Monday, November 19, 2007

So what's up with Abraham sacrificing Isaac?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear a sermon about this biblical story. You know, the one where Abraham is out playing ball with his miracle child Isaac, and God shows up with some instructions:
"Here I am," he replied.
"Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Wait, what?

To his credit, the preacher mentioned that this story is a little problematic. Then he went on to extract the moral that we ought to loosen our grip on our ideas about ownership ... that we ought not be Consumers above all, and that we should be willing to give God whatever God demands. That bit of scolding was good for me, because the message about holding loosely to things and releasing my consumer identity is definitely a message I need to hear.

But this lukewarm approach to the story of Abraham and Isaac still strikes me as sort of ... how do I say this nicely? Morally deficient?



OK, so I'll grant that we shouldn't be all grabby about our possessions. Great. But it makes me a bit queasy to see Abraham held up as a paragon of virtue when he holds his morals so loosely that he's willing to stoop to human sacrifice. I mean, it's not like this is some abstract theological question about an event that could only happen in the context of a Middle Eastern sacrificial system. No, apparently people have to answer this question on a fairly regular basis. When the voice of God pops into your head and tells you to kill your children, what should you do?

I don't know how much theological arguments can influence people with schizophrenic disorders. Maybe not at all. But my answer to the question is: if that voice in your head tells you to do something evil, like murder your children, call "bullshit". You can be pretty sure that it's not the voice of God.

Oh, but what if God has changed her mind and decided that in this situation, it is actually good to kill your child!?


Maybe God knows good and evil, but she doesn't make them out of thin air. Power does not imply goodness. Or in the words of T.H. White, might does not make right.

Therefore, if you're worshiping a God who obliterates entire races of people, and demands child sacrifice, and deceives his followers about the nature of good and evil, then you've been tricked. You aren't worshiping a good God, you're worshiping an evil spirit. And by worshiping it, you empower it. You are complicit in it. If it continues to hold sway over the earth, then to some small degree, it's your fault.


After the sermon ended, a husband and wife stood up to share some thoughts before the eucharist; in our tradition we call them "communion meditations". And while I wish they had said something different, I can't really blame them for what they did next. They began juxtaposing scriptures about the sacrifice of Isaac with scriptures about Jesus, implying that just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac to God, God was willing to sacrifice Jesus to God, so that our sins could be forgiven.

Like I said, I can't really blame them. The metaphor pops up in the text over and over again, and if somehow God can be good while also demanding child sacrifice, well then of course God can be good while demanding adult sacrifice. God can't just forgive the sins of the world, somehow reparation has to be made, God's wrath has to be "satisfied". Jesus has to be the perfect sacrificial lamb.

On my more generous days, when I read those things, I can imagine how they were helpful to someone. But the only people I can imagine who might have taken away more good than evil from those metaphors were premodern Jews, who had no inkling about the philosophies of liberal humanism, and whose worldview was steeped in blood and sacrificial mystery.

Premodern Jews.

Now I understand why the church spends so much time literally interpreting biblical stories, giving churchgoers background about the Jewish sacrificial system, praying for rain, disparaging other religions and allowing a tribal deity's murders and genocides to go unexamined. It's because almost all of its sacred texts were written for an audience of premodern Jews. The only way to make any sense of the Bible, really, is to squeeze one's postmodern, liberal humanist mind into a premodern, Jewish worldview. It's only then that the theology of penal substitutionary atonement can be self-evidently beautiful, and it's only then that we can ignore the dissonance between God's claims to be huge and eternal and God's apparent distaste for shrimp, polyester and homosexuals. It's only then that it makes sense to say "Jesus ascended into heaven" rather than "Jesus flew off into space".

Consequently, my current task at church has become translation. Maybe this has even become my approach to theology in general. How can we understand the Christian story -- what metaphors can we use -- that will make it powerful and engaging for people who haven't spent their whole lives training to be premodern Jews? More practically, how can I make it through a church service without being offended at the wicked, petty God that my fellow Christians worship?

It's a tricky proposition, and though I think I've come a long way in the past few years, I'm still hunting the used bookstores for a pocket dictionary translating between "postmodern liberal humanist" and "premodern Jew". Wish me luck.