First Families: Week 2
"The Non-Sacrifice of Isaac"
Read my earlier post on how we kill our children in the 21st Century
This is a very difficult reading, troublesome even, especially if read on its own in isolation, which of course, is how we read it as we gather in worship today. If we place it in context, then we need to read the +/- 600 verses of Scripture that have preceded it and then read the 1000's of verses that follow, because these few verses are part of a much bigger story (narrative is a better word) which is the story of God and the people He made in His image, you and me.
To read these few verses on their own, which is how so many of us have been taught to read the Bible, is like reading page 23 of “Gone With the Wind” or “War and Peace” or of the first Harry Potter book, but not reading what comes before or what follows, perhaps thinking that we actually know the whole story, even though we’ve never read it.
As I have shared many times before and will share many times more before I leave here, when we read the Bible as a story, what emerges dazzles us: a beautiful, powerful, gritty story that resonates with, gives meaning to, and continues to unfold in the life of Jesus and His teaching. And this story invites our participation as well, not as pawns on a cosmic chess board, but as creative characters and junior partners with God in the story of Creation and new Creation. As we looked at a few weeks ago, the Resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the new Creation and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into each one of us marks our rebirth into that new Creation and into God’s Story.
So, if we read it on its own it sounds like the story of a God who requires/asks a faithful servant to kill his son and burn him up as an offering to that God. Would you serve such a God?
Now……some historical context is required. The call of Abraham and later the birth of Isaac takes place roughly 800 years before Moses, 800 years before there was any commandment about killing given by God to people – Abraham isn’t breaking any commandment when he tries to kill Isaac. This story takes place roughly 2000 years before Jesus, so it took place 4000 years ago. The world was a very different place then. Here in South Africa thousands and thousands of hunter-gatherers which we now call Khoisan were going about there business of……well……hunting and gathering.
In the Middle East, people had already moved from hunter-gatherers to farmers
and with farming had come the development of cities – so when Abraham arrives in the land of the Canaanites, there are settled down people living there who have developed cities.. A common part of religion in those days was the sacrifice of children……the gods who gave you fertility, children, rain, crops sometimes withheld fertility in the form of rain and crops and the people came to believe that if you offered your fertility, ie one of your offspring, back to the gods, they in turn would pour down their fertility on you. Now……that’s barbaric but we MUST remember, this is 4000 years ago, long, long, long before God will say, “You must not kill.”
Abraham was prepared to do what everyone else did, sacrifice a child if necessary, and he was serving a God who, he thought, was just like all the other gods. Why would he believe differently? He believed with all his heart, mind, soul and strength that he served a god who was like all the other gods, a god who sometimes required child sacrifice. So, when he sensed his God saying to him, sacrifice your child, it was not surprising or extraordinary. Remember, if you read the Bible as a story, not reading it knowing the end even before you start, then, 4000 years ago, that is where people were at, it was the norm to sacrifice a child now and again, to the gods.
And so, in the above context, verse one is incredibly important: “Sometime later, God tested Abraham.”
And if we read the Bible backwards, not as a story from beginning to end, but backwards from now to Jesus and then now and again reading a bit of this and a bit of that from the Old Testament……if we read the story backwards, we find ourselves asking: “I wonder if Abraham will have so much faith in God that he will kill his son to prove his love and obedience to God” in other words: "will he do what everyone else does at that time when their gods ask for a child……because Baal, Molech, Asherah, all asked for their worshippers to do this on occasion.....or perhaps we'll ask, I wonder if he'll be different?" When Abraham arrived in Canaan I doubt whether he would have met a family that hadn’t sacrificed one of their children to their god, so we can wonder if he'll be different.
So, verse 1 is very important: “Sometime later, God tested Abraham.” It’s time for Me (Us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to test Abraham, and the test is to see if he believes with all his heart, mind, soul and strength that I am just the same as all the other gods around him, or to see whether he believes with all his heart, mind, soul and strength that I am……different……from all the other gods he sees worshipped around him. I have proved to him through his wife Sarah that I am a God who gives fertility. I wonder if he thinks I’m the same as all the other fertility gods, I wonder if he thinks I require, desire or need, child sacrifice.
