More Questions Than Answers

July 9, 2017 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22.1-14

This story may be the most difficult and troubling story in the entire Bible.

When we get to the end of the reading, I don’t want to say, “Thanks be to God.”

There has been lots of commentary through the centuries trying to explain the story—to make it not seem as terrifying as it is: a father being willing to offer his son as a burnt offering to God.

Genesis 22 says this is a test God administered to Abraham to determine the strength of Abraham’s faith. This idea of someone being tested was a common theme in ancient literature—and is common as well in contemporary literature, such as the Harry Potter series.

Some scholars have said this was a story to point out that while other religious groups in the Ancient Near East sacrificed children to gods, the God of Abraham would never require that as illustrated by the provision of a ram just in the nick of time.

But other scholars say there is scant evidence that there was any child sacrifice going on anywhere at that time. To this point, Carol Delaney, anthropologist and theologian, writes, “Most examples of known human sacrifice come not from primitive and/or nomadic societies but from highly complex, sophisticated and cosmopolitan ones.”[1]

A side-bar to illustrate Delaney’s point. The Hunger Games is a contemporary story about sacrificing young people. It’s fiction but still illustrative and comes out of our current culture where many young people feel unsure about the trustworthiness and security of the world around them. I would argue that any society that tolerates poverty as we do in this country is guilty of human sacrifice.[2]

There are so many connections between poverty and all kinds of poor outcomes, including death. There’s information on concentrated poverty in Louisville[3] on the bulletin board near the back parking lot door if you want to take a look at what’s happening in our city.

One specific connection I want to mention this morning about our toleration for poverty and human sacrifice. Maybe you saw Jim Bruggers’ article in the Courier-Journal about neighborhoods with poor air quality and the highest risk of asthma symptoms and attacks.[4] If you overlayed Joshua Poe’s story map that illustrates the modern day consequences of red-lining in Louisville,[5] with the map of high risk for asthma, you would see a lot of neighborhoods who suffer economically because of the legacy of red-lining are also the neighborhoods with the highest rates of asthma. And asthma is a killer.[6] It can be managed but that requires access to health care and money to pay for doctor visits and prescription medicine. And if you are poor, you have fewer of those options.

Back in Genesis, some commentators point out Abraham’s great faith to give up the son through whom God promised the covenant would continue. God asked something of Abraham that most fathers (and mothers) would recoil from. Yet Abraham did not question God. He passed the test God set before him and some say this reflects his great trust and faith in God.

For me, none of those explanations take away the horror of a father not questioning the God who would ask such a thing of him. What kind of father would not even pause to say, “Are you sure?” The explanations for this story don’t take away the terror of a father binding his son like an animal and raising his arm in mid-air ready to kill him.

And what kind of god is this who would test a person in this way? If someone told you that God told them to harm or kill another person, wouldn’t you say, “That is not God talking to you”? And if this is what God asks—to murder another person—is this a god to whom we want to be faithful?

In order to deal responsibly with this story we must acknowledge its terror. At the end of the day, I have no theological moves to undo its troubling content. Every thing I read that tries to clean up the story or dilute its horror, for me, only ends up with more questions or with conclusions about God or about human beings that I cannot live with.

So today I’m not going to be able to package this up neatly. I can’t explain it away or say it’s not really what it seems. We’re going to be left with a text that is significant and which we must hold lightly, be willing to let it speak to us and be willing to speak back to it as well. As Mark said last week, many of these stories in Genesis come with far more questions than answers.

This story is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And all three religions have struggled with it. We each call it by different names:

Christians typically call it the sacrifice of Isaac (pre-figuring another Father’s sacrifice of another Son in the New Testament Gospels).

Jews typically call it the binding of Isaac with the focus on Isaac and his response. Isaac did not choose his fate but was chosen; as the Jewish people did not choose but were chosen by God.

