BINDING AND RELEASING
It takes some kind of faith in God to fly a plane full of people into a World Trade Center tower. It takes some kind of faith. The question for our time is, What kind? What kind of faith is it that causes a person to think that God would reward him for massacring thousands of innocent people?
It takes some kind of faith in God to take your only son -- the heir that you thought you'd never get but finally received -- it takes some kind of faith in God to take that boy up on a mountain, bind him on an altar, raise the knife in your hand, and be ready to plunge it into his heart as a sacrifice to God. Yes, it takes some kind of faith. But, again, what kind?
And perhaps the even more important question for us to consider is how these two faiths might be related. What would cause human beings to think that God wanted them to do such hideous things? I think that if we can answer the question about our text from Genesis 22 this morning, we might have the beginnings of important answers for the violence of our times -- the violence of every time and every place, really.
The importance for our day relates to the fact that this story of God's testing Abraham is crucial for all three of the great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity -- which represents two billion of earth's present population! The Jews call this passage the Akedah, from the Hebrew word for "binding." Abraham bound his son for the sacrifice in the test of his faith. In the Qur'an, the Muslim scripture, it assumes this same story, except it is with Ishmael, Abraham's oldest son by his servant Hagar. Again, it is the supreme story of a test of faith, the willingness to surrender to God, Allah -- which is what the word Islam means, "surrender," as in surrender obedience to Allah. For Christians, this story is often brought up to make the point that God didn't withhold his own Son for the sacrifice. God did sacrifice his son Jesus on the cross! (1)
What I want to suggest this morning is that Abraham did pass the test from God in this story, but not in the usual way we see him passing the test -- namely, that he passed by being willing to sacrifice even his only son. Rather, I want to say that Abraham passed this test when he heard the voice of the true God at the end, telling him not to do such a horrific thing as to sacrifice his son. I also want to suggest that many countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have subsequently seen Abraham as passing the test by being obedient to God to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son -- I want to suggest that we may be flunking the test -- and with horrifying results! For if we are willing to believe that God would ask Abraham to prove his faith by killing his son, wouldn't it then be possible to believe such crazy things as God wanting us to fly planes into tall buildings? Is one really any less crazy than the other?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a crucial text before us this morning, and reading it faithfully is so important to our world. This is a story claimed by two billion of this globe's population. Two billion who call themselves Jews, or Christians, or Muslims! And we all have this story in common. What are the possibilities if we could pass the test like Abraham and hear the voice of the true God telling us to stop the madness?
Look at our present situation as people of faith. Some Muslim leaders of Palestine are recruiting youth -- their average age must be around twenty -- to strap bombs to themselves in order to kill others. They are literally sacrificing their own children in order to murder Jewish neighbors. And the Israelis have been forced to react with a heavily militaristic response, making the lives of many of their Palestinian citizens a living hell. They are sacrificing those many lives of innocent Palestinians for the sake of revenge on the perpetrators of the slaughter. And, yes, I think we need to take a look at our efforts thus far in Afghanistan. With so many megatons of bombs fired and dropped, can we avoid missing the targets and hitting innocent children and people of Afghanistan? That's a necessary evil of war, we say. Yes, but isn't it also a sacrifice of children just as surely as Abraham was about to do? Isn't "necessary evil of war" a justification that we are killing for the sake of a higher cause? In other words, isn't our faith in a "higher cause" leading us to sacrifice children?
Let's take another look at this story that we two billion Jews, Christians, and Muslims share together. First, we must ask, Does God ever ask us to sacrifice our children in any way, shape, or form? I want to begin by making it clear that I recognize that the story-teller of Genesis thinks so. According to his telling, God clearly calls Abraham and commands him to do so. Then, even at the crucial point of stopping Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice, God says, "for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
What I want to suggest to you this morning is that, well over two thousand years later, we are in a position to see that the story-teller in Genesis simply had this wrong: God does not, and never has, asked us to do anything so terrible as to sacrifice our children. The true God didn't ask Abraham, either. No, the voice of the true God is the one telling Abraham to stop!
