Sacrifice

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost; 28 June 2020; Proper 8A (RCL); Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42.

I have assiduously avoided choosing this passage from Genesis at Easter Vigils, because it is so troubling. But it comes up in the Sunday lectionary once every three years, so we have no choice but to deal with it. Interestingly, this is the only recorded dialog between Abraham and Isaac. It certainly would have left a lasting impression on the lad.

The story of Abraham’s obedience has inspired a broad range of literary responses, perhaps the most famous being Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, a psychological treatment of the event. The narrative itself gives us no insight into the psychological response of either Abraham or Isaac, but is narrated rather straight-forwardly.

Some scholars see in the story a cultural memory of the substitution of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice. The Law in several instances claims that every male who opens the womb (when the first offspring is male) belongs to God, and human sons can be redeemed with a lamb. The story of the Passover may also carry hints of something similar. The difficulty here is that archaeologists have not discovered evidence of human sacrifice in the region where these stories would have originated.

It does bear some resemblance to the story of Abraham’s initial call to leave his land and kin. God speaks, and Abraham responds, “Here I am.” God then tells Abraham to journey to a place, “I will show you.” In the first instance, Abraham is being asked to leave behind his past. In this instance, he is being asked to surrender his future, the very future God has promised.

If this story was written at the time of the Exile, as some suggest, it would certainly match Israel’s own experience. As they struggled to develop a monotheism, they would have to explain this catastrophe, and one way to see it was to trust God with an unforeseen future. The prophets (particularly the prophet who wrote in Isaiah’s name) began to understand Israel’s suffering as somehow redemptive. This story would resonate with such an understanding.

Paul spends a great deal of ink writing of Abraham’s family according to faith and according to promise. I’m a bit surprised he never used the story of the binding of Isaac. He does certainly use the motif of death/resurrection to explain what has happened to a purely ethnic identity for Israel. Both Jews and Gentiles must die to an old identity in order to be resurrected into the new family of Abraham.

In the passage we hear this week from Romans, Paul encourages his readers to become slave to righteousness. For Paul, righteousness carries overtones of God’s own faithfulness to God’s covenantal promises, as well as our being justified, or made members of that covenant. And a mark of that covenant is obedience. Does that obedience require of us entrusting the future of the covenant community into God’s hands, in the same way Abraham was willing to entrust Isaac into God’s hands?

When Isaac questioned his father, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering.” He didn’t say “victim;” he said “lamb.” Christian readers have certainly seen Jesus as that lamb. In Jesus, all of our cherished modes of identity are surrendered and put to death, in order that we might become slaves of righteousness, rather than slaves to those identities that divide us.

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