The Qur’an doesn’t name the son but most Muslim commentators say the son Abraham took to Mount Moriah to offer up was Ishmael.[7]

While our three religious traditions read the story in different ways, “all three faiths agree that this story raises some of the most difficult questions ever posed by and to humankind.”[8]

The biblical text gives us no psychological analysis of either Abraham or Isaac. That is not the writer’s interest. However it certainly can be ours.

And so while the story does not address this, we can ask: What kind of damage does a father do to a child when he demonstrates he is willing to kill him because he heard God tell him to? What kind of damage does it do to a father to be willing to slaughter his child—even if God intervenes at the last minute?

Twelve years ago when I preached on this story, a ten-year old boy in our congregation and his father came up to me after the service and that ten-year old looked me square in the face asked, “Do you think Isaac could ever look his father in the eyes again?” I have remained haunted by that question from a boy who was clearly imagining the horror of this story.

And the truth is Isaac disappears in this story. He doesn’t come down from the mountain with Abraham and he barely shows up again until the time when he and his brother Ishmael meet to bury their father.

I have no answer to wrap this story up neatly. But I have one final observation.

The first sentence of the story tells us God is testing Abraham. We don’t know why. We just know that’s what this story is going to be about.

Years ago God had asked Abraham to leave the land of his father, to leave his relatives to go to a land that God would show him. In doing so, God asked Abraham to leave his past behind. Now God asks him to let go of his future, his son, as well. So Abraham stands in front of God with only the present—no past and no future to hold on to.

Now why this test? Indeed why any test? Does God bring calamity to us in order to see how we’ll do? I don’t like that view of God but we do see it again in the bible in the story of Job. And the apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth talks about God allowing us to be tested.[9] Even in the face of that, I do not believe God brings things like cancer or the death of a child or a car wreck or whatever other tragedy. I do believe God can bring good out of terrible circumstances and that God accompanies us in terrible circumstances but I don’t believe God brings those circumstances about in order to make us grow or to see if we’ll be faithful.

So this is one of those places I have to hold the text lightly. The story says God tested Abraham. That’s how the writer understood what was going on.

But test or no test, this story seems to say that even if you are the one with whom God has made a covenant, that doesn’t protect you from suffering. God promises to be with us but that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer.

And what we see at the end of the story is that God provides. Abraham says this to Isaac when Isaac asks,

“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering, dad?”

“God will provide, my son.”

Perhaps that was Abraham’s prayer every step of the three-day trek to Mount Moriah. “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.”

That word provide also means “see.” So some translators translate the name Abraham called the place where the ram was discovered, “The Holy One will see.” And so the One who sees is also the One also provides.

So when we stand inside the story and wonder what it is all about, perhaps it is the reality of life, that even as God’s people, we are not spared suffering and anguish. But neither are we alone. We are seen by the God who provides for us even in our greatest need.

In this story, God is the God who tests. But in this story God is also the God who sees and provides. And so, perhaps, even in this terrifying story we might find a glimmer of Good News.

* * * * *

[1] Carol Delaney, “Abraham and the Seeds of Patriarchy,” Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 132.

[2] 21% of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold which is actually a very low threshold for what families need to cover basic expenses. When you look at what it takes to cover basic expenses, 43% of children live in low-income families who struggle to make ends meet. http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html, accessed 8 July 2017.

[3] http://greaterlouisvilleproject.com/annual-city-reports/2015-competitive-city-update/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[4] http://www.courier-journal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2017/06/28/hey-theres-app-that-asthma-attack-risk-covers-much-louisville/397768001/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[5] https://lojic.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=e4d29907953c4094a17cb9ea8f8f89de, accessed 8 July 2017.

[6] For more statistics on asthma, hospitalizations, deaths and the racial/ethnic disparities in asthma hospitalizations and deaths: http://www.asthmamd.org/asthma-statistics/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[7] Bill Moyers, Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, 105-106.

[8] Ibid., 106.

[9] 1 Corinthians 10.13.

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