Facing Our Heritage of Biblical Violence

Guest Preacher: The Rev. Jon R. Powers

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14 

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

This story is 3,800 years old, yet it is as fresh in our face as the morning news.


• Father hears “Voice of God” telling him to kill his only beloved son. 

• Father binds him to a stack of fire wood. 

• As he is about to light the flame, his son escapes to live anew.

Ironically, the son’s name was Isaac, which means Laughter.


In the same Biblical tradition,

this only beloved son’s name wasn’t Isaac,

this only beloved son’s name was Ismael:

Ishma, which means “to Listen to and Answer Prayer”

El, which means “God”.

So, in this parallel Biblical tradition, Ishmael means, “God listens to and hears our prayers.”


In our updated, more recent Biblical tradition, The Father is actually God, and this only Beloved Son to be killed is a boy named Jesus, which name means “God is Salvation.”

As an avid student of our beloved Biblical traditions for nearly all of my 72 years so far on this earth, And as a student of Christian Anthropology for the past 50 years of my life, these ancient Biblical stories of the violent child sacrifices of Isaac, Ismael, and Jesus haunt me… haunt me…haunt me…

These ancient Biblical stories haunted Leonard Cohen, too.

Most of you may know Leonard Cohen mostly for his classical Biblical recollection of David’s violent deed: the killing of Bathsheba’s faithful husband, Uriah, so that David could have her all to himself.

• Ironically, Uriah means  “Flame of God,” and “my Light is God”

• Ironically, Bathsheba means “Daughter of the Sacred Oath”

And Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah” haunts me too, because that song, too, is a prophetic pondering about our tragic tradition of Biblical violence. But Leonard Cohen wrote more Bible songs than that one. In fact, Leonard Cohen no doubt knew more and reflected more about our  violent Biblical traditions than I will ever know in my entire lifetime.

As the grandson of a Rabbi, and enough of a theological  scholar in his own right to be a Rabbi himself, Leonard Cohen loved our common Biblical traditions; but he also was  an avowed pacifist, who took to heart the teachings of that young, 5’4,” dark brown skinned Palestinian Rabbi of Nazareth, Jesus ben Joseph, and he also took seriously the scholarship of that Vietnamese priest, Thich Nhat Hahn, who taught us that Jesus and Buddha were brothers.

That is why this devout Jewish, Jesus-following, song-writer, singer, poet, prophet, philosopher, theologian named Leonard Cohen was also a Buddhist Priest. And that is why Leonard Cohen wrote more than just Hallelujah. He also wrote “The Story of Isaac.”

Close your eyes, maybe, and breathe deeply, gently, and just soak up this ancient Biblical tradition from the vibrant vision of Leonard Cohen’s brilliant being:

The door it opened slowly

My father he came in

I was nine years old

And he stood so tall above me

Blue eyes they were shining

And his voice was very cold

Said I’ve had a vision

And you know I’m strong and


I must do what I’ve been told

So we started up the mountain

I was running he was walking

And his axe…was made of


Well the trees they got much


The lake a lady’s mirror

We stopped to drink some wine

Then he threw the bottle over

Broke a minute later

And he put his hand on mine

Thought I saw an eagle

But it might have been a


I never could decide

Then my father built an altar

He looked once behind his


He knew…I would not hide


You who build the altars now

To sacrifice these children

You must not do it anymore

A scheme is not a vision

You never have been tempted

By a demon or a god

You who stand above them now

Your hatchets blunt and


You were not there before

When I lay upon a mountain

And my father’s hand was


With the beauty…of the word

And if you call me brother now

Forgive me if I inquire

Just according to whose plan

When it all comes down to dust

I will kill you if I must

I will help you if I can

When it all comes down to dust

I will help you if I must

I will kill you if I can

Have mercy on our uniform

Man of peace or man of war

The peacock spreads his fan


Shortly before he died, a rather sensitive and sensible interviewer asked: “Leonard, what was with ‘the peacock spreads his fan’? Leonard Cohen responded that the peacock spreads his fan, that is, his tail feathers, only to be attractive, alluring, seductive;

• thus is child sacrifice:

as it was then, still today..

• thus is child sacrifice:

as it was then, still today..


So I wonder as I ponder this bold prophetic poem: I wonder if today we might well be

• sacrificing our children’s spiritual development on the altars of Sunday sports teams?

• Sacrificing our children’s learning development on the altars of TikTok, and Tech Games?

• Sacrificing our children’s very psyches on the altars of child abuse?


Let’s pause here a moment and consider:

• 500,000 children were reported missing in the USA this past year – that is one child every 90 seconds.

• 6,863 USA children were reported as exploited in sexual trafficking and abuse in 2019; in 2020, that number was doubled to 13,268.

• 13,120 USA children were reported murdered in the past year.

• 183,000 USA children were involved in serious car crashes in the past year; that’s 501 a day, and we know that proper car seats reduce fatalities of children by 54% for toddlers, and 71% for infants, yet only 1 in 5 parents ever check to ensure that their car seats are properly installed.

• 120,000 USA children have been orphaned from the parents due to Covid in the past year; that is 328 a day, equal to a 9-11 World Trade Center death rate for children every 10 days

Every day, in so many wicked and wanton ways, our own national culture sends this garbled message:

Look the other way!

Push this away!

We have enough to worry about!

Get this kiddy news out of our face!

But Jesus said:


Don’t do that.

Let these children come unto me.

For these children, ALL of these children, belong to the Kingdom of Heaven, which was Jesus’  poetic way of saying these children, all these children are the most Holy thing we’ve got going.

And THEY, 

THEY are the Eternal Reality.

O God of All Eternal Reality, if these words of my mouth, and the reflective, mutual meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, may this be so for us this day.






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