Friday, 24 June 2011

The sacrifice of sense: exploring the story of Isaac and others

Every year, the lectionary takes us through some of the great narratives of the Hebrew Bible. This year, it is the turn of the Pentateuch, beginning with the latter part of Genesis (I am not counting Trinity Sunday’s Genesis 1reading as part of this). Next Sunday we begin this journey with a profound and disturbing story that takes us into the very heart of religious violence.

The text is a well-known text. I would also venture to suggest that it is a profoundly misused text. It is powerful and evocative. It is generally misunderstand, as it is too far removed from the ancient culture that produced it. It is nearly always read one-sidedly, a point of view that deliberately focuses on the main protagonist of Abraham, and ignores the potential thoughts and feelings of other characters in the story. It is a story that demands our full attention, and should be examined from many points of view.

Part of why it is disturbing is that even today, people carry out acts of violence against children and claim they have heard God directly authorising such violence. In our modern culture, we call such people criminally insane and lock them up.

Despite this, many today will listen to this story, and praise Abraham for his great faith. I am sure that many of you have heard sermons that have this the central message. Despite the fact that Abraham is prepared to plunge a knife in his hapless son’s throat, no one much (at least no one outside of scholarly articles and the various brands of feminist theology) suggests that Abraham should be locked up. Is it because we just accept that God was always going to save Isaac? Is it because it is so far removed from our time and life that it is a little like hearing a fairy story?

Whatever our reason, this is not a text that should be taken lightly or examined superficially. It is also a text that has a flip side, as there are other characters in the story – and the Old Testament – that we pay little attention to, but represent other aspects to stories of the sacrifice of one’s child.

It is true that this story in its own context takes on a different meaning. In Abraham’s day, human sacrifice – killing and then burning the remains of human beings of all ages – would not have been understood as madness, violence, or abuse, but as something that demonstrated devotion to the greater good – and the greater god. It was a terrible and costly price to pay, but seen by many in the cultures of the Ancient Near East as necessary from time to time, to placate angry gods, to ensure a good harvest, etc.

In fact, some biblical scholars believe that the Isaac story was written to counter such practices, and later when the Law was written down, any sort of human sacrifice was expressly prohibited. That this law was deemed necessary suggests that such sacrifices had indeed taken place.

And though they are not widely known, there are two other such stories in the bible – one in the book of Judges, where the army commander Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to fulfill an oath he made to God, and one in the book of 1 Samuel, when King Saul opts to execute his son who had unwittingly consumed honey on a day that Saul had declared to be one of fasting.

In order to explore the story in a way that might be easier for us all to understand, John and I have written a dialogue between two people who might have lived around the time of Jesus. We have made them Gentile believers in one of the churches of Paul, and we ask that you imagine that at least one of them has heard this story of Isaac and Abraham for the first time.


Lucius: Did you hear the story that was read from the Hebrew writings today? The story relates that God decided to test one of the great founders of the religion, who was called Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14). He told Abraham to take his only son Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice on a mountain. I tell you, it was a great and inspiring story.

Themisto: No, I wasn’t at my house church this morning. I am not sure about this reference to a sacrifice. Tell me the story and I will judge it for myself once I have heard it.

Lucius: The story goes that God decided to test one of the great founders of the religion, who was called Abraham. He told Abraham to take his only son Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice on a mountain.

Themisto: Surely the father must have objected. What sort of test asks you to kill your own child in cold blood?

Lucius: Don’t interrupt! I haven’t finished the story yet. Abraham gets up in the morning, and sets off with the boy. On the third day of his journey, he arrives at the designated place. Abraham then takes the wood he collected earlier, and gives it to his son Isaac, while he carries the fire and the knife. Isaac then asks, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a sacrifice?” Abraham, who is clearly a man of great faith, replies that “God himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.”

Themisto: So Abraham, the great man of faith, is also Abraham, the great deceiver.

Lucius: You are missing the point here. Let me finish. So Abraham builds an altar and lays the wood on it. He ties up Isaac, and lays him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he takes the knife to kill his son. But then an angel calls to him from heaven, and says “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham then looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So he sacrifices it instead. And God rewards him greatly for his faith by blessing his descendants.

Themisto: The only point I see here is a foolish father who is prepared to listen to strange voices alleging to be from a god that tell him to kill his son. And what of the boy? How did he feel when bound by his own father to a sacrificial bier? What did he think when he saw the knife about to plunge into his throat? How could he ever trust his father again? What sort of a God demands such a terrible test of faith? I am afraid I would have failed it miserably.

Lucius: That is because you women are too caught up in your emotions. You are not properly concerned about obedience to the gods and the fact of divine punishment. You would do well to heed the moral of this tale.

Themisto: What moral? How many of you men would be prepared to do the same? You all talk about faith, but is this the faith you mean?

Lucius: Weellll, the tale is not meant to be taken literally – it is a metaphor, I am sure.

Themisto: Mmmmm, a metaphor, eh? Now that you mention it, at my women’s group the other night we too heard a tale from the Hebrew writings. It has some similarities, but I am very disturbed by it and I am keen to hear your interpretation of it. Nobody referred to it as a metaphor.

Lucius: Speak, then.

