A cup of water for Isaac

Week of Sunday June 29 - Pentecost 3
The Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:40-42
From the Tanakh: Genesis 22:1-19

Matthew 10:40-42
Then Jesus [lit. he] summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness....

40 ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ 

Genesis 22:1-19
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven,16and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’ 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

As I visited one of the oldest members of the congregation she raised the story of the Binding of Isaac. No fancy words, simply horror at the story. She trusts in God despite this story. It pains her.

She understands. To be horrified is the only Christian response to this story. If we are not horrified we are not yet converted. "There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering…" Deuteronomy 18:10

The story (Genesis 22) is ancient. Abraham carries the fire. (22:5) It is a time when fire is still hard come by, a time where we are primitive. So the story reflects our essence, the animals we are,  the rawness of our humanity. It is a true story.

The lectionary sanitises it by leaving off the last part, where God says, "Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you…"

The story becomes worse. Perhaps Abraham learned a lesson, but there are Christians who say, despite Deuteronomy 18, that God nonetheless sends his own son to die. The God of that theology has not learned, but  slaughters his own son to please himself. In the name of all that is holy, may we not worship such a God but, instead, cast this idol aside. If God required Jesus to die, then God is a monster.

Bill Loader imagined Abraham coming down from the mountain. (Remember the mountain top is the place of God.) He is traumatised by his act of obedience. And there at the well is Bildad, one of the false comforters of Job.

Bildad's words were reassuring: Abraham, man of faith, obedient to the end; sacrifice, total commitment, friend of God, God's will…  But Abraham… could only hear the cries of children… little girls screaming with the pain of napalm…

If we do not utterly repudiate the God we first see in this story, if we will not recoil from this God, then a deep primitive infection remains in the very marrow of our humanity. We are saying that God calls for people to die—  to be killed. Holy war, that savagery which mocks our claims to civility and humanity, is  inevitable. It will erupt from the tissue of our culture during our moments of stress and weakness, compromising us like any other disease, and just as deadly.

In John,  the Judean theological establishment claim to be the children of Abraham.  (John 8:31-59)  Jesus says to them, No! "... you are indeed doing what your father does,  but you are from your father the devil… He was a murderer from the beginning." And they try to kill him. Who is our Father?

We can't ignore the story. Will Willimon writes

How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham.

To ignore the story is to be delusional. As gathering apocalypse rumbles around us, Steven Pinker, eminent scientist, citizen of the most warlike of all modern nations, writes that violence is declining! While the mad sons of Abraham continue our slaughter of Iraq. We are all Pinker if we do not face Abraham and the God of Moriah.

•••

There seem to be three approaches to the story of the Binding of Isaac. One is simply to repudiate the story and ignore it. We can't ignore the story. Even if we do not like the God of the story, it remains  a story about us! We dostill— sacrifice our children. The children imprisoned in Nauru, Christmas Island, and Manus Island are our sacrifice, our scapegoats, to maintain social cohesion of Australia.

A second approach seeks to remove the offence. God is somewhat excused by saying God's teaching a lesson. The midrash of Esther Ticktin says

The two strongest imperatives of Torah are : 1) Rear children; 2) Break idols.

What happens when we turn our children into our idols? (This is what Avraham was doing.) We must break our idolization of them -- kill the image of them we have erected into our idol, since by idolizing them we are blowing off the Breath of Life.

This is what God asked of Avraham: Lift him up to Me: But Av had so totally made Yitz into his idol that he couldn't fathom how to do it without killing him. The lifted knife was the breaking of the idol: That was all God wanted in the first place, that was all God needed.

Rabbi Goldberg says

... the tension that Abraham suffered upon hearing the Divine to sacrifice his son was due not to any uncertainty as to the source of the command. Just the opposite. Precisely because Abraham knew that it was G-d who was speaking to him, phenomenal -- but different -- questions arose in his breast. Why? Haven't I been told not to murder? ...  And yet, Abraham proceeded. No resistance. No protest. No complaint. Thus the story -- the example of Abraham -- teaches the radical newness of monotheism. There is one, and only one, source of moral authority -- no matter what.

When Abraham has shown he understands this, God stops him from killing Isaac.

It seems to me that God is playing a dangerous game. Too often those of us who have heard the first calling of God 'get the bit between our teeth'— even if we don't raise the knife— and fail to hear the second call of God which contains the rest of the instructions. Is it good or proper to risk the life of Isaac just to teach Abraham a lesson?

At least these two Jewish interpreters don't say God does it all again with Jesus! Some of us say this.

The final approach fully admits how much our understanding of the nature of God must grow. Nuechterlein says

Very important [in reading] this crucial passage is the idea that the God at the beginning of the passage who demands the sacrifice from Abraham is a different God from the one at the end who stops it.

Nuechterlein is writing in a Girardian context, but a much wider range of interpreters would agree with him here.

It's not that God has changed of course; Abraham has changed. Abraham understands more of who God is and what God is about.

Nuechterlein lays out the enormity of this change in understanding for us. Again, this is not only a Girardian analysis.

We simply cannot comprehend the felt demand from our God to ritually kill a child. Abraham, and many people of his day (most likely including Sarah), could. Gil Bailie elegantly argues this case (in an excerpt linked below):

Far more than we moderns generally realize, human sacrifice was a fact of life among the peoples of the ancient Near East in tension with whom Israel first achieved cultural self-definition. Israel's renunciation of the practice of human sacrifice took place over a long period of time, during which intermittent reversions to it occurred....

