No Laughing Matter
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
The word sacrifice is one that we toss around rather casually in our day. Someone is said to have sacrificed for their family, another is reported to have sacrificed a night’s sleep in order to stay up with a worried friend. I recall that in my college years, as most of us do when we are young, I had to make decisions whether to take up one thing, and in so doing, preclude the possibility that I could do another. Somewhere between high school and our mid-twenties, we are forced to realize that while all possibilities may lie open to us, they don’t stay that way, we cannot pursue all of them. We must choose. I remember choosing to join the rally squad at my college in my sophomore year. It was a fun thing to do, leading cheers, learning stunts, throwing girls in the air and then seeing about catching them. By Spring I realized that commitment would preclude trying out for a lead in a musical in the drama department. I sacrificed something I loved for something that was fun. It wasn’t a tragedy, but I still recall thinking of it as a sacrifice.
An interesting word, that word sacrifice. We seldom use it in its original sense these days. It is entirely Latin in its roots, from sacrare, meaning sacred/set apart + facere, to make or to do. The basis of this word we often tend to use rather casually is to make sacred/set apart. So when we think of animals offered up on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, we think in terms of the word sacrifice. Something done in order to make something sacred. In this case, an offering of an animal in order to set things right with God again, a sort of rebalancing of the scales.
But, as I mentioned, sacrifice is a Latin word, the Hebrew of Genesis knows nothing of Latin. The Hebrew word used in our Genesis reading is ‘ola, “burnt offering.”
Burnt offering. What can be the meaning behind such a term to modern people, when the closest we come in our use of a word like sacrifice may mean nothing more than doing without a latté or a dinner out at the end of the month? And burnt offering, well, I don’t suppose we have much of any way to understand such a concept.
Or do we?
We at least know the word offering if we have been paying any attention at all when churches talk about their stewardship emphasis. The idea of a burnt offering takes the whole idea of an offering to God to another level. An offering in an envelope, a check to pay a tithe, those are things that have utilitarian purpose. But a burnt offering? There is no utilitarian purpose in taking a perfectly good lamb or goat, killing it, and tossing it on an altar to be burned into charcoal. And the absence of a utilitarian purpose reminds us that only God has created out of nothing, that all the things we see in the world that God has made are present through the action of a creating God for God’s own purpose, and not merely for our utilitarian purposes. So at the very least, a sacrifice by means of a burnt offering is a reminder in Genesis that all gifts are of God, and those who receive them are meant to serve God and not the gifts themselves. Even a gift such as long-awaited Isaac, the son who was born to a man who waited 100 years to have a son, even this gift does not replace the call to serve God first and foremost. It seems such a hard word here, unbelievably hard, which is why many do not believe it. But sometimes artists are able to help us see more clearly when theologians and scholars cannot.
One of the many biblical stories to which the 17th century artist Rembrandt was drawn was the sacrifice of Isaac. All the elements would challenge the imagination of any artist: the terrifying command of God to Abraham to sacrifice his own son as a burnt offering, the last-minute reprieve in the form of a ram, the hand of Abraham raising a knife over his only son. During his lifetime Rembrandt depicted this story several times, and it is revealing to mark the difference between the way he portrayed the story as a young man and the way he presented it in his old age. The young Rembrandt rendered the story with dramatic intensity. Abraham has Isaac on the altar, the boy’s head pulled back and the flesh of his neck exposed and vulnerable. The knife is drawn, and Abraham’s muscular arm is prepared to strike. Abraham is a man who is confident that he knows God’s will and is prepared to do it. The angel who intercedes has to muscle the knife away from Abraham.
