To our ears, this is an awful story. What kind of a God would ask a father to kill his beloved son? What kind of a father would be ready to do it? What would happen to the relationship between the father and the son after this event?
Versions of this disturbing narrative are shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This story is so important in the Jewish world, that it is read and reflected upon during the most sacred time of the year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Christianity, it is likewise often read during the most sacred week of the year, on Good Friday. And in Islam, it is the basis of the second most significant holiday of the year, Eid Al Adha, a day that marks the climax of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are called to take once in their lifetimes. In Turkey, for example, Eid Al Adha is a four day national celebration that culminated yesterday.
To try and appreciate the spiritual significance of this text, it may be helpful to know how the very first to hear this story in the Ancient Near East would have understood it. For them, human sacrifice was a given; something practiced by all known tribes as a way of pleasing the gods.
From this point of view, the story is a turning point, a break-through, marking the first time a community understood that God did not require blood sacrifice, but mercy. What was surprising about this narrative for the first to hear it wasn’t that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son; but that God stopped him from doing it. From the Jewish perspective, this story marks an evolution in religious thought.
In the Bible itself and in interpretation of it, there has long been development of thought. Whereas ancient texts seem to justify slavery, war, the oppression of women and other practices, we now recognize as abhorrent acts of violence or exclusion in the name of God. Today if someone claimed that God asked them to murder a family member, we would not hesitate to call 911.
So why continue to read and struggle with this text? What might it offer us?
Here, our Muslim friends may be of help. In the Koran, the son in this story is Ishmael, not Isaac. All the rest of the details are the same. Avellina Ballestri writes, “The firstborn son in desert culture literally embodied every earthly thing a person had…The idea of sacrificing one’s firstborn son is basically laying down every earthly thing and not being possessed by anything in this world; it’s about laying yourself bare, emptied out, vulnerable, unfurled, and then picking yourself and everything else up again in a new light, realizing that you are neither possessed nor possess; everything is a gift, and everything in this world is passing.”
Everything is a gift. Everything in this world is passing.
We regularly fight these truths with all of our being.
We live in a world of “me and mine.” Of my body, my property, my rights, my freedom. We want our way. Our comfort. What belongs to us. We resist change and often fail to accept that death is a natural part of life. We are so attached to our way of life that we often don’t even see the sacrifices we are willing to allow others to make on our behalf, even our children.
We recoil in horror that ancient peoples would sacrifice children to appease the Gods. But, in this culture, in insidious ways, we are often willing to sacrifice our children to appease far lesser powers, including ourselves. We are not surprised when divorcing parents use their children as pawns, nor when some parents work unreasonably long hours at the expense of being present for their children. We choose the NRA over school safety; rising national debt over paying our bills; dependence on fossil fuels over clean air and a healthy climate. We accept inequalities in education and housing, hardly blinking that one in ten children under 18 in this country are homeless; that 12.5 % of children in the U.S. are deemed “food insecure,” and that a whopping 37% of students meet the criteria for the free lunch program – guess where… right here in Gloucester. Many have even resisted holding clergy and religious systems fully accountable when children have been abused.
In ways personal, political and even ecclesial, we do not always make our children and their future our priority.
Today’s scripture suggests that the precarious situation of children in today’s world is a test for our faith, for our understanding of who God is and what God desires of us. (Esther Menn)
Before Abraham strikes Isaac, God says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”
Professor of Hebrew Bible Esther Menn writes, “Whatever else may be said about this challenging narrative, it provides a testimony that whenever violence against a child is halted and whenever the needs and well-being of children receive attention, God is seen in that place.”
Self-sacrifice can be an expression of love – the parents who stay up all night with a sick child and then go to work the next morning; the retiree who chooses to volunteer with the vulnerable in the community; the family that welcomes someone who is struggling to find their way in life; the graduate who chooses to work in public service when they could make a lot more money in the private sector; the person who becomes a caregiver for a beloved spouse in the throes of illness and dying.
Former Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Samuel T. Lloyd offers, “Sacrifice is built into anything that finally matters.”
On this holiday weekend – in the midst of our celebrations – we might also pause to remember those who long ago sacrificed for us. Did you know that there were over 230 battles and skirmishes in the Revolutionary War? Or that the average age of soldiers was between 18-20, with some as young as 14 serving? Though we often remember the statesmen – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others – the American Revolution was carried out through the sacrifices of the young.
Here is the story of one: Joseph Plumb Martin was born in Becket, Massachusetts in 1760. Soon after the Revolutionary War broke out in the spring of 1775, he was eager to lend his efforts to the patriotic cause and at the age of 15, enlisted.
The life of a common soldier was difficult. They suffered shortages of food and supplies, they lived in unsanitary conditions with long periods away from home. Death was a constant threat. More soldiers died from diseases like typhus and smallpox than combat.
On arriving at Valley Forge in 1777 at the start of that famously long, awful winter, Martin wrote: “Our prospect was indeed dreary. In our miserable condition, to go into the wild woods and build us habitations to stay (not to live) in, in such a weak, starved and naked condition, was appalling in the highest degree… We had engaged in the defense of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable…”
Four long years later, in October 1781, Martin was present at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, and wrote: “We waited with anxiety for the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived—it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended.” Martin’s sacrifice was worth it.
We are rightly appalled that God seems to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son and that Abraham is willing to do it. May we be as appalled at the ways we in this culture are willing to sacrifice the well-being and future of our children to satisfy our own perceived needs for comfort, power, and to maintain the status quo. As we celebrate this 4th of July, may we remember the sacrifice of those who fought for independence and, more importantly, may we be willing to make the sacrifices that are now necessary in our climate addled world, so that children everywhere will thrive for generations to come; trusting that as we do this, our God is present, providing what we need. Amen.