Hebrew Bible: Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm: Psalm 13
Epistle: Romans 6:12-23
New Testament: Matthew 10:40-42
Preacher: Melissa BrowningSermon
– Sacrifice and Love
June 29, 2008
As I read and reread this week’s lectionary texts and contemplated ways to reconcile the wages of sin, cups of cold water, and a somewhat frightful story about sacrifice, I wondered if I was asked to preach because no one else wanted to! Now, Wes asked me to promise that I would not begin my sermon complaining about the lectionary selections, but when I asked him how I should begin the sermon, the best he could muster was the salutation, “Dearest people of the church…” So, Dearest people of the church, if you will permit me, I thought the best way to engage this week’s texts would be to put aside my conspiracy theories and choose the hardest among the texts and see what we could learn by putting it on the chopping block … hence, this sermon will be on the binding of Isaac.
Isaac’s story has always bothered me. I remember Sunday School coloring pictures of a docile Isaac strapped down to the altar with a knife raised above his chest, saved just in the nick of time by a beautiful glowing angel. In the flannel graph stories that accompanied these coloring pictures, both Isaac and Abraham trusted God and were met with a happy ending. Yet when you actually read the text, there are few happy endings to be found. After this incident, the relationship between Isaac and Abraham is never the same (Zierler, 19). Abraham sacrifices the ram God provides, but does not return from Mount Moriah with Isaac, but with his servants. In the Genesis text, Isaac and Abraham do not speak again after this incident. The last conversation between the two comes when Isaac ask his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?“ And Isaac’s mother, Sarah, who laughed at the impossibility possibility of her only son’s birth, is forever silenced by a narrative twist that records her death shortly after Abraham’s return (Zierler, 19-20). Furthermore, the text leaves us wondering what changed with Abraham. The faithful sojourner who begged God to show compassion on Sodom and Gomorrah does not even protest when asked to sacrifice his son.
In Jewish and Christian history, this text has been interpreted in a number of ways. In Judaism, this text is called the Akedah and is seen by many as central to spiritual formation within the Jewish tradition. On Rosh Hashanah, the Akedah is evoked through a prayer where God is asked to remember Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and therefore, show mercy to the Jewish people (Jacobs, 18-20). In this remembrance, the faith of Abraham is highlighted, but the voices of Isaac and Sarah remain silent.
Other interpretations in both Christian and Jewish tradition have seen the text as a polemic against child sacrifice, which was being practiced by other religious groups during the time period when this text was composed. Yet this interpretation has been challenged because it is inconsistent with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and with God’s seeming reward of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “The Moral Dilemma of the Sacrifice of Isaac,” 43).
Christian theologian Søren Kierkegaard read the text with an ethical lens and said that Abraham was the “knight of faith” who allowed a temporary suspension of ethics in order to honor God’s request (Kierkegaard).
Other Christian readers have recognized an analogy between Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, who is called his only son, and God’s giving Jesus over to death on the cross.
More daring commentators have read the binding of Isaac in light of Sarah’s death and have asked if this text signaled the triumph of a patriarchal tradition over Sarah’s matriarchal faith. Feminist theologian Carol Ochs argues that the text proves Abraham’s loyalty to the patriarchal religious cult, which replaced a prior matriarchal cult. This argument is based on the idea that Isaac’s sacrifice would have threatened what matriarchal religion held most dear – children. Whereas in patriarchy, children became property (Ochs, 31-46).
Whether we agree with Ochs or not, we certainly must ask the question – Where is Sarah? Did she know what Abraham was doing? Jewish midrashes, which are legends or interpretations of a text, read this text assume that at some point, Sarah must have known what happened between Abraham and Isaac. Some midrashes propose that Sarah died from grief after hearing what Abraham had attempted, while other say that she died from joy, hearing that Isaac survived (Zierler, 11-12).
These are just some of the ways people have been wrestling with this text. This short review is helpful, because as we pick up the text to do our own reading this evening, we have a bit of wrestling to do.
Tonight I want to ask the question that readers throughout history have asked when encountering this text – What sacrifice is required of us? Should we follow Abraham’s example – should we give away what is most dear? Or should we run the other way, understanding Christian responsibility as the duty to fiercely care for, not sacrifice, all that we love?
A good starting point for asking these questions can be found by looking at the relationship between sacrifice and love. Interestingly enough, the first time the Hebrew word for love is found in the biblical text comes in this passage (Zierler, 19). God asks Abraham to "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…. and offer him as a burnt offering." Yet by the end of the text, the word love has disappeared. When the angel of the Lord calls out to Abraham, Isaac is no longer known as the one whom Abraham loves. The voice from heaven says, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." We do not hear the word “love” again in the Hebrew Scriptures until Isaac meets his wife Rebecca and brings her into his mother’s tent (Zierler, 19).
This shift in the relationship between Abraham and Isaac says something about the nature of love and sacrifice. To put it bluntly, offering one’s beloved as a sacrifice does not serve love. So did Abraham get it wrong? And if so, why is this story part of our sacred text at all?
Perhaps part of our conflict with this passage comes in our expectations of the biblical texts. In the days when I colored pictures of Isaac strapped to an altar, I believed that from any given text there were simple ethical parallels, which I could readily apply to my life. But the scripture is only one source for Christian ethics. When scripture is used to make an ethical decision, it must be used in dialogue with reason, tradition, and experience. It is only by putting these sources in dialogue that we can use the text on the binding of Isaac as starting point for speaking about sacrifice today.
