Abraham Answering God’s Call to be a Good Loving Father*
A sermon based on Genesis 22: 1-14, Ps 145:8-9
Given on July 20, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Scott Elliott
The story we just heard used to haunt me, so I have no jokes in the sermon today.
Having been raised in a house with an abusive parent and having walked into church as an adolescent with the promise of experiencing a loving God, I instead sometimes heard preachers and teachers interpret this story in ways that lauded a parent’s faithful following of a divine request to abuse a child with the intent to kill him. This disturbed me greatly.
I’m know that interpretation has disturbed others here today, probably all of us.
Such an interpretation means that Isaac was actually tied up and prepared for a gruesome and violent sacrificial death by his own father, Abraham; and Abraham does the dirty prep deeds and plans to kill 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 and I want nothing to do with it, either as an abused child, a survivor of abuse, a parent myself, or as a member of a culture with far too much child abuse that Christianity has woefully failed to adequately speak out against and prevent it.
My first desire as an adult returning back to church in my forties was to reject the whole text as invalid. But it gnawed at me that a pivotal Bible story would be about an abusive God and an abusive man who turns out to influence and found three major faiths of the world. Since this reading didn’t sit right with me, and very likely doesn’t sit right with most of us, I have spent a lot of hours dissecting and de-constructing it. My efforts have led me to preach and teach on the text as I believe it is very important that we come to grips with this story as Christians.
The traditional interpretation flies in the face of “love your neighbor” an Old and New Testament edict. Teaching God’s people that faith should be so blind as to follow a voice from god telling us to inflict abuse on a child is not in any way about love. Child abuse never, ever is!
While other scholars may not agree, I have come to the conclusion that this text can fairly be understood to be portraying the good and loving God we know, and showing Abraham as a good and loving father. I believe, if we just hear the story again, as if for the first time without the awful tradition carrying the day, it can have love, not blind faith that calls for child abuse, as its core message. So today’s sermon is an invitation to wipe the slate clean of pre-conceived notions about this story and hear it anew in a whole new way.
Hearing the Bible as promoting a loving father and a loving God does not, of course, conflict with other Bible images of either dads or God. King David loves his son Absalom even as Absalom leads a revolt against the kingdom. When David hears Absalom’s been killed his cry is that of a loving, grieving father: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom my son, my son.” (2 Sam 18:33).
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.
The father in the parable of “The Prodigal Son” welcomes back his wayward son with undying love. (Luke 15:11-32).
And there is the image of God as Father, experienced as so loving by Jesus, that Jesus refers to God as “Abba,” an Aramaic word that means “daddy.”
In my many years of experience working with children and helping to raise four I have observed that most fathers love their children –deeply and devoutly. Most fathers would do anything to protect their children and provide for them, not unlike the Biblical fatherly images I just referred to.
The traditional reading of the today’s story, often gruesomely referred to as “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” to say the least, does not lead us to consider Abraham as a good parent, he’s not a loving Biblical dad. The traditional reading also conflicts with hearing and understanding God as the loving God we often find in scripture and in Jesus’ and our experiences of the Divine. In fact, as we heard, Psalm 145 (vs 8- 9) claims God is loving:
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 bottom-line is nothing Biblically requires us to buy into the idea God wanted, and a dad was willing, to abuse and sacrifice a child. Yet traditionally “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” is interpreted as God testing Abraham by cavalierly demanding to ritually take the life of his son, Isaac; and Abraham passing the test through a faithful cavalier intent to comply with this awful, abusive, bloodthirsty, supposedly Divine demand. In the traditional reading the gracious and merciful God with abounding compassion and steadfast love is hardly to be found. The Lord is not good to all in the usual rendering of this story which depicts Isaac as an expendable pawn in a game of chicken between God and Abraham, two monstrous figures willing to mistreat a child. God and Abraham are father figures we’d rightly remove from the family, have arrested and jailed–and hopefully provide much needed 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 parents? We can look at such a tradition with suspicion, and explore other meanings– which is what we are doing this morning.
We don’t necessarily have to give up on the text, just reexamine it to see if we can find our loving God lurking in or behind or between the text. In other words 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. As theologian, Letty Russell puts it, the Bible
needs liberation from the privatized and spiritualized interpretations that avoid God’s concern for justice, human wholeness, and ecological responsibility. It needs liberation from abstract, doctrinal interpretations that remove the biblical narrative from its concrete social and political context in order to change it into timeless truth. 1.
