“Origin Stories: Abraham & Isaac”
February 6, 2022
This might come as a surprise, but I’m not a huge movie fan. And to be honest, part of the reason is that I find so many movies to be boring and predictable…they’re all so similar! The typical action movie always ends with a long chase scene where things blow up and the heroes narrowly escape to save the world or to do the thing they set out to do. Romantic comedies usually follow the same arc of boy meets girl, boy does something dumb and eventually makes it up to girl, boy and girl live happily ever after.
And so with the exception of those movies that do have genuinely good storytelling or a thoughtful conclusion, I tend to not have much interest in watching movies. But, I do love any movie that can trick me or knock my socks off by telling a compelling enough story that gets me to believe it’s going to end one way and then BOOM, they get me with a major plot-twist. Anybody else here love movies with a plot-twist you never saw coming?
Sometimes, especially if you grew up in church, hearing certain stories from the Bible can feel a little bit like many of today’s movies…they’re boring and predictable. You’ve heard them so many times now that it’s old news, or we’re so far removed from their context that we miss the twist. Oh, Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to…go figure. Oh, Jesus rose again from the dead after being brutally killed…tell me something I don’t know. Oh, John writes something about dragons and the end of the world…yawn—heard that before.
And so, when we come to a story like today’s story about Abraham and Isaac, maybe it’s a story we’ve heard before, maybe this is the first time we’ve heard it, but it can feel a bit underwhelming, because by the end of the story, we’re probably not all that surprised that God kept Abraham from killing Isaac, his son. For us, the shocking part is more that God asked Abraham to kill him in the first place! The beginning seems like a shocking and grotesque request, and the conclusion is the predictable ending we expected or hoped for.
But what if I told you that for the first several hundred years that this story was told, it was the ending that was a shock to them, and not the beginning? What if I told you that the first people who heard this story in BCE Israel wouldn’t have even batted an eye when God asks Abraham to kill Isaac…But that the ending where God stops the sacrifice would have absolutely smoked them, coming at them like a plot-twist straight from Hollywood.
This story of Abraham and Isaac was one of the original stories in human history to deploy the plot-twist device to get a rise out of its listeners, but we’ll completely miss the significance of that plot twist if we don’t first understand the context that this story came out of. And it’s a plot twist that still has great significance for us in our 21st century context.
But let me start with a question that I know we’re all thinking: what kind of God asks you to sacrifice your son?
If that’s the question you’re wondering about, then that’s exactly the type of question this story wants you to ask.
And to get to the answer, we’ll first need to take a little detour through the history of religion. Then we’ll notice a few details in the story, and then we’ll answer that wonderful, insightful question that you’re all wondering about.
So first, a summary of the entire history of religion in two minutes, as concisely put by theologian Rob Bell—you’re going to know more about the history of religion in two minutes than most people in the world do, so buckle your seat belts:
Well, “Early humans came to the realization that their survival as a species was dependent on things like food and water. And for food to grow, it needs sun and water in proper proportion. Too much water and things wash away, not enough and plants die. Too much sun and plants wilt, not enough and they die as well. These basic observations brought people to the conclusion that they were dependent on unseen forces they could not control for their survival. The belief arose that these forces are either on your side or they aren’t.
Your crops grow or they don’t, you’re able to have kids or not, your animals stay healthy or not. And [so people wondered] how do you keep these forces on your side?
The next time you have a harvest you take a portion of that harvest and you offer it on an altar as a sign of your gratitude. Because you need the forces (gods, goddesses, divine beings) on your side.
Now imagine what happened when people would offer a sacrifice but then it didn’t rain or the sun didn’t shine or their animals still got diseases or they were unable to have children—obviously, they concluded, they didn’t offer enough. And so they offered more. And more and more. Because religion had built into [its fabric] from the very beginning something called anxiety. You never knew where you stood with the gods. The gods are angry, the gods are demanding, and if you don’t please them, they will punish you by bringing calamity.
But what if things went well? What if it rained just the right amount and the sun shone just the right amount—what if it appeared the gods were pleased with you? Well then, you’d need to offer them thanks. But how would you ever know if you’d properly showed them how grateful you were? How would you know you’d offered ENOUGH? If things went well, you never knew if you’d been grateful enough and offered enough, and if things didn’t go well clearly you hadn’t done…enough. Anxiety either way.
Now, stay with me here, because this is where things get dodgy. Whether things went well or not, the answer was always: sacrifice more. Give more. Offer more. Because you never knew where you stood with the gods. And so you’d offer part of your crop. And you’d offer a goat. Maybe a lamb. Maybe a cow. Maybe a few cows. The very nature of early religion is that everything escalated because in your anxiety to please the gods, you kept having to offer more. And what’s the most valuable thing you could offer the gods to show them how serious you were about earning their favor?…A child. Of course.
Can you see how child sacrifice lurks on the edges of the Old Testament? It’s where religion took you. It’s where most other major religions at the time took you. To the place where you’d offer that which was most valuable to you.” (Rob Bell).
Now, back to the Abraham story.
Did you notice that when God tells Abraham to offer his son, he isn’t shocked? It says, “Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey.” Abraham gets right to it. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t even ask for instructions. He clearly knows what to do, and he clearly knows this sacrifice isn’t something unusual for a god to request.
