“Here I Am”

Here I Am

Rev. Meghan Malone


You might have noticed that I moved the scripture reading from its normal place today, and that’s because I want to treat this story with a lot of care. It’s a difficult one to stomach. We probably cannot fathom what it would be like to be given Abraham’s instructions, and if you’re like me, you probably have a hard time reconciling a story like this to your own faith in a loving and kind, God. But if we don’t talk about challenging stories, we leave the interpreting up to those who would do harm with their words, and I am not willing to do that.

So, let’s talk about it. So far, God has called Abraham away from his homeland, formed a covenant with him while he was sleeping, and made a promise to him, to give him descendants which obviously hinges on Isaacs continued existence. It makes no sense that God asks for him to be sacrificed, and often, sermons on this story emphasize the blind faith that Abraham has. Abraham trusts and obeys without questioning what God is going to do, even though it is a horrific command, and God intervenes, almost like it’s a reward. So, sermons on this text often end up sounding like: “Would you give up the most important person in your life and even commit murder against them? If not, maybe you don’t have as much faith as Abraham.” Spoiler alert, I don’t agree with that. And this is a good time to remind you of what I think is a fundamental truth about the Hebrew Bible.

People are not the heroes of the Hebrew Bible. God is. Abraham is not the hero in his story. He’s a patriarch, yes, but Abraham is the one in need of saving. He is capable of messing things up and does so regularly throughout Genesis, but God is always the one who saves. God is who the story is really about.  So, some Jewish Rabbis have pointed out in the Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary) that this story could be the result of faulty comprehension by Abraham.[1] God promised him descendants through Isaac and God would never break God’s promises. So these Rabbis suggest that all God wanted was for Abraham to bring Isaac up the mountain, period. Abraham mistakenly assumed he was meant to sacrifice him, and misunderstood God’s instructions.

Others point out that Abraham says “we will come back” to his own servants, and there would be no reason for him to hide what he was doing from them. He was in charge, so some say that perhaps somehow, Abraham knew that God would do something to protect Isaac. Either way, Abraham lived in a time and a place where human sacrifices did happen. He doesn’t hesitate to follow orders, nor does he need a tutorial. He already knows how this is done, maybe he has seen people being sacrificed before to protect the nations, the crops, or whatever else. Similarly, it’s also worth pointing out that Isaac does not struggle to save his own life, that potentially, he accepts his fate and lets himself be bound willingly, because he too believes that whatever God demands simply must be done.

Unless we meet them on the other side, I don’t think we’ll ever know what they were really thinking, or what God actually said to put them in this position. But I can’t believe that God would ask a father to abuse his son. The God of the rest of the Bible cares far too much about the well-being of children and all people for that to be the case, as Jesus demonstrates in the Matthew passage. As Christians, we need to grapple with this, because some of us are here in this room right now because we fled abusive churches, abusive families, or abusive faiths which left us wondering if we too were meant to shut up and deal with abuse from religion, from others, and even from God. Rachel Held Evans calls this story evidence that the Bible is meant to be a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender.[2] Because as she wrote, I’d like to think that even if those demands thundered from the heavens in a voice that sounded like God’s, I’d have sooner been struck dead than obeyed them.”

Because abuse is not love, and a loving God who commands us to abuse each other is no God worth worshipping. We could lean into blind faith and say that God is simply a mystery beyond our comprehension, which is valid, but I don’t think it’s a very satisfying answer here, and it doesn’t help us to find meaning in the text. The ask is inhumane, the test is unfair, the ending feels unfinished. The more you think about it the more this story is messed up. Like, how is Isaac’s trauma from being bound by his own father, worth God testing to see if Abraham has enough faith? But if it’s a conversation starter, not a conversation ender, maybe that’s the point. It’s not worth it. It’s a messed-up story, about messed-up people, worshipping a divine being that they only barely understand. They mistake abuse for love and so God steps in to provide an alternative way.

When God and Isaac call out to Abraham he responds, “Here I am!” As if he is eager to continue the conversation, to be attentive to them both, and maybe he’s hoping to figure out some way to avoid this catastrophe about to happen. And then, he does! The final plot twist doesn’t surprise us the way it would have surprised them in the ancient world. Abraham seems to have resigned himself to do what was expected of him, like so many other fathers, and he would have been shocked to learn that the sacrifice he was prepared to make, was not necessary. This was a different kind of God. While other gods required sacrifices to protect the nations and make the earth fertile, this God provided the sacrifice.

