This Sunday, liturgical churches are likely to hear the story from Genesis about God instructing Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abe almost went through with it, but God intervened at the last moment to substitute a goat in Isaac’s place.
It’s a terrible story that’s generated accusations and excuses generally falling into two categories, each with many variations. One asserts that a god who demands a test like that isn’t worth worshiping. So chuck the whole thing, and look elsewhere. The other claims it’s a metaphor, a test of whether God will always be first in the hearts of believers. Abraham met the test, and so must we.
I think it’s about something else altogether. It’s certainly not an original idea, so I claim no originality in writing about it. I don’t believe it was ever intended to be understood as an historical event, and it’s certainly no metaphor for testing personal faith. It’s a parable. It was put into Abraham’s narrative to make it foundational for the people of Israel, something predating, more basic than the laws of Moses, and applied universally to all peoples, for all times. It’s a terrible story so that it would grab attention and be unforgettable.
And what is its lesson? Child sacrifice is an unacceptable abomination. It’s hard to believe, but it happened, even among the Israelites. Scripture records that it was practiced by other peoples of the Ancient Near East, and non biblical sources tell us it existed elsewhere in the world as well. The bible gives the name of Molech to the god who demanded child sacrifice. Consider the Levitical laws condemning those who sacrificed children to Molech. Solomon was chastised in 1 Kings for building a place of worship to Molech. The reforms of Josiah recorded in 2 Kings include destruction of a place where sons and daughters had been sacrificed to Molech. Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned those who had paid homage to Molech. Reports of child sacrifice extend from the time of Judges to the Babylonian exile. Uncommon though it may have been, practiced by those who had drifted away from God to worship other gods, it happened, and it was an abomination.
The story of Abraham and Isaac makes clear that it’s not God who demands the sacrifice of children, faith isn’t tested by it, nor is God’s favor gained by it. The incident is placed early in Israel’s story to certify that it’s always been an abomination.
It leaves two questions. One is, why any sacrifice at all? The answer is complicated. God, as we know God revealed in scripture, needs no sacrifice, and frequently says so. It’s people who need to make sacrifices: symbolic offerings of costly things testifying to their faith. It’s a way of affirming there’s no cheap grace. Discipleship is costly, one way or another. Sacrifices of animals and grain may seem primitive to us, but there is something in the human psyche that’s compelled to propitiate the gods with sacrifice. Every culture in every time has had its sacrifices. But who or what are the gods? The sacrifices our God established were not bribes to get on God’s good side, but thank offerings for the blessings they had received, and sin offerings recognizing moral failure and the forgiveness that was theirs through God’s abounding and steadfast love. They were ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e.. As the psalmist put it, the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51). It continues to be the sacrifice we offer. When, at the altar, we say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we are both remembering his death and resurrection and offering the bread and wine to become the holy food and drink of new and unending life. We’re asking God to make something holy, not killing a cow to make things right with God.
We would like to think we’re far beyond primitive ways, but are we? When we have injured another through our own fault, and feel guilty about it, don’t we want to do or give something to make it better? When we receive a gift of something quite special to us, don’t we want to say or do something to express our gratitude? We’re not likely to toss a virgin into a volcano, but we have whole vocabularies for our sacrificial behavior that extend from common courtesy, good manners, and loving care through the sins of rudeness, sycophancy, and feuding. Relationships are often constructed around the principle of reciprocity: giving me something obligates me to give something back. It’s powerful. It’s why fund raising mailings enclosing a dime or page of labels are successful. Sadly, it’s also why Nigerian prince schemes work well, including ones taking the form of prosperity gospel mega churches. We’re not so far from goats, oxen and sheaves of grain as we might think.
The second question left hanging is about sacrificing children to Molech. Is there a Molech of our day, and does any one sacrifice children to it? Certainly not in our sophisticated Western culture. What about the god of border security that incarcerates sons and daughters stripped from their parent arms? What about the sacrifice of children to hunger, poor health, and domestic abuse to propitiate the god’s of social Darwinism and laissez-faire government? What about the gods of sex tourism and pedophilia? We have too many ways of sacrificing children to the gods of our egos, politics, fears, and delusions.
In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God established that child sacrifice was an abomination. That was four-thousand years ago. It’s still an abomination, and today it hides from us in plain sight.