Let’s test him. A little while back he pleaded and argued with me when I told him I was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – wicked people. And he said: If there are 50 righteous people, will You save the city, and I said Yes, I would……then he said, if there are 45……and I said Yes, I’ll spare it……then he said……40……30……20……10. This man pleaded and pleaded with Me, his God and discovered that I will spare the righteous from death. I wonder how much he will plead for his little boy, who hasn’t even had a chance to become unrighteous. I wonder if, after everything he’s learnt about me, he still thinks I’m a god who needs, who desires a parent to sacrifice his child to me. I wonder if he realises I’m different to Baal, Molech and Ashteroth……and satan. I wonder if he thinks I’m the same……I wonder if he’ll plead for his son as he did for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He passed that test by showing that he will question me and my authority when he thinks I’m being unreasonable. I wonder if he’ll pass this test……and Heaven holds its breath.
If we read the first 600 verses before these, we know that God has created humans in His image……we know that humans, with all creation, are very good. We know what God thought of the first murder, Cain killing Abel. We know what God thinks of a brother killing a brother. We’ve discovered in the story of Cain how God blesses and protects Cain the murderer, not because Cain is a sinner, but because God just longs to forgive and show mercy……we learn all this in the first few pages of Scripture. We know by page 27 (in my Bible of 1400 pages) ……we know by this stage whether this God of life would want any of us to sacrifice any of our children by tying them to a braai and putting a knife through their chest.
Abraham should have known better by now……I think. He should have, with his very questioning mind, with his previous bargaining with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah of all places, places to which he had never even been, he should have known better.....especially as he has discovered that he can actually bargain with God, he's discovered that God longs to save life, not destroy it.
Yes, Abraham showed obedience……an obedience which says: I was just following commands. Yes, Abraham showed faith, but I’m not sure it was a faith very different from that of the people around him who worshipped their fertility gods – a faith which perhaps said, “He gave me this child in my old age……no doubt He’ll give me another one.”
And yes, God does stop him and then say to him "Now I know that you fear God." But I think the all knowing God knew that already, just as He knows already whether you, I, AMC, fear Him....which remember is the beginning of all wisdom. He knows already without asking us to sacrifice our children. So as I said at the start, this is a troublesome story, and I fear God enough to know that He doesn't mind my saying that.
Here’s my problem: By the time I read the Bible, as a story, from beginning to end, which I encourage you to do, I discover the following absolute and unchangeable truths about our God:
The first unchangeable and absolute truth about God is that He does not change. God has not changed, God cannot change – He is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. This is why we can put our faith in Him
The next unchangeable and absolute truth about God is that God deserves our obedience. I don’t want to say demands because that word brings a different dynamic into any relationship – so I say deserves... God deserves, is worthy of, our obedience……He deserves and is worthy of your obedience – does He get your obedience?
The next unchangeable and absolute truth about God is that God deserves and is worthy of sacrifice and offering ……He deserves our offerings, deserves our tithes, deserves our lives – does He get them...or do we withhold?
The next unchangeable and absolute truth about God is that God never demands or desires that we sacrifice another human life to Him in order to show our love, our obedience, our faith in Him..... Never .....Self-sacrifice.....Yes. That after all is what we see on the Cross……not God saying you can kill My Son, but God saying you can kill me, because I am in My Son and My Son is in me. (This is why it's so important that today’s teaching follows my last on the Trinity.) We didn't kill God’s Son, we killed God the Son....we killed God (who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit) on the cross.
God deserves and models self-sacrifice, never other-sacrifice.....Do we offer ourselves as living sacrifices?
I conclude with these thoughts for reflection: God will not change and has never changed. The unchanging God deserves our obedience, our sacrifice, ourselves. Is He getting these from you, from me, from His church?