Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac
I am more certain of God’s existence and love for all creation, than I am of my own name.
This is both a blessing and a curse, because we live in a world that is massively confused about holy things. It’s hard to click onto The New York Times website for news, only to be confronted with an ad for someone’s product featuring a picture of Jesus titled, “The God Who Wasn’t There.” What did I do to be confronted with aggressive commercial atheism? All I wanted was the news.
Yes, a lot of people reject the very idea of God, because they don’t like the YHWH of the Old Testament. “He” seems mean and vindictive.
But rejecting God is like rejecting “weather” because it’s raining right now. It just doesn’t make any sense. Rain is good and so is God, but lots of folks don’t see it that way.
Understanding the God of the Old Testament takes a lifetime of study, but here’s a shortcut: the mean vindictiveness is attributed to God by the human scripture writers, and not the way God really is.
Once you plumb those ancient writings, built up over centuries by human editors like layer on layer of lava rock, the God underneath is invariably loving, redemptive and just. Invariably!
Context is everything. You can’t just break out a Bible passage and understand it on its face. You have to start with the ignorant humans. We’re the ones who are mean and vindictive, not God. God is constantly revealing “himself” to be someone else entirely.
(God is not male or female, but for ease of communicating I will use traditional pronouns referring to God as “he” sometimes. Then I’ll undermine that tradition. You can follow along easily enough.)
There is no contradiction, instead plenty of agreement, between the Old Testament and the New, but people like Jesus a lot more than his Father. Jesus is all about love, and that’s one of his main contributions to human thought.
Therefore any Bible study ought to begin with Jesus, not Genesis. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest account of Jesus’s life and ministry, is the place to start. Then you can elaborate from there.
You don’t have to accept any of the miracles of Mark’s Gospel at first; it may be better not to evaluate them, but just watch the story like you would any other TV show.
Most people conclude that Jesus is a very good man.
He says some hard things at times, some confusing things; but then, he spoke in parables, because he knew we’d never figure out everything he was talking about. He was trying to teach the poor ignorant humans. He had great compassion for us, which is why he went around to meet us so often and show us the path to heaven.
He knew some people would never get it; people can’t be what they can’t see, which is why he made his works so visible. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. And a lot of times a person is a horse’s ass.
Miracles or no, the “greatest story every told” concerns a man who willingly laid down his life for his friends.
Do you know about Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain who was killed on 9/11? Same story.
Surely you know about Mother Teresa; same story.
Joan of Arc? Same story. We admire people who sacrifice for the benefit of others; they are heroes.
Jesus said, This is the way to live.
No other faith has such a story, which is why Christianity is at least a superior philosophy. If need be, give up your life for the ones you love.
(Also, avoid that if you don’t have to do it; Jesus died once for all, and God doesn’t need us to repeat it.)
What have LGBT activists done these past 40 years since Stonewall, but run the risk of giving up their lives on behalf of the rest of us?
Same story. And man, that speaks powerfully to me. Every right Gay people currently enjoy in the United States derives from the courageous risk-taking of ordinary Lesbians, Gay men and Transgenders. (Bisexuals haven’t contributed that much that I’ve seen, with one or two exceptions.)
For that matter, the American Revolution is the same story; courageous risk-takers. Same with the Civil War fight to end human slavery; same with World War II against fascism and genocide.
Be prepared to die for the ones you love. That’s how we should live our lives according to Jesus. Everything else flows out of that; charity, peacemaking, the love of God.
Today I have no problem with the miracles of Jesus; I believe them. Today I have no problem with the seemingly contradictory and arbitrary demands of the Old Testament God. Underneath those violent stories is a consistent, gentle, faithful love for humankind, despite our unworthiness.
We’re the ones who are mean and hateful, but with humility we can grow up to become our full selves. And Jesus shows us how.
I wish that every member of the Episcopal Church, and every Christian, could receive the teaching I’ve been given, a way of looking at Scripture that opens it up, that allows questioning, that welcomes different points of view, because no one knows everything, and Jesus has promised that understanding results from the shared examination of the community.
But I received an amazing education from four Church Army people, Ervin Faulkenberry, Howard E. Galley, Jr., Brooke Bushong and Tom Tull. Few people have been luckier than I’ve been that way.
I wish I were as good an educator as they were for me. Unfortunately I’m not. But I will leave you with this “revelation” of one of the most difficult stories in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of Isaac.
