by Ellen Sims
Has God ever spoken to you . . . a second time? Has God ever said one thing and later said another?
Here’s my most concise plot summary of today’s story from Genesis: God told Abraham to sacrifice his child. As Abraham was complying, God told Abraham NOT to sacrifice his child. It’s a story that makes God seem both cruel and capricious.
God once spoke to me in voices of authority from my childhood culture and the pages of scripture. He told me—and the voice of that God in those days was always male—to follow scrupulously certain codes of conduct. He told me to trust his representatives: white people, male people, older people, Southern Baptist people. He told me that my Jewish friends were going to hell. He told me that the theory of evolution, however cogently presented by my biology teachers, was pernicious. He told me that homosexuality was an abomination. He told me that American patriotism was a tenet of the Christian faith. I was certain those messages were from God. Later—and gradually, very gradually—I heard God say different things on those topics.
Most of you have not gotten this far in life without hearing God speak a second time. Is that second message an amendment or a reversal? God’s contradiction or clarification? Did God change the message or did we start to hear it differently?
I don’t think today’s story offers clear answers to those questions. But it cautions me to aim both for boldness in following my sense of God’s guidance—and humility when attributing that guidance to God. We know of many pitiful persons who have heard God commanding them to do harm.
Scholars speculate that the roots of this story (found in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions) may go back to a time when an ancient people moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, one step forward in moral evolution. The endless interpretations are based, in part, on how we understand the very first verse of this story. Verse 1 says this is a story about a test. The test or quest is a common motif in folklore. The test stories usually begin as a king or a god sets before the hero a seemingly impossible test of bravery or cunning.
The biblical story never tells us what trait God was testing in Abraham. It does say he passed. Those who believe God was testing—and therefore valued above all else—Abraham’s religious fervor, argue that Abraham passed by showing he was willing to sacrifice his very own son in order to obey the demands of a jealous god. These interpreters of the story teach that God requires unwavering devotion, religious extremism, above all.
But others believe “the true biblical spirit” never calls for violence. Whether committed by God or in the name of God, whether the blood of Isaac or of Jesus, violent sacrifice is never God’s M.O. Instead, these interpreters say Abraham passed the “test” of faithfulness by faithfully altering a harmful system of sacrifice, by proving there’s a more mature faith than blind obedience, and that, though we may be tested in life, God is not really the designer or proctor of those tests. Abraham ultimately obeyed by disobeying that first voice of God and following his better angels. Real faithfulness produces ongoing religious reform. This interpretation says God blesses Abraham for not following a cultural practice that was wrongly attributed to God. Real faith produces religious imagination, which the biblical writers had in abundance, a grace to see possibilities outside the world’s systems.
In a way, Abraham passed an earlier version of the Kobayashi Maru. Ah, yes. The Kobayashi Maru. The famously impossible test given at Star Fleet Academy that no one passes. Its true purpose is to test the character of future Star Fleet officers like James T. Kirk, later the captain of the Enterprise. The only cadet ever to outsmart the Kobayashi Maru simulation, Kirk managed to save his virtual crew by cheating—by changing the parameters of the test and thus creating a different simulated reality that allowed him to save lives.
Maybe Kirk has the heart of a religious reformer: in touch with the benevolent aims of the universe and gifted with a hopeful imagination of biblical proportions that escapes culture confines.
Maybe Abraham, in hearing God speak a second time, also gets outside human dichotomies and sees a hopeful alternative. But first he has to leave the constraints of his culture. When God initially speaks, Abraham reacts without question or reflection and immediately leaves “early the next morning,” according to the story. But on his 3-day journey to Mount Moriah, a place symbolizing a “higher perspective,” Abraham gains time and distance and some holy imagination. He journeys to a different land. There he leaves behind his 2 servants (his power) and the donkey laden with their supplies (his possessions). Abraham now is freed to separate the voice of a domination culture from the voice of a loving God. Perhaps he realizes—or the storyteller realizes—that you can move outside culturally defined borders.
And Abraham, the archetypal patriarch, starts talking with his son. That’s always a good thing. As they talk, the narrator tells us, twice, “they walked on together.” Here are the ingredients for spiritual discernment and hearing the voice of God: 1) journeying to a holy place, 2) taking time to nurture our spirits, 3) leaving behind a culture of violence, of power, of things, 4) being accompanied by those we love, 5) opening ourselves to see what God might provide rather than rashly reacting in desperation and depletion. It took time for Abraham to hear an angelic countermand that stayed the hand of a disturbed father—to hear God a second time. It took separation from the culture’s trappings to recognize that God’s provisions are in our very midst, a ram there for the taking. Perhaps “the true act of faith on the part of Abraham is not the blind faith that often has been the dominant message emerging from this text, but rather the ability to recognize [God’s voice as different from the culture and to see imaginatively] God’s provision in the ordinary” (Julianna Claassens).
What resources are right in front of you—already within you? Think about a time when you were at your wits’ end and on the verge of inflicting pain–when suddenly you found the grace to keep your composure, to stifle that outburst, to drop that verbal knife you were going to use to wound a loved one. Tangled up in the brambles of your crazy life you discovered a creative third way to enact compassion, a safe way to get out frustrations without injury to you or the telemarketer who interrupted your supper. You walked back down the mountain with a sense that God was NOT provoking you into a self-righteous rage but instead providing you a spiritual time out to get a grip, offering you a way to tap into a gracious spiritual reservoir of compassion and imagination.
