Where is the Good News in this ‘Text of Terror’?
Sacrifice of Isaac – Caravaggio
Readings: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 137
When the original Beast from the East left me stranded in Orpington a fortnight ago, I dutifully got on with work, caught up with emails and read papers for the United Reformed Church’s Mission Council. I know, what a hero! But, I confess, it wasn’t all hard work – I also went for walks along crisp, white lanes; met friends for dinner and even snuck in a trip to the cinema to see the latest Marvel Superhero film – Black Panther . Many here seen it? Wakanda forever! Can I get away with saying that?! In either case, it’s a great film – there’s action and adventure, a challenge to gender and racial stereotypes, some excellent reflections on how best to tackle oppression and injustice, the Welsh flag on view and an antagonist whose motives might well be justified. In fact, I think the villain had the best role in the film – which is often the case, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love a good villain? Whether Captain Hook or Davros; Cruella de Vil or Hannibal Lecter, Iago or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…we all have our favourite fictional villain. And we shouldn’t be all that surprised by the choice of fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins;
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” Dawkins suggests. “Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Well he certainly doesn’t hold back, does he? And what passages does he cite to prove his point? Once again, you won’t be all that surprised to hear that the passage we heard just now – the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham – is a key text:
“This disgraceful story,” Dawkins argues, “is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘ I was only obeying orders’.”
So, what do you think? Is the story of Abraham and Isaac one in which we can see the good news of God’s love for all people…or does it reveal a very different version of God to the one we normally accept and adore? Normally, it’s easy to see the ignorance and arrogance in Dawkins’ overly simplistic view of things – as it is with fundamentalists of every religious and political persuasion – but here…perhaps he has a point. After all, how would you explain this story if a friend of yours who doesn’t go to church asked you what it was all about? Would you try to justify it? Wrestle with it? Bypass it and move on to that lovely preacher from Nazareth?
Iestyn and I had a similar discussion about this recently when we spoke about beliefs in hymns that we didn’t go along with. The Stuart Townend hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ came up and Iestyn and I shared a few concerns over its wording, most especially the line ‘and on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was sacrificed’. Putting it briefly, both of us expressed a belief that the cross isn’t all about God’s wrath and the Son taking on the punishment given out by the Father but is more the consequence of when divine love meets human brokenness, more about the lengths to which God will go to in demonstrating that we are loved and not even death can separate us from such extravagant love. The person were we talking to, himself a Christian of many years though not of this church, said that he was quite happy to sing that line because that was what God was like back then. For him, the God of the Old Testament was angry and punitive, and the God of the New is loving and kind.
Now…don’t get me wrong, I can totally see how this sort of view makes sense. In the Old Testament there are a few…shall we say…challenging passages of well, violence and genocide and excitement about getting revenge on enemies by doing the most horrific things to their children – why Boney M choose that psalm to make into a hit, I’ll never understand – whilst the New Testament is loaded with love – radical, reckless love for God, neighbours, friends, enemies and ourselves. And yet…and yet to divide the God of the Bible into mean monster and doting deity is full of difficulties and something which gets my theological knickers in a twist! After all, if God the Father is wrathful and God the Son and Spirit loving, doesn’t that suggest that God’s nature is contradictory at its very heart; that we can’t be sure which God – the nice or nasty one – we’re dealing with at any one time? Then there’s the challenge to the Trinity, our understanding of revelation, scripture, the afterlife, not to mention the fact that we fall into a heresy called Marcionism – which, as you heresy fans out there already know – is not the coolest of heresies to fall into.
So, what do we do? What do you do when you come across a passage such as the near sacrifice of Genesis 22? Well, after I wrote this sermon, I read an article in this month’s Reform magazine in which four Christians gave four possible ways forward. I’m pleased to say that they were broadly in line with the three suggestions I had – and having one fewer than the magazine, no one’s going to complain about a shorter sermon, are they?
The first response that both I and Reform magazine, suggest we might have to these challenging passages is to let the story speak for itself, offering little explanation, interpretation or justification. The story of Abraham and Isaac is one which has been handed down for millennia and through which God has spoken to many. Yes, we might find it shocking, some will say, but perhaps that’s the point – to shock, to challenge, to affront our way of thinking.
