inspired by Genesis 22:1-18
Breaking Free from what—to what? Our religions are dust in the wind if they do not free us to become deeper better more-engaged, connected people who tolerate, love, assert and create abundant life for others.
In the Christian tradition, God calls us to step forth in faith, but is it blind faith, or something more, something stronger, something worth fighting for?
Abraham, the man we know, who has had many an argument with God, who pleaded for God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, who felt bad to send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert to die, and who has had many a negotiation with God agrees to what? To take his only son, the one his wife didn’t give birth to until they were very elderly, the one who was to be his heir, the one he loves dearly up onto a mountain, where he is going to slit his throat with a knife and then burn his body, dripping blood!
Excuse me! How could God ask such a thing?
This is so grisly a tale it makes you cringe. It makes me say no wonder Jesus was the last atoning sacrifice! Enough is enough!
Of course this scripture has been expounded upon for centuries.
Philip and I had a long conversation about it–he took a traditional stance–it’s all about obedience to God. He said Abraham’s experience with God strengthened him in the face of suffering to be able to proceed, and obey. I agree with that but Scripture is rich with meaning.
John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, says this: Kierkegaard wrote an entire treatise on the ultimate meaning of genuine faith from this Scripture (about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac) …he called it “Fear and Trembling.” … which I assume in plain English means that all bets are off; when God asks things like this of us (we are expected to) leap wildly across the chasm of our doubts and fears, thrusting ourselves into the arms of this same God (the one who said kill your child) and we are to trust he will catch us. By so leaping we discover the true meaning of faith. (paraphrased)
Okay, here’s the story again. My version.
“Isaac,” Abraham says, “I am going to take you on a camping trip. Would you like that?”
The little boy squeals with delight. “Yes, Daddy, that would be wonderful. Is mummy coming too?”
“No, my dearest.” Abraham begins to sweat. “But we’ll take plenty of supplies and firewood. If you get tired you can hop on the donkey. I’ll have to tie the firewood on top of you, but it’s only for a little while.”
“What is the knife for, Daddy?”
Abraham stares up at the sky. “Nothing for you to worry about, little son.”
Later up on the mountain, Abraham is obeying God.
“Daddy,” Isaac cries. “Untie me! I don’t like this! I’m scared.”
“It’s okay, my only son, Daddy knows best because God told him to do this.”
Apparently, child sacrifices were common back in Abraham’s day. It was a way to propitiate great favor and show respect to your god.
John C. Holbert continues, this is a hard text. … God has some explaining to do… Well, you may ask—why exactly am I so troubled by this powerful and memorable and religiously important tale of Abraham and his son, trundling their way up Mt. Moriah for a date with a fire, a knife, and a very demanding God? And here is my answer: because I have a son, too, and since I do, I can only now see this text as a terrible form of divine child abuse.
Personally, if you asked me to sacrifice my dog or my cat, let alone my child, I’d have a row with you; I’d certainly ignore your command unless my pet were very sick. Then it would be a humane ending through euthanasia, not slitting a throat.
This Abe passage is a sacred script, though, which past scholars and preachers take to be about the necessity of obeying God. Of course, we get it–we want to be obedient to God, but blind obedience is not in keeping with freedom of choice.
Sometimes, we must struggle with God–consider other options, and get deeper…in the Bible there are plenty of struggles with God. One memorable one is about how Jacob struggled with God.
Jacob was Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson. He has some powerful holy lineage. Yet he struggles quite a bit, and in fact does some things we might not appreciate. For one thing, he manages to fool his aged and blind father into giving him the inheritance that should have gone to his older twin brother, Esau, who he sweet-talked into giving up his place as elder son.
Jacob leads a rich and interesting and successful life. He has a family, and a good livelihood. Esau, the brother he tricked, is about to come back into his life. Esau is a very fierce warrior. He is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. Jacob is scared and wants to prepare for the worst. He is in desperate prayer with God. We don’t’ know whether God tells him what to do, or he figures he’d better appease fierce Esau who has every reason to be upset. So he sends Esau some presents and makes nice with him, calls himself Esau’s servant.
Jacob does not run away but takes his family across the Jabbock River and then fetches his possessions across to wait for Esau. He has no idea what is going to happen. But he ends up spending the night wrestling with an angel of God. And finally, never giving up, he demands a blessing and is renamed Israel.
Israel (Yisra`el, means “one that struggled with the divine angel” (Josephus), “one who has prevailed with God” (Rashi), “a man seeing God” (Whiston), “he will rule as God” (Strong), or “a prince with God” (Morris), from Hebrew: שרה, “prevail”, “have power as a prince”).
How do we struggle with our understanding of God so that we are renamed in a way that reflects deepened maturity and oneness with the holy?
Another message can be gleaned from the Scripture about the command to sacrifice Isaac. If he had been killed, we would not have Jacob struggling. We would not be struggling to figure out who we are as individuals and as a community of faith. It would have all ended in death.
Assertiveness. Thoughfulness. Deepened understanding. Are these not goals worth struggling for?
Being assertive can change the course of the world, and certainly the course of individual lives:
There are essentially three different ways that people can relate to one another. They can be: 1) aggressive, 2) passive or 3) assertive. Most people understand what aggression and passivity mean, but they don’t understand assertiveness at all.
