A Father and God’s Love for a Child and Children
A sermon based on Genesis 22: 1-14
Given at mount Vernon, Ohio on June 21, 2020 *
by Scott Elliott
The traditional interpretation of our lesson today is that Abraham prepares to cruelly sacrifice his son because he believed God’s voice told him to do so. While preachers and teachers have long lauded this interpretation as showing the value of unquestioning faith, I find it appalling. Because the lesson needs to be the exact opposite, that every father, every parent, must not only question faith if it endangers their child, but outright reject it and affirmatively oppose it.
While we will rarely hear or read that this story can teach that opposite lesson, on this Father’s Day I thought I’d point out again that it can. While other pastors and scholars may disagree, I have preached and taught in this church and others that this text can fairly be understood to portray the good and loving God we know, and show Abraham as a good and loving father. The story can be heard to have love of children by God and Abraham as its core message, not blind faith calling for child abuse. So on this Father’s Day lets find that message!
And first of all, finding it does not conflict with other Bible images of dads or God. Like how King David loves his son Absalom even as
Absalom leads a revolt against the kingdom. Like how Joseph– Jesus’ earthly dad– lovingly tends to Jesus’ pregnant mother, attends Jesus’ birth, protects Jesus from Herod and raises Jesus with Mary, even teaching him his carpenter trade. Like how the father in the parable of “The Prodigal Son” welcomes back his wayward son with unconditional love. Like how Jesus experienced God as so loving he affectionately referred to God as “Abba,” the Aramaic word for “daddy.” In my experience most parents love their children deeply and devoutly and they would do anything to protect and provide for them, like most good Biblical parent images.
The traditional understanding of today’s story does NOT portray Abraham to be a loving Biblical parent. Nor does it portray God to be loving either. It contradicts our reading from Psalm 145 (vs 8- 9) that “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” The Bible as a whole does not support the notion that God would want a child sacrificed. It does not, as a whole, support idea that a good parent, a good person would be willing, to abuse and sacrifice a child.
Yet traditionally “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” verses are interpreted as God testing Abraham by demanding he ritually take the life of his son, Isaac; and that Abraham passes that awful test by faithfully proceeding to comply with that bloodthirsty Divine demand. In the traditional reading the gracious and merciful God with abounding compassion and steadfast love is not to be found. The Lord is not good to all in the usual rendering of this story where God and Abraham are father figures that we’d remove from the family, have arrested and jailed–and pray they not be released with out successful psychiatric care.
So, what do we do when traditional meanings given to scripture are in conflict with God-as-love . . . in conflict with models of loving relationships, especially parenting? We can and should look at such a tradition with suspicion, and explore other meanings– which is what we are doing. A choice we have with any scripture tradition that portrays an unloving God is to scour the text for the loving God even if finding it means subverting tradition. And if we can in good faith we should free it from unloving traditions. As theologian, Letty Russell put it, the Bible “needs liberation from the privatized and spiritualized interpretations that avoid God’s concern for justice, human wholeness, and ecological responsibility.” 1.
This type of approach and theology is not new. Jesus looked to God’s Word to find radical love and turned traditions and scripture on its head. He purposefully looked within and around scripture to find the God who is love and promotes love. When you look around like that, the Bible is packed full of proof that children and youth are honored, loved, and trusted by God. The enslaved teenager Joseph in the Old Testament is rescued, honored and loved by God. The youthful shepherd David in the Old Testament is loved and honored by God. The teenage girl Mary in the New Testament is asked to conceive Christ and is entrusted to raise him. She is honored and loved by God. The adult Jesus she and Joseph raised, not only tends to ailing children but while embracing a child declared “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. . .” (Mark 9:37).
In addition to Bible stories we can also look to history for help in reinterpreting the story. The historical context our lesson was written in can convey much about its meaning missed by literal readings and traditions. That historical context includes that religions in the Ancient Near East at the time of Abraham practiced both polytheism and child sacrifice. Both can be heard directly challenged in the original Hebrew verses in the lesson. 2. We can’t tell in the English translation, but the Hebrew word for the divinity that tested Abraham in the first verse is “elohim,” which is a plural term for God. So one way to read that verse is that the plural, polytheistic gods – the Elohim– tested Abraham. The culture’s gods tell him, pressure him– and other fathers– to sacrifice children. 3 But it is “Yahweh,” in verse 11, God in the singular form, who demands that the abuse and sacrifice be stopped. 4
In other words, we can read the text to say it is the polytheistic gods– the Elohim– who instruct Abraham to offer Isaac “as a burnt offering” (Gen 1-2) and it is the loving One God we know– Yahweh– who instructs Abraham not to do that, Yahweh’s way is to stop child sacrifice. I loved discovering this. Abraham hears two voices, the elohim who tell him to follow the culture’s ritual custom of child sacrifice, and Yahweh who tells him to stop such sacrifice. God, Yahweh– shows steadfast love and emerges as Abraham and his progeny’s one true God: “[w]hereas Elohim tests Abraham it is YHWH who stops him.”5.
