Last Sunday the first reading at mass was the story of Abraham and Isaac, of the father’s being asked by God sacrifice his son, but stopping him at the last moment, satisfied that Abraham had been willing to do as God requested.
I warned the people it was a story of torture and was ugly. Torturers know they will not actually kill but they enjoy the fear and terror of the victims who do not know that. At the last moment the torturer stops the cruel game to enjoy planning future torture. The fear is frightening, the mentality of the torturer is inhuman.
That is how God was willing to be portrayed – a god of fear, of absolute demand, and the command is the cruellest: kill your child? All good parents would be willing to die to save their children. What is the teaching this story is giving?
The ancient world accepted human sacrifice as part of the worship of its gods. Human life is the most precious “commodity” in creation, and one’s child would be the most precious of those human commodities. So parents would sacrifice their first-born child to win favour from the gods (the Molochs), pour the blood over the fields so that they would produce rich crops, smear the blood on their boats, tools, that trade would bring profit.
God seems to play the game “Give me your son, your only son”, imitating what the Molocks asked of their believers and worshipers. God, no more than a tribal god?
Abraham blindly accepts. This god has already asked him to sacrifice his past by leaving his relatives to go to a land he did not know, and now asks him to sacrifice his future by killing his son.
“Sacrifice” means “to make holy” (“sacrum” “facere” are the Latin words that give us “sacrifice”). Abraham will do something holy by killing his son! This is evil thinking. God is cruel and Abraham is bewildered, caught in the old ways of judging “child or prosperity”.
Abraham makes a ritual of the sacrifice. He knows the place where he will offer his son: the land of Moriah, the hill in the land of Moriah. It is a three days walk. Why walk three days to find the right place to kill your son? It’s a biblical story – on the third day the story will end wonderfully.
The Bible tells us they walked two days and that on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place for the sacrifice – the hill of Moriah. He ties the wood for the fire (a burnt sacrifice of his son!) on the boys back, and Isaac carries the wood on which he will die, willingly, because he does not yet know he is the sacrifice. Trusting boy, broken father, cruel god – the scene is immense.
Come forward about 1,700 years. The hill of Moriah has become the city of Jerusalem (the books of Samuel and Chronicles tell us this), and Calvary is part of the hill. Jesus carries the cross on his way to death, just as Isaac had carried the wood for the fire of his death. Jesus and Isaac, innocent and trusting; Abraham and the Father in agony, and God seems to do nothing. He has decreed for Abraham and Isaac, has he decreed for himself and Jesus?
Jesus died on the hill of Moriah, the cross holding him, was buried nearby and raised from death on the third day. Isaac rose from the wood holding him, his place of death, on the third day, coming back to life and reconciled to his father. “My father, why did you forsake me?” “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
New life, but the suffering remembered. “See my wounds, Thomas” “Hear my terrifying story, Rebecca.” The third day right through the Bible is God’s day of supreme blessing – more than thirty times it occurs. The stories have wonderful endings after terrible suffering. God’s word is fulfilled: Abram (“son of a good father”) has become Abraham (“father of a great nation”); Jesus of Nazareth has become the Christ of the kingdom of God.
We glimpse parable-in-action, a term used for certain actions of the prophets – Jeremiah, Ezikiel, Hosea – preaching by something they did rather than said. Abraham’s terrible ordeal teaches at the beginning of the story of the people of God that there will be no human sacrifice and the very pain he endured is the force of the teaching; Jesus’ terrible death teaches the love “I did it for you.”
God bless us to understand . . . .
(7th March 2021)