I'm not trying to be blame the story-teller of Genesis 22. In fact, he even left us a very important clue: there's two Hebrew names used for God in his rendering of this story. I've put them in brackets and in italics [in the version handed out]. In verses one and twelve, for example, the verses where God has asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the Hebrew name for God is Elohim. In verses eleven and fourteen, however, the Hebrew name for God is that name, Yahweh, which became so special that Jewish people won't even say it aloud. Instead, they will say, "Lord," Adonai in Hebrew. What's significant about this? Let me briefly explain. Yahweh is the name that Moses receives before the burning bush. He is trying to make every excuse in the book not be the one to go to Pharoah and say, "Let my people go!" So among other excuses, Moses tells God, "I don't know what name to call you when I go to Pharoah." So God tells him, "Yahweh!" This is the special name for God that Hebrew people have in telling the world of the one true God.
Elohim, on the other hand, is the earliest Hebrew word for "God." Its simplest form is El, which you find in many Hebrew names, such as Beth-el, "House of God." Most significantly, Elohim is the word used to talk about all gods, even the other false gods. When the First Commandment says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," elohim is the word for gods.
So rather than blame the author of Genesis, I want to commend him for passing along to us the clue we need, from our perspective millennia later, to see that Abraham first followed the voice of the tribal gods of the cultures surrounding him. We know from anthropology that it was common to sacrifice children in the Canaanite cultures of those days. Abraham thought he heard the voice of the God who had called him out of all that, but was now telling him to do the same thing. Then, at the last second, Abraham passed the test by finally hearing the voice of Yahweh, the voice of the one true God, telling him to stop.
We also have the perspective of not only millennia since human sacrifice died away but also of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. To set up that perspective, I'd like to use the story on the back of your handout this morning by William Loader. (2) I won't read aloud the whole thing to you, but Loader uses what I would call a parabolic rendering of this story that has Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice. Then, Abraham's grief sets in immediately, causing him to have grave second thoughts and deep, anguishing regrets. His servant Bildad tries to convince him that he only did what God wanted him to, but Abraham begins to have serious doubts about that. Then, as a rain storm begins, a stranger walks into their midst. I read for you the final two paragraphs:
Abraham told the man his story, about what he had believed, how it led him to violence and murder, how Bildad pained him, how his grief was changing him, how he knew the heavens wept and the earth encompassed him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith was now unfaith, his faith become new faith, how his vision of God was not that of Bildad, how he felt that in truth he had lunged the knife into God, how God called not for blind obedience, but compassion, how he should have seen that it was a terrible joke, a divine spoof meant to turn him forever away from the ways of religion, how he had confused the words of Yahweh with the will of Baal.What I'd like to say is that this Christian parable of the Abraham story is what actually happened with the cross and resurrection of Christ. The Son of God came into this world as one of God's chosen people, a descendant of Abraham, and God's own people were still undertaking their updated versions of sacrifice, executing blasphemers according to the Law. They were, and we still are, so blind to our sacred killing as sacrificial that it actually took the Son handing himself over to the sinful ways in which we are bound, so that as our Risen Lord he could come back to forgive us, to release us from that which binds us.
The stranger listened. It had been a long journey. He was weary, but he understood. Hearts were warm; they were beginning to see as the darkness was falling. Truth and pain and love had filled their conversation and yet they had hardly met. Then across the darkness Abraham looked to the bowed head and asked. Tell me your name. The man said: Isaac and showed them his hands and his side.
On Easter evening, John's gospel records for us that the disciples were huddled in a locked room, for fear of some further sacrificial bloodletting, and feeling guilty, no doubt, that they had abandoned and denied Jesus to the sacrifice they feared. Suddenly, he was in their midst, saying, "Peace be with you," and showing them his hands and his side.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you bind the sins of any, they are bound." (John 20:21-23)Our Lord comes to us today, two thousand years later, we who are huddled in fear because we two billion descendants of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar continue to sacrifice our own and each other's children to the slaughter. He is in our midst, saying, "Peace!" and bidding us to stop. Even as we stand ready for the next slaughter, the knife in our hands raised above our heads, he comes to us and releases us from such sin. Not only that, he calls us to tell others: "Peace! Stop the madness! Be forgiven!" Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, June 30, 2002
1. For more on the Christian and Islamic readings of this story, see my webpage entitled "The Hebrew Akedah in Christian and Islamic Tradition." For more on the Girardian reading of this passage, in general, see the webpage for Proper 8A, including a response to Luther's use of this passage against human reason.
2. See the webpage "Isaac. A Reflection on Genesis 22," by William Loader.