(Genesis 22:1-15, Leviticus 20:1-5)
There are many strange stories about fathers and their children in the Bible, but none stranger than the one we consider today, in which the esteemed “father of faith” has every intention of killing his own son. Does our religion teach people to sacrifice their children to God? The Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller argued that the story of Abraham and Isaac can be used as a pretext for child abuse; the entire story is about the two powerful adults (conceived as males) with no regard for the mother or child. Carol Delaney, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford, wrote a whole book with the title Abraham on Trial about the influence of this myth, as she calls it. She noted a case in California in 1990 in which a man killed his youngest daughter, his favorite, and said that God had commanded him to offer her as a sacrifice.
What are we to make of this story? Everyone agrees that the Bible does not mean for anyone to kill a child. That’s not the point. But what is?
There are two main strands of Christian interpretation. The first says that this was all a test of faith. God wanted to find out whether Abraham would obey His command even when He commanded him to give up the one thing he loved most, even when it would mean the end of God’s own promise to him. Martin Luther said that “God contradicts himself.” With one word, He gives the promise of a son and a nation, and with another word, He asks for that son to be killed. John Calvin also said, “The command and the promise of God are in conflict.”
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book meditating on Abraham’s decision, called Fear and Trembling. He sees the contradiction as the key to the story. God is asking Abraham to do something that is absurd, that violates every ethical standard. This is the difference, Kierkegaard says, between the ethical man and the religious man. The religious man is the Knight of Faith who chooses to obey God when it makes no sense. He takes the leap of faith, knowing that it means suspending common sense and his own ethics.
That’s one way to think about the story, and certainly many sermons have been preached about giving up what you love most for God. But on Father’s Day, it strikes me that such a reading doesn’t take seriously the love or responsibility of a father. Surely a better leap of faith for Abraham would have been to give up his own life for his child. Surely the life of the child is not a pawn in some game played to demonstrate one’s loyalty to the Commander in Chief. Would God really command such a thing? And where is Isaac’s mother, Sarah? She has no say? She dies in the next chapter of Genesis, and although she was old, I wonder if just hearing this story didn’t kill her.
The second way Christians have read the story is to see it as prefiguring God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This view says that the main purpose of the event was to teach humanity a way to think about what will happen to Jesus. The ram caught in the thicket proves that a substitutionary life is acceptable to God. The point is that God did not in the end require Abraham to sacrifice his son, but God was required to sacrifice His Son. There was no angel to stop God’s hand. In Romans, Paul speaks of God “who did not withhold his only son, but gave him up for us all.”
That way of talking only makes sense when you understand Jesus as one with God – that God was giving Himself for us on the cross, becoming vulnerable and entering into our suffering. If you speak of the cross using the language of Father and Son, it’s hard not to see it as cosmic child abuse, putting your child to death by violent means for the greater good. Do we want to visualize the God of love and justice as a father holding a knife above his innocent son? Not me.
While I believe there is a testing taking place in this story, and I believe if you have enough time to explain the atonement thoroughly you can connect it to this story, I want to suggest a third way of reading the story, more in line with Jewish interpretations of it. Many rabbis think the point of the story is that God stops Abraham from making a child sacrifice, and that the lesson for Israel is that human sacrifice is not acceptable to God. Other passages in the Hebrew Scripture make it clear that the religions of the surrounding cultures did practice child sacrifice as a way to mollify angry gods. Some of Israel’s neighbors worshiped the god Molek. The place outside Jerusalem called Gehenna, the smoldering garbage dump that symbolizes hell, was said to be on the site where child sacrifices had been practiced in earlier times. And the Israelites were always tempted to go along with the cultural values of powerful neighbors, worshiping their gods.
In Leviticus 20:1-2, the Lord tells Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Mole chis to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him,’” showing that child sacrifice was enough of an issue that there had to be a law against it. The Israelites were tempted to offer their children to Molekch perhaps because they thought he was more powerful than Yahweh, perhaps because they were hedging their bets. Second Chronicles 28:1-3 reports that the evil king Ahaz turned to pagan religion as many other kings did. He made images of Baal, the fertility god of nature. And he followed the pagan practices to the point of sacrificing his own sons by fire to appease the angry gods.
Here’s what the prophet Jeremiah said about this: They “sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded – nor did it enter my mind – that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin” (Jer. 32:35). I would never have asked such a terrible thing. The Talmud, written down around 200 AD, commenting on the story of Isaac says that such behavior never crossed God’s mind, and modern Orthodox rabbis say that God used this occasion to teach that all child sacrifice is unacceptable. The rabbinical commentary Genesis Rabbah, written between 300 and 500 AD, imagines God saying, “I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac.”
Isn’t it possible that Abraham heard about the religious devotion of his pagan neighbors and, rather than rightly questioning God, thought to himself, “Surely the Lord deserves as much from me”? Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi, who lived in Provence and Spain in the 1300’s, said as much. He wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. “How could God command such a revolting thing?” he asked. It does seem to me to make no sense that God would command something he later specifically prohibited in the law. It seems more likely that Abraham defined faith the way other cultures did and loved his son so much he felt compelled to give him up. God’s active role in the story is to send an angel to stop Abraham from doing something terrible because of a misunderstanding.
