The Absolute, and the absolute of love

Old Testament: Genesis 22:1-19

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He 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.’ 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac 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?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

9 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He 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.’ 13And 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. 14So 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.’

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven,16and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’ 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are people in town who have been causing trouble. The family down the street has been ripped apart because the son has followed this new teacher Jesus. Everybody hates these people; they are tearing us apart. They pretend to be good; they help the sick.  They are looking after the Smiths, but everybody knows the only reason the Smiths are hungry, is because their father drinks too much. It looks good, what these people do, but we all know that if the Smiths were left to look after themselves, John Smith would have to stop drinking. These people let him continue. He doesn't even have to worry about his family while he's off sinning.

The wretched Smith woman was in here the other day, with her skinny kids, spending other people's money, telling us how much God loves her. She had the cheek to ask my wife for a drink of water, and I told her we're not a charity; buy a bottle, or wait 'til you get home, I said. And Mary just ignored me and handed her a mug across the counter! These people are upsetting everything. Mary wants to give some of our stock to their food kitchen— how exactly am I going to make a profit if you keep acting like a fool, I said.

I told the Smith woman to get out or I'd talk to the police about her begging, and she had the cheek to quote some story about judgement. I put her straight on that. There's no truth there; what sort of loving God burns people for all eternity, I said.

And she said he doesn't, that's just the way they thought then. She said that if her husband stops drinking tomorrow, he'll still have liver disease, no matter what, and the longer he drinks the worse it will be. God doesn't curse us to hell, she said, we do it to ourselves. She asked me what kind of soul disease was growing in me that meant I hated over a drink of water. What was it doing to me, she asked me. The crazy woman sounded sorry for me!

I told her this is a shop. We don't give things away. You can't turn the world upside down.

 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25:41-46)

The Absolute and the Absolute of Love

When the lawyer tested Jesus— what must I do to inherit eternal life— Jesus replied, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ (Luke 10:26)

 James Alison1 says that this verse reflects the fact that the law, or any text, is never read in a vacuum. We read it through someone's eyes. There is a Rabbi, a teacher somewhere, who has taught us what it is that we read in a text, and how to read it. "And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?” (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 2)

When we read the story of God testing Abraham, even when we warm to the insights of one commentator over another, we are reading through the eyes from which we have learned: that is, we are reading according to a Rabbi who has taught us.

I experienced our recent Synod here in Adelaide, with the usual mixture of being moved to tears of joy at the riches  we are given in life, and despair at our falling short in our life together. There is within us a conservatism which insists its view of the world is the only correct one. At our best we live, and let live, and even build each other up, within our churches. At our worst we are defensive, dismissive of others, immersed in our own pain and blind to the pain of others, and judgemental.

I recognise this because it is where I come from, and because it is still too much of what I am. I grieve that I might thrust upon others the blindness and the judgement which has so often kept me from the joy of a deeper and fuller life. How can I read according to my Rabbi, Jesus who is Christ? How would Jesus, for example, read Genesis 22, today? How would he preach it? Would he preach it?

I read this text with horror. Here, the God who forbids child sacrifice (see, for example,  Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7:30-34; Ezekiel 20:31) commands it. We Christians sometimes seem to concur with such a reading: God sent his only son to die on our behalf; the parallels between the crucifixion on the mountain, and this story of Abraham on the mountain, are clear. Why else, when we are grappling with that section of Matthew where

whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me—

why, here in the lectionary, do we tell the story of Abraham's faithfulness which puts obedience to God before the love of his child? Kathryn M Schifferdecker drives this home.

Genesis 22 is appointed as one of the readings for the Easter Vigil (and sometimes as one of the readings on Good Friday). In addition, the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son became for early Christians one of the greatest examples of his faith: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17, 19). In the history of Christian interpretation, Genesis 22 has continued to be understood as a story of faith against all odds, and as a foreshadowing of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.

The story has been a test of my conversion to living the love found in Jesus the Christ. The fact that I needed to be told of the terror of this text— I did not see this for myself, and resisted it for a long time— tells me I failed the test.

I failed the test because I could not see what the story too easily does to Isaac. Allen Pruitt says some

interpreters have looked past Isaac altogether, saying that he merely represented the promise of God, and that Abraham,  in being faithful to the end, was willing to trust that God would find a way to fulfill his promise. But it is impossible for me, as a Christian, to look past Isaac,  to say that he was not a boy, but a promise. To say that he was not a human being,  but a means to an end. We are all children of God, we are none of us,  ever, a means to an end.

