By Pastor John Johnson

"Fear and Trembling" are not needed: Abraham and Isaac

June 28, 2020

From looking at me, I am sure most of you can tell that I am an abused person, a very abused person, and one aspect of that abuse is that everyone picks on me. Why, even — especially — my lovely wife, Patricia, and even during their recent visit my thirteen year-old granddaughter, Grace, and her father, my younger son, Steve, who all together picked on me about the condition of my home office, and, well, this week, I realized that maybe they were picking on me for good reason, and I must actually do something about it. This is a glimpse of behind my desk — a narrow photo to hide the full extent of my messiness — where I unsuccessfully sought to find a specific book that discusses our reading this morning of what is over-simplified as being “the story of Abraham and Isaac.”

If this is not the most problematic story we encounter in the Book of Genesis, it is way ahead of whatever is in third place. A serious but seriously anti-religion friend, though he was raised an Episcopalian, asked me to explain the story to him a few years ago, wondering why such a story is read to children, a point on which I agreed with him, as I had indeed wondered for many years, “Why do we teach this story to kids in Sunday School?”

And do we really — does anyone, including me — does anyone really understand the story?

Let’s read it now:

NJB Genesis 22:1 It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test.

to the test — when we say in The Lord’s Prayer, “and lead us not into temptation,” we are saying something also translated as “keep us from the time of trial”; there are particular tests — those from the hypothetical Satan — from which we want to be spared, but, at any rate, according to what we just read, God was going to put Abraham to the test, and I continue:

Abraham, Abraham!' he called. 'Here I am,' he replied. 2 God said, 'Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you are to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall point out to you.'

“. . . your son, your only son, your beloved” as a burnt offering?!? While it is not my intent nor disposition to do so, it is quite understandable that many Christians do indeed find here a foretelling of God the father sacrificing His son, Jesus, on the cross. God was putting Abraham to the test, and I think we would all wish to be spared from that test.

But let us again continue:

3 Early next morning Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He chopped wood for the burnt offering and started on his journey to the place which God had indicated to him. 4 On the third day . . .

While I shall avoid expanding upon its possible relevance, I must admit I had never before this past week really noted that “on the third day,” but at any rate:

4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 Then Abraham said to his servants, 'Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there; we shall worship and then come back to you.’

[sounds a bit like Jesus when he went to pray on Gethsemane]

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, loaded it on Isaac, and carried in his own hands the fire and the knife. Then the two of them set out together. 7 Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. 'Father?' he said. 'Yes, my son,' he replied. 'Look,' he said, 'here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?' 8 Abraham replied, 'My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.' And the two of them went on together.

God himself will provide. Keep those words in mind.

9 When they arrived at the place which God had indicated to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven. 'Abraham, Abraham!' he said. 'Here I am,' he replied. 12 'Do not raise your hand against the boy,' the angel said. 'Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your own beloved son.' 13 Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham called this place 'Yahweh provides', and hence the saying today: 'On the mountain Yahweh provides.'

[slide] Abraham called this place 'Yahweh provides.’

Only by chance, though I suspect God played a role, did I choose to use the New Jerusalem Bible translation — when I started working on this sermon I had not typed out the Robert Alter translation, which I had expected to use, but it lacked what I found in the New Jerusalem Bible, — and the advantage of this translation is the clear visibility of this unusual mixing of the names, God and Yahweh in the same passage, which suggests to me that the story as we just read it is an embellishment of what we would call a “Yahwist” story from a long oral tradition that was first written down about 1000 BCE or so; this Abraham and Isaac story, if it occurred, was handed down for more than 600 years. What we read is an embellishment of that earlier story, or its being combined with a parallel story, by a writer of about the sixth century, which is to say, the “500’s,” BCE, when the sacred name, Yahweh, was no longer being used because of that sacredness. And the point of my comment is simply to say, the story of this incident in the lives of Abraham and his son was clearly regarded as important among the Jews, who were (and I guess “are”) all descended from Abraham through Isaac and then Jacob. The story was important to keep telling at and after the time of the Babylonian exile and return from it, and I’ll return to that later, even if  the original purpose of the story, on which I shall speculate, was no longer so meaningful.

The book I could not find is by Sören Kierkegaard, the brilliant 19th century Danish philosopher  and one of the fathers of what we call ‘existentialism” and whom we sometimes call “the dismal Dane”; we have used two of his profound prayers, and not for the first time, in our worship today, and the name of the book is Fear and Trembling, words used in some translations to describe how Abraham must have felt, and, indeed, how we might feel in the figurative “very presence” of God.

The story is used in Sunday Schools as I recall a testimony to Abraham’s obedience and faith, and I think that mistakenly supposes and teaches children that we are to applaud Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, if that is what God commanded — and the story certainly could be interpreted that way.