The question for us on this Father’s Day is this: Do the values of our culture tempt us to sacrifice our children? I don’t mean that we take a knife to them on a holy mountain. But we sacrifice them nonetheless.
At Princeton Seminary there is a sculpture next to the Chapel. It is by the Pop Art sculptor George Segal. Most of his sculptures are human figures – like the lifelike statues standing in line at the Port Authority Bus Station or the bronze figures of men in a breadline at the FDR Memorial in Washington. The statue at Princeton is a bronze of an older man standing with a knife over a young man who is kneeling in front of him; it is called “Abraham and Isaac.” But there is a special meaning to that piece of art. It was originally commissioned by an Ohio foundation to be placed on the campus of Kent State University to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the killing of four students by National Guard troops during a protest in 1970; indeed, the young man in the sculpture is dressed as a typical college student. Kent State decided it was too controversial to portray the students as sacrificial victims, but Princeton was happy to have it. Do we sacrifice our own children for law and order? Are we sacrificing our children when we send them off to fight wars on behalf of the economic and political interests of those in power?
Leonard Cohen released a song in 1969 called “The Story of Isaac” about the way we continue to sacrifice children:
The door it opened slowly, /my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me, /his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision/and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain, I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold…
You who build these altars now/to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision/and you never have been tempted
by the devil or the Lord.
You who stand above them now, /your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain/and my father’s hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.
Is it unreasonable to say that we are sacrificing our children to gun violence? Every day we hear of kids caught in the crossfire of gangs, and toddlers killed because there was a gun at home for them to play with. And Dear God, the school shootings! Columbine, Red Lake High, Nickle Mines Amish School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Umpqua Community College, Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas, Robb Elementary; and that only counts most of the high-death shootings. If I were to include the school incidents with just injuries – where 1 or none were killed, I wouldn’t have the time because it would number in the hundreds. Add to that the lunacy of people claiming the Sandy Hook shooting never happened and already claiming that Uvalde, TX was a staged event by gun control advocates, and it’s almost like sacrificing those children all over again.
Are we sacrificing our children when we let them live in poverty? In the last 20 years, the world has made tremendous progress in eliminating extreme poverty, cutting it almost in half. But in the United States we are moving in the opposite direction, blaming poor families for their poverty, cutting their benefits to give to those we imagine will make better use of the funds by investing them. This week I saw a report that 13.5 million households in the US live in “food insecurity,” not sure if they will have meals every day. Only a few years ago, that number was 13.2 million, and, with growing inflation, the number is likely to keep moving in the wrong direction.
Don’t many of us sacrifice our children to our careers? (Pastors can be the worst – that’s why PK’s have such a reputation. Not my kid, of course!) When Will Willimon was chaplain at Duke, he showed a movie about the sacrifice of Isaac to a group of children and adults. His wife thought it was not a good idea, but she was overruled. She led the kids in a discussion after the movie.
Who knows what the word ‘sacrifice’ means? A few attempted definitions. But what does ‘sacrifice’ mean to you?
A third grader replied, “My Daddy and Mommy are doctors at Duke. They help sick people get better. Every day they do operations.”
Patsy asked How is that a sacrifice?
“I go to the day care after school, sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommy and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people, so lots of time I stay at the center. Sometimes on Sunday we have pancakes, though.”
All the children, ages 6-11, nodded in understanding. They knew that they were the ones being sacrificed.
Sometimes it’s about money. A story was related to me of a client at The Well in Pella who was pregnant but had a high-paying job, making more than her husband. Her husband told her that if they had another child, they would not be able to afford their mortgage. The staff talked about how the woman felt about the pregnancy and about abortion. She did not feel it was right to sacrifice a child for a mortgage. But when she came back a couple of weeks later, she told them that she hadn’t felt she could go against her husband’s wishes, and the pregnancy was terminated.
I know that not all abortions are about money or convenience; some pregnancies happen in tragic situations. But that experience felt emblematic of how some fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. I’ve seen them sacrifice children for alcohol. I’ve seen them sacrifice their children to a mid-life crisis affair.
I’ve seen churches sacrifice their ministry to children because the children didn’t know how to behave, because they would never add to the church’s bottom line, because the adults simply had other priorities for their time. I’ve heard people say – surely not thinking that Jesus heard their words – that they’d had their turn. If the parents don’t want to volunteer, I’m not going to do it. I’ve seen countless men in church dismiss Sunday School as women’s work, not fathers’ work.
Surely, we know that God intended us to love our children as God has loved us, and to love other people’s children the same way. Surely, we know that sacrificing our children for some greater good never even crossed God’s mind. God called it an abomination. He is calling us to value our children as Jesus valued them, as the precious first citizens of His kingdom who can lead us in praise and humility. On Father’s Day, let all of us remember our calling to care for God’s family. Amen.