October 25, 2015
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 7
“Taking the Bible Seriously“
Rev. Pam Serdar
Genesis 18:9-33; 22:1-14
When I was in Junior High Sunday School, we played Bible Baseball. It was basically Bible Trivial Pursuit played in teams, usually boys against girls, and usually the girls won. We knew our trivia pretty well, and with that trivia knowledge along with knowing right from wrong, and doing it (at least some of the time), we thought we were covered. While I thought some of the stories were pretty weird and scary and didn’t seem like the God I knew, I thought knowing the details must be important. Even better, if I could quote chapter and verse, or name chapter and verse when someone else quoted them, I would be right up there with the Best. Christians. Ever. Foolish child. Even when I was in seminary, it was the expectation of some folks that being able to quote scriptural references was primary. Foolish mortals.
I remember that my childhood questions about many of the stories were greeted with “it just is” or “God is in control” kinds of answers. Bible Baseball answers were just fine—going deeper wasn’t any of my business. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that some of these early stories are exhibit 1 in the case of why some of the early church fathers wanted to separate the God of Jesus from the God of the Hebrews because they had the same reaction that I had had, and Bible Baseball answers were not good enough. Let’s play a bit of Bible Baseball to see what I mean. Shout out the answers:
Who was Abraham’s son that God told Abraham to kill? Isaac.
Who gave Adam the fruit of the tree of good and evil? Eve.
Who saved all the animals from the flood? Noah.
Who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt? Lot’s wife.
Now, while I loved to win at Bible Baseball, I was never satisfied with the answers—I wanted to know, why would God tell a dad to kill his son?? A corollary was hidden in the story: would God then ever tell my dad to kill me? Dad didn’t seem like a killing kind of a guy, but neither did Abraham. And the Eve thing—did Adam tell Eve not to do it? It doesn’t say. How would she know if he hadn’t told her? I am a great animal lover, but Noah saving all the animals and letting all the people, even babies die? Sounds a bit, I don’t know….harsh. And Lot’s wife—did she know what would happen, or had she heard the cries of the burning people, and looked back because she was so sad? Or because she couldn’t take the dog or her married daughters and sons-in-law? And we didn’t ever touch the story of Lot and his daughters—Who offered to have his two daughters raped by a mob instead of giving the mob two guests who are strangers? Lot! Yeah! Move to first base! Bonus question: Whose daughters drugged him and slept with him so they would continue the line when they thought the world was destroyed? Lot! Woohoo! Move to second base. It still mortifies me to read interpretations that try to justify those stories.
I believe in one God, but, as I have said, I see the growth of people’s understanding of who and how God is throughout the older and newer testaments, and even on through today. We don’t have to look far, often as near as our own souls, to find idolatrous images of God made mostly of our own ideas and understandings. And it is hard, very hard, to tease them apart.
Along with most people over history who claim the Bible as a central part of their faith, I take the Bible very seriously, but not literally. Literalism is only about 150 years old, a by-product of folks trying to reconcile religion with science. I understand the Bible as a finger pointing to God, as some say, rather than God, Godself. The book itself is not a complete summary of all God has done, is doing, or will do in the world: the book does not contain “the great I AM.” Even early, early Christian theologians knew and commented on discrepancies within the Bible, but they did not make the modern error of either writing off the whole thing, or choosing to claim that it is inerrant, discrepancies and dead-dealing stories included. Instead, they wondered and argued and wondered some more and argued some more. Kind of like good followers of John Wesley.
If I had my druthers, I would have read the whole Abram/Abraham-Sarai/Sarah Genesis section (Genesis 12-23) today, but you probably would have nodded off at some point. I have picked out particular pieces, just as Brian MacLaren did. I chose different passages from MacLaren to make a similar point.
49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. Sounds like right here and right now in the world, doesn’t it? I can understand, looking through the lens of the life of Jesus, why God might get angry about those things.
God is so angry in the story, that God tells Abraham he is going to destroy the whole city, no idle threat in view of the flood. So, Abraham pleads for the city, and God relents: if God can find 10 righteous people in the city, God will not destroy it. Note that Lot, his wife, his two young daughters still at home, and two other daughters and their husbands are residing there. It only takes 2 more righteous folks, but they are evidently not to be found. And since the sons-in-law and two daughters don’t believe the warning, only 4 make it out. And Lot’s wife doesn’t go far before she looks back—what mother wouldn’t? This is after Lot has offered his two daughters still at home to a murderous mob outside his door in exchange for the two strangers (angels in disguise). There is no outrage in the text—the girls are just girls, and hospitality among men is a much higher value. It is all told with an air of normalcy. Lot is still allowed to escape the destruction as a righteous man. I think I know why that wasn’t a Bible Baseball question.
