A colleague of mine used to be a pastor at Rockfish Presbyterian Church. His name is David Cameron. Now he is heading up a church in Texas. Many moons ago, when he was at Rockfish, he asked me to lead a women’s Bible study class while he was on vacation. “No advance prep necessary,” he said. “You just have to show up.”
Who wouldn’t jump at that? Easy. This was the format. The class of eight, maybe ten women sat in a circle. They started with prayer. Then they read together a preselected scripture passage. After that, they watched a fifteen-minute segment of a VHS tape, which was of two talking-head theologians discussing the scripture reading. That was followed by the group’s own discussion. And then the class ended with prayer. My job was just to make sure all that happened.
The week I was with the class, the scripture being studied was from Genesis –Genesis 19. Now, let me tell you about that reading. In my study bible it is called the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has GOT to be one of the most disturbing passages in all of scripture.
I’ll just share with you a quick synopsis here: A man of God named Lot, is sitting outside the gate of the city of Sodom. It’s evening. Two strangers approach. Two strangers—the author is winking at us here--often in Genesis, strangers turn out to be angels and these two are. We suspect that they are, but Lot, doesn’t.
There being no hotels in Sodom, and since Lot is a good, generous, hospitable soul, he invites the men aka angels, to his home to spend the night. Some evil types in the city get wind that strangers are staying at Lot’s house. They decide to have some “fun.” They surround Lot’s house, and demand that he sends out the two visitors so that they might rape them. You heard me right. As I said, disturbing text.
That is disturbing enough, but here is Lot’s reply to those men outside his house: “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not been with a man; let me bring them out to you and do to them as you please only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” Did you get that? Lot wants to send out his daughters so that his two guests might be spared!!!! In the end, the two angel visitors step in, and using their super angel powers, they blind the wicked men. Unable to see, those wicked men end their night of marauding and Lot’s daughters are saved. The next morning, the angels convince Lot that he and his family should flee the city, which they do. Then God destroys the entire city of Sodom and also its sister city, Gomorrah.
Ok. So our group reads this story and it just sort of lays there, in the middle of our circle—as you might expect. It’s horrific, right? And I’m thinking to myself, “Did David skip town so he wouldn’t have to deal with this passage?” And I’m also thinking, “How in God’s good name, will the theologians on the tape redeem this text?
We turn on the video. For the next fifteen minutes the two talking head theologians--stress to us that the story is an excellent example of hospitality in the Jewish culture in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Lot is the most hospitable of Jews—willing to sacrifice even his daughters to assure the safety of strangers. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Not one scintilla of a mention of the truly awful choice that Lot made—safety of strangers vs. that of his daughters—no mention of family dynamics—of the horror of rape. Nada. Nope. It’s as if those two talking head theologians were ice skating above the text. Meanwhile we who were sitting in that circle, the eight to ten women and I had identified with Lot’s daughters. We were imagining that we were with them in their father’s house-- hiding behind curtains, barricading ourselves behind locked doors and begging, “Please don’t send us out there, Daddy.”
In that classroom, sitting with the class, stunned, I had nothing at all to say when we finally came to the end of the taped segment. And so, I began to laugh. Just a chuckle at first, then heartily and then, everyone else chimed in. After that, we did some much-deserved theologian bashing.
Our reading for today, which is often referred to as the Binding of Isaac, is definitely of the same ilk as the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Difficult to understand. It’s about Abraham, a very important man indeed, to we who are Christians; since Abraham is considered the patriarch of the Jews; and the Christian faith has its roots in the Jewish tradition. This patriarch Abraham, takes his beloved son Isaac up to a mountain top so that Abraham can kill him and then burn his body as a sacrifice to God. Isaac, actually carries the wood for his own sacrificial offering pyre.
