by Linda McMillan
“I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
“Even if thou stretch out thy hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against thee to kill thee, lo! I fear Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.”
-Able/Qabil, before his murder
When today’s Gospel reading promises the reward of a prophet it is a promise of hard times. Prophets are those who go against the flow, delivering unwanted news and dire warnings, they often wind up eating bugs, living in caves, and on the very edges of survival itself. It is not a reward you want.
If you spend some time with Google, though, you’ll find that there are a lot of people who want to know exactly what the prophet’s reward is, and how to get it too. I’ll tell you, the prophet’s reward Is death. These lovely-sounding words of Jesus are not a promise for the sweet by and by, they are a warning for tomorrow!
The Hebrew scripture that we will read today is full of drama and surrounded by questions: Why would God say such a thing? How could Abraham even think about it? Where was Sarah? Was Isaac so dull that he didn’t catch on? Is this really our God? Our religion? Really? It’s unnerving to the 21st century mind, and even more so when we read it as an isolated incident. But this passage is only 14 verses long! That’s 14 out of a total of 31,102 for the whole Christian Bible. So, we are dealing with .00045 percent of the Bible this morning. It seems like we might ought to back up and take a longer view.
In placing this short passage in context, the easy out is to declare it a statement on child sacrifice. Apparently, God is against it. But that’s not quite the point here. Child sacrifice has been going on since the beginning of time. We still do it today. In fact, the freedom that we’ll celebrate later in the week was obtained through the commodification and sacrifice of our children. Something was given, something was gained. It was transactional. That’s how child sacrifice works. In Abraham’s case, he had nothing to gain. In fact, he was about to lose everything. Earlier when God promised Abraham a great reward, Abraham replied that it wouldn’t matter if he got a great reward because he didn’t have an heir. So, this passage is not about child sacrifice.
Another easy gloss on this passage is to say that it makes children God’s property, not their parent’s. That’s a good message, but it is not the main point of this passage. God made that point by making all three of the matriarchs barren and only able to conceive by divine intervention. Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachael – the wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob respectively — all had difficulty conceiving and eventually had children only when God stepped in. Clearly those were God’s children. And, soon enough all of Abraham’s descendants were called the children of God. So, that’s not the main point for today either.
Some people will rightly say that this episode continues God’s centuries-long assault on the paterfamilias. The tradition was for the first born son to inherit from his father. But, Abraham allowed Isaac, the second son, to inherit everything. Isaac did the same thing by allowing Jacob to inherit while Esau had to forge his own way forward in a foreign land. Jacob, did the same thing as his father and grandfather by allowing Joseph a double portion, making Juda chief, and giving Levi the priesthood even though Ruben was the first born. From these very early examples through to Jesus’ teaching about the family unit it is clear that God has something else in mind. Indeed, this episode places each individual at the center of their own moral universe. It may be called the death of tribalism and the birth of individualism.
But to really understand what’s going on here we have to back up even further. To the very beginning, in fact. Mount Moriah – according to legend and tradition –is where God began creating the world, it was here that Adam took his first breath, and he might even be buried there too. None of us was there, remember; not even the highest scholar knows for sure, but we have these stories. Because of this, Mount Moriah is called The Foundation Stone by Jews and Christians, Muslims call it The Noble Sanctuary. To the early Canaanites it was the center of the El-Elyon cult presided over by Melchizedek, King of Salem. Of course, today’s story took place there. Jacob had his famous dream there, and when he woke up he said, “This place is awesome!” It is one of the most holy sites in the three sister religions of monotheism. So, since our story today is here at Mount Moriah, we know that it is foundational. The message extends before and beyond these fourteen verses.
Child sacrifice was very common in ancient times. It was common before Abraham and Isaac made their trek up Mount Moriah, and it was common afterwards too. What makes this story interesting is that Abraham – up there where God first created a human being – affirmed the value of an individual life and spared Isaac. We don’t call Abraham a prophet for nothing. In this act, he went against the tide of all history, at least up to that point. It was an enormous denial of the dominant culture. This was no ordinary hike in the woods. And I’ll tell you what else wasn’t ordinary: the ram. According to Islamic tradition the ram that appeared to Abraham, after Abraham looked around, on this mount that would become known as a place of vision, of seeing with new eyes – that ram had also appeared to Cain before he killed Able. The ram – a blood sacrifice – was a way out of inflicting violence on one another. Cain either didn’t see, or was so consumed with rage against his brother that he ignored the way out. But, the story of the ram, more than the story of Abraham and Isaac, shows us that there is always a way out.
Later another prophet would emerge, a holy man, a teacher. His name was Jesus. Jesus had a message that was as counter-cultural as Abraham’s. Abraham affirmed that any blood sacrifice could buy the goodwill of the gods and satisfy our own rage. But Jesus said that God does not desire blood – not the blood of rams, not the blood of sons, not any blood. The sacrifice of God is a broken heart, a contrite spirit. This gentle teacher admonished us to gentleness too, but he warned us that we are on a counter-cultural mission. The message of love gets you the prophet’s reward. They killed Jesus and they killed the prophets.
Jesus did not die for your sins; his blood was not required by a vengeful god. That is us who is vengeful and angry. It is our own need for revenge that has compelled the spilling of blood from time immemorial right through to tomorrow. The ways of war, of overwork, of striving, and failing are the ways of sacrifice. The good news of Jesus is that those sacrifices aren’t required. You no longer have to sacrifice your joy to the false gods of achievement. The only sacrifice that God wants is your failure and brokenness. I don’t know why, but God seems to have a soft spot for those of us who never truly measure up in the sacrificial system.
Violence has been crucified. In the new regime, the greatest are those who serve the most, those who have time to pour a little cool water for a child.
Oh, and they’ll kill you for it.
Linda McMillan is writing from the beautiful Texas Gulf Coast where the sky is blue, and the ice cream is Blue Bell.
Image: Adi Holzer, via Wikimedia Commons
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Here is a list of thirty Bible verses about prophets. Most of them are about killing the prophets.
According to tradition (Genesis Rabbah) Abraham was 137 years old and Isaac was 37 years old at the time of this story. At age 37 Isaac surely knew what was going on.
Islam considers Adam to have been the first prophet. While Adam was certainly first at a lot of things – most things – the first person God calls a prophet is Abraham.
Genesis 15:1-2… After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
A later tradition was that the first-born son inherited a double portion from his father. This appears not to have been the case at this time as both Abraham and Jacob allowed younger sons to inherit everything.
Regarding creation, the Zohar says, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create the world, He detached one precious stone from underneath His throne of glory and plunged it into the abyss; one end of it remained fastened therein, whilst the other end stood above… out of which the world started, spreading itself to the right and left and into all directions.”
Genesis 28:15-17… When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
The story of the ram coming to Cain is in the Koran. There are several Islamic stories about the brothers. This is not the only one.
Jesus also happens to be the savior of the world, but people didn’t know that until later.
Psalm 51:17… My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.