Which is, of course, a horrible thought.

I am not sure but that it was not until I began wading through Fear and Trembling, which I have not yet finished and undertook largely to give a more complete answer to my agnostic friend, that I understood the faith of Abraham that I only now perceive through those words in the story: God will provide. Abraham’s faith was such that Abraham would not — I repeat — that Abraham would not have had fear that God would require that he actually kill Isaac. Abraham’s faith, and Abraham’s faith does matter, was certainty that — and let me go back to the origins of this story as probably before there was a written Hebrew language — [slide] Abraham’s faith was the certainty that the God of Israel would not and did not and does not require human sacrifice.

And human sacrifice was an issue when the Yahwist stories were first told, because some other societies who had inhabited Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, had practiced human sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew several times refers to Gehenna, [slide] though the name is commonly translated as “hell,” the only times in any of the four Gospels we encounter that term, “hell,” which is a major reason I do not believe in the concept. Be that as it may, at the time of Jesus, Gehenna was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, but its name meant, “The Valley of Hinnon,” and it had been the site of such human sacrifices more than one thousand years earlier, before it became occupied by the Jews at the time of King David, about 1000 BCE.

The original point of the story, I believe, is that the God of Israel is different from and greater than the gods worshipped by other peoples who had lived in Canaan; this God does not ask for human sacrifice!

Let me phrase this another way: [slide] The story is not about Abraham nor his virtues; the story is about Yahweh; it is about God. It It is a story of a God who loves the humans that God has created too much to ask that they practice sacrifice of another human being to please Him, a gender insensitive but understood pronoun, I trust.

Four or five hundred years after this story was first written down, human sacrifice, to the best of our knowledge, was not practiced in the land of Judah, what remained Jewish of the land of Canaan, so what was the particular relevance of the Abraham and Isaac story then, when it was written in the form that we have read it?

Well, if I am correct in stating the setting in which this final form of the story was written, and I believe — or at least hope — that I am, it is possible that in the deliverance of the people of Judah from a national near-death experience at the hands of Babylon when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, they might have seen a parallel in the way God had spared Isaac.

At any rate, it is addressed to a people demoralized by either the fact of the physical conquest and destruction and occupancy of their land by the Babylonians and exile of 5000 of their number to Babylon, or by the aftermath of that occupation and exile that had not — at least not yet — resulted in a return to its previous grandeur. The story served as a reminder that God would provide them as God has provided for Abraham.

In that sense, maybe it is also a message to us Christians today who might feel defeated and beaten down by secularism in modern Europe and secularism resulting in some instances in absolutely anti-religious expression in this country — and here I am going to give a name — anti-religious sentiment expressed by politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even this past week.

The message to those Jews during or after the Babylonian captivity and to those of us discouraged today, 2600 years later, is that just as God provided for Abraham and thus spared Isaac, God will provide. Do not be disheartened and discouraged; God will provide.

Sounds great, but what will God provide in this all-around depressing environment and how will God provide it?

God will provide — God does provide — God’s faithful with hope and reassurance. It is not that none of us will get sick, that none of us will die, but that if we persist in proclaiming Him, then the capital “C” Church of Jesus Christ will not die. To the extent that if not all of us, too many of us have mistaken our political beliefs for religious faith, we need to consider the words, perhaps apocryphal, Abraham Lincoln is said to have said to the woman who asked him, “Mr. President, do you believe God is on the Union’s side?” to which Lincoln supposedly said, “My concern, madam, is whether the Union is on God’s side!”

Let us, in our attitudes over how to deal with COVID-19 or with racial injustice or with excesses of anarchy search ourselves and not politicians’ opinions as to how we deal with each from the perspective of what God asks of us, and with the assurance that if we are sincere in our questioning and searching, then we can be certain that God will provide what we need to do and say to bear faithful witness. God will provide what we need to bear faithful witness in minimizing the spread of COVID-19, which we have done with our worship practices, our being willing to minimize public gathering, and when we do gather, to wear masks and practice social distancing, and in how we have responded to the needs of our Navajo Nation brothers and sisters.  That response has shown a part of our record of practicing racial justice, as well, of which we have spoken the past few weeks.

Our names might not be told in the story of the demise of CoviD-19 nor in the story of the hoped-for bettering of relations among all of God’s children, but we will have contributed, for we do care. The story we want heard and known is not a story about us but the story about God and what God has done for us through His Son, the only human sacrifice God would endorse, that of His only and beloved son, Jesus Christ.

I’ve got to find that book; I’ve got to clean my office.

In the name of that Son, of Jesus. Amen.

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