When I tell a story which uses a person as a means to an end, I am falling short of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, where no one is a means to an end.

The key decision for me was to decide to stop trying to weasel my way out of the abusive nature, or potential, of a text, because I wished to privilege that text; that is, because I could not imagine it to have authority unless I was able to say it it was right in the way I had previously imagined it to be right. I had to reach a point of saying, "This is wrong. The church was wrong.  I will not preach this text again except to say some of our received interpretations are wrong, and are less than Christian." I had to have the courage to say that because of Christ— not to avoid the gospel, but because of Christ— we know better than we once did, and decide not to read the text in certain ways.

Some readings are deeply ingrained. They are hard to let go.

I am reminded of the temptation of a joke I once heard. Extremely clever, with multiple levels of punning, it is also deeply sexist and violent. The temptation was to tell it, nonetheless!  Sometimes we are like this in church; people who know better tell sexist jokes. When we laugh— when did we forget how to hiss in church meetings?— we show the poverty of our conversion, and the shallowness of our Christianity. And in the same way, we preach old tellings of stories when we know better; we ignore the violence that they visit upon people, just as we say the feelings of women are less than our need to tell a good story, and keep telling our sexist jokes.

Stories are hard to let go because they perpetuate our power and position; in fact, they comfort us! Any appreciation of male privilege sees how this works with sexist jokes; in the same way, inappropriate readings can perpetuate a violence.

I think it is not enough to preach Abraham with just an acknowledgement of the horror of the story, as though we can draw upon the old insights. This will allow us to perpetuate certain power structures, and even blind us to their presence. Instead, we need to explore the story. We need to put Isaac, the powerless and invisible one, in the centre in some way. Otherwise we are "looking past him," discounting him as we make our points about Abraham's faithfulness.

Isaac is subject to trauma. Isaac knows what is happening from the beginning. He knows there is no lamb. Isaac knows that fathers sacrifice their sons; he is the only son. Isaac is bound by his father, even though he had told him God would provide the lamb. Isaac is placed on the table. He lies under the knife.

Thomas Brodie says somewhere that "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.’" (Genesis as Dialogue) That is, Abraham was confident that there was a way out: God would provide the lamb. On this reading, the story becomes not a sacrificing of Isaac but, a giving up of him, a letting go of him, a giving of him to God.  Abraham sacrifices his idol… not his son… And Isaac, knowing what the absence of the lamb means, walks with him in trust. So also Esther Ticktin

Av had so totally made Yitz into his idol that he couldn't fathom how to do it without killing him. The lifted knife was the breaking of the idol: That was all God wanted in the first place, that was all God needed.

But such readings make the person of Isaac invisible. He becomes a means to an end. Yes,

Genesis 22 is a journey into darkness for Abraham, into a place of God forsakenness. It speaks of a place where faith is pushed to the limit and where even God seems to oppose God’s own promise and will. God is calling Abraham to a place where the divine promises upon which Abraham has built his life seem to have no future. (Howard Wallace)

But Isaac is made into a nothing. The making nothing of people is still at the heart of our sacrificial system. We run our society by sacrificing people still; demonised refugees, the unemployed without whom our current economy doesn't work, but whom we punish for being unemployed, and so on. We appease the powers, the forces beyond us, with the same sacrifices as the kings in Gehenna and the chieftains on the high places.

At the very least we must note what is also in the text:

So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba. (Genesis 22:19)

As the Rabbis have noted, Isaac is not there! "Isaac went down the other side never again speaking to his father, the one who had shattered his trust." I recall that other Rabbis said Sarah (whose death is the very next story, in Genesis 23) never spoke to Abraham again.

The 'test' taught Abraham nothing. The test traumatised Isaac and Sarah so that God might learn something— "Now I know!" (Gen 22: 12)  (Fretheim pp54) Does God's need justify the means?

I do not know what to do with this story, or how I could preach from it. But I know what we have done. I have heard it preached, how even though it broke God's heart, he sacrificed his son. And as with Isaac, in such sermons we "look past" the son, who becomes invisible. Instead, his blood avails for me. If I will not see Isaac, if I will not see Jesus, but only his cleansing blood, then my imagining of God will be a God for whom the ends justify the means. And my theological needs— my ends— will be used to justify my means. I will raise the knife.