What does this story mean? Some theologians ice skate above the story of the binding of Abraham and Isaac, just as they do the text about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. By that I mean that they don’t climb into the text, and move around inside it. So for example, they don’t bother to consider, was Isaac forever after traumatized? Did he suffer from PTSD and have nightmares the rest of his life? Did Sarah, Abraham’s wife, ever find out what her husband Abraham had been up to? Definitely grounds for divorce. And how do those theologians explain God’s actions? Would a loving God really test Abraham by asking him to kill his precious son? Yet some unimaginative theologians refuse to wrestle with the text. They say simply, “As Abraham, so should we all be willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters for God.” What? Chilling,
You know on the 6:30 evening news, there is always a human interest story at the end of the newscast. On the news this week Lester Holt reported a human interest story about a dad, whose little son had brain cancer. The little boy’s head was shaved, and then doctors cut open his skull to remove a tumor. That surgery left a huge, ugly scar. To demonstrate his solidarity with his son, the dad shaved his own head, and had his bald head tattooed to resemble his son’s scar. The son is now in remission. He has a beautiful head of red hair. Commenting on his and his dad’s once bald heads and those ugly scars, the little boy said to an interviewer, “It’s like me and my daddy were twins!”
We totally get this news story. Fathers, and mothers both, make sacrifices for their children. We work hard saving money for our children’s braces, college, weddings. We go to great lengths, too, to keep our children safe. We use car seats when they are little, we insist they wear helmets when they ride bikes, or play football.. We believe that God smiles on us when we make sacrifices for and keep safe the souls that God has entrusted to us.They are God’s gift to us.
That is why I personally have trouble understanding the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and also the Binding of Isaac. I have looked at this second passage from all angles, studied it in the original Hebrew, read commentaries, and listened to seminary professors who are serious theologians, and not just talking heads. I want to share with you here, two alternative interpretations that I think have merit—interpretations I have encountered in my own attempts to understand it.
First one. The early Jews lived in Canaan. There is every evidence that they did not completely destroy the Canaanites. In fact they lived with them in community, and even intermarried with them. Those Canaanites made child sacrifices to their gods. We know this. Archeologists have found Canaanite charred human child remains dating to that era. Archeologists tell us that there is evidence, too, that the early Jews, practiced child sacrifice. They may have borrowed that practice from their Canaanite neighbors and spouses. Now here maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute!” They borrowed that tradition? In fact, all religions borrow. As much as we would like to believe that our Christian faith tradition is pure—straight from Jesus, it isn’t. We have borrowed from the Jewish tradition; we have also borrowed from Greek and Roman religious traditions; maybe even Middle Eastern religious traditions. The Jewish religious tradition is no different. Sadly, what the Jews borrowed in this case, was a truly heinous practice.
It could be then, that we have here, in the near-sacrifice of Isaac, a story that relates a pivotal moment in the history of the Jews! Beginning with Abraham, there was a move in the Jewish faith to put an end to the practice of child sacrifice; “You say you are devoted to God? Well, God does not expect or want human sacrifices. An animal sacrifice, like a ram, is acceptable and even preferable to God.”
As I said, though, that’s only one alternative interpretation of this text. There are many.
I want to end this discussion with one OTHER interpretation that was shared with me by an Old Testament professor when I was in seminary. That professor was and still is, I hope, not just a professor but a singer and a music lover. He would occasionally burst into song during class. That’s one thing you won’t hear me do from this pulpit! In class, he once sang part of Handel’s Messiah. Another time he had us all pound on our desks and clap, while he sang his own made-up words to the tune of “We will, we will rock you.” You know that one?
Talking about the story of the Binding-of Isaac, that professor said that he was at home, listening to a piece of religious orchestral music. He was listening to it for the very first time. The name of that piece? The Binding of Isaac. The professor told us that he was listening to the piece of music when he hears (pause) what sounds like the hum of an airplane engine.. At first he thinks the noise is coming from outside, overhead. But no, it’s actually on the recording. While the orchestra continues to play, he hears the humming of more airplane engines, getting louder, and still louder, and then joined by the sound of gun fire---automatic weapons. Pow, pow, pow, pow pow. And then comes his slow realization. The binding of Isaac, sounds of war. We sacrifice our sons and daughters—in war—and I will add to that, increasingly on our streets, in our schools, and in dance clubs.
So maybe the Binding of Isaac, still has some significance for us, we who live in the 21st century. Sadly. Amen