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He Came and Proclaimed Peace

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“He Came and Proclaimed Peace” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is a “sermon from the heart” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

These passages in the Old Testament that depict God as one who is violent, hateful, and vengeful have always greatly disturbed and troubled me. These stories do not seem to be at all consistent with the God who I have experienced in my own life. These violent stories certainly are not at all consistent with the God who we have encountered in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be like seeing my husband Peter, who I know to be a very compassionate and loving person and who has never uttered a hurtful word about another person, it would be like seeing him walk up to a nursing home resident, yelling obscenities at them, then spit in their face, and punch them in the nose. To see Peter do this would leave me dumbfounded, confused, even horrified. It would make no sense, as this is not the type of person who I know my husband to be.

I feel dumbfounded, confused, even horrified when I hear these stories that portray God as the one who commanded the people of Israel to mercilessly slaughter their enemies; it makes no sense. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus reveals to us the very nature and character of God, then how can this be? How can the same God who tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors also command Israel to kill their enemies and leave not one of their persecutors alive? Did God change? We sing in our hymns, proclaim in our Affirmations of Faith, and teach to our children that God does not change. Yet clearly something has changed in the portrayal of who God is from some of the violent stories of the Old Testament to the encounter of God in the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. So did God change?

No, God has not changed, but our understanding of God and our experiences of who God is have certainly changed. God is forever the same, but how we experience God depends upon where we are. It is a beautiful thing to know that God has been acting in history since the beginning of time and that people have experienced God in many different ways and interpret God’s movement in many different ways. Do I believe that God provides for God’s people even in the face of overwhelming odds? Absolutely. Do I believe God meets us where we are and enters even into our brokenness and sin? Completely. Do I believe that God commanded the merciless slaughter of Israel’s enemies? Here I certainly struggle. For if the person of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the gospels shows to us the very nature of our God who does not change, it simply makes no sense to me that God is also a violent, spiteful, and vengeful God. God looks like Jesus; no one knows the Father except through the Son.

And we know that the Son never commanded his disciples to kill those who stood against them, but instead commands his followers to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We know that the Son would rather die for his enemies than send down legions of angels to destroy them. We know that the Son does not slaughter anyone, but instead prays for the forgiveness of those who slaughtered him with his dying breath. We know that the Son weeps over the people of Jerusalem for they do not know the things that make for peace. I wonder how often God has wept over humanity over the injustice, oppression, and bloodshed that we have committed in God’s name. How often has God wept over humankind

seeking answers in the guns that preach a gospel of hatred rather than seeking answers in the God who died for the gospel of peace. How often has God wept, beseeching us to know the things that make for peace?

We as Mennonites have historically been opposed to war in all forms since the birth of our faith, and yet there are fierce battles that are waging within our own pews. How can we witness to the gospel of peace if we do not always seek reconciliation with each other? Yes, these violent stories from the Old Testament haunt us and trouble us and lead us to condemn the wars of our nation, but when it comes to our own personal wars with each other, perhaps we identify a little too much with this portrayal of God as one who is vengeful and full of hatred. We talk about our neighbors behind their backs instead of loving them as ourselves.

We complain to those who are most like us about those who are not instead of practicing the Rule of Christ. We come to offer our sacrifice of worship without first going and being reconciled to our brother or sister, our mother or father, our pew-mate, our grandparent, our neighbor, our spouse. Though we cringe at this portrayal of God as one that leads us to kill in God’s name, why does this portrayal of God as one who is hateful and vengeful not cause us to cringe when we continue in our loathing, when we continue to seek revenge, when we continue on unchanged or unrepentant of our ill feelings towards those who adhere to the “wrong” political party, the “wrong” theological interpretations, to those who have abused us, to those who have wronged us. These Old Testament stories may be difficult for us to hear when we encounter these perceptions of a God who commanded a merciless slaughtering of Israel’s enemies, so that not even one is left breathing. Yet it is so much easier for us to identify with the portrayal of a God who is vengeful and who smites enemies when it comes to our own broken relationships with those we consider our own enemies, than it is for us to identify with the Christ who calls us to love them and pray for our persecutors.