Then we move on to Abraham. First, a little background on the Ancient Near East. Blood sacrifice, and particularly child sacrifice, was the norm, not the exception. The Canaanites practiced it, as did others in the territories near Abraham. Often, it was the most precious child, like a first-born son, who was sacrificed—the more precious the sacrifice, the more God was to recognize the more faithful the worshiper. So we can look at this in reverse—Abraham isn’t named as faithful because he was doing what God told him to do, but because that is what everyone was doing—and the more God blessed you, the bigger your sacrifice needed to be. Or maybe Abraham’s hearing was going—after all, he was well over 100 years old—and he just thought he heard God say to sacrifice Isaac. Maybe God said to take Isaac with you to make the sacrifice, but not to make Isaac the sacrifice. Child sacrifice was also used to convince a god to bless the worshiper—so maybe Abraham thought, I thought I was going to be a great nation. One son isn’t all that great (especially since I just sent my firstborn, Ismael, who you promised his mother, Hagar, would also be a great nation, off into the desert). Here, God, I’ll sacrifice this precious son given to Sarah and I as your miracle—to show you how faithful I am and maybe even get a few more sons out of the deal.
Isaac’s nervous conversation with dad Abraham is telling—Isaac catches on pretty quickly what is happening. There is one midrash that says it is Sarah’s voice who halts the downswing of Abraham’s knife and stops the sacrifice. The midrash continues with an argument between Sarah and Abraham to let Isaac go. Sometimes the midrash ends with Abraham relenting, sometimes not.
I am one who agrees with the interpretation that the story of the Binding of Isaac (not the Sacrifice of Isaac, because he wasn’t sacrificed) is a story about why the Israelites did not practice child sacrifice. (At least most of the time—Jeptheh does sacrifice his daughter in Judges, and there are some other sacrifices among some of the tribes, but they are one-off events, not part of the temple cult, like they are in other ancient tribes.) I’m sure it was tempting to offer up a child when the child-sacrificing enemies of the Israelites overcame them in battle. But the Abraham story says that God “just says no” to child sacrifice. I am always sad to know that God does not send an angel, or a mother, to spare Jepthah’s daughter. But then, it is only a daughter. I think I know why they didn’t ask us which of Israel’s judges sacrificed his only child. Jepthah. Yeah….
The key to these stories is that they tell us of the Israelites’ progress in understanding God—God doesn’t destroy the whole world, just a city, and vows not to destroy it at all if just a few of the folks are righteous. God hears the cries of the oppressed, and comes to their aid. Child sacrifice is not OK—God does not want human sacrifice. And a couple thousand years later, by the time we get to the Older Testament text of Micah, which is printed on the cover of your worship guide, God isn’t perceived as needing sacrifice at all—not of the firstborn, not of animals, not of grain. Let’s read Micah 6:6-8 together:
“With what shall I come before Adonai,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will Adonai be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does Adonai require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Confirmands, these Bibles are to be used as a finger pointing to God. The finger has moved over time as people became more familiar with God and understood themselves better. The finger has moved in translation, and in the differing contexts within which it is read. God gave us the traditions of the church, our own powers of reason, and our own life experience to help aim the finger a bit more accurately. And still, we are only human. Still, we will be wrong. We will misinterpret. But if we continue to learn, discern, stay in community, walk in the woods, pray, and open our hearts to God’s leading, we will be instruments in making the world a better place, to transform earth to the justice and love of heaven, and better our aim in pointing to God. May you cherish your Bibles for the wisdom they provide, and keep your minds open as you study to allow the Spirit to guide you, and your mentors, teachers, friends, and life to continue to make the road by your walking.
Genesis 18:16-33: Abraham pleads for Sodom
16 The men got up from there and went over to look down on Sodom. Abraham was walking along with them to send them off 17 when the Lord said, “Will I keep from Abraham what I’m about to do? 18 Abraham will certainly become a great populous nation, and all the earth’s nations will be blessed because of him. 19 I have formed a relationship with him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him. And they will keep to the Lord’s path, being moral and just so that the Lord can do for Abraham everything he said he would.” 20 Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! 21 I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know.”
22 The men turned away and walked toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing in front of the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty? 24 What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it? 25 It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will save it because of them.”
27 Abraham responded, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, even though I’m just soil and ash, 28 what if there are five fewer innocent people than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city over just five?”
The Lord said, “If I find forty-five there, I won’t destroy it.”
29 Once again Abraham spoke, “What if forty are there?”
The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.”
30 He said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak. What if thirty are there?”
The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, what if twenty are there?”
The Lord said, “I won’t do it, for the sake of twenty.”
32 Abraham said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak just once more. What if there are ten?”
And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it because of those ten.” 33 When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left; but Abraham stayed there in that place.
22 After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”
Abraham answered, “I’m here.”
2 God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” 3 Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.
4 On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”
Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”
Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”
8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.
9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”