A sermon preached on The Third Sunday after Trinity
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
June 28, 2020 11:00 am
‘Take your son,
your only son
whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22:12
Is there any more horrific story than this one? God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. What kind of a God does that?
Blood Thirsty Gods
Well, all kinds, apparently. Many societies have practiced human sacrifice at various times in their history. For example,
- In the Bronze Age (2100 – 700 BCE) and across north-west Europe, and including Ireland and Great Britain, there is much evidence of human sacrifice, including the 1850 corpses found preserved in peat bogs. The Romans alleged the ancient Celts practiced it.
- Agamemnon in the Greek epics sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis. Euripedes, in the play Hecuba, tells how the Trojan princess Polyxena is sacrificed by the triumphant Greeks to appease the wind, so that they could sail home. Presumably these legends were grounded in ancient practices.
- Romans occasionally were involved in human sacrifice, the last one being in 113 BCE before a war with the Celts. Prior to that, four humans were sacrificed after the defeat at Cannae (216 BCE)
- In the 5th century it is said that King Aun of Sweden sacrificed his sons in return for a long life.
- Ancient Mayans, in what is now southern Mexico, sacrificed their captured enemies at the top of their pyramids, from the 3rd to the 9th century, and on into the post-classical period. Likewise the Aztecs in what is now central Mexico, did the same in the 14th and 15th century
- The Phoenicians (2500 – 500 BCE) and the people of their colony in Carthage (814 – 156 BCE) are also thought to have practiced the sacrifice of children.
- The Canaanites, related to the Phoenicians, are accused of sacrificing children to the god Molech. Kings Ahaz & Manassah of Judah – Israelite kings – are accused of and roundly condemned for sacrificing their children in the valley of the Son of Hinnom; this is described as an abominable act, something only the followers of false gods would do.
So what is happening in this reading from Genesis? Why does God put Abraham to the test? Why does God demand such a horrible thing?
Readings of The Akedah
In Jewish tradition this story is referred to as The Binding of Isaac, or The Akedah (“Binding” in Hebrew).
Most Jewish commentators see it as a sign of Abraham’s faith. God promised that he would make out of Isaac a great nation. Would Abraham believe this even when commanded to seemingly put an end to the promise by sacrificing his son? The assumption here is that Abraham believed so strongly that God would keep his promise that he did not worry himself about the result of the sacrifice – God would somehow make it all right. Either God would intervene (as he did), and Abraham knew by faith that God would not let him kill Isaac, or perhaps some other miracle would happen.
Other Jewish rabbis see it as a more profound test of Abraham, one which he failed. Abraham was given an illegal command, and he should have argued with God on behalf of Isaac and his posterity, as the prophet Moses interceded for Israel with the Lord at Sinai. God saw that Abraham was going to go through with it, and blinked first, in horror that Abraham did not hesitate. Yes, Abraham had faith, but it was not a mature, rational faith, but a blind, fanatical type. We would have to wait for later prophets like Moses before we found a faith strong enough to argue with God. And the immediate result? We read in the next chapter that Sarah died, and commentators suggest that this was from shock. The rabbis also note that God does not speak to Abraham again in the Book of Genesis, as if there was nothing more to be said.
Christians, of course, see the Binding of Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice his only Son Jesus Christ for us. Jesus finding himself in a sinful world, makes atonement for those sins as a voluntary sacrifice. The faithfulness of Christ, obedient unto death, stands in place of our own sinfulness. This is not the only theology of atonement, but it is a popular one for those who believe God’s justice demands capital punishment for the myriad sins of each person. However, many of us recoil from such an image of God, one who seems to force his son to die for unworthy humanity. My own approach to the atonement sees it in the larger context of the Incarnation and Resurrection. The incarnation is about bringing humanity to its fulfillment through union with the divine, and would be necessary even in a world without sin. But the world is broken, fragile, and filled with sin and oppression, and God in Christ still does not hesitate to join humanity in a fallen world. This emptying of the divine into the world, in human form, is a voluntary sacrifice of solidarity with the oppressed, and despite suffering the worst the world can do, Jesus overcomes suffering and death in the resurrection. God begins a new creation in resurrection.
What is the Value of a Life?
Let’s put it another way. Do we sacrifice people today?
An obvious truth is that our sons and daughters still go to war, and it is a given that a certain number of them will die. These are sacrifices that are offered voluntarily by the armed forces, on the understanding that the protection of our nations and values are worth it.That said, while we trust our civilian leaders with the power to command soldiers, sailors, and aviators to go into battle, at the same time we also expect that they will do all they can to protect them with the best training and equipment, and to be strategic in their deployment.
More generally, actuaries, civil engineers, and bureaucrats know that certain deaths are preventable. How much money – money that comes from our taxes – are we willing to spend to avoid preventable deaths? Where do we spend in order to have improvements to automobiles, highways, and our streets and houses, so that deaths can be avoided? This covers everything from proper sewage to water systems, fire departments and hydrants, and the requirement of consumer safety. What restrictions on our liberty are we willing to accept for the well-being of all?
This is not a meaningless question, or one without an answer. Consider:
- The UK government has an official Value of a Prevented Fatality. This is the money that is considered well spent if it prevents a death in a calendar year – money spent on healthcare, road safety, and the like. The VPF currently sits at £1.8 million. You never knew you were worth that much, eh?
- This number is actually considered low, because in the US the figure used by the United States Department of Transportation is currently USD $9.6 million (approximately £7.8 million).
- In Canada the VPL is CAD $5.6 million, or £3.3, so does that mean my life is worth more than someone’s from the UK? Hmmmm.
- In Greece the number is, unsurprisingly, low, only around €206,000. This is probably because they simply do not have the resources to spend on infrastructure.
But there are other situations where there are conflicts between the lives of others and the values of a people. So, for example,
- in the immediate situation what is more important – protecting the lives of the most vulnerable among us from Covid-19, or the rights of businesses to make money? Are we willing to accept curfews, lockdowns, and so forth to prevent the spread of the disease? How much damage to the economy are we willing to accept? How in debt should governments be willing to go to keep people out of poverty?
- What is more important, protecting the economy and jobs by supporting energy companies, or do we need to force companies and consumers to pay for their environmental effects, perhaps by imposing carbon taxes, or being forced towards emission-less production. If global warming is to be avoided, are we willing to pay the price now, or do we disregard it and leave the profound consequences for subsequent generations?
- in the United States, (and I love the peoples of the United States, don’t get me wrong here) there is an idolatry called defending the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. Despite the fact that in every other wealthy country it is understood that gun laws can reduce the mortality rate, Americans will not accept restrictions on the right to bear arms. Every time we hear of a gun rampage in a school, we have had another sacrifice to the idol of the Second Amendment.
- Again, despite collectively spending more on health care than any other rich nation, the United States has rejected universal health care. The historical reason this is so, argue some, is not so much that universal health care is perceived as being socialist as it is the case that back in the middle of the last century Southern politicians refused to spend tax money to improve the health of African Americans. The political leaders of the United States back then and now would rather sacrifice the poor and vulnerable rather than inconvenience those who benefit from the inequality of the current system.
What are the gods of today demanding?
What is our response?
The horror we sense at the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac should be equaled by the horror we sense at the willingness of leaders and many in our population to sacrifice others on abstract principles, economic gain, or political advantage. I am with the rabbis who believe that Abraham failed the test that God commanded of him. When we are confronted with the injunction to sacrifice others in the name of this modern day god or that, what will be our response?