That’s just how the world worked. The gods asked for what was most valuable to you and you gave it to them, or else you paid the price. Abraham’s reaction to God’s request would have been the same reaction as anyone who heard this story at the time: “well of course God asks him to sacrifice Isaac. That’s what the gods do.”
So for three days Abraham and his son travel to a mountain, three days in which his son is as good as dead. And when they get to the mountain, what does Abraham say to his servants?
He says to them, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then wewill come back to you.”
What? Abraham is going to sacrifice Isaac, correct? That’s what this story is about? Abraham proving to God that he is willing to sacrifice his most precious thing in the world to prove how much he loves and obeys this God? But what Abraham tells the servants is that he’s going to offer his son and then come back with his son??? At this point all the flags and lights should be going off in your head. This detail is like the tiny, subtle detail in a plot-twist movie that as you watch it back through a second time, you realize, “Oh, that explains why that happened that way.” This tiny detail signals that there is something else going on in this story just below the surface. The storyteller is trying to tip you off that something far more significant is going on…and Abraham is in on it.
So as they walk up the mountain together, Isaac asks Abraham where the sacrifice will come from—pretty morbid, huh? Unfortunately, as many people and pastors have understood the story, Isaac is going to his death because his dad loves God so much and is being obedient. Now please tell me you find this as utterly repulsive as I do. But repulsed or not, this is probably the dominant interpretation of this story among American Christians today. I even know of one prominent pastor who took his son up on a mountain and read him this story, telling his son that if God asked him to do what he asked Abraham to do, that he would have to obey, because he loved God that much. Pretty gross, huh? But this is what is at stake when we read the Bible. The interpretations we come away with matter.
Back to the story. Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s morbid question is an answer made in faith: God will provide. It’s a classic nonanswer answer. Us pastors are good at those. But remember, Abraham is in on the joke…or whatever you’d whatever you’d call this…he’s already tipped us off that something funny is going on. So Abraham goes through the charade of sacrificing his son, and then in the climactic moment, God steps in and offers a ram for sacrifice instead.
So back to our original question: what kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son?
The answer this story gives: Not this God. The other gods may demand your firstborn son, but not this one.
And this answer that this ancient story provides is downright shocking and revolutionary. Through the drama of a story that begins familiar enough to these people—a story about a God requiring a child sacrifice: pretty old news!—the ending flips it on its head and takes them in a completely new direction. Picture an early audience gasping: “what? God stopped the sacrifice? The gods don’t do that!” But this God does.
This story is the beginning of Israel’s journey with a God who isn’t like the other gods, but who proves to be a God who is continually in the process of moving them on a trajectory away from sacrifice, exclusiveness and violence, to a place of love, forgiveness and inclusion. Even God’s blessing to Abraham after this event is that he and the whole world will be blessed through his offspring.
The whole Bible details this journey of moving people’s perceptions of God and each other from one place to another. “The stories in the Bible—and the Bible itself—have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have. There are earlier parts in the story, and there are later parts in the story. The story is headed somewhere.” (Rob Bell).
And if we miss this trajectory, this arc of where the biblical story is heading, then we get in trouble and end up with horrible interpretations like the one that still reads this story as God asking for a father’s blind obedience even to the point of killing his son…as if somehow Abraham proved his love for God by being willing to kill his son and that this God could ask the same from us anytime. That’s a horrible way to read this story and a horrible way to view this God.
This story reminds us that our view of God matters…it matters a lot. Because whoever we believe our God to be, we will try to emulate that God. If we believe we worship an angry God, then we will be angry people. If we worship a judgmental God, then we will be judgmental people. If we worship a God who requests violence, sacrifice and extremism from us, then imagine what kinds of violence and extremism we can justify, all in the name of God. We saw this played out on January 6 last year.
But if we truly believe that our God is like Jesus, and is all-loving, all-forgiving, all-including, all-about-justice, and is in the business of moving us away from old ideas about sacrifice and violence and exclusion, then imagine what kind of people we will try to be.
In my opinion, one of the most important stories in the whole Bible comes from one of the gospels, when Jesus is warning his disciples about false prophets. And his disciples ask him a great question: “How will we know who is a true prophet and who is false.” Jesus tells them, “You will know them by their fruit.”
If you ever want to know, is this interpretation of this passage right or wrong, is this view of God right or wrong, look at the fruit. Does it produce rotten fruit or healthy fruit? Does this interpretation, or this view of God lead you to love your neighbor, your God and yourself more; does it lead you to seek justice and to forgive, to be generous and inclusive? If not, it’s probably one of those false prophets Jesus warned us about.
These origin stories from the early chapters of the Bible are so essential to our understanding of God, because they will set the trajectory for the rest of the story and our lives. Does our God require sacrifice, anxiety and extremism from us? Or is this God a different kind of God who wants to move us along a trajectory towards a more loving, a more wholistic, a less anxious and more beautiful way of living?
I’ll close with the words of the prophet Micah – this is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, and a great one to return to if you’re unsure what God is all about: “God has shown you what is good. And what does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Amen.