Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Unnerved by Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac

On Saturday I collected Jonathan from Exeter where he’s completed a terrific first year. It’s so good having him home but on Wednesday he’s off to Europe for a month with his girlfriend. It was a long day beginning at 5.15 a.m. and continuing in the evening at the Milton Keynes Theatre for the Gala Concert of the MK Music Service. Andrew, our other son, was performing as part of the Prague Orchestra, aptly named because of the tour to the Czech Republic which will take place in the next few weeks. Andrew’s just finished his GCSE’s, and he can’t wait to go into the sixth form. Both of them are enjoying life to the full. And I take pleasure in their pleasure and look at them with pride. I say ‘look at them’ but this is only just true for Andrew and no longer true for Jonathan to whom I look up as he’s even taller than me!

In the light of this, Sunday’s lectionary readings - which I read prior to visiting Aston Clinton Baptist Church where I was preaching – unnerved me. Or rather one of them did, the passage from Genesis 22, where Abraham is asked to do the unthinkable and offer his only son on the altar of sacrifice.

As a father of boys I’ve always found this a particularly heart-wrenching passage, and the last time I preached on it, I recall that I felt I hadn’t done justice to it. As I read it, I found it even more so. I look at my boys, who are in fact men, and try for just a moment to put myself in Abraham’s place, and the reality is that I can’t. What could this have meant for Abraham?

I had a quick look at ‘Texts for Preaching’, a useful commentary on the lectionary with contributions from Brueggemann and Cousar, and it was helpful. ‘In the first scene Abraham is addressed by the abrupt voice of God, described as a voice of savage sovereignty … In the second ‘Isaac his long awaited son, speaks a voice of innocent pathos. … In the third scene, [as Abraham’s obedient offering is about to be made] Abraham is addressed one more time. This is a voice of stunning generosity.’ (While I recognise the provision of God, I guess I find the adjective a bit over the top, unless you continue with vv. 15-19.)

I connected with some of the questions that the commentator raises. As Abraham tells his servant that he and the boy will return, does he believe in a miracle? Is he lying? Does he deceive himself? Does he recognise that he will return alone if he fully obeys the voice. None of these questions is answered. Add to these those that are raised from Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question, ‘where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Is his answer that God will provide a loving deception? Is it a direct lie. Is it an act of outrageous hope? Again, no answers.

This is a story of testing and faith, set against a backdrop of the long-awaited but now realized promise. And the story is more manageable because we know the outcome. Shockingly, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, includes Wilfred Owen’s telling of the story which is changed so that Abraham goes through with the sacrifice:
Lay not they hand upon the lad
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I remain unnerved which is right and proper. I must preach on it again, and maybe do a bit more justice to it.


Glen Marshall said...

AT LAST! Someone else who has used the Owen poem - it's little cracker isnt' it. I've used it once or twice on remembrance Sunday. Keep telling others about it but their eyes glaze over.

Re Gen 22 - try reading it then preaching it from Sarah's perspective.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I've circled round this text warily from year to year as it comes up every how ever many years it is in the lectionary, but I hope slightly less warily as the years have passed. The temple was where it was because of it! It's a spring of all three Abrahamic faiths. It's taken me too long to de-psychologise it, and I don't think I've manged to get to a point I cna entirely identify with ay of the characters! Bu thanks, for a really helpful post, Geoff.

Anonymous said...

I found myself preaching on this passage on Good Friday, following my reading of 'Preaching the Atonement' by Peter Stevenson and Stephen Wright. There's a great chapter in the book on this passage which I wholeheartedly recommend! My thoughts on Good Friday centred on 'God himself will provide the lamb.'

Tyburn said...

What you have to remember about Abraham is that, largely he like noone else impressed and found favour with GOD. Lest we forget that this is a direct mirror image of what GOD would ordain a few thousand years later with his own Son.

For the first major time in scripture you get the very crux from GODs point of view, about what Love and Sacrifice are all about.

You are quite supposed to be unnerved by it, because you have offspring, they are a part of you, and to sacrifice them...well now you understand a little about the quandery of GODs unifying a fallen creation via sacrificing his son, a part of him within the trinity.

Abraham would go on to be the start of all three major world faiths, Jews from Issiac, Islamists from Ishmail, and Christian as a result of later and deeper revelation.

My worry would be the effect this would have psychologically on his son. Jesus did it willingly, he knew what was coming, Abrahams son did not know what was coming, and granted it didnt come, but it had gotten to the stage where the child had been bound and laid on an altar...now the interesting question is...even though he didnt go through with it due to GODs intervention...what do you suppose the journey home was like dynamically between Father and Son?

Stuart Dennis said...

I find it helpful to view it as a critique of the prevalent practice of child sacrifice in the surrounding cultures, can´t remember where I read it, but it is an angle worth exploring and from a contemporary perspective, to what gods/idols are we sacrificing our children today?

Thanks for the thoughts a la your sons, I like your honest wrestling!

Go well!

The Provisional BBC said...

Expanding on the last point, I think it can also be read as one of many events by which God gradually subverts the cult of bloody sacrifice where order is preserved through ritual murder. In this story, God demonstrates that he wants us to sacrifice our will to Him, not the innocent. Ultimately this process of deliberately subverting ritual murder and reshaping public consciousness ends with the sacrifice of His own Son in which, because of Jesus' innocence, we look on the victim of the sacrifice more favourably than those slaughtering Him.

Although we'd be foolish to discount Abraham's human emotions, we have the luxury of a context in which it is clearer that God does not delight in these kinds of bloody sacrifices. Abraham may thus have been less surprised by the command than we would be.