This type of theology, of course, is not new. Jesus looked to God’s Word to find radical love and Jesus turned traditions of his day on their head for the oppressed people of the world. Jesus gave us a precedent for purposefully looking within and around scripture to find the gracious, merciful, loving God who is good to all– the God who promotes loving relationships. So, lets see if we can find a good and loving God and even a heroic loving parent too. Let’s look and see if we can fairly read the Bible as portraying God and Abraham as loving the child Isaac instead of abusing him.
I’ve already mentioned positive images of fathers and God’s steadfast love. There is also precedence in the Bible for loving and honoring children. The Bible is packed full of proof that children and youth are honored, loved, and trusted by God. Teenaged Joseph is abused and enslaved in the Old Testament, but God rescues, honors and loves him.
As a youthful lowly shepherd David is loved and honored by God.
Mary an oppressed teenaged girl is asked to conceive God, and in partnership with God, give birth to a new Way to God through her son Jesus.
And as an adult Jesus not only tends to ailing children but embraces a child at one point declaring that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. . .” (Mark 9:37)
Given these stories can Genesis 22– our text today– be read to find a loving God and loving parent –– can we hear it as a story showing love for children, not abuse, disdain or disregard for them.
In addition to looking to find Bible stories showing God and fathers love their children we can also look to history for help in reinterpreting the story. This part is not on the surface of the English translations, but we can easily find it echoing in the story as it has been handed down trough the ages. Religions in the Ancient Near East at the time of Abraham practiced both polytheism and child sacrifice. Our text today can –believe it or not– be heard to directly challenge both. 2.
The child sacrifice part actually echos in God’s request for it. 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– are testing Abraham.
See it’s his culture’s gods that tell him and others to abuse and sacrifice children. 3
And wonderfully, magnificently, gratefully 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 loving One God we know– Yahweh– who instructs Abraham not to do it. 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 that abuse.
Abraham’s God– our 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. So Genesis 22 can be fairly read as an admonishment of the old way 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 we can her echos of the human understanding of God evolving from the bloodthirsty elohim to the loving Yahweh who longs for justice, righteousness and shalom. This allows us to hold up Yahweh as loving and Abraham as a hero who honors Yahweh’s loving message 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, then, is more than an admonishment against child sacrifice, and more than evidence of the emergence of the One God, Yahweh, it’s a lesson in revolutionary Love.
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 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 abuse, and both children and fatherly love holding an honored place in the estimation of God, Abraham and scripture.
It gets even better, a closer deeper reading of the text we heard bears all this out. From the beginning we know that Abraham loves his child, God tells us that. And Abraham acts like he does. He speaks as lovingly to Isaac in the story, as he does to God. In addition Abraham, like any good parent, is careful to ensure the safety of his child. Like any other good parent he makes sure to carry both 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 demand for sacrifice.
Think about it: as Isaac and Abraham prepare to depart to the offering site Abraham clearly instructs his servants that both he and Isaac will return. (quote) “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you” (end quote) (v. 5). 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 plan to sacrifice his child; but if we assume that Abraham is not lying, the text indicates Abraham is not tricking anyone but declaring precisely what he and Yahweh have 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 . . . (sic) will provide the lamb . . .”(v. 8). Which is what happens, so it’s not a psychic prediction– but what God and Abraham had planned.
By taking Abraham’s words as honest utterances his actions are ennobled.
So not only can we see that Abraham is not going to sacrifice Isaac, but that Isaac is in on the plan, that a lamb will be the offering, and that Abraham from the start intended that Isaac would be coming off the mountain with his loving father. In a day and age when the norm was for followers of elohim to sacrifice children, Abraham’s words to the servants and to his son evidence his and Yahweh’s plan to buck the norm. From the git-go 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 Isaac and community members in on the plan and then followed through with it.
So, there we are. When we look beyond the traditional view of Genesis 22 we can choose to hear that it reveals on numerous levels a caring Yahewh who lures a loving father to successfully plan to stop child abuse. Consequently the God of love, Jesus’ “daddy-God” can be found lurking and luring from within and between that text. The true loving God and loving father of the story can be experienced and brought to the surface. With this love centered reading Genesis 22 is no longer a story about “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”
Liberated, it is the story of “Abraham Answering God’s Call to Be a Good Loving Father.”
* 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.