What we must try to see in the story of Abraham's non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham's faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn't do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.

Loader captured the spirit of the time of Abraham in his midrash. Sarah does not rail against the man who murdered her son. She comforted him!  "Sarah had come. She washed him with her tears." She grieved, yet knew what had to be done. She agreed!

Yet  somewhere in that story in Genesis, Abraham is touched by the spirit of God. Something in him says, "No I have not heard well. This is not what is required."  Still convinced of the need for sacrifice he takes the ram instead. The long and slow move away from killing each other which we thought was God's requirement—  why else sacrifice people to the gods—has begun.

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-10)

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. ( Hosea 6:6)

I will quote Nuechterlein at length here

Girard's anthropology helps to reveal clearly that all sacrifice is actually of anthropological necessity rather than theological necessity. It postulates that ritual blood sacrifice was a human invention to veil the horror of human violence behind an aura of the Sacred, i.e., precisely behind a false obedience to a supposed theological necessity. Evangelical anthropology invites us to hear the voice of 'God' in Genesis 22:1-2 as the voice of one of those false gods of our own creation, a voice for which Abraham begins us on the long journey to unlearn to hear, so that we might hear the voice of the true God.

False gods demand sacrifice. The true God is working to save us from them, by continually offering substitutes to us that gradually lead us out from under the sacrificial demand.

The ultimate substitute is Jesus, the Lamb of God. But we need to be clear about this! The theological necessity in the opening verses of Genesis 22 have often been read into the Christ event. Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross is interpreted as theological necessity. An evangelically anthropological interpretation of both Genesis 22 and the Christ event, however, might identify Jesus, the Lamb of God, more closely with the ram at the story's end rather than with Isaac at its outset. The true God is one who offers us a substitute that will eventually lead us away from the entire business of sacrifice. At the time of Abraham, the movement was simply away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. God offers the substitute of a ram. But, at the time of Jesus, the time was right for a full revelation of sacrifice as our business, not God's. And to do this, the irony was to not only substitute a human being back for an animal, but to have that person be the innocent Son of God, no less.

The significance of the Son of God appearing as the Lamb of God, then, lies not in the theological necessity to be associated with the Cross. No, as with all sacrifice, we are to see that this sacrifice, too, was by anthropological necessity. The cross arose out of our need, as it has for every lamb slain since the foundation of the world. Rather, the theological necessity involved with the Christ event lies first and foremost with the Resurrection. It was necessary for God to raise Jesus from the dead in order for the true anthropological nature of sacrifice to be revealed. .... [My emphasis]

I have striven to distinguish clearly between theological and anthropological necessity when it comes to the Cross because I think the error of the author of Genesis 22:1-2 still plagues us in the church. Haven't many in the church continued to view the cross as a theologically necessary sacrifice akin to that of Genesis 22:1-2? Hasn't a theory of atonement persisted that allows for a God who actually would demand our deaths, save for the Lamb of God who stepped in as a substitute for us? Or can we finally get away, once and for all, from a God who demands a death of any way, shape, or form? Aren't we, in fact, the ones who always demand death? If we can finally come to see clearly our demand for the sacrifice of the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world, perhaps we can also come to finally claim the new life that the true God has offered us in raising that Lamb from the dead that we might be granted forgiveness.

This is a stunning realisation. But does it have any connection to the gospel reading of Matthew 10:40-42?

We have a little game at church. I remind us out how when the crowd cry out "Crucify him!" the gospel authors ask us to see ourselves in that crowd. And I remind us how the gospel authors each make sure we understand that Jesus is innocent.

And then I walk over to Max who sits near the front and I say, "Max, we've just killed the innocent son of God, but it didn't work. He's come back! What are we thinking?"

And Max says, "We are thinking we are in big trouble!"

And I say, "But Jesus says, 'Do not be afraid. Peace be with you!' Jesus doesn't take revenge. Jesus forgives us! He shows us a new way of living, a life without violence and retaliation."

Matthew 10 shows us the cost of this new way of living.

I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves… (16) when they persecute you in one town, lead to the next…(23) if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (25)

The key embodiment of proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God has come near (10:7) is not to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, [and] cast out demons." (10:8) All those things come from the key embodiment of the good news. The key embodiment of the gospel in chapter 10 is to welcome the prophet and the righteous person, the "little ones" who are the church. Elisabeth Johnson says

In the ancient world identity was tied to family and community. It was understood that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but implicitly, the community who sent the person and all that they represent. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him, God the Father.

She uses the words "all that they represent." It is in receiving the prophets and "all that they represent " that we are set on the path to being changed and healed, and becoming the non-vengeful citizens of the new kingdom. If we cannot love each other, what hope have we of loving and being a healing agent for the rest of the world? We can only receive them and "all that they represent" if we make them welcome, and if we live out the gospel in our daily actions.

Johnson says, absolutely correctly, that the "statement about giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones points ahead to the parable of the judgment in Matthew 25."

In the last great parable before the crucifixion, Matthew is giving the last will and testament of Jesus, the last summing up of the meaning of the Kingdom. It is, for last words, conspicuously doctrine free! It is those who do love who enter the kingdom ,regardless of their doctrine  or lack of it. Or their fine words.

The woman I visited showed her conversion. She no longer simply wept with Sarah, but sought a better way of living. It was not done by expounding high doctrine or erudite theology. She showed she has met God because she gives the Isaacs among us a cup of water. She lives compassionately. "Truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward." (Matt 10:42)

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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