Sunday, 7 June 2009

This one got to me!

In my reading of the Bible from the beginning, the first time I really felt emotionally grabbed was at Genesis 22. This is the story of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac.

On one level it is an appalling story. Would God be so cruel? Moreover, we are not told whether Sarah, the boy's mother, was consulted - probably not. Isaac certainly wasn't. He is treated as a thing to be sacrificed rather than as a person in his own right. My interpretation of this story, if it is an actual event, is that Abraham thought he should sacrifice his son. To sacrifice one's firstborn son was the most pious action imaginable in the culture of that time. Perhaps Abraham, aware of being chosen by God for some holy purpose, reasoned that he could not do any less than what other holy people did. Perhaps he was agonising in his conscience for years about this, and ultimately decided it had to be done. Then he experienced a sign - a ram caught in a thicket - which convinced him that God was telling him not to do it.

This in itself is suggestive. Often the only way a religious taboo is broken down is by some undeniable sign - some personal experience, or amazing coincidence, that convinces us that a moral taboo or "law" that we have questioned for some time is really no longer applicable. Peter had that kind of experience at Joppa. People today too are often changed by overwhelming experience, so that they feel at ease about setting themselves free from what they thought was an absolute prohibition - e.g., saying "yes" to a loving homosexual relationship.

But to come to the point of my finding myself emotionally involved - it is something about the way the story is told. It is a real human drama, understated (like all good stories) but saying enough to draw you into the situation. Reading it, I could feel the unbearable tension in Abraham, the innocent puzzlement of Isaac, and the appalling thing that was about to happen. Then the climax, when Isaac's life is saved at the very last moment, and God praises Abraham for his willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice.

Misguided it may have been - cruel by our standards today - but within the limitations of his culture and his understanding Abraham was willing to do the right thing no matter what it cost. That has to be admired, and we have to ask ourselves: how much am I willing to sacrifice for what I really believe in? What does God ask of me, and am I willing to give it?

1 comment:

  1. I think the way this story is usually understood is quite bad, and is responsible for the way Christianity promotes the belief that 'sacrifice' ie hurting ourselves or others, in somehow good for us. Abraham's experience (please remember it was an experience first and foremost) was a trauma through which he came to realise that his God, unlike the other gods of the day, did not in fact want human sacrifice - that after all was the conclusion of the story. Yes, Abraham wanted to show how much God meant to him (Rays's point), but that is not the way to do it, then nor now. The later prophets followed the logic of Abraham's experience to conclude that God did not want sacrifice at all, but loving kindness. Jesus' sacrifice (offering of worship/worthship) was the offering of his life with its loves, its joys, its inner peace, its sharing with others and caring for others, its inclusion of the marginalized. This, according to the prophets was what God required and Jesus did it. Sacrificial theory of the atonement takes us back before the prophets and even before Abraham to the angry, cruel, pagan god. That's where fundamentalism stands today. It has not progressed from the most primitive form of religion. (John Henson)