Do we know the things that make for peace? Do we seek to embody the things that make for peace? It is one thing to reject the image of a violent and vengeful God. It is quite another to refuse to hate and seek revenge in our own lives. What if we sought to embody peace in every aspect of our lives? What would happen if we took Jesus as seriously as we say we do? To believe that Jesus Christ is “the way”1, is to live the way that Christ lived. This is the road not often taken, the straight and narrow path that requires us to lay down our grudges and hatreds and instead take up our cross; it requires us to reject violence and hatred in all forms and instead embody reconciliation, and prayer, and love; it requires sacrifice, just as the one who lovingly and nonviolently sacrificed his own life for a world full of violence and hate. Let us bind our hearts with the Christ who took the way of the cross rather than the way of the sword, the one who died for his enemies rather than sending legions of angels to destroy them, the one who did not kill but instead prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors with his dying breath, the one who came and proclaimed peace.

1 John 14:6

Thinking about War in the Old Testament

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“Thinking about War in the Old Testament” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is “sermon from the head” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

Thank you, XXXXX, for reading the Word of God for us. I’m guessing that those selections are rarely read from the pulpit in most Mennonite pulpits. There are, of course, many such texts of violence that most Christians would rather their children didn’t hear, would it not be in the Bible. For instance, the conquests of Canaan in Joshua, the skirmishes of Judges, the wars of Saul, David, and Solomon, and the graphic language and hatred of Obadiah and Nahum.

So, I was excited when we decided to include violence in the Old Testament as part of our brief series on difficult passages. Katherine and I are switching assignments from last Sunday, and this time I get to do the thinking meditation, which I’m excited about because this is essentially a question of biblical interpretation, and one of my hobbies is something called hermeneutics, which is the study of interpretation. Some of you enjoy boating; I enjoy hermeneutics.

The question, on the surface, is: How does the violence of the Bible (and specifically the OT for this morning) fit in with the peace witness of the Bible, which reaches its climax in the NT?

The Bible and Violence The Bible and Peace
In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. (Deut. 20:16) Blessed are the peacemakers. . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:9, 44)
They devoted Jericho to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6:21) Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him. . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17, 20)
“‘Totally destroy everything that belongs to the Amalekites. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3) Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2:21-23)
But all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. (Joshua 11:11) “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords. (Joel 3:9-10) They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
(Isaiah 2:4)

From Today’s New International Version

To think about this question, we are going to go on a brief tour of interpretation. Much of our tour comes from a fantastic book from the 1980s that we actually have in our very own library, called Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. It’s written by Willard Swartley, a retired Mennonite seminary professor best known for his careful biblical scholarship (especially with regard to the Bible’s peace witness) and for his work with exorcism. Today’s subject, is of course, the former. In the book, Swartley looks at these four issues and analyzes how interpreters who draw vastly different conclusions use and interpret the Bible.

Well, our tour of interpretation of OT violence will begin with two traditional perspectives – what I would call “modernist” interpretations, as I will explain later, and then finish with a pacifist interpretation. And then we will go back and analyze these interpretations. Here we go.

Traditional Interpretation A

  1. God commanded Israel to go to war and to do violence. We just heard a couple such passages read; there are many more.1 Because killing in warfare is different from murder, it does not violate God’s perfect love.2
  2. God commended people who were military leaders (Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, etc.)
  3. Regarding the apparent conflict with the NT, in John 18, Jesus himself didn’t turn the other cheek when one of the temple police struck him, but rather, Jesus challenged the aggressor, saying “If I have poken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”3 Could he have expected his followers to do different?
  4. Resolving the tension, some interpreters say that the Sermon on the Mount and similar passages are guides for personal, neighbor relationships, but not for official or social relationships.4
  5. A few interpreters who follow this pattern are dispensationalist, where history is divided into various ages, or dispensations, where God relates to humans in different ways. The peace witness and teaching of the NT, then, applies to the final dispensation (the kingdom age), which has not yet begun, whereas OT warfare applied to a previous dispensation.5

Traditional Interpretation B

  1. Scripture should not be used simplistically, but rather in terms of its larger themes and in consultation with more sophisticated theological reflection.6 God as a warrior is foundational to OT theology. The story of the Exodus, celebrated by Moses in Exodus 15, is the epitome (esp. 15:3). The OT describes God as “Lord of Hosts” (lit. Armies) over 200 times.7
  2. The language is part of God’s participation in sinful history. A history of war was necessary because Israel was called to be a nation, and nations survive by war.
  3. There are Kingdom obligations (NT peace witness) and worldly state obligations (including violence), which are different.
  4. “Realism”: Kingdom teachings can’t be absolutes in a fallen world. War is a necessary, lesser evil, while Jesus’ ethic is too perfect to be attainable.8
  5. God uses violence to establish new, just orders.9