Aggression is about dominance. A person is aggressive when they impose their will onto another person and force them to submit, in effect invading that person’s personal space and boundary. Violence may be used in this effort, but it is not a necessary component of aggression. Passivity, on the other hand is about submission. Passivity occurs when a person submits to another person’s dominance play, putting their own wishes and desires aside so as to pay attention to fulfilling the wishes and desires of their dominant partner. They may not like being dominated (most people don’t), but it seems like the smart thing to do at the time (perhaps to avoid the threat of violence or other coercion). Aggression is about domination and invasion; it is fundamentally disrespectful of relationship partner’s personal boundaries. Passivity is about submission and being invaded; it is fundamentally disrespectful of one’s own personal boundaries.
In contrast to these two fundamentally disrespectful positions, assertiveness is about finding a middle way between aggression and passivity that best respects the personal boundaries of all relationship partners. Assertive people defend themselves when someone else attempts to dominate them, using any necessary method (including force) to repel the invasion attempt. Though they can be strong people who are capable of aggressive domination attempts, they never act in an aggressive manner, however, because they know that to do so would cause them to disrespect their relationship partner’s boundaries. Another way to say this is that assertive people use aggression defensively, and never offensively. http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=9778&cn=353
The Abraham/Isaac passage is certainly about faith but also points to struggles with speaking up. Abraham is passive in this situation.
What if the story went like this?
“Abe, I want you to sacrifice your only son, the one you and Sarah had when you were in your nineties,” says God.
“This can’t be right. I must refuse,” Abe says quietly. “Take me instead.”
What might God have said to Abraham’s refusal?
He might have said, “Well done, Abe, you are absolutely right to not want to kill your son, and I applaud your willingness to take his place. I don’t want anyone to die for nothing.”
In my version, when I postulate that Abraham could have been assertive rather than blindly obedient, there is a different outcome, and a different understanding arises. God is no longer a powerful God superbeing who ruthlessly tests his chosen one, but instead God is happy and loving to see the chosen one take some initiative.
All churches experience conflict and struggle in many ways. Yet Christianity has been sustained for 2000 years with a rich tradition. Why is that? Because, in spite of disagreements, the most important thing we do as a community of faith is stand together, embrace one another as equals in the eyes of God, obedient to the teachings of Christ. Really, churches, are safe houses to struggle together to seek the truth that frees us from former behaviors, empowering us, for instance, to communicate assertively.
Just what does God want and expect today? Why did Jesus come? Blind obedience?
Holbert says this: “And let me go even further: due to the potency of this unforgettable story and its undeniable influence on later Christian reflection about Jesus and his sacrifice on another mountain many years later, I can only see that later story as another example of divine child abuse. If Jesus really did “die for my sins,” as the familiar phrase has it, then God has some mighty explaining to do about just why God’s only child also trundled, or perhaps more accurately, stumbled up a mountain to be tortured on a Roman cross while God, all too much like Abraham, seemed a willing participant in the murder.”
No wonder Jesus is the atoning sacrifice! God sends his only son to say enough is enough! Stop it!
I imagine God saying something like this: Can’t you see how atrocious it is to snuff out anyone’s life, but even in death, I your God, stand with you in solidarity. You are not alone no matter the struggle. You are not alone! My child, Jesus, is with you.
My chosen people, you have often done things I don’t like as you well know, but I will always love you. Yes, I expect you to repent and do better.
Why do you think I sent my son?
He made his own choices, I can tell you. He wasn’t a little boy. He was a grown man. A spiritual adult. He is the last sacrifice you need to make to get me to favor you again. Forget the past. Move on.
God loves us in spite of our bad behavior and failures and when we try to do better, when we repent, God is always there for us and takes us back. In fact God is the ground of being and even when we don’t know it, is an ever-present force in our lives.
Jesus taught us, shows us, so many things–including that there is life after death. And he comes back to prove it.
Struggle with God is about deepening our understanding, about finding what is relevant today, what is universally meaningful to all people all the time, and yet speaks to us as individuals within communities of faith.
Blessing and Charge
May you be blessed with the ability to assert truth, find a faith community where you are able to struggle for deeper understanding, respect the voices of other people, develop your gifts, and fearlessly proceed with the goal of creating abundant life for others.
Listen carefully, every day, noting your feelings, your angers, your willingness, your resistance, seeking to hear and allow God, which is love, to guide your life.
As the Wind Song, by SWEE HONG LIM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpXH4vFdfFI Chapel service hosted by PCOCS at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, KY
As the wind song through the trees, as the stirring of the breeze, so it is with the Spirit of God, as the heart made strangely warm, as the voice within the storm, so it is with the Spirit of God.
Never seen, ever known where this wind has blown bringing life, bringing power to the world, as the dancing tongues of fire, as the soul’s most deep desire, so it with the Spirit of God.
As the rainbow after rain, as the hope that’s born again, so it is with the Spirit of God, as the green in the spring, as a kite on a string, so it is with the Spirit of God,
making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world, as the rising of the yeast, as the wine at the feast, so it is with the Spirit of God. (SEMurray) http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/liturgy_collection/year_a_liturgy_collection/year_a_pentecostafter/pentecost2a.html
Watch Assertiveness Training Video
Assertiveness in 7 minutes - by Chris Croft https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-p_MBy9I_4
How not to be unless you are, shall we say, hip?
Hippos assert control – BBC wildlife https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJdiyPOLaT0