Get Off the Altar

Genesis 22:1-14

We come this morning to a text that is up there on my list of most troubling texts in the Bible. It is a story that our Jewish cousins call the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac. If you’ve been keeping up with your reading in We Make the Road by Walking, you’re up to speed. If not, we’ll read the story in a minute. But first we need to set the stage. last time we read the Bible together we had the story of God calling Abram and his wife Sarai to leave everything that was safe and comfortable and follow God into the unknown with the promise that they would be blessed and would be a blessing. God later promises them a huge family, even though they were 90 and 100 years old and had no children, and God also promised them a land of their own, even though they were wanderers. Abraham later has one son Ishmael by Sarah’s servant, Hagar. Then later he and Sarah miraculously have their own son Isaac. A jealous Sarah sends Hagar and Ishmael away, although God promises a great nation will come from Ishmael as well. Which lead us to this morning’s story, obviously one that is sacred to Christians and Jews. Interestingly the Koran tells the same story but with Ishmael in the place of Isaac. Let us listen in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God.

Genesis 22:1-14 — After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. And the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide,” as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

This is the Word of God, which is for all people. Thanks be to God.

One big challenge with the Bible is that it was written for us but it was not written to us. That’s a quote from Rachel Held Evans in her book Inspired. The Bible was written for us but it was not written to us says Rachel Held Evans. That means that while the Bible has truth and wisdom and encouragement and direction for us, it was written to people in a different time and place and culture and so it frankly doesn’t always make much sense. This story is a great example.

When it comes to slavery, patriarchal rule and the treatment of women, race, social hierarchy, and violence, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, rarely goes as far as we want it to go. It wasn’t written to us so it doesn’t match up with our 21st century American values and morals. We have to understand what it meant in its time and place. When we do that we can recognize how the people of God make progress in their understanding of God and each other. We need to look for the click forward. Some of what we find in the Bible is more generous and more liberating than what we know about other cultures in that time. Not as radical as we want it to be, but better than it was. Progress matters, and we have to recognize it when we find it.

This morning what we get is an absolutely essential click forward: the progress from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. Not what we want it to be, but better than it was. Human sacrifice was common in the ancient world. It was common in every culture for which we have archaeological evidence. Since humans first began to live together, we find the impulse for the destruction of human life in the name of religion, and even worse, in the name of God. Then and now we dishonor God when we claim that God has commanded us to harm another human being who is also, just like us, created in God’s image.

Abraham would have been devastated to hear the command to sacrifice his son, but he wouldn’t have been surprised. That’s what ancient people expected to hear from their gods (lowercase g).

But is that what is commanded by our God? Between now and Easter we will keep unpacking a different way to understand what is happening with sacrifice, especially as we try to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the beginning. I am going to say something radical to you this morning, so I invite you to keep an open mind for a few minutes. Here it is: even in the Bible, there is a difference between what God actually says and what people say God says. Some things that are recorded as “God said” in the Bible are exactly what the people thought they heard God say but perhaps not what God actually intended. I know that opens up a lot of subjectivity, so just stay with me for a few minutes. 

What Abraham hears at the beginning sounds like the voice of God to him. And he should know, because he’s been hearing directly from God for a long time. The voice leads him in a direction that is heartbreaking but not unexpected, given his time and place and what he knows of other gods (lowercase-g). So he obeys. And it is through that obedience to something that seems bad that change becomes possible. 

You might know that there are several different words or names for God in the Old Testament, most of which we translate into English in really similar ways so we don’t always notice the difference. The two biggest are Elohim and Yahweh. Elohim is the word most often translated “God,” as in the creation story in Genesis 1, “In the beginning when God created …” However this is also the same word used for multiple lowercase-g gods, as in “You shall have no other gods before me.” That’s Elohim. It is Elohim, the general name for God, that demands the sacrifice of Isaac at the beginning of this story. And this is one of the very few times that Elohim is used to describe who it is that speaks personally to Abraham. It is in fact the only time that the conversation starts with God as Elohim.

Here’s the click forward: it’s a different name for God that stops the sacrifice of Isaac. The one who stops the sacrifice is Yahweh, which your Bible will note as “the Lord” in small capital letters. It is “Yahweh” who shapes earthlings from the mud in Genesis 2 and who is revealed to Moses in the burning bush. This is the Lord who is increasingly distinct from all other lowercase-g gods throughout the rest of the Old Testament. And this is the Lord who usually speaks to Abraham. Elohim demands the human sacrifice; Yahweh stops the human sacrifice.

Here’s how that distinction can make a difference for us today: some of you have heard things that you thought were from God and turned out to be harmful. Some of you have had other people tell you that God said something that turned out to be harmful to you. Although some of these things happened years ago, you are still living with that pain and even in some ways bound to it. I believe that through this story this morning God is offering you an opportunity to click forward and choose to let go of that religious pain. 

You started with business as usual for the religious system you were in. Maybe you heard what you expected to hear based on what you knew about God from other people, what everyone else said God was saying. Like Abraham and Isaac, you suffered under the expectations and demands of that system, but you were faithful and obedient to what you thought was the voice of God. Did God actually say that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac? I don’t know. But Abraham did his best to be faithful to what he honestly believed God was saying.nThroughout the whole story, even as he was obedient to something that sounded awful, Abraham never expresses anything other than trust that God is actually going to do something better. He tells his men that he and Isaac will both return. He tells Isaac that God himself will provide the sacrifice. And even as he’s about to take the final awful step, he is willing to listen to a new word. He is willing to repent from what he thought God had already told him, to hear something new and life-giving, and go a new direction. 

Did God actually say that traumatic thing to you? I don’t know. You did your best with what you heard. Will you trust that Godself has always been providing a way out for you? And that the only way out of the old system was for you to follow the path, just like you did, and realize that it leads not to death but to life? In this case, the only way out is through.

Today the question is what is God saying to you now? The past was deeply painful and it’s the past. Will you NOW trust God? Will you listen to what you are discovering to be the true voice of God, even, maybe especially, if it’s a voice that counters what the old voices said? Will you reclaim the trust in God that you used to have, or maybe hang on to the trust that you’ve always had? With whatever religious trauma you have suffered in the past, will you trust today that the true God has always been doing something better?

Will you finally for love of God and yourself take the knife meant for your destruction and use it to cut the cords that are binding you to an old trauma? Will you finally for the love of God and yourself get down off that altar and worship God in a new way, in spirit and truth? Will you come down off that mountain and move forward into the unknown, walking with the God whose voice you are ever learning to hear more truly? Will you finally for the love of God and yourself, walk away from that past and not let the old system keep controlling you? Will you trust that God has good things ahead of you, that you are blessed to be a blessing? Will you follow God into what’s next, in hope, in trust, and in openness to the next click forward? Amen.  

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