Pruitt said Abraham who had argued with God for the sparing of Sodom— no less! — but remained silent over the sparing of Isaac, had failed the test! He should have refused God's request.

God also fails the test. That is to say, if we excuse God's behaviour towards Isaac and Sarah in this story, we accept an imagining of a God who is less than the loving redeeming God of Jesus. Which God will I serve? What will I read in the tradition?

The persistence of this story despite all the predictions about the demise of religion, tells us that we are dealing with live ammunition. It is hooking into our very humanity. So we cannot ignore the story as morally deficient, or primitive. Its power must be rechannelled or its violence will explode in our hands.

It persists, it still engages us and fascinates us, for two reasons. It is a story of violence, and we have not yet dealt with the violence at the centre of our being. And it persists because it is a story of absolutes: we worship God, or we worship our family, or something else. We all give ourselves to something.

We are a species of absolutes. We always want more; perhaps our hunger for more things is not only an idolatry; perhaps it is a sign that we can never do things by halves. We need to give everything, have everything, be challenged by something far greater than us.

We want to know what to do. Uncertainty can become a kind of terror. We wish for a God who will provide us with an answer, a place of safety. And many of those who scorn the "primitive" Gods of religion create some other absolute to fill this need. We are creatures incomplete in ourselves.

Yet an unwillingness to embrace a certain agnosticism makes us brittle. Such brittle fragility is the inadequate core of fundamentalism which snaps in the terrible winds of uncertainty and, in a perverted kind of discipleship, reproduces the violence it has experienced. Whether this be in bombings, or in the abuse of a wife and children.

Where do we find the strength and certainty of a great river gum, which in the greatest storms allows its beam-like branches to bend beyond what seems possible? And which, even if uprooted, or with limbs torn off, so often regrows.

Where do we find the compassion which will allow us to see that our desire for clarity and certainty has blinded us to the fact that we are like an Abraham who has not put down the knife; who has bound our sister or brother Isaac, blind to their terror and wounding, able only to see our own need?

We give ourselves up to the wrong certainty. We seek certainty in ideas. The absolute is not found in ideas. We have ideas about God, but God is not the ideas.

We are asked to give up what we think and read, what we have worked out to be right and, instead,  to heal, to cast out the forces that ruin people's lives. To seek no payment, not even the payment of others accepting we are right. Jesus says in Matthew 10, simply love: heal; give without cost; do not seek revenge, simply walk away from rejection. Let the dust off your shoes be a testimony, but no more. There is an absolute here: the giving of everything. But there is no judgement; that is left to God.

The absolute is to embrace and enter the place of the sick and the oppressed. It is, in a sense, to enter the pain of Isaac, the place of terror in which one can only hope in the mercy of something greater than what is happening. It is to enter the uncertainty which rescues from fragility, and yet it is to give oneself absolutely to a vision of life, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is absolutely opposed to the economic and social systems of our time.

It is when we enter the being of other people— their place— that we find the image of God, and are most truly touched by the Absolute.

We are told, sometimes, to practice what we preach. As I listen to myself, and my former selves, I think it is more true to say that we preach what we practice. Our words reflect who we are, and to what we have given ourselves.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

 

  1. James Allison says that Jewish people would ask of a new acquaintance, "Who is your Rabbi?"

You see, one of the factors which blinker us in our reading of the Scriptures is our modern presupposition that the authors of these ancient texts, and thus the texts themselves, are somehow primitive, and that we are much more sophisticated than they. Because of this we read the texts of Scripture as if they were examples of incompetent history, or bad geology, or fictitious palaeontology, and fail to see what is really going on in them. So here I would like to suggest that ancient authors, such as those alive at the time of Christ, were well aware of something we moderns have come to pride ourselves on knowing: that texts can be made to mean more or less whatever it is that you want them to mean. Therefore, for ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?” (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 2 quoted here)

Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 10:40-42 - In the presence of mine enemy
Matthew 10:40-42 (+ Genesis 22) - A cup of water for Isaac  (explores Girardian aspects of the story more fully)

Other Resources
Allen Pruitt's brilliant sermon
John C Holbert  A Nasty Little Bit of a Tale: Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14
Kathryn Schifferdecker  Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14 There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Answer: Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, "If you want to command death, do it yourself..."

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.


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