“Maybe we should preach more of [these powerful and raw stories],” says American pastor Barbara Brown Taylor in her enlightening book, ‘When God is Silent’, “…[A]nd where they are obscure, troubling or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way. Who are we, after all, to defend God? Once, after the composer Robert Schumann had played a particularly difficult [composition],” she continues, “he was asked by a member of his audience please to explain it. In reply, Schumann sat down and played it again. We could do worse than to follow his example when we come to particularly difficult pieces of God’s music. Our job is not always to explain them. Sometimes it is enough to play them again so that they are heard in all their tooth-rattling dissonance.”
So let the story speak for itself…let’s be shocked and stunned, shaken and stirred by what the story brings us without feeling like we need to explain it away.
For some of us, this won’t be good enough. Even hearing a story in which God asks an elderly father to sacrifice his son read in a community where love, forgiveness, grace and peace is preached and practiced might feel abusive. What is needed is to wrestle with the text, to redeem it even through interpretative and imaginative means. And that’s exactly what some priests and poets do with the story in question. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen both played with it in their anti-war songs, as did Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ – all worth a look.
And perhaps you might empathise with Jenny Diski’s take on the story in her novel ‘After These Things’ in which she looks at the consequences of Abraham’s actions on Isaac, who learns of the shadow side of religion and thus realizes that one should always question the beliefs of others and yourself, for acts of horror have been, and sadly today still continue to be, committed in the name of God.
Or perhaps you might prefer the different spin that Dan Simmons offers on the story in his novel, ‘The Fall Of Hyperion’ in which he suggests that perhaps it was not God who was testing Abraham but Abraham who was testing God – that ‘by denying the sacrifice at the last moment, by stopping the knife, God had earned the right – in Abraham’s eyes and the hearts of his offspring – to become the God of Abraham’. It’s certainly an idea to chew over.
To recap then, some of us may wish to respond to the story of Abraham and Isaac – to any of the texts of terror in our Bible – with silence, letting the story for speak for itself and offering no easy justification; others choose to imaginatively enter the story, being open to what the Spirit might reveal through creative interpretation; and still others might wish to seek the good news of God’s loving nature which they believe must be present within the text, however hidden it might be.
For those of us with this particular leaning, there is much good news to be found within this controversial story. It’s a story, after all that turned the traditional view of religion on it’s head. At the time that Abraham was said to live, child sacrifice was not uncommon. Most of the religions of the Ancient Near East had a transactional view on the relationship between humanity and the gods. If you obeyed them and pleased them through sacrifice, they would treat you well in return – a divine quid pro quo. And to give them your greatest asset – your own child – was thought to ensure a pretty sweet life. So, say some commentators, it’s not a surprise that Abraham doesn’t argue with God when asked to kill Isaac for that’s the way of religion that Abraham was well used to. The real lesson, the real shock and joy of this divine encounter is that the God of Abraham changes the usual story and turns it on its head. For this God doesn’t demand sacrifice but stops it. This God doesn’t take your children from you but gives promises of love to you. This God doesn’t pick a few favourite individuals or nations whilst forgetting or punishing others but rather calls Abraham in order to bless all the people on Earth.
‘You thought I was all about violence and blood and trying to placate me?’ God seems to be saying here, ‘Well how about trying grace and justice and abundant blessing instead?!’ Far from being an Old Testament of wrath and a New Testament of compassion, the thread of God’s eternal, extravagant love can be traced through both Testaments and even in the stories which first shock and scare us. So seek the good news, some theologians will say, for in every story of crucifixion you will find the glory of resurrection.
But, after all this, what do you think? Which response speaks to you? Which explanation would you give to a confused friend? Do you offer no defence; creatively play with the story; or seek the good in it, whilst hoping the Holy Spirit will speak through each, any or all?
For what it’s worth, I believe that God might be honoured and revealed in each of these. For our reaction to these texts of terror might well be mirrored in our reactions to the headlines of horror we read and the personal tragedies we encounter on a day to day basis. Sometimes the best thing to do might well be to offer no justification in the face of suffering but to simply listen to the stories of others, staying with their pain and offering no easy answers. At other times, our God-given creativity must be used to imagine how the story might be redeemed; how injustices can be put right; how a kingdom of justice and joy might transform a world of fear and despair. At still other times, we might be called to seek the good in difficult situations – to be hope detectives, gospel guides in our homes, streets and communities. And throughout all, may we open to what the Spirit is saying through scripture and the stranger, through life’s magnificence and messiness, through good news and tough times for our God is not the greatest villain of all fiction but the living, loving God of us all, to whom be thanks and praise. Amen.
 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror.