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    Punishment and Sacrifice

    Would God want a child sacrifice? June 29, 2020
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    Pr. Sebastian

    Is God angry at us?

    Is God punishing us through this coronavirus pandemic?, 

    some Christians and preachers want to know.

    Is it due to something we did, individually or as a society, 

    that we are being taught a lesson with this plague?

    Have we performed too many abortions, 

    or have been too accepting of the LGBT community?

    Or is God punishing us with COVID-19 because we’ve been neglecting the environment, or ignoring the perils of climate change, 

    or not listening to scientific advice?

    Some preachers may be claiming that this pandemic is punishment for sin, 

    and saying that this way of thinking is Biblical.

     

    And in a way, they aren’t completely incorrect. 

    It is possible to argue their points using the Bible. 

    You might remember the story of the ten plagues that God rained down on the Egyptians for the Pharao’s hardness of heart.

    Or the narrative from the books of Deuteronomy through to Second Kings, 

    where the writers explain that bad things happened, 

    like the destruction of Jerusalem, because the Israelites abandoned the true faith, and were thus punished by God.

    There are many Bible passages that depict God as a punishing God, 

    who takes revenge upon the wicked, 

    and so it could be argued,

    that this is what is happening today.

     

    However…

    The problem with this interpretation is that it is picking and choosing passages from the Bible and ignoring the bigger picture.

    By focussing on God as punishing judge, you are ignoring the fact that:

    Life isn’t that simple:

    (If you think that the good people get the rewards,

    And the bad people get punished.)

    Life isn’t that straightforward.

     

    The coronavirus is infecting all sorts of people. 

    Bad people, and good people.

    Furthermore, it really is hard to correlate the punishment with its cause, 

    as there are so many factors. 

    It’s really hard to justify this is what is happening.

    It’s difficult to establish what precisely would be the reason God is punishing us for.

    Because it’s not like God writes his explanations in the sky 

    like a sky-writer.

    Submitting a reason for God’s punishment is always a matter of interpretation and one’s own bias,

    of what the most pressing social and religious concern of the day is.

    For example if God would punish, who is to say it’s because of this or that reason?

    We simply don’t know, and to claim this with any degree of certainty is pure hubris and arrogance.

     

    One other problem with interpreting this pandemic solely as punishment,

    is that there are many passages in the Bible that paint a very different picture of God.

    That God is Love.

    That God is like a Mother.

    That God is like a Good Shepherd.

    These images reminds us of how God is a comforting presence amidst the stresses of life, esp. in this time of pandemic.

     

    Is God a punishing, judgemental God? 

    Certainly some people, and writers of the Bible thought of him that way.

    I prefer to see God as less involved in the day-to-day activities of the world,

    more as a Ground of all Being, an accompanying subtle presence, 

    a loving breath that embraces us.

    That seems to fit better with my experiences of the divine, 

    and what I’ve read from other Christians much smarter than myself.

     

    1.

    With this question, of whether God is a punishing God, 

    somewhat out of the way, we dive into one of the most disturbing stories (and there are many disturbing stories) from the first book of the Bible, Genesis.

    The story of how God tested Abraham by asking him to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice. 

    It is the ultimate story of setting your priorities straight, 

    of placing God before family.

     

    I remember as a child being very upset when I heard this story.

    I always wondered…why would God do this? 

    This doesn’t seem right.

    Would God want a child sacrifice?

    And even more importantly, would my parents ever do that to me?

    Would they kill me if God asked them to do that?

     

    1.1

    Abraham is seen as a role model of faith, but seen through modern eyes,

    He also wasn’t perfect.

    Among other things, he sexually trafficked his wife twice, 

    he was a slave-holder, had multiple wives, 

    and sent Hagar, the mother of his son Ishmael, 

    out to the wilderness to die.

     

    Nonetheless, Abraham is mostly a man of virtue, listening to God, 

    and doing what God says.

    He only talks back to God once, 

    so he is generally obedient without asking any questions.

     

    1.2

    So in today’s story, Abraham, 

    at age 108—which certainly sounds a bit suspicious to our modern ears), Abraham gets a personal message from God.

    God tells him to take his son Isaac, whose birth he had awaited 100 years, to the mysterious mount Moriah. 

    It is unclear from the description where this Mount Moriah is, 

    but according to 2nd Chronicles it is the Temple Mount, 

    site of Solomon’s temple, 

    and today of the golden Dome of the Rock, 

    Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. 

     

    Abraham was to take his son and only heir, and as a test, offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain. 

    Abraham faces a horrible choice: 

    Either he can be disobedient to God and let his love for his Child be paramount, 

    Or he can obey an abhorrent and terrible command, and murder his son.

     

     

    And Abraham, surprisingly, doesn’t ask any questions, 

    because his history of his relationship with God, his faith in God, 

    leads him to believe, somehow, that all would turn out well in the end.

    And so he begins his journey, taking along supplies, his 8-year-old son and some servants.

     

    After three days, Abraham reaches his destination, and Isaac, 

    up until now oblivious of his impending doom, asks his father: 

    “I see fire and wood for the sacrifice, 

    but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

    And Abraham responds with an evasive, white lie (a type of lie many parents are familiar with): “God will provide.”

    Abraham didn’t have the courage to say: 

    “actually, kid, I’m going to stab you to death and then burn your body.”

     

    Perhaps in a dream-like, shock-filled state, Abraham builds an altar, 

    and ties up Isaac on it. 

    (You wonder if Isaac is now starting to get the idea of his gruesome ending—“hey, wait a minute, dad, (he might have said) are you going to do what I think you are?”)