Pacifist: A collection of voices, not all of whom agree with each other

  1. Warfare’s roots are in humanity’s fall (Gen. 3-4), when humanity decided to go its own way.
    • Some say that OT warfare was God’s will for the people when the kingdom and state were combined (loosely dispensational).10
    • Others say God “allowed war as a concession to Israel’s sin.” Israel fought wars as a result of not following God’s “perfect will, through which Israel could have taken the land without use of sword and bow.”11 God’s original plan was to drive the enemies out of the land miraculously.12 God’s permissive will included war into Israel’s civil law; God’s perfect will in the moral law forbade killing. The concession is similar to allowing kingship or polygamy; the prophets indicate that the time of warfare is over.
    • Still others say Israel’s military warfare “resulted from its failure to trust God as warrior.”13 Exodus 14:14 is the prototype: Israel didn’t fight or assist God’s victory; justice comes not through the sward but by obedience to God’s Torah.
  2. The OT critiques carnal warfare and prepares for the NT peace witness.14
    • The OT has many examples of nonviolent action (e.g. 2 Kings 6:8-23).
    • The patriarchal/matriarchal narratives are mostly pacifist, perhaps a critique of kingship patterns of the monarchy period.
    • The OT does not glorify death in war or develop war hero stories as other ancient near eastern cultures did.
    • The pervasive criticism of kingship with military power indicates that the OT points another direction (Isa. 2:1-4), toward the suffering servant (Isa 40-55).
    • Yahweh’s warfare called Israel to “defenselessness and faith in Yahweh,” arguing against a military caste, military alliances, and political maneuvering based on military power.
    • The prophetic vision – especially Isaiah – emphasizes a coming reign of peace.
    • Israel’s Holy war tradition culminates in the strategy of the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-44, where victory is won through obedience and suffering for the sake of God.
    • The OT, while affirming a warrior God and including numerous war stories, also contains the roots of the NT peace witness. “Moses takes a shepherd’s staff and burning heart into Egypt and leads out a band of slaves who raised not one sword against the world’s greatest empire.”15
    • The NT transforms the OT holy war tradition, turning “Battle Songs into Hymns of Peace.” Jesus’ ministry is a “massive warfare of teaching, healing, proclamation, suffering, death, and glory.”16 Much of the Holy War language is present in the NT: assurance of God’s presence, God’s deliverance, trusting God to win the victory, and relying on nothing but the power of God (Holy Spirit). Read this way, the gospel of Matthew may be framed by Holy War language (“do not be afraid;” “God is with us;” obedience, “I am with you always”).17
  3. The OT prepares for the NT
    • The Bible is a progressive revelation of the nature and will of God.
    • War/violence is sub-Christian ethic of unredeemed society; while Christians live in a new reality (2 Cor. 5:17).

Hermeneutical Analysis

Well, where does this tour of interpretation leave us? Gordon Clark says, “If the Old Testament is clear on anything, it is clear that God positively commanded war.”18 conversely, Guy Hershberger concludes, “The entire Scriptures correctly interpreted will show the Old and New Testaments to agree that the way of peace is God’s way for His people at all times; that war and bloodshed were never intended to have a place in human conduct.”19 How can two people read the same book and reach such entirely different conclusions?

I believe there are several reasons, but would like to focus in on one: the different ways we understand the nature of the authority of Scripture, especially in light of the apparent diversity of viewpoints represented within the Bible (we saw some such examples earlier).

As I said, from a hermeneutical perspective, both of the traditional interpretations have grown out of Modernity, sometimes also called the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment. Though very different approaches, both traditional perspectives tend to define biblical authority in terms of modern values or notions of truth as logical and rational. That is, something is true if it really, really happened and is consistent in an encyclopedic sense.

