Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 22nd chapter of Genesis. After years of infertility Abraham and Sarah are blessed with a son, Isaac. In the opening line of the reading “God put Abraham to the test.” God ordered that Abraham take his son to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him. Abraham and Isaac traveled to that place where Abraham built an altar and prepared to kill his son. At the last minute an angel appeared and told Abraham not to kill Isaac and further told him that God was pleased with Abraham and God promised that Abraham’s descendants will populate the earth. Mark’s Gospel describes the Transfiguration where Peter, James and John climbed a mountain with Jesus and witnessed Elijah and Moses speaking with Jesus. After this a voice came from a cloud and said this: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” On their return Jesus instructed Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what happened.
I’ve never been someone who played things safe. Those who know me will gladly tell you that my curiosity calls me to wander into danger for no other reason than wanting to figure things out. Around the globe today priests and deacons will preach blandly about the Gospel and talk about Elijah and Moses showed Jesus’ disciples how important he was. And in truth, Jesus is not only important in our faith, he is critical.
But that misses the point. Our first reading troubles us well beyond our comfort zone, and it should. I have no wish to ignore the Transfiguration but I wish to boldly go into the first reading from Genesis.
As background, Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai as we first learned about them) were chosen by God to travel to a new land but this was after years of infertility. Couples who marry fear infertility with a white hot passion, then and now. Today we have In Vitro Fertalization (IVF) and other ways for infertile couples to bear children. But Abram and Sarai had no such ability, and back then infertile couples believed that God cursed them.
Couples like Abraham and Sarah who conceived after years of infertility thought themselves blessed and we can only imagine how much they valued the life of their child. Given this, what must Abraham thought when God demanded this child back?
This reading from Genesis should shock all of us. We declare ourselves Pro Life and tell everyone that life is precious and yet we read that God demanded that a father kill his son. And even though God, at the last moment, said “just kidding, and by the way I’m impressed that you were willing to go through with it,” we can’t walk away from this reading respecting Abraham’s faith.
Nobody of any faith should be directed by a deity, let alone a loving God, to kill his child. Years ago I met a man who refused to attend church when this passage was read. He proudly saw himself as Catholic and told me that he just couldn’t reconcile his belief in a benevolent God with God’s demand that Abraham murder Isaac.
For me this raises a question that many will feel uncomfortable: did this really happen? As children we were told that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were written by Moses but no serious student of Scripture believes this. We now know that these books were compiled from several sources during the exile in Babylon when the authors feared that they would be assimilated into a pagan culture and their story would come to an end.
As these authors struggled to ensure their story would continue beyond them they recognized that they needed to continue to draw a distinction between themselves and the pagans that surrounded them. Much of these five books (that we call the Pentateuch and Jews call the Torah) follow the narrative of “they do this and we don’t.” And one pagan tradition involves human sacrifice. I’ve spoken of this before, but the first chapter of James Michiner’s book Hawai’i describes a scene when a ruler demands human sacrifice which causes several members to abandon their land and row to the the islands we now know as Hawai’i.
So where does this leave us? As I said, I’m wandering into dangerous territory, but I’d like to suggest that this story is true if not factual. Scripture uses stories that teach us about God’s desires for us and how we respond. Sometimes, particularly in the Gospels, Jesus speaks in parables. I don’t think that anyone believes that the parable of the prodigal son was factual; instead I think we see this as a story Jesus tells us to illustrate a point.
And yet we read about events in Genesis and were told as children that they really happened. We were told about the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, and the sacrifice of Isaac as factual historical events.
But what if they, too, were parables? I’ve spend my adult life teaching, preaching, and sharing my faith and I can’t tell you how frustrated I am speaking to smart, mature adults who live with the faith they had as 10 year olds. They can read peer revue journals but can’t read Scripture with the same discernment. When I suggest that Noah’s Ark doesn’t necessarily mean the entire world was covered in water they grow fearful that I’m telling them that nothing in Bible is true. And when I share my belief that God never told Abraham to kill his son but instead wanted us to understand that this God does not demand human sacrifice, they suggest I’m not a true Christian.
I am a true Christian. But I’m a Christian who believes that we are called to see Scripture not as history, but as theology. I’m a Christian who believes that if we never discover the remains of Noah’s Ark we can still believe in a God who preserves life.
I call all of us to be Christians who believe that our God will never demand that we kill someone, let alone one of our children, to prove our love. I call all of us to see parables, stories, and events, as teaching if not history. I hope you will join us.