DiscipleChurch worshipping community and followers:
Last Sunday, Page preached from Genesis 21.8-21, the common lectionary reading for last week.
[To review, the “common lectionary” is a three year cycle of scripture readings for Sunday worship that, generally but with significant omissions, covers the entire Bible. For each Sunday, there is an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a gospel reading and an epistle reading. The common lectionary reading for a given Sunday applies to most Christian churches in the year, Protestant and Roman Catholic. When I preached every Sunday when I was pastor at Diamond Hill United Methodist Church from 1990 to 1995, I preached from the lectionary every Sunday.]
Genesis 21.8-12 reads:
“The child [Ishmael—the first son of Abraham whose mother was Abraham’s Egyptian slave Hagar] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
“When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.”
Based not only upon Page’s sermon, but also upon the lively and perplexed discussion in our 9:30 a.m. Formation Group, this is a very difficult text for us, one about which we can easily be tempted to say, “God is just not like that. God would never command that a child be expelled unjustly into the wilderness.” Then, we effectively tear the story out of our Bibles, and turn to 1 John: “God is love.”
Well, this week’s lectionary reading is Genesis 22. 1-19. And this scripture, called the “Ákedah” [or the “binding of Isaac”] by the rabbis, makes last week’s scripture seem like milquetoast. In it, God commands Abraham to kill his own son Isaac, the child of the promise for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited so long and risked so much. And I will tell you that more has been written about this passage of scripture than any other passage in the Old Testament.
“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.’
“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.”
Unless you can only believe in a Hallmark Greeting Card kind of God, and unless you live in a phony world without terrible unfairness and undeserved suffering, this is THE most troubling scripture passage in the entire Bible. It contains multiple levels of meaning and truth, all of them troubling and challenging. If your only possible, first-to-last response to this story is, “God is just not like that,” maybe you ought to go to another worship service this Sunday. If you want to join us in wrestling with this horrible story, we look forward to seeing you. And maybe in the end, after a muddy, sweaty wrestle, you will indeed say “God is just not like that.” But in the midst of the wrestle, you may be moved to answer not just what God is NOT like, but what God IS like, particularly given a world in which so many innocent children are bound and sacrificed by poverty, disease, hunger, violence, exploitation, and bigotry.