Traditional perspective A assumes a priori as a matter of doctrinal ideology and biblical self-reference20 that the Bible is authoritative because it is true in a logical, rational, encyclopedia-sort of way. Any apparent rational or logical inconsistency in the biblical witness, anything that an encyclopedia editor would flag for correction, therefore doctrinally must be harmonized rationally. In the case of warfare, this is achieved by having one ethic for social and one for personal, or assigning various ethics to various dispensations. We might call this a flat Bible approach, where each part of the Bible is equally authoritative (often referred to as fundamentalist in hermeneutics). This view of Biblical authority looks like this:

Flat Bible

Traditional perspective B makes no such claim, but rather looks to larger patterns (noticing the warrior God), and holds those patterns up to the authority of reason and logic. Thus, while acknowledging a strong peace pattern, Traditional perspective B decides that it does not measure up to realistic, rational possibility. The Bible is authoritative in the extent to which it passes logic/rationalism. This view of Biblical authority looks like this, where the Bible is held up to the authority of Modernist ideals:

Bible and Reason

For entirely different reasons, then, this perspective (often referred to as liberalist in hermeneutics) comes to remarkably similar conclusions to perspective A: There are two realms of ethics: one personal or for Kingdom citizenry and one social or for worldly citizenry.

Pacifist interpreters, however, are different still. Some will give higher authority to the New Testament because it talks about Jesus:

Others give higher priority still to the Gospels because they tell the story of Jesus:

Reading the Bible this way, the New Testament is seen as fulfillment to Old Testament promise, and thus has greater authority, and even has authority to critique the OT, just as Jesus did. This sort of understanding of Scripture is becoming more and more common, especially among evangelicals, who, by definition, hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in high regard. And they are coming to similar readings of Scripture to traditional pacifists.

However, pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition reached these conclusions for somewhat different reasons. The Anabaptists were so committed to the Lordship of Christ, so radically determined to follow Jesus Christ that he became the highest authority:

For Anabaptists, Scripture has authority not because it fits nicely into Modern values of truth or reason, but rather because it bears witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh. And it’s Jesus we follow, Jesus we love, Jesus we live and die and rise again for, Jesus who saves us.

Just as Jesus opened the eyes of the travelers on the Emmaus road to the meaning of Scripture, so too Anabaptists sought to read Scripture through Jesus’ eyes; as Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being,”21 on whose behalf the scriptures testify.22 From this perspective, the apparent diversity of Scripture can be viewed not as a potential doctrinal weakness needing to be harmonized, and not as a this-is-right-this-is-wrong choice, but rather, positively as the unfolding revelation of God in history.

Jesus reveals that God is incarnational, entering the limitations of language, culture, history, economics, and even ideology to meet us where we are and call us forward. Diversity of perspective in the Bible, in this view, is the result of the one true God graciously interacting with humans, which means that scripture is “historically and culturally conditioned.” The variety in the Bible testifies that God, like a missionary, takes history and culture seriously.23 For example, the letter to the Galatians would have made little sense had the Philippians received it. God took each situation seriously and entered it, worked with it, and ultimately transformed it.

Willard Swartley concludes, “The divine is not diminished by the human in Jesus. . . Precisely when Jesus suffers and dies, testifying to his complete humanity, the Gospel of Mark declares that then, in that context, he is truly the Son of God, divine (Mk. 15:37-39). To hold then that Scripture is conditioned by the human element – i.e., the historical and cultural – is a confession of its glory, since it brings the divine presence and Word into the midst of real human situations.”24

Through this process, God has been revealing himself throughout history, and most fully in Jesus Christ, our peace. The story of that revelation is recorded in the Bible. Thanks be to God!

Notes:
1 In Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, Willard Swartly lists the following as used in interpretations: Ex. 17:8-16, Num. 33:50-66; Josh. 1:1-9; 5:13-6:27; Judg. 4:1-23; 6:12; 1 Sam. 15:1-13; 17:1-54; 2 Sam. 5:19-20; Psalms 35:1-2; 68:1-2, 12, 17; 83:2, 17; 108; 124; 136; 144:1; Num. 4:39-45; Josh. 7:1-8:29; 1 Sam. 28:15-19; 2 Chron. 18:1-34. There would be many more.

2 Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 97-98.

3 John 18:22-23. See also Paul in Acts 23:3.

4 Swartley, 101.

5 Ibid., 101.

6 Ibid., 102.

7 Ibid., 103.

8 Ibid., 105.

9 See Swartley, 106-112, on Liberation Theology.

10 Ibid., 103.

11 Ibid., 113.

12 See Ex. 23:20-23.

13 Swartley, 114.

14 The following are highlighted from Swartley, 115-117.

15 Jacob Enz, quoted in Swartley, 117.

16 Ibid.

17 See Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights for more on this.

18 Quoted in Swartley, 98.

19 Quoted in Swartley, 141.

20 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage does not necessarily support the Modernist priorities, but is often interpreted so.

