St. John the Apostle
“What do we do with bad stories?”
I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God. Amen.
What do we do with bad stories? The troubling tales, the hurtful histories, the scriptures that make us squeamish and defensive? This morning we heard the passage about God commanding Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. I have to preach on it. And you have to do something about it. We have some choices.
We can deny or discount this portion of Scripture. Some Christians would prefer not to read any of the Old Testament, especially the bits that seem to show an angry, holy, and jealous God rather than the God of love that Jesus proclaims. But this, we come to realize, is a false dichotomy, for by that standard we could just as well rip out the pages of the gospels that tell of the crucifixion of God’s son. I could have chosen to consider one of the other Scripture readings in my sermon today, and ignore this one. But the revised common lectionary keeps us honest and the Bible challenges us rather than just makes us feel good about ourselves.
Similarly, we can try to hide the bad stories like Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. We could cut it out of the Sunday lectionary, and not include it in the Sunday School curriculum. Some of us might not miss it. There are good reasons why some passages are considered more suitable for public teaching. My husband the teacher, on the other hand, keeps advocating for 2 Kings 2:23-24 to be read to children as a cautionary tale:
“Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him saying, ‘Go away, baldy! When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys”.
Perhaps the Church should restrict such sections for those of more mature faith, similar to the Jewish recommendation that you should be at least 40 years old before you study the sexually explicit Song of Solomon (However, challenge teenagers with this prohibition and they may actually read more Scripture!).
Much Biblical scholarship seems to find ways to explain or justify the events in these “texts of terror”, as theologian Phyllis Trible refers to them. Placed within a culture and time, the horrors are downplayed as merely relics of a chauvinistic past. The victims are viewed from a safe distance. The danger is that Scripture that is exegeted but not linked to what God is calling us to do about it today becomes a continuing means of oppression, prejudice, hatred, and fear.
If the bad stories cannot be explained or justified, then they can be rewritten to suit the modern understanding. Experts claim to have insight on what the original author really meant, even across centuries and multiple re-workings of the text. It is possible to twist the Bible to say whatever supports our perspective if we do not pay attention to the bits that don’t fit.
Yes, we can deny, hide, justify, or re-write the difficult stories of our Bible. But there is another way. When we are faced with a story that we would rather not engage, we can have the courage to listen, to struggle, and to learn. Entering into the text opens the door to question, wonder, and empathy with the characters in the story. And perhaps to learn that there are layers of meaning which can teach us to see the world differently.
In the Jewish faith, Genesis chapter 22 is called the binding of Isaac or the “Akedah”. It is read to the community at the Jewish New Year, which is a time for repentance. The ram’s horn, the “shofar” is blown to remind God of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and God’s willingness to provide the ram in his stead. In the reading of this passage, the Jewish people are once again bound in their obedience to God, even as they continue to struggle to understand God’s demand. The story is mentioned nowhere else in the Old Testament by the writers or the prophets, but the theology of suffering as a sign of God’s favour for a chosen people continued to evolve over history.
When we as Christians read this same passage, we too struggle with how God could have demanded the sacrifice of a son’s life. There is a happy ending for Isaac. God provides a ram in his place, and he escapes death at the hands of his earthly father. Similarly, we are looking at the crucifixion from a post-resurrection perspective. The idea of God allowing Jesus to hang on the cross is tempered by the knowledge that after death, Christ rose again. This may help avoid the accusation of divine child abuse, but the comparison of Jesus to Isaac is troubling. In both narratives, a father offers up a son. What kind of love is this?
Biblical writer Bruce Feiler looks closely at the dialogue (and lack of dialogue) in this episode in Genesis to help break our assumptions about the story. When Abraham tells his servants, “the boy and I will… go and worship, and then we will come back to you” there is an expectation that God will provide another offering and Isaac is going to survive. But when it gets to the moment when Isaac is bound and helpless, and Abraham raises his knife, there is no pleading with God or Abraham to stay his hand. Isaac is silent. Abraham is silent. And God is silent. What is happening in this moment. Feiler puts forward the following hypothesis:
“Almost all interpretations of the binding suggest it’s a test, specifically a trial of Abraham’s love for God: would he be willing to do whatever God asked, however inhuman? Even the text takes this position, stating at the outset that ‘God put Abraham to the test.’ But God never tells Abraham it’s a test. Even more, he never asks Abraham to kill his son. God demands only that Abraham take Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a burnt offering. Abraham is never explicitly given the order to slay his son. Early Jews, mindful of this nuance, referred to the event as an offering, not a binding and not a sacrifice. Death was not considered part of the story… As a result, maybe Abraham is not being tested at all. Maybe he’s doing the testing. Perhaps the episode is Abraham’s way of testing God, specifically God’s promise in the preceding chapter that Abraham’s offspring will be continued through Isaac. Given that God pressured Abraham to expel Ishmael, Abraham surely would have been doubting God’s loyalty. His attempt to kill Isaac thus becomes a way for Abraham to determine if God is a figure of mercy and compassion, which is deeply in question at the moment.” (p. 87-88 Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of 3 Faiths).
When we struggle with Scripture, we too are doing our own testing out of God. We are asking, ‘Where is God present in this story? Where is God absent?’ Our faith gives us some tools so that we do not have to run away from the texts of terror. We can follow the rough road. In her introduction, “On Telling Sad Stories”, Phyllis Trible urges us to take provisions to sustain us on the journey. “They are few but ample: a perspective, a methodology, and a story” (p. 3). As a perspective, she suggests a prophetic movement that examines the status quo, pronounces judgment, and calls for repentance. As methodology, she encourages a literary criticism that considers form, content and meaning, especially in the portrayal of characters that suffer. This is not an abstract way of going about Bible study. It is the power that we can bring to bear on all the stories of our lives: in Scripture, in political discourse, in our parish history, and in our personal sagas.
For example, this weekend our country is marking 150 years of confederation as Canada. We can celebrate the story that is being told is of how settlers came and made a modern nation. But beside and within that story line are other stories that also need to be listened to and learned from. Some of them are bad stories, and some of them come from very different perspectives. In our own lives, too, there are things that we would much rather deny, or hide, or rewrite about our families and ourselves. But all of them together shape who we are and our present relationship with God. May we have the faith to believe that in our story, the Lord will provide. Amen.