The story of the binding of Isaac must be read in light of other passages that teach us that loving God brings the obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves (See Luke 10:27 & Matt. 22:36-40). This is especially necessary because it is in the relationship between love and sacrifice where this subject gets messy. In the Christian tradition, many of us have been told that Christian love is always self-sacrificing love (See Niebuhr & Nygren). Yet in our history, this interpretation of love as self-sacrificing has benefited some, and harmed others. In fact, the first article ever published on feminist theology in the 1960’s recognized that women’s sin was not pride, but was the temptation to give too much of themselves (Saiving, 100-112). In relationships between men and women, between parents and children, sacrifice has often not been even distributed. Even today, women and children continue to carry too much of the global burden of poverty, disease, and malnutrition.
In addressing this concern, African feminist theologian Mercy Oduyoye says that in Africa, the church should look to women as its model for sacrifice. She says that women sacrifice too much; and that they are being sacrificed by the church. But, according to Oduyoye, if the burdens of sacrifice were equally distributed, then sacrifice would no longer be a burden but a way to participate in the community of God (Oduyoye, 259-272). Oduyoye comes to this perspective not by listening to those who direct the ritual, but by those who have been sacrificed.
Perhaps in reading today’s text, we could follow Oduyoye’s lead and listen to the silent characters within the text. Abraham’s obedience cannot be lifted up over Isaac’s victimization or Sarah’s silencing. All three voices must emerge from the text if we want to understand what sacrifice truly means.
When this text is read with the experience of each participant in mind, and when it is read against the backdrop of modern experiences of sacrifice and love, it can provide a lens to discern the difference between a sacrifice that is harmful to ourselves and others, and a sacrifice that is our obligation as people in Christian community. Toward this end, I believe there are a few guidelines that can be suggested to keep sacrifice within the realm of Christian love.
First, in order for sacrifice to live within the realm of love, it must respect our sense of embodiment. By embodiment I mean that our bodies are essential to who we are as persons. We were created by God not as minds trapped in bodies, but as bodies relating with other bodies. Simply put, Abraham cannot love Isaac if he is willing to deny him bodily existence. In the same way, in our relationships with each other, we must respect each other as embodied people. This means that we honor each other’s emotional and physical limits. That we do use the ones we love to fulfill our own needs, but that we honor and care for one another. We encourage each other to rest. We seek in all our actions to flourish together and not at each other’s expense. In this, our goal should be to distribute sacrifice as equally as possible within our relationships and within our communities.
Second, in order for sacrifice to live within the realm of love, sacrifice must serve love. Sacrifice is not a good test for love. Even in the relationship between God and Abraham, Isaac’s sacrifice was not a test of Abraham’s love for God, but of whether or not he “feared” God. Christian sacrifice must not be given out of fear – it is not something we can demand of each other when power is unequal. No, Christian sacrifice must be freely given if it is to serve love. Sacrifice may not always be equal, but it must exist as much as possible within relationships of reciprocity. While there are special relationships – such as those between a parent and a child – that necessitate unequal sacrifice, this should be the exception, and not the norm for Christian relationships. In all our relationships, like in the relationship between a parent and a child, we should hope to grow into reciprocal exchanges of equal giving.
This brings us to the last, and perhaps the most important point. For sacrifice to live within the realm of love, it must not neglect the balance between love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. In Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus sums up the entire law by saying, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind.” And "You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (See Luke 10:27 & Matt. 22:36-40). For sacrifice to live within the realm of love, it must honor all our loves – our love of God, ourselves, and others. It must honor our embodiment – our heart, soul, strength and mind – our whole person related to other people. Sacrifice should not kill us or kill those we love. We must take seriously Paul’s admonition to be a living sacrifice – knowing that the sacrifices we make should lead us all live life more abundantly.
While preparing this sermon, I ran across an excellent reflection on the binding of Isaac from a blog that was written for Rosh Hashanah. The writer of this blog read the text from a literary perspective and noted the way the simplicity of the text’s language gives a sense of ambiguity to the story. He said that as we read this text, our questions remain unresolved. The blogger put it this way, he said the author of the text “wants the reader to never cease pondering our relationship with God and the inhuman tests of faith to which (God) periodically puts us… Our faith… is meant to be a continual struggle” (Richard Silverstein blog)
In reading the difficult story of Abraham and Isaac, we are reminded that relationships are difficult, full of conflicting interests and priorities. It is hard to know when to give and when to hold back, when we should sharing ourselves, and when we risk dangerously losing ourselves to another. This is why attention to sacrifice is so important.
For sacrifice to be Christian sacrifice, it must live within the realm of love. And to live in this realm, it must respect our embodiment, it must serve love, and it must balance our loves – love of self, love of neighbor and love of God. When sacrifice lives within the realm of love, we can give of ourselves without losing ourselves. We can work toward relationships of reciprocity where the burdens and benefits of sacrifice are equally distributed in our relationships and in the community of God. This is the gift of God’s grace – eternal life given through a sacrifice that only God could give. It is from this place of sharing the benefits and burdens of sacrifice that we are able to welcome one another, to give a cup of cold water, and to live together in love.
Jacobs, Louis. The Jewish Religion: A Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.
Niebuhr, Reinhold An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1963.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Ochs, Carol. Behind the Sex of God. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.
Oduyoye, Mercy Amba. “Church-Women and the Church’s Mission in Contemporary Times,” Bulletin de Théologie Africaine 6, no. 12, (1984): 259-272.
Saiving, Valarie. “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Journal of Religion 40:2, (1960): 100-112.
Silverstein, Richard – Blog found at http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2004/09/16/the-akedah-abra
Zierler, Wendy. “In Search of a Feminist Reading of the Akedah,” NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women_s Studies and Gender Issues, Number 9, Spring 2005, pp. 10-26.