Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61”.
— Bob Dylan, Highway 61, Revisited
In the book of Genesis, Chapter 22, Abraham receives a message from God to take Isaac, his son, far away and to sacrifice him as a burnt offering. It is a story from the Hebrew Bible that I have studied for years. So, I am always amazed when something new comes to consciousness in my reflections on it. Sometimes, I discover a new twist in old stories.
Today, I discovered one of those “twists” as I read this passage. The first question that surfaced in my mind concerned the great distance that God demanded Abraham travel to do the murderous deed. The spot chosen for the sacrifice was three days from his home. Why? Was it to give Abraham time to understand, to wrestle with, to accept, to turn back – what? Or was the distance for us? Was it so that we could spend some time in Abraham’s shoes as he somberly sets off on a three day quest to accomplish whatever it was he believed God wanted him to do? Who else do we hear about today who sets off on quests to kill people because they believe God commands it? I’m just suggesting this similarity because I think this story has something to say to fundamentalist extremists of any religious group today.
It helps to contextualize what was happening in the story of Abraham’s test. Psalm 115 is the chosen psalm today, which comes right after the first reading in the order of the liturgy. It compares the people of God to “pagans.” Abraham’s people were nomads, people who resisted being absorbed into other tribes and who struggled to assert their unique identity. Pagans were known to sacrifice children to their gods. There is some evidence that this happened among the people of Israel at times as well. Abraham was only being asked to do what other people did in their religious rituals already. There was nothing different about it. The sacrificing of children was believed to be “propitiation” for the sins of the people, to keep the god’s anger at bay or to bring favour to the tribe.
What caught my eye today was the fact that Abraham “obeyed” God – twice. We have always focused on the fact that Abraham obeyed God by taking his only son to be sacrificed, which we find horrifying. But what was the real obedience? Was it not more like this? Abraham believed that God wanted him to engage in the practice of child sacrifice. In Abraham’s context, this would mean that Abraham and his tribe were like other tribes who worshipped gods and who sacrificed their children to them. Abraham went to great lengths to make sure God knew he would be loyal.
Abraham’s real obedience, however, was his willingness to let go of his first sense of what God wanted in order to obey God’s command not to sacrifice his son. He did not let his first belief stand in the way of new learning about what God wants. The theological lesson is that the God of Abraham is the God of the living and not of the dead. If this was a test of Abraham by God, then it appears to have been a test to see if Abraham could set aside the first command to accept a second, completely opposite command.
The Psalm goes into that in greater detail. Idols are dead. They are gods of the dead. They are the kinds of gods that demand what Abraham first thought God wanted him to do – kill, destroy the future, give up your last hope. Abraham’s God is the God we encounter in the land of the living. This is the God to whom Abraham is ultimately obedient – give life, preserve the future, nurture your hope. The passage distinguishes between two options present in Abraham’s context – Baal and Yahweh – one, the god of the dead and the other the God of the Living.
Now, it is time to interpret this message in my own context. What is real obedience to God today? Are we so stuck obeying the first command that we have missed the second one? Do we get so fixated on what we think God wants of us that we are deaf to hearing the second message? Is this a teaching on “second thought?” Is this a teaching that tells us to keep listening, discerning and judging what needs to be done rather than to fix on one idea and to stubbornly never let go? Abraham, if he had been like that, would have insisted as he stood there with knife raised to kill his son – “No! You said you wanted this and this is what I am going to do. I can’t change my mind now. After all, a command from God is a command from God and must be obeyed!”
We have traditionally interpreted Abraham’s obedience to God’s first command as “the faith of Abraham,” but, in fact, it is the way that Abraham obeys God’s second command that illustrates true faith.
There is a stubbornness among religious fundamentalists that sounds like this. There is a “But God said!” mentality that resists any idea that there could be a second thought. Re-reading Abraham’s test in light of his second obedience may be a remedy for such fundamentalism. Choose life. Choose the future. Choose hope. Counter-fundamentalism means that we will be willing to re-think what we think God wants of us. As with Abraham, we may find ourselves doing the opposite of what we thought we had to do. It may be “that second thought” that demands our obedience.