When he was older, however, Rembrandt returned to this story as a subject for a painting. This time, though, he painted a sadness in the countenance of Abraham as he prepared to do what he believed God had instructed him to do. He covered Isaac’s eyes so that the boy would not see what was about to happen. His arm was not flexed with determination but limp with reluctance. Abraham’s face is not fixed with fierce zeal but instead softened with grateful relief as the angel simply touches his arm gently and the knife is depicted as immediately falling away. Rembrandt had learned over the years that what we fervently believe in the heat of the moment that God demands does not always, in the end, turn out to be God’s will at all. A Jewish saying has it that the proof of a true prophet is that when he prophesies doom upon the people he prays like mad that he is wrong.1
Recent years have been rough ones for children whose parents have a religious vision, or at least a vision of life without their children. Who can forget Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in Houston, Texas several years ago. Trouble for children came closer to home for me at the time when former Jehovah’s Witness Christian Longo killed his wife and children on the Oregon coast and then tried to hide their bodies in the bay. There aren’t many days that go by without such accounts in the newspapers. The stories have become almost common.
These were and continue to be very disturbing stories, tragic stories, but, unfortunately, not all that remarkable. Sometimes in these cases, there is an element of religious vision, the murdering parent claiming that God directed them to do what they did, as in the case of Andrea Yates, who testified that she killed her children out of fear that if she let them live they would go to hell. What reason God gives for asking such things of people they often do not say, they just respond to some direction they believe they have received.
The world is filled with kooks and thugs who take shots at public figures or fly airplanes into buildings or plot the destruction of thousands of anonymous lives for any number of reasons, often claiming they are following some self-perceived divine command, unconfirmed by others. But the face-to-face slaughter of innocent children is probably one crime for which there is more outrage than any other.
And yet, for all our revulsion at such stories, we have right under our noses a story of such an attempted case of child violence in the Bible. It has troubled readers for centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims, everyone from Augustine to Kafka to Kierkegaard to Karl Barth. Knowing the story ahead of time, readers and hearers of the story know from the beginning that God was merely testing Abraham, seeing if he loved the gift of his son more than he loved obeying God. But while we are privileged to know the outcome ahead of time, it’s likely that Abraham didn’t, Isaac clearly didn’t.
Novelist Frederick Buechner said, in a wry understatement, “From that day on Abraham’s relationship with Isaac was never close.”2 Small wonder. But I have come to differ with that conclusion. To be sure, the relationship was forever changed, resting from that point on absolutely and completely on God’s promise. Which is another way of saying that the relationship between Abraham and Isaac from that point on rested where all relationships should rest: in God’s benevolence and promise. Any promise of God is a gift, a pure gift. The scene of Abraham and his son, poised on the edge of an unspeakable barbarity, represents a sort of divine madness which is never totally separated from a throw-your-children-off-the-bridge kind of madness. The test for Abraham was whether he trusted the promise of God for its own sake, or only because of the gift. If the gift were removed, would the trust depart as well? Abraham proved that it would not.
The meanings of this disturbing passage are difficult, but they are not beyond our ability to understand them.
Abraham’s trial demonstrates that God’s promise to us, in whatever form, lies outside our control, that’s the bad news ... but well within God’s control, that’s the good news. We also discover that understanding God’s promise, or even believing it, is impossible apart from a radical kind of obedience which may be beyond what we are willing to give to God.
The promise of God is a promise available to those willing to endure anything in order to be faithful to that promise. This is where Abraham differed from the mad or calculatingly sociopathic people who kill their children. They have it turned around the wrong way. Abraham was willing to suffer anything for the sake of the promise of God, while deranged and misguided folks are mainly attempting to relieve their own psychic suffering by throwing away the very promise that lived in their children. Abraham – and, when you think about it, Isaac too – acted in faith. The murderous ones act either in fear or calculation.
When Isaac asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” though God had provided the ram, he had to wait along with the rest of humanity for several hundred years for the ultimate answer, when John the Baptist, standing with two of his disciples, pointed out Jesus and said, “Behold! the Lamb of God!”3 God is a providing God, though we must love God more than we love his provision. That is the hardest thing. To love God more than we love his manna, his provided ram.
As we look to God’s promises in our own lives, we realize that no promise is without its danger, even suffering for the sake of the promise. And yet God’s promise is the light for our eyes of faith. For God’s ultimate promise is the gift of himself in Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Thanks to Tom Long for steering me to observations about Rembrandt’s work in Journal for Preachers , Easter 2001, pp. 33-40.
2 Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1979.
3 John 1:36