What was God thinking?

Proper 8A (RCL)
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Ugh. I don’t know a single preacher who likes preaching on this story from Genesis, except maybe Soren Kierkegard. SK wrote Fear and Trembling as an extended meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac, as a way of writing about his decision not to marry his fiancee Regina. His faith in God required him to give up the one thing he loved, just as did Abraham’s faith. SK also hoped to receive her back again after giving her up, but it was not to be. Not sure that’s the kind of faith in God I want to have.

We are not told what Abraham thought about the whole business, nor what Isaac thought. I wonder if Abraham and Isaac ever spoke again after the event. There are a couple of observations that help make a little bit of sense of the story.

i.) It appears to me to be a “just so” story at some very primitve level. The OT in a number of places speaks of the first born male of any mammal (humans inlcuded) being dedicated to God. A donkey or other work animal can be redeemed with a lamb. Human males can also be redeemed with a lamb. Does this story speak of a time when humans thought that God required the sacrifice of the first born male child, but then discovered that God did not desire the death of the child but provided a way of redeeming the child? The Passover story seems to suggest a similar redemption: while the Egyptians still sacrifice their first born sons, the Hebrews substitute a lamb, painting the blood on the doorpost. That would also make some sense of the prophets’ outrage at the continuing practice in Israel and Judah: we are not supposed to be like our neighbors, especially in this regard. The story of Abraham and Isaac would be a way of remembering when the possibility of redemption entered the culture.

ii.) Isaac is about 13 when this takes place. If there were a cultural memory of a time when male child sacrifice took place, this would provide the story for an initiation rite. Older men would take young boys off some distance from their mothers, tell the story, sacrifice the lamb and return. The boys would always carry the memory that they had been restored to their fathers by God.

iii.) The event takes place on Mount Moriah, presumably the same as Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Imagine the resonance with this story that would be in the minds of everyone who presented a sacrifice at the altar of the Temple. By God’s gracious substitution, we have our male children.

iv.) The story, as we have it written, was set down during the Exile. Abraham had been called away from his homeland — he was cut off from his past. Now God tests him by asking his son of him — he will be cut off from his future. Certainly, the Judeans in Exile would have understood Abraham’s despair. And yet, God’s promise is fulfilled. The Exiles can hope that God’s promise to them will be fulfilled.

I think this setting of the story gives us most hope of interpreting it. There were two theologies (at least) in competition during the Exile. The deuteronomistic theology said that the Exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. God would be demanding Isaac (standing in for Israel’s future) for Abraham’s sin. Isaiah also begins at the same time to write the majestic servant songs, which Christians would later apply to Jesus. The suffering of the servant is somehow redemptive, and not only of the Judeans in exile, but for the whole world. Israel must surrender its exclusive claim on God’s promise so that the whole world may enter into God’s household. Put the story of Abraham and Isaac alongside the story of the exile of Hagar and Ishmael. God’s promise for both is fulfilled, whether in the one case the people of promise had cast out those who they though fell outside the pale, or whether on the other hand, they punished themselves for their putative unfaithfulness. God will bring about God’s purpose of the inclusion of the whole world in God’s promises despite our screw-ups.

If this is a fair way of interpreting the story, then Paul is asking the same thing of us, only more directly. He is asking us to die to sin, to the ways of defining people as “in” or “out” by human standards. We are no more to let those things have dominion over us, but present ourselves to God.

I wonder if there isn’t a huge mistake we make when thinking about offering things to God. Kierkegaard made the mistake of thinking that offer something to God was see it destroyed as far as we are concerned; to lose the enjoyment of it (of course, in Repetition he sees that we can have it back after we have surrendered its enjoyment on strictly human terms). Instead, when we offer something to God, we offer its fruit to God’s purposes, which include our enjoyment of it. When we offer bread and wine, we get it back, transformed for God’s purposes, so that we might feed the world, ourselves included, with that precious food. It’s not about losing the thing offered so much as it’s about participating with God’s purposes, which are always larger than we can understand.

3 thoughts on “What was God thinking?”

  1. Could the story also be read as having a message about free will, God’s purposes for us, and parenthood?

    As I read Kierkegaard (for example, here), he says that God is suspending God’s normal rules, so to speak, in order to test Abraham. Normally we’d expect God to do one of two things: either to assert that Isaac’s soul and life don’t belong to Abraham (or even to Isaac himself) but rather to God and therefore only God can decide to end Isaac’s life. Or else we’d expect God, having endowed us with free will, to only consider the sacrifice valid if Isaac–who at 13 might have been considered just on the cusp of becoming an adult–chooses freely to be a sacrifice. But here is God changing these rules and presenting Abraham with this impossible directive, to sacrifice his son. How could he do that literally? Especially, how could he do it without a shred of doubt, as Kierkegaard says he did?

    But as you say, if Abraham is supposed to surrender Isaac to God’s purposes–or even to let Isaac himself interpret what God wants him, Isaac, to do, even if that involves making foolish choices as most teenagers do–maybe that is understandable. Or is this too much of a stretch?

  2. Could the story also be read as having a message about free will, God’s purposes for us, and parenthood?

    As I read Kierkegaard (for example, here) he says that God is suspending God’s normal rules, so to speak, in order to test Abraham. Normally we’d expect God to do one of two things: either to assert that Isaac’s soul and life don’t belong to Abraham (or even to Isaac himself) but rather to God and therefore only God can decide to end Isaac’s life. Or else we’d expect God, having endowed us with free will, to only consider the sacrifice valid if Isaac–who at 13 might have been considered just on the cusp of becoming an adult–chooses freely to be a sacrifice. But here is God changing these rules and presenting Abraham with this impossible directive, to sacrifice his son. How could he do that literally? Especially, how could he do it without a shred of doubt, as Kierkegaard says he did?

    But as you say, if Abraham is supposed to surrender Isaac to God’s purposes–or even to let Isaac himself interpret what God wants him, Isaac, to do, even if that involves making foolish choices as most teenagers do–maybe that is understandable. Or is this too much of a stretch?

  3. Amy,

    Sorry to take so long to approve your comment. The blog didn’t send me the email that it was awaiting moderation until tonight. I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to see in this story learning to let go of our children.

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