21 Hebrews 1:3.

22 John 5:39.

23 Swartley, 218.

24 Swartley, 218.

Venturing up the Mountain

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“Venturing up the Mountain” (Genesis 22:1-19)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 18, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is adapted from a seminary assignment, and is used here as a “sermon from the heart” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible series.”

When I was in fourth grade, one of my cousins gave me the book, Coals of Fire, by Elizabeth Hershberger Bauman. It’s billed as a “Children’s Peace Classic Since 1954.” I was a fourth-grade boy and didn’t have much use for books, but one day I opened it and was instantly drawn in like the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak.

Inside I found powerful stories that brought to life what my parents had been teaching me about the peace heritage of my faith tradition; about the power of love to speak grace and peace and life over the clamor of hate and violence in the darkest, coldest corners of the world; about the cross’s victory over the sword.

My favorite story was about Peter, an old Mennonite minister who had lived a difficult life of persecution in the town of Emmenthal, Switzerland. One night, a group of men decided to try to provoke Peter. They approached the darkened dwelling, slipped onto the roof, and began silently removing thatch that protected Peter’s home.

Soon Peter woke and realized what was happening. Thinking quickly, he woke his wife, and they prepared a meal. Peter went outside and said to the men: “You have been working hard and must be hungry. Come in and join us to eat.” Peter prayed for each of his “guests” and for their families. When he had finished, the men could not touch their food; instead, they slipped back outside, re-thatched the roof, and ran off into the night.

I could almost touch the power of love in this story. Lives were transformed. Relationships were healed. Wrongs were set right. I thought that this story, and those of other women and men like Peter must have been the faith of my ancestors, the people they were, the man I hoped, by God’s grace, one day to become.

But I didn’t enjoy all the stories in this book. There were some I preferred to skip most passes through the book. One was the brief story of Maximilian, who was drafted into the ranks of the Roman army. Maximilian explained that he could not serve in the army because he was a Christian. Rome’s response was swift. Maximilian was beheaded at the age of 21 and buried in Carthage.

There was no transformation, no peace, no triumph of love. Just the cold flash of Roman steel, and then the grave. The story didn’t inspire me. I didn’t like it. Something didn’t sit quite right.

The Old Testament reading for this morning has inspired and challenged people of faith for millennia. Almighty God’s miraculous provision just as all promise seems broken and all hope lost is strength even in our darkest hour. The unwavering faith of Abraham and Isaac as they travel up the mountain and into the clouds of an unseen and foreboding future is the sort of mettle most of us could only wish for. Abraham’s quiet, confident obedience calls to our minds an ancient and mighty faith lost to our memory centuries ago.

We long for this kind of faith, and like it or not, we’re drawn into this story and find ourselves journeying up the mountain, risking everything, hoping against hope. But I usually can’t find my way all the way to the top. Like Isaac, I get the feeling that something is missing, that something is wrong. I don’t like it. Something doesn’t sit quite right.

Of course, we know what it is. We all sense it. The idea of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son – his promised son – because he’s not quite sure, a little uncertain, perhaps insecure, about Abraham – is offensive to our sophistication, our sensibilities, our basic notions of right and wrong. This is not the mark of a covenanted relationship. It hurts all the more because we see it far too often: psychological and physical abuse, emotional manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity.

And Abraham is passive. He doesn’t challenge this darkness of God Almighty, as he did when the Lord threatened to destroy the wicked city of Sodom.

“Suppose there are 50 righteous in the city,” Abraham had said at the time. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked. . . Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?!” “No, the Lord said, for the sake of fifty, I will not destroy it.” And Abraham said, “What of 45 or 40, 30 thirty or 20, or 10?” And each time, the Lord responded to Abraham’s boldness by promising to spare the city for the sake of the righteous.

But this time, on the way up the mountain, there is no bartering, no questioning, no negotiating. “Blind obedience, blind faith” we might call it. Worst of all, I can hear that deafening cliché ringing in my ears, that platitude that silences the honest and open questions that call forth strength of conviction and character, and chides, “You just need to have faith.”

That’s not the faith I want, and it’s not the God I want. I don’t want to pray to a violent, capricious, insecure God. I don’t want to abide in the presence of a deity of death. I don’t want to preach the Gospel of a manipulative God. I don’t want God to let Maximilian die at the hands of the Romans. I want the depth of his faith to inspire and transform them. I want love to win! I want Abraham to claim God’s promises and challenge God. I want him to stick up for his only son. I want God to be the Lord of Life!