But the story applies to us today not only as a model for individual emotional healing within but also of societal healing without. Instead of obeying the deeply rooted patriarchy, violence, and oppression his culture long ago declared was god, Abraham obeyed a God looming out ahead of human history and thus shifted the course of culture. The real reason the Bible regards Abraham as the father of the faith, this interpretation argues, is because he renounced an entrenched form of sacrifice that had become morally intolerable. And “he did so in the name of the God his contemporaries thought was requiring them to perform violence” (p. 142, Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroad). To this day the Abrahams in our midst are trying to hear the Still Speaking God and rid us of contemporary forms of human sacrifice. Yes, we are sacrificing our children today through culturally-assisted suicide when homophobia shames so many of our young people into doing violence to themselves. We have, to name other examples, systematized human sacrifice in the form of “wars and public executions” (p 142, Bailie).
Look at this sculpture created by George Segal, intended for the campus of Kent State but never installed there. Memorializing unarmed students slain while protesting the Vietnam War, it’s titled “Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State.” You’ll find the sculpture today at Princeton University because Kent State refused it. The 2 modern figures appear to be a young man, his hands bound, his gaze pleading, as he kneels before an older man (his father?) holding a knife at the youth’s chest. In the context of the Kent State massacre, this modern interpretation of Abraham and Isaac seems to be charging America with sacrificing her sons to a bloody God. All these years later we are still invoking God’s name to send our sons and daughters off to be killed. Have we as a nation not walked far enough or high enough with love enough for our children to gain perspective enough on our warring ways?
The myth of redemptive violence is as old as civilization. The Babylonians believed their god Marduk created the world by killing Tiamat. Pope Urban II declared God was ordering the first Crusade to save Christendom. Thomas Jefferson said the tree of liberty must be periodically watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Caiaphas, the chief priest said of Jesus, “it is better that one man should die than that the whole nation be destroyed” (p. 6 Bailie). In times of crisis and social upheaval, religious convictions are tapped in order to find a scapegoat for society’s ills and in that way restore some semblance of order. Today the undocumented workers from south of our border are among the latest scapegoats whose punishment will, many believe, stave off economic and cultural crises. But surely God has provided for us. Surely we don’t have to scapegoat more innocents.
Because as Christians we have seen Jesus’s story expose and reject the myth of redemptive violence. “The New Testament account of the crucifixion replays that primitive myth in order to reveal its perversity (p. 7 Bailie). In Jesus, the scapegoat is clearly, once and for all, revealed as indisputably innocent. “In Jesus, God is finally seen as the one who chooses to suffer violence rather than sponsor it” (p. 66 Bailie). That is the story we can choose to live.
How would Jesus have us treat today’s scapegoats? With a cup of cold water, I believe. Literally. An organization in Arizona has in recent years been placing containers of water in the middle of the Sonoran desert, not to entice or enable border crossing but to stem the deaths of migrants fleeing intolerable poverty and violence in Latin America. Since the early 90s when the US began militarizing the U.S./Mexico border, the human remains of at least 5,600 people have been recovered from the Sonoran desert. No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) advocates for more just and humane immigration policies while providing direct aid to prevent deaths wherever possible.
“Driven by economic inequality, thwarted by ill-conceived US border policy, and ignorant of the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert, thousands of men, women, and children have already died trying to cross the Mexican border” (http://www.nomoredeaths.org). So diverse faith-based groups organized No Mas Muertes to try to save lives. While in seminary I visited their office in Arizona and spent one night sleeping on the floor of a way station in the village of Altar, Mexico, where men, women and children, hosted by a Catholic priest, receive temporary shelter after being caught at the border and sent back south into the Mexican desert often without sufficient food or water for the return journey. I heard the stories of people whose desperate situations in Guatemala and Nicaragua propelled them to try to cross into the US. And as harrowing as the trek through desert had been, they told me they would try it again as soon as they got their strength back, because it was the only way their families would have a chance for survival.
Something is broken in this system. But demonizing the strangers in our midst is not the solution. Creating unenforceable and xenophobic laws in Alabama is not the solution.
What would Jesus do? Let’s put our Old Testament story alongside our Gospel reading for today: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” Jesus would welcome, welcome, welcome. But he would warn the welcomers that such a welcome will garner the kind of reward that prophets and righteous persons receive. His use of the word “reward” is bitterly ironic. The Hebrew prophets were despised, sometimes killed. Some “reward”! Nevertheless, Jesus speaks a second time—asking us to “give a cup of cold water” in the name of a disciple. A cup of cold water might seem the slightest aid, the least effective way to do justice. But out on the Sonoran desert, a cup of water is the difference between life and death for men, women and children who think they’re following God out into the wilderness, who are hoping to find in the brambles of the desert some life-saving water, who bring their children with them, praying God will provide a way. But some will be sacrificed to the God of fear and scarcity. Child sacrifice has not ended.
Real problems don’t get solved through polarized thinking. I suspect that some Alabama legislators sincerely believe God spoke to them about creating a law to protect the people of Alabama from “illegals.” I wonder if, upon further reflection and prayer, some of our legislators might hear God speak to them a second time. I wonder if there is some way you and I can, through prayerful and imaginative discernment, help stem a violent impulse and offer a cup of cold water.