God who says, “Do not harm the child…” Our God will watch as we lay children upon the altars of militarism, or consumerism, or heteronormativity, or ego, or status, or money; but, just when all seems lost, our God will demand that we stay our hand. And we choose. We can choose to act like everyone else, sacrificing children to ideals and idols and our rapacious greed—or we can choose to live differently, risk approbation and censure, and seek to get children off plantations and out of sweatshops; free children from detention; educate all children; honour children’s needs when our relationships break down or our work escalates; and welcome all children into our lives and our churches, however they identify, and however noisy or messy or uncomfortable our services become. We can opt for the violence of normality, the life that is a living death; or we can choose for the god of life: the one who seeks justice, mercy, kindness, and peace, and who, in human form, placed a little child at the heart of things and bade his disciples to do likewise.
Sacrificing children is the default setting: it is the easy option. But if you seek the God of life, the God here revealed to Abraham, you must live differently. You must come down the mountain and face the harsh criticism of the people of the tents: your relatives, your neighbours, your employers, your priests, and your politicians. They’ll call you a hippie do-gooder, a bleeding heart, naïve; they’ll accuse you of undermining traditional family values; they’ll mock how you raise your children, and how you shop, work, worship, and play. But do not be afraid. You will not be alone. For coming down the mountain, you will be walking slowly and listening to chatter: for you will be hand in hand with a child, who trusts you to do what God asks. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 22:1-14 given to Sanctuary, 2 July 2017 (AP08). Header shows The Sacrifice of Isaac – God Restrains Abraham’s Hand, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46193 [retrieved June 25, 2017].