Isaac no, Jesus yes
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Tuesday, March 2nd: Genesis 22:1-19; Psalm 105:1-11, 37-45; and Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-19. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The sacrifice of Isaac is an extremely disquieting story. Covenant is a two-way agreement. A covenant with a god sets forth what the deity expects of his/her adherents, and also what the followers can expect from their god. The people need to be worthy of the covenant by their faithfulness, but the god also needs to be worthy by his/her character.
The ancient Jews practiced henotheism, which is an adherence to one particular god out of several. (cf. Psalm 58:1; 82:1; 89:5-7; 95:1-7; 97:6-9; 135:5; 136:2) Israel’s covenant with Yahweh was celebrated as one of God’s justice, righteousness and equity. (cf. Psalm 72:1-4; 99:4) This stood by divine decree in repugnant opposition to false gods such as Moloch who demanded child sacrifice as part of their covenant. (cf. Leviticus 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10)
Yahweh proved worthy of devotion.
Then there is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. This account has agonized many. Women have wondered, and rightly so, how this would have played out if Sarah had known of Abraham’s intention. Isaac’s mother would never have acceded to such a demand. Sarah would have questioned God as she stood between Isaac and anyone who wished him harm. And women have asked if such a protest may not have been more in accordance with faithfulness to Yahweh than was Abraham’s raised knife.
Some Jewish scholars have asked if the biblical account is a sanitized version of the original (E) account where Isaac actually dies. There is a later story in which Jacob swears an oath and he calls on God to act as the witness: “Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.” (Genesis 31:53) The son of Isaac knows God by the name of “Fear.”
The dilemma of Isaac’s sacrifice continues into the New Testament. Yesterday’s Gospel reading at Service was of Jesus’ first foretelling of His death and resurrection. Jesus does this three times, and three times it is met with incredulity. The actual crucifixion is faith-shattering. No follower is beneath Jesus’ cross in the earliest Gospel of Mark.
And yet today the author of Hebrews suggests glibly that Abraham envisioned resurrection as he considered the religious killing of his son: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
These struggles continue because it is difficult to reconcile the religious violence of child sacrifice with the worthiness of Yahweh our God. We may not wish to admit it, but we seem repulsed by the very notion and it lingers in the various ways mentioned above. How could Yahweh expect Abraham to sacrifice his God-promised son?
But are we as conflicted when we speak about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God, on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sins? We even call that day Good Friday because it is good for us. It is our redemption. But what about the effects on Jesus, even on God? Let’s not paper-over the trauma of the cross with Hebrews’ ointment that the sacrifice was not all that painful because God and Jesus know full well “that God is able even to raise someone from the dead.”
When Jesus dies with “a loud cry,” (Mark 15:37) we can’t minimize the savagery of the cross by racing to the empty tomb. If we are troubled by the sacrifice of Isaac, we must also face the scandal of the sacrifice of Jesus. Looking at the cross and the one crucified is Lent’s purpose. It is to take us deeper into the mystery of Jesus’ love for us. Dare to question. Dare to ask the hard questions of Christ crucified. Dare to find meaning in Jesus’ death that is personal not doctrinaire. And dare always while believing that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.macucc.org/lectionary.
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