“After these things God tested Abraham.” Genesis 22:1a (NRSV)
The story of Abraham’s “testing” by God in Genesis 22:1-14 is about how God “told” Abraham to take his only son – the son he and Sarah had waited for a LONG, LONG time – and sacrifice him. I mean, really? This is a test by the God we have called loving? I mean, really??
When I was growing up, I took the Biblical stories at face value, and maybe that was a blessing in disguise. I could never have imagined my parents doing such a thing to me, so I distanced myself from the impact of the story. In reality, I could have had nightmares about what God might tell my parents to do to me if I misbehaved. Fortunately, I was a pretty well-behaved child, but then, we have the sense that Isaac hadn’t done anything to be the subject of Abraham’s testing except to be born to him when he was over one hundred years old.
This summer I have chosen to use the stories from Genesis to tie the scriptures to issues with which we deal in our society – issues that we might encounter every day. There are actually two issues that pop up here, one is child abuse, and the other is a crisis in faith. What would I do if God suddenly asked me to sacrifice my cat? After being totally amazed that God would speak so that I could understand what God wanted me to do, I’m not so sure I could follow through with that request. I abhor violence, and I HAVE had nightmares after watching a violent segment from a TV show (I rarely make it more than a minute or two if there is violence on the show).
I could never imagine God asking me to sacrifice my cat much less my child! There are those who believe that this is a parallel scripture for God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but when the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures as they are also known) writers included this story of Abraham and Isaac in their writings, I doubt that they could foresee even the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I suspect our Jewish friends would have a very different perspective on this whole story and the content, but I still wrestle with the idea of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son.
My preaching is consistently about grace and mercy and sharing God’s love. As a United Methodist, I believe in John Wesley’s theological teachings on personal and social holiness. Personal holiness is about growing in God’s grace and love as we grow in faith and understanding that God IS a God of love. Social holiness is living that love visibly and actively in the world. Child abuse doesn’t come into those equations anywhere.
So what can we take away from this story? Well, maybe the story will make us help us question what we really do believe about God and how this story can do some reverse teaching – such as “don’t abuse your child.” I know that’s pretty simple, and I also realize it’s far more complex than that. The other thing to ask ourselves is what do we really believe about God, and how does the New Testament help us to understand God through the eyes of Jesus?
It seems to me that Jesus was presenting God in a different light and reinterpreting God to the temple leaders, the faithful folks who attended temple, and the poor, outcast, rejected, and abused of his society, so we can, again, look at this through the reverse lesson it can teach us. Of course, we will always be tested in life, but is God the one who does the testing or is it just the way the world jumps on us, especially at our weakest moments?
If we believe that God is a God of love, then we can be sure that God has chosen not to be a nasty god who baits us. Rather, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who is God in the flesh, we have a new covenant that reminds us of God’s presence, support, strength, and love that we receive, not only through the power of the Holy Spirit, but also through the community of faith who MAY help us to know the presence of Christ with us. That is my prayer.