    And then the drama dials up a notch, 

    as Abraham raises the knife to kill his son.

     

    But luckily, in the nick of time, and this is a real cliff-hanger, 

    an angel appears, and says “stop right there, Abe.”

    “For now I know, that you fear God, since you have not withheld your Son, your only Son from me!”

     

    Which begs the questions:

    Really? Is God that dumb? 

    Doesn’t God know our hearts?

    Why is such a test necessary? 

    Why did God have to let Isaac experience such a threat of extreme child abuse?

     

    All I can say is that this strong and vivid narrative, 

    which occurs relatively early in the Bible, 

    provides an important reminder of one of the essentials of the faith, repeated later in the first Commandment: 

    “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,”
    and that applies to family members, possessions, and so on. 

    This story definitely has a large dramatic effect. 

    I cannot believe in a God that would practically put someone to the test like this. 

    The God I know is not a child abuser.

     

    So the story continues with the Angel showing Abraham a sheep conveniently caught in some thorny bush, and Abraham then unties Isaac and then sacrifices the animal instead of his son, 

    which illustrates the basic concept of substitutionary sacrifice, 

    that an animal is used in place of a human.

     

    Finally, Abraham names the place “Jehovah Jireh”, 

    Translated as the Lord will provide, or the Lord sees.

    This is a profound statement, claiming that indeed God sees our need, 

    and provides for all our needs,

    and thus we need to put him first in our lives.

     

    2.

    Now a few remarks.

     

    A big part of why this story is so memorable is that there is dramatic irony here:

    The reader of the story knows that God’s command is not in earnest, 

    That God doesn’t really want Isaac to die,

    but Abraham doesn’t know it.

    Abraham doesn’t know that God will provide a substitute sacrifice.

    So the reader is in tension until the final reveal from the angel.

     

    Another thing that strikes me is that we never find out what Sarah, 

    Isaac’s mother has to say, and what her response is. 

    Does Abraham threaten his son never to tell his mother about what happened, in the vein of “What happens in Moriah stays in Moriah?”

    If I were Sarah I’d be absolutely furious.

     

    What about human sacrifice? 

    Human sacrifice was regarded with horror by the Israelite prophets.

    Sacrifice of teens was supposedly part of the official religion during King Ahaz and King Manasseh’s reign.

    The word “hell” comes from the Hebrew word for the Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem where sacrifices of human children were carried out.

    And human sacrifice was part of worship practices of nations surrounding Israel.

     

    The only description of an actual sacrifice of a child in the Bible is in Judges Chapter 11, where Jephthah, a military ruler in Israel, makes a stupid vow to God to kill whoever first greets him when he returns home, if only God would grant him a military victory against the Ammonites. 

    Needless, to say, he wins the battle and ends up having to kill his only child, his daughter.

     

     

    3.

    So what is this whole concept of sacrifice or offering?

    (and this applies as much to Israelite Religion as to our current Christian worship practices)

    The idea of the sacrifice offering is that it is a sacred, special gift to God, 

    and it is brought near to God, in a ceremonial way.

    It is understood that the relationship with God is an unequal relationship, that God is so much greater than us, so it cannot be a mere “gift exchange”, and not just a simple transaction, 

    like what you would do at a ATM:
    punch in your code, out comes the money.

    So you don’t just give an offering sacrifice, and then God will grant you three wishes like a genie in a bottle.

    Of from a different angle, the offering is saying:

    “I give a little, yet you God, grant so much!”

    The offering is a small token in gratitude and shows that you are dependent on God’s mercy and love.

     

    The other important part of sacrifice, 

    is that a sacrifice has to cost something to the giver.

    You can’t take something that is free or cheap. 

    Then it’s not a sacrifice.

    You can’t use pocket lint.

    You can’t steal something from your neighbour, 

    and then offer it as a sacrifice. 

     

    One illustration of this cost of the sacrifice, 

    is the explanation in the Law that every Firstborn animal or human belongs to the Lord, 

    thus a thanksgiving offering for every human firstborn in Israelite religion is needed, as we see for example in the story of Hannah and Samuel.

     

    4.

    And so today, we are tested by God, if not punished by God during this pandemic. It is a time of trial.

    And perhaps we can see this time of testing more like a school test, which proves that we have learned something. 

    It shows that we have learned how Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are disproportionately targeted by pandemics such as these.

    We learned about the racist history of Confederate statues in their glorification of slavery.

    We learn about the interconnectedness of society, and how we are inter-dependent on the social actions of others to survive.

    Through this virus we also have learned a lot more about epidemiology, and how viruses spread and how important it is to sneeze and cough properly and wash your hands.

    We learned how decreasing our economic output contributed to a boost to the environment. 

     

    We also are called to sacrifice things during this time, 

    things that are important:

    The freedom to assemble in large groups, 

    The freedom to come to church, not to wear a mask. 

    We’re called to sacrifice visits of extended family, 

    Some of us sacrificed our jobs.

    These things are costly, they are true sacrifices.

    But we, as a society, agree largely that these sacrifices are necessary for the greater good of society, and by and large, most Western countries, are seing the results of this selfless, altruistic thinking.We make sacrifices, so that others may live.

    We sacrifice, to show our priorities.

     

    5.

    God is not punishing us through this pandemic, but we are in a time of testing, a time of learning and a time for sacrifice, where we re-organize our priorities to preserve life, and to learn more about ourselves, society and God. May we use this time wisely for the good of all creation. 

     

    Let us pray:

    Thank you God, for you know our suffering,

    You don’t want ill from us, you love us too much.

    You know what hardship is like, what it means to be human.

    May your divine presence comfort and sustain us this day and always. Amen.

     

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