Themisto: In the book of the Judges, there was a man called Jephthah, and it says that “the spirit of the LORD came upon him”, and he then made a vow to his God (Judges 11:29-40). This vow to his god stated that if the god would allow him to conquer the enemy, a people called the Ammonites, then Jephthah would sacrifice the first living thing to come out of the doors of his house to meet him, when he returned victorious. It would seem that the god accepted his oath, because he was successful in defeating the enemy.

Off he goes home, and there before him was his daughter, his only daughter, coming out to meet him with music and dancing, to celebrate his victory. And what does he do? When he sees her, he tears his clothes, and says, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.”

Lucius: Yes, and rightly so.

Themisto: Now you are interrupting me! The point is: what does the daughter of Jephthah do? Rather than blaming himself and his silly vow, the father blames the daughter for coming to greet him. But she agrees that he cannot take back his vow, and she is willing to be sacrificed. And sacrificed she is, after she mourns her fate for two months. What tragedy!!

Tell me: where was the all-powerful Hebrew god when this child was being sacrificed for a father who was faithfully carrying out his oath? Why did no angel call out, why was no ram found in the thicket for her? I will tell you why. It is because women and girls are not valued by this society. Only the young women of Israel still lament this nameless, brave daughter of Jephthah. She could have run away, but accepted her fate. Why is this child of faith not celebrated?

Lucius: Hmmmm. I see your point, though my dear Themisto, you must confess to the tiniest bias as you yourself are female. I have always believed that slaves and women should keep to their natural place in society.

Themisto: Our house church emphasizes community, and mutual trust. It is such communal relationship that leads to a satisfying life. How can you have true community if you exclude women, children and slaves?

Lucius: We should all know our place in society. Faith is about accepting your place, and acknowledging that pain and suffering are part of faithfulness. We are called to be obedient servants. Children cannot learn this too soon. Your nameless daughter of the story is an excellent illustration of this principle. She stands as a great contrast to weaker, disobedient people.

Themisto: I cannot agree. But I have another story to tell you. It is about the first king of Israel, Saul.

Lucius: But he was cursed by God!

Themisto: I agree he was later, but he wasn’t at this point. Now listen up. In the book of Samuel it says that Saul wanted to beat the Philistines, and he “committed a very rash act on that day. He had laid an oath on the troops, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.’ So none of the troops tasted food.”

Lucius: Mmmmm – a very poor battle tactic, I would think.

Themisto: Maybe so, but that is not the point I want to make. The story goes on to say that Jonathon, who had not heard his father’s oath, ate some honey. God doesn’t answer Saul when he seeks direction. So Saul looks for the guilty person to sacrifice him. Apparently Jonathon is shown to be the guilty one. So Saul proposes he should die.

Lucius: And is he then sacrificed?

Themisto: No, for the people object. The story goes that they said: “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die. (1 Sam. 14:43-45).

So you see my point – Isaac is saved by divine intervention; Jonathon is saved by human intervention, and the daughter of Jephthah is saved by no one. Why do we continue to retell only one of these stories in our churches? Why do we laud one father as having great faith and great wisdom and not the other two fathers in the scripture who are called ‘rash’ or ‘reckless’? Just what is the difference between them?


As we return to the 21st century, I want to take Themisto’s questions more seriously than we are wont to do. I have great difficulty with a scriptural passage that can be used to sanction religious violence under the guise of obedience to God.

If we are honest, we can find parallels in our own time and our own world. They are plenty of culturally endorsed callings to commit violence and endanger one’s life or the lives of our children in our world today. Some cultures still practice today what is euphemistically called “female circumcision”. Some religions and cultures tolerate violence against women and children, and cite biblical texts as good reason for doing so. Others incite violence against different religions and ethnic groups by claiming this is the will of God.

Our own Christian tradition has consistently interpreted as faithful obedience what would be considered religious infanticide or lunacy in any other setting in history. We are quick to label Jephthah and Saul as nutters or cursed by God or whatever name we happen to fancy, but Abraham is the father of faith. Why?

It is worthy of note that while the two males, Jonathon and Isaac are given names in their stories, not so the daughter of Jephthah. She is unnamed, and criticized by her foolish father for bringing this fate on herself.

How often do we criticise the victims of violence for somehow bringing it on themselves? Do we dehumanize them by not giving them names? In Australia, we refer to ‘boat people’ and during the time of the Howard government, at least some of us were willing to believe that these nameless ‘boat people’ would sacrifice their children by throwing them into the sea. We give the name SIEV X to the hapless group of humanity that perished off our coastline in 2001.

Perhaps one laudable difference in these stories is that all of the proposed victims are asking questions, or speaking into the situation. Too often in our world today, the stories of the victims are hidden, silent, covered over by euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing” or are deliberately kept impersonal.

Where are the Isaacs, Jonathons and daughters of Jephthah today? Are they dehumanised, listed as statistics, silenced and hidden? What happens to them if they speak? Shouldn’t we be speaking on their behalf, as the people of Israel spoke out for Jonathon? Or do we sit back, and perhaps half-heartedly hope for a miracle, only to find Jephthah’s daughter lies broken and bleeding on our doorstep?

Perhaps it is time we gave a lot more thought as to how we should respond as Christians to such stories today.

How would you answer the questions posed by Themisto?

And what message do these biblical texts send to our unchurched society today?

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