Genesis 22 can be fairly read as an admonishment of the old ways of the elohim, the gods of the culture who treated children as things to abuse and dispose of as sacrificial symbols. By just scratching the surface to get to the Hebrew and historical context we can hear echos of the human understanding of God evolving from the bloodthirsty elohim to the loving Yahweh. So on this Father’s Day WE CAN hold up Yahweh as loving, and Abraham as a hero father who honors Yahweh’s loving direction and turns humans away from child sacrifice. Abraham stops the sacrifice of children based on Yahweh’s calling him to love . . . and his willingness to follow that call.
This way of hearing the story is more than an admonishment against child sacrifice, and more than evidence of the emergence of the One God, Yahweh– it is the beginning of revolutionary Love through following the God of Love Yahweh! Although the story is traditionally seen as Abraham acting in faithful compliance and God as testing that faith, when read as a subversive text, both Abraham and God’s motives are no longer based on a testing, but instead are based on radical history altering love. The good news in this understanding of the story is that Love means children must not be abused and that we are called by God to stop such abuse. What looks like a story promoting child abuse is instead a story about stopping it, and that both children and fatherly love hold an honored place in the estimation of God, and Abraham in the original story.
It gets even better! A closer, deeper reading of the text bears this out. As we heard, God in the story at start tells us that Abraham loves his child. And Abraham acts like he does. He speaks as lovingly to Isaac in the story, as he does to God. He also is careful to ensure the safety of his child carring the fire and the knife up the mountain. But perhaps the most powerful clue to Abraham’s love for Isaac is that his words on the way up the mountain indicate a premeditated plan to not comply with the elohim’s and culture’s tradition and demand for sacrifice.
Think about it: as Isaac and Abraham prepare to depart to the offering site Abraham tells his servants that both he and Isaac will return, “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then WE will come back to you.” We can hear this as truth, not trickery. Abraham’s reference to “we” even suggests Isaac was nearby and let in on the plan.
Tradition suggests Abraham is deceitful by not disclosing to the servants or Isaac the planned sacrifice. But if we assume that Abraham was not lying, then he was not tricking anyone. Rather he was declaring precisely what he and Yahweh had in mind. Even when Isaac asks where the lamb for the offering will come from Abraham can heard to be honestly – not deceitfully– suggesting God’s going to provide some thing to sacrifice. Abraham tells Isaac the truth that “God . . . will provide the lamb . . .”(v. 8). Which is what happens, so it’s not a psychic prediction– but what God and Abraham planned. By taking Abraham’s words as honest utterances his actions are ennobled. We can see that Abraham is not going to sacrifice Isaac, and planned to come off the mountain with him, his loving father.
In a day and age when the norm was for followers of the elohim to sacrifice children, Abraham’s words to the servants and to his son evidence his and Yahweh’s plan to buck that terrible norm. From the beginning we can hear Abraham planned to bring his son off the mountain and sacrifice a lamb. And isn’t that what we want Abraham to do? Isn’t that what we’d do with our faith in the God of love? Isn’t that what we’d expect God to want any parent to do?
Genesis 22 can be read to show that a father so loved his son that he planned from the start to challenge the culture and gods-of-old’s demands for that son’s sacrifice, and so he let his son and community members in on the plan and then followed through with it. Because that is what God called him to do! And there it is, the opposite lesson from the traditional interpretation: that every father, every parent, must not only question faith if it endangers their child, but outright reject it and oppose it. With this love centered reading Genesis 22 is no longer a story about “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Liberated, it is the story of “A father and God’s heroic love for a child and children.” That’s not only a great Father’s Day message, but a great message every day.
* This sermon is based on a body of work I did in Seminary and on sermons I have preached in the past, as well as some teaching I have done along the way.
1. McKim, Donald, The Bible in Theology & Preaching, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 173 (quoting Russell, Letty).
2. Smith, Mark, The Early History of God, Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co.(2002), 171-181; see also, Psalms 106:34-38; Jer 7:31, 19:5, 32:35; Lev 18:21, 20:3; Eze 20:25-26.
3. Lowen, Jacob, “Translating the Names of God” The Bible Translator, V. 35, No. 2 (1984), 201.
4. Plaut, Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1981), 149. Note: The convention in Judaism is not to use the word “Yahweh,” but to replace it with “Adonai,” the author is following this convention.
5. See, Mills, Mary, Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives, Burlington: Ashgate (2001), 36.