The people of Israel, God’s firstborn and only, saw this story unfold in their own history. God acted with freedom and grace, awe and wonder to liberate the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s iron fist. Promises were made. Covenants were established. God had chosen God’s people. God created a community of justice and compassion, a free people worshiping a free and sovereign God.

But it didn’t sit quite right for the people of Israel. Abraham’s descendents didn’t always want to choose the God who had chosen them. Wilderness life was difficult, and journeying was trying. Oh, how they pined for the security, predictability, and settledness of Egypt, with their predictable gods under the Pharaoh’s control! Unlike Isaac and Abraham, they couldn’t journey up the mountain and into a clouded, uncertain future that only God would design. They wanted security and control. They wanted to settle. They wanted to possess God’s freedom and subdue it.

So they got their king and tethered God to him, and they settled. In many ways, they prospered. Enemies were subdued. People grew wealthy, old, affluent, and comfortable. And at last, Solomon built his temple, the crowning achievement that would guarantee Israel’s prosperity forever.

The free and holy God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was finally subdued and domesticated, confined to a room in the temple where kings and priests could keep an eye on their deity and call on him when the nation went to war. God was finally refined into the God Israel desired and could possess. They had finally removed the mountain in Moriah, together with God’s freedom and sovereignty, and people could get on with their lives because the way forward was clear.

Reason and enlightenment arrived, we might say. Progress was made, but at the expense of imagination and revelation. Religion became static. The community of freedom, justice, and compassion was traded for order and security. For many, it was like traveling back to Egypt’s bondage, and Israel’s prophets were not sparing in their critique of this idolatry of making God be the God we are comfortable with. Abuse, manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity. We are all too familiar with it.

Indeed the story of fitting God into the categories that serve human interest repeats itself in many times and in many faiths, with the same consistent results – Rome, the Empires of Europe, the Lords of Latin America, Al-Qaeda. I myself would very much like to rewrite this story of Abraham and Isaac and bring Maximilian back to life to fit my preferred categories. And just a little over a year ago, Thomas Nelson Publishing released the American Patriot’s Study Bible, a conflation of nationalism, military triumph, and the Gospel of Christ. Recent polling of Christians about their support of torture confirms the same results of possessing God – abuse, manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity.

Maximilian would not follow Rome’s domesticated God, but chose the way of fire and water and ventured up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac. It is this journey that receives special mention in the famous “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11. The preacher in Hebrews knew his congregation and sensed that something didn’t sit quite right in their walk with God, and so with this roll call, he weaves for us an image of a cord of word and flesh, brought from above at great price by God’s only begotten Son. It is the rope that leads up the mountain, into the cloud of uncertain futures, where the free and sovereign God of our salvation is waiting to lead us on.

I think the preacher in Hebrews grasped something of the true meaning of God’s freedom and sovereignty; he grasped the true mettle of Abraham and Isaac’s faith. It was not the doormat faith of easy Sunday School answers, but it was forged in covenanted relationship, and steeled in the search and struggle for conviction. Abraham could take the rope, could venture up the mountain because he knew he walked with a free, sovereign, and just God, who would provide.

This is the cord of confession that spans the generations, bonded by the hands of those who have risked all to grasp it before. The preacher dares us to become these people, to grasp the cord ourselves and venture up the mountain, to make that rope complete. “Yet all these,” he says, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made complete.” This, I think, is the faith of our ancestors, the sort of people they were, the sort of man, I hope, by God’s grace, one day to become.

Thinking About the Binding of Isaac

September 10th, 2010 No comments

Thinking about the Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-19)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 18, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is a “sermon from the head” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

Do you remember your first impressions of this passage?
What did you think of this story of the near sacrifice of Isaac?
Were you appalled? Reassured? Disturbed? Confused?
How does this story strike you today?
How does this story speak to you today?
Is this portrayal of God consistent with who you have experienced God to be?
How have you heard this passage interpreted?
Have these interpretations comforted you?
Have they unsettled you?

How do we make sense of a passage that has evoked so many questions and speculations over centuries upon centuries in both Jewish and Christian thought?