In his book What Is the Bible? Rob Bell says that, “The point of the Abraham-and-Isaac story isn’t that you should sacrifice your kid but that you can leave behind any notion of a god who demands that you sacrifice your kid.”

Perhaps, in this story, God is showing Abraham that the God he is now following is more gracious and more compassionate than he had ever thought was possible. Abraham had been taught, that he should be willing to put his child on the altar if he is asked to do so by cold and indifferent deities, but his son Isaac will be the first to know a God who will not harm him, a God who provides. This is the story of a cycle being broken, and the birth of something new. Maybe, this story is really for those of us who have felt like Isaac, asked to sacrifice our very personhood to try to appease God.

Peter Jones, a trans man and queer Christian from the UK reflected on the story this way: “I don’t know how Isaac felt, we aren’t given that information in the passage. What I do know is that instead of having to sacrifice himself, a ram was given. God was showing them and us that there was no need to destroy ourselves to worship and honor Him… I thought I was being sacrificial and honoring Jesus. I now realize that… I was trying to destroy myself in order to honor God.”[3] To me, this story is saying, maybe we should stop doing this. Maybe we should stop sacrificing people on our altars when God never asked us to do that. Because we do live in a world, country, and community where human sacrifices still happen, they just look a little different now.

People die, because of hate crimes, because of poverty, because of drug overdoses, and because of laws that oppose their wellbeing. And it’s not because we can’t prevent those deaths, but because some humans have decided that those people deserve it, that the loss of their lives is worth it for the rest of us to remain unbothered, indifferent, and morally superior. Some of us have been taught that to stand on God’s side is to allow the sacrifices of the homeless, the addicts, the refugees, and the gender-queer kids to continue, to let people’s lives be ruined without feeling it, for the sake of following what they believe are God’s orders. Like Abraham, they are resigned to allow horrible things to happen if God wills it, even if it happens to their own children and family members. But the God I know does not want human sacrifices. Our God saves lives, our God provides, and our God calls us to do the same for each other, and it is STILL shocking us.

Christianity as I experienced it as a young person was all about what I would give up for God, and I tried. I gave up everything I was told God did not like and I spent all my time trying to please my way into God’s good graces by being less myself. But I had it all wrong. God didn’t ask me for those sacrifices, people did. I’m not saying God doesn’t ask us for anything, including to let some things go, but God is not abusive. It does not benefit God for us to suffer or die, only people benefit from that. God does not need human sacrifices; God makes sacrifices for us all. What God rewards us for is welcoming each other. Giving even a cup of cold water to the little ones, as Jesus says.

That’s why I taught yoga at VBS and couldn’t resist putting the pictures on the cover of this bulletin. Because “here I am,” the result of everything the church has taught me, and everything that pastors have asked of me, and I am finally learning to get myself off that altar and ready to continue the conversation in order to prevent any other human being from taking my place. Here I am, and I hope that by teaching these little ones in our faith to be more in touch with themselves, more confident in their personhood, and more loving towards their own human bodies, that hopefully when someone someday asks them to sacrifice themselves, they will love themselves enough to say no. Maybe they will even know that God is not abusive, and they will help others to know that too. For the future of our faith, I hope that the Isaacs of today will know that God doesn’t want them on that altar, and that the rest of us will see that there are alternatives to sacrifice all around us, if we will only put down our knives and look.

I was raised to believe that God was asking me for sacrifice and suffering, and that the reward for such sacrifice was eternal bliss in the afterlife. But maybe, what God wants from us is to break cycles of abuse, and to simply have faith that somehow God has already provided everything we need. When we do so, our reward will be the world, the country, and the community we create when we stop putting each other on the altar. Amen.

[1] https://www.thetorah.com/article/akedah-how-jews-and-christians-explained-abrahams-faith

[2] https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/fail-abraham-test


[3] https://opentable.lgbt/our-blog/2022/3/17/skipping-justice-makes-forgiveness-cheap

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