Lectionary preachers were assigned Genesis 22 recently, the story of Abraham’s almost-murder of his son Isaac, as a text for worship.
If you recall, the story goes that Abraham heard a voice the text calls God’s voice, telling him to take his son Isaac on a hike, to build an altar and wield a knife and kill his son. Abraham also listened to that voice.
The situation was redeemed in the end by an angel who encouraged Abraham to look elsewhere for an animal to sacrifice. We read this story in worship services with straight faces as if this is just another nice opportunity for spiritual reflection.
Abraham, great father of world religions and patriarch of our faith, sets out to kill his only son Isaac because he’s convinced God told him to do it. Thus, ends the reading. May God add a blessing to this reading and help us apply it to our lives.
My friend Patrick says there must be a verse missing, which should have read: “And Isaac never went camping with his father again.”
I’ve always heard that the message we’re supposed to take from this story (after we ignore the divinely inspired, premeditated filicide) is that you and I should be willing to give up anything – even the most precious things we have – to prove we believe enough in God to make God happy with us.
I also hear that some pastors love to preach this text on Stewardship Sunday, suggesting members should give the church a lot of money because that’s nothing compared to what Abraham gave up when he was willing to kill his only child.
Yes, we should give away a lot of our money and live with grateful, open hearts, always aware of the rich blessings that infuse every part of our lives.
But no, we do not hear this terrible, terrifying story of one man’s confused understanding of the voice of God and somehow turn Abraham into a hero and this horrible situation into an example of good, faithful living.
Because that’s crazy. The way we have always told and heard this story: that Abraham was extremely obedient and should be lauded for the way he behaved when he almost killed Isaac is wrong.
We can’t deny that Abraham seemed to be an entitled guy, top of the pile, handed most things on a silver platter, until he heard the voice of God telling him to leave the safety of his family’s camp and set out to parts unknown. Abraham takes his wife Sarah and leaves the camp, encountering many different adventures along the way.
For example, there was the time Abraham’s traveling group ran into the Pharaoh and, thinking he was about to get into trouble, Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister and tries to bribe the Pharaoh using Sarah as the bribe.
Then, there’s the time that Abraham is complicit in a plan to ensure the continuation of his own lineage. So, he uses a slave, Hagar, impregnates her and produces an heir: Ishmael.
If we’re paying attention to all these details, we’ll notice that Abraham is not quite the conquering hero we all thought he was, that he seems to behave impulsively and at the expense of others, and that his own goals and dreams and comfort and life are always what drives him.
In short, Abraham, the patriarch we’ve made into a superhero, is just like us. He’s a human being who lives his life entitled, enslaved you might even say, to privilege.
But privilege will always, always trick us. It will minimize the pain of others. It will convince us that our opinions – our version of God’s voice – is more important than another person’s basic human rights.
It will make us feel self-righteous or even entitled while we oppress, marginalize and hurt others. And it will, very often, replace what we believe to be the voice of God with a voice that spurs us to behave in ways that promote, not goodness and justice and life, but, well, ourselves – our own interests.
I don’t claim to know what altars Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac on and what knives he felt were appropriate. It could have been an altar of piety or power; it could have been politics or personal gain; it could have been the knives of Abraham’s own demons, his self-loathing or fear, that convinced him God was telling him to do something as terrible as killing his own son.
But it wasn’t God. It wasn’t God because God’s voice always leads us toward justice and hope, healing and life.
Even Abraham recognized that the voice he mistook for the voice of God was not the God of Israel, the God who built a great nation and challenged them repeatedly to choose life, not death, begging Abraham’s descendants (see Deuteronomy 3019-20).
Abraham turned away from that terrible place of almost-disaster to acknowledge that God will provide.
It turns out that this story is not about Abraham being willing to give up what was dearest to him. It’s about God perpetually and continually calling us toward life and providing all that we need to get there and to stay there.
So, this is not an appropriate stewardship passage. Instead, this story is here to remind us that we are people of privilege who very often confuse the voice of God with a voice that tells us to behave in ways that fly in the face of what we value, what we hold to be right and true.
Very often, we must admit that means we contort ourselves until we can justify almost any kind of behavior or policy or Supreme Court ruling in the service of our own privilege, comfort or material gain.
We sacrifice a great deal when we do so: our integrity, communities, self-respect, declared beliefs, relationships, ourselves and, yes, over and over again, even our children. What deeply, terribly tragic decisions to make.
In the case of this Genesis 22 story, God bailed Abraham out again, before he did something so horrible, he couldn’t ever make it right, redirecting him instead to what he knew to be true deep inside.
And the good news is that God persistently and perpetually provides for you and me too, inviting us to learn to listen harder to what we know to be right, instead of justifying our own behavior, our own privilege or perspective by claiming our opinions as the voice of God.
I wonder about our firmest convictions and all the things we’re so very sure about. Does what we believe so certainly keep leading us – all of us – to life? Really? Or might we need to reevaluate?
Perhaps, this story is an invitation to be a bit more discerning in the voices we hear and the messages we attribute to the Divine.
Also, it might even be about us adopting a posture of repentance that allows for the grace to change our minds and follow what we know to be true deep inside: that the voice of God will always lead us on a path away from death and toward life instead – always, always toward life.
Are you listening?
Founder of Invested Faith, she previously served as pastor of several churches, including as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.