Perhaps you have heard the interpretation that this passage explains how God forbade the practice of child sacrifice that would have been prevalent at that time, and instead instituted the practice of animal sacrifice. It is curious, then, that there is then no statement that explains that henceforth Israel offered animal sacrifices instead of their children, for the Old Testament offers numerous statements like this, such as in Genesis 32 when Jacob wrestles with the person at Jabbok, and he is struck on the hip socket and his hip was put out of joint. Verse 32 states “Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle”1 One wonders why there is no such statement here after the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.

There is also the sense that nothing in the text suggests that God’s command is anything but good. The text raises no questions about God’s command or Abraham’s obedience, in fact, Abraham is commended and rewarded for obeying.

Does this interpretation, suggesting that this passage is included merely to dismiss human sacrifice, seek to defend God, to protect God? Does it dismiss us from having to deal with the questions that this packed, or perhaps even problematic, text raises? Does it let the text have its full voice or does it simply provide easy answers to a text that is anything but easy?

Or perhaps you resonate more with many contemporary Christian commentators who see the passage as a horror story, wondering which is worse, the thought that God demanded such a horrific thing to begin with? Or the fact that Abraham was willing to carry out this command to its gruesome and bloody end?

It is curious that the biblical writers, both in Genesis and in the broader biblical evaluation of this story, do not see this story in such a negative light, they did not critique this story as we do. Do you think that the Israelites would have continued to tell this story if they would have seen it as so horrific?

Is it possible that we read our own perceptions and cultural morals into the story? Were the principles that are so obvious and self-evident to us now, were they evident to our ancestors of the faith? Do we read this story through the same lens that others have?

How have those who love the Bible and take the text as seriously as we do, how have they understood this passage from Genesis 22? Voices from the past can give clarity to our own understanding, to provide us with a wealth of knowledge, to help us see the many ways that people have experienced God moving in their own lives, to let us know that others have wrestled with the same questions that we do, to help us to gain new understandings and insights from the Scriptures that we all hold dear and seek to embody in our lives.

Most likely from the first time that this story was told and onward, people have been seeking to make sense of it, to understand how this text speaks to us in our lives, to answer the questions that the text leaves unanswered. For example, when you envision Isaac here in this passage, how old is he? Is he a baby? a child? a teenager? an adult? The text suggests he was old enough to speak in complete sentences and old enough to carry the wood, but other than that, there is no answer given. Some believe that he was a child, no older than 15. Others, that he was an adult, as we are told in the very next story in Genesis that Sarah died at the age of 127. If she died right after the binding of Isaac, and was 90 at the time of his birth, that would make Isaac 37 at the time of this event.

Which leads us to wonder, did Isaac know what would happen when they reached the top of the mountain? Did he kick and scream and fight for his life when Abraham placed him on the alter and raised the knife? Many have certainly said as much in their retelling of this story. Or did Isaac know what was taking place? Did he offer up his own life willingly as a sacrifice to God? Some have believed this to be the case, that this was just as much a test of Isaac as it was of Abraham, and that both father and son were proven to be completely undivided in their obedience to God.

Some have even wondered whether Isaac was actually killed on the mountain and then later resurrected, as the story speaks of both Abraham and Isaac climbing the mountain, but verse 19 only mentions that Abraham returned to his servants. Was this story perhaps included to proclaim the power of God who is able to resurrect new life despite even the powers of death and destruction? Indeed, Many in the early church certainly saw a connection between the figure of Isaac and the person of Jesus Christ.

These are but a few of many things that we can only wonder and speculate about in regards to this story, for there are many things that the text leaves unanswered. There are no easy answers for a text that is far from easy. We don’t know why Abraham did not protest God’s command as he did before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We don’t know what either Abraham or Isaac was thinking at the time of this incident. “We don’t know why God claim[ed] the son in the first place nor finally why [God removed] the demand at the end.”2 Many have speculated, but it may be that we are not able to come to any definite conclusion, much to our chagrin and discomfort. The passage raises questions that it simply will not explain. It holds in tension two dimensions of God’s character: that the same God who tests us is the very same God who provides for us. Without any explanation provided, “the text leads us to face the reality that God is God.”3 God is beyond our comprehension. God will not fit neatly into our neat and tidy categories, our safe and comfortable expectations. God is fully and completely sovereign. How will we let God be God, trusting, like Abraham, that God is working God’s purposes out regardless of our ability to always and fully comprehend?

Notes:

1 NRSV
2 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary Series) page 187.
3 Ibid., 189.