It starts 5000 years ago with Abraham, whom God identified as the most open, righteous man on earth; his openness was important, because God decided to reveal himself to this guy. If Abraham weren’t open to see and hear God, and overcome his fears of encountering the divine, no amount of talking and showing would have worked. But God chose well.
Abraham and his wife Sarah lived in a time when humans didn’t have a clue how the world worked. Anthropology shows they were just as smart as we are, but they lacked our science and technology. In their world, if good things happened, it must have been because “the gods” who controlled everything were mysteriously happy that day. If bad things happened (tornadoes, earthquakes, death), it must have been because the gods were displeased and wrought vengeance. That’s what everyone thought.
Nonsense, God said. “There aren’t any other gods but me; I’m the only one. I don’t do vengeance, I don’t make people die. These awful events are simply a consequence of life itself; there isn’t any life without death, or the world would get too crowded and death would kill the life. You’re mortals, but your spirit can live forever.
“I love you, that’s why I made you. I want you people to learn how to treat each other; do that and we’ll actually get somewhere.”
And Abraham said, “Okay. I’m listening.”
Thus did the Jews discover monotheism and a rational, loving God. That’s why Abraham is the father of all three Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam; he realized there’s only one God, who makes perfect sense if we’ll only listen.
So far, so good. God said, “I will make you the father of a great nation. You will be my people and I will be your God.”
Abraham thought of a problem; “My wife and I are too old to have kids.”
“I can fix that,” God said. “Watch this.”
Sarah got pregnant and Abraham believed; “this God can do anything.”
She had a son named Isaac. He was a little hellraiser, but overall a good boy who sometimes listened to his parents, which is about all a mom and dad can expect.
One day when Isaac was 12, like the months of a year, God told Abraham, “Next lesson. It’s time to sacrifice this child.”
Abraham was perplexed; how was he going to become the father of nations if his only son got killed? “Uh, Lord, we got a problem here.”
“I know, but do it anyway,” God said. “Trust me.”
See, in the days of ignorance, the gods were always having to be appeased with human sacrifice. People considered the gods bloodthirsty, because when bad things happened, it must be because people sinned, and the only way to stop the disaster was to give the gods a dozen virgins. How else could people explain an earthquake? They didn’t know squat about tectonic plates. Science was not their forte, so sacrifice was the best they could come up with. (In some religions the gods then had sex with the victims. Religion was as crazy as the rest of life.)
So Abraham, who knew this God was the real One, reluctantly did as he was told. He tied Isaac to an altar to slit his throat. But as soon as Abraham did that, with his knife poised in the air, God stopped him. “Stop! Don’t even think about it!”
Abraham said, “What? You told me to.”
“For a reason, dude. I wanted us both to see that you would do what I said, even if it sounds crazy. You obeyed me! I can’t teach you anything if you don’t obey me—just like you can’t teach your son anything unless you first get his attention. See?”
“You don’t want Isaac’s blood?”
“Heck no! You think I made him so you could kill him? How crazy is that?”
“I should let him go then?”
“Yes, untie him. I’m about freedom, not death. And understand something hugely important: no more baby-killing!”
Thus did the Hebrews abolish human sacrifice—one of the great divine revelations of all time.
That was the lesson God taught Abraham. But first he had to get his attention.
Abraham loved Isaac and never forgot the lesson. Isaac grew up still raising some hell, but he knew he belonged to God.
See, it’s a loving story after all. God sets up a teachable moment, then pulls a switcheroo. But you’ve got to plumb the depths of the story to get it. God wasn’t manipulating Abraham, he was teaching him.
All the Bible stories are that way. You know full well it takes a miracle to advance human progress in the way of love. So why are the Bible stories, and the God they speak about, so mysterious to you?
I’ve come to trust God, and when the Bible stories don’t make sense to me, I keep digging.
For the Big Message for today’s era, which is God’s revelation about Gay men, see Luke 7:1-10, the Healing of the Centurion’s Beloved Slave, which follows hot on the heels of God’s revelation of the Divine Feminine and the abolition of slavery.
God is a liberator, not some mean son of a bitch. We’re the bastards, not her. Unfortunately, we’re about as spiritually sophisticated in 2009 as the ancients were as they contemplated earthquakes, before the discovery of tectonic plates.
God is everything you hope she would be, if only we learn how to live (self-sacrifice) and trust that Overwhelming Love knows more than we do, and thus deserves our following.
Meanwhile, her current themes are race, gender and sex, and 2000 years ago Jesus healed the Roman soldier’s beloved slaveboy.++
Sir Stanley Spencer: Healing of the Centurion’s Servant
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