In his excellent book, “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian,” John Dominic Crossan proposes that the Bible tells us about two distinct Gods:
One…God is a God of non-violent distributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion….] The other [,] God is a God of violent retributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion] (18).
Original sin, as Crossan sees it, is not sexual impropriety, but rather escalatory violence. And we see this escalation of violence in the larger text in which Abraham’s relationship to his sons is found. When Isaac was born, Abraham had already had a child by his wife, Sarah’s, handmaid Hagar. That’s child’s name was Ishmael.
Fearing competition between Ishmael and Isaac for the family inheritance, we read last week that Sarah commanded Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their encampment, out of their family, and left them in the wilderness to fend for themselves – the result of which was certain death if not for the intervention of God. Sarah demanded retributive justice in an effort to protect her son’s inheritance.
From there, the violence escalated. In today’s text, we read that Abraham took his son Isaac to the land of Moriah where Abraham intended to offer the boy as a burnt offering. This is the original sin, played out once more, of escalating violence. We fear scarcity, we cast out that which we find threatening, we seek to destroy that which reminds us of our fears and our failures.
The scriptures record Abraham’s experience – that God spoke to him (without witnesses). Abraham alone heard God’s call and command for sacrifice. How often do we hear God’s call in our life? How often do we explore our experience in the context of God’s non-violent distributive justice and our call to act likewise?
We are given little information in the text as to what is going on for Abraham next. He is deliberate and methodical in his approach. He saddles his donkey, he cuts the fire wood, he invites with him two helpers and his son Isaac, and he travels for three days. These three days are recorded without embellishment or even explanation. There is no record of conversation or even of Abraham’s thoughts.
Neither are we given the thoughts of his two companions who must recognize wonder what this journey is about. Neither are we given the thoughts of Isaac who must wonder what is going on. How far will they travel? How many days and nights? What is the purpose of their journey? Does Isaac know that they will be performing a sacrifice? If so, has he yet considered the lack of sacrificial animal? Nothing is given to us as readers. It is three days of silence – a journey the purpose of which is hidden, kept secret, as though that part of the story was written behind closed doors.
So, they go. For three days. This is no accident – that it took three days for Abraham to arrive at the place where he was planning to perform the sacrifice. Three days is typical motif in the bible and is often a waiting period for the time of appropriate preparation, particularly in Old Testament.
From the beginning, the third day has produced fruit – literally and figuratively. For on the third day of creation, “The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.” Here, on the third day, Abraham’s escalating violence is about to be met with the non-violent distributive justice of a loving God. Here on the third day we see juxtaposed what Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” against the “radicality of God.”
Civilization has always been about creating structures and strata between people. One of the hallmarks of civilizations is the social domination by cultural elites. Within Søren Kierkegaard’s seminal work “Fear and Trembling” we find this truth played out in the dissection of our Old Testament story:
The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times… As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal (54). The story of Abraham contains, then, a … suspension of the ethical. As the single individual he became higher than the universal (66).
Abraham found himself within a culture that privileged some more than others: stratified, the elite dominated and oppressed the lower classes – even within the family as Sarah dominated and oppressed her handmaid Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael. The logical extension of a “call” within this stratified context is to normalize this domination and oppression, making violence a matter of divine mandate, believing it just.
This leaves Abraham prey to Original Sin – escalatory violence.
We humans escalate our violence from ideological through rhetorical to physical violence. Ideological violence judges certain others to be inhuman, subhuman, and lacking in one’s own humanity. Rhetorical violence speaks on that presumption by debasing those others with rude names, crude caricatures, and derogatory stereotypes or by excluding them as political “traitors’ or religious “heretics.” Physical violence, and even lethal violence, acts on those presuppositions either by illegal attack or, if one has attained social power, by official, legal, political action (173).
This is where the radicality of God steps in. This is where the God of non-violent distributive justice enters the story. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…. And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:12-13).
The biblical God is a god of distributive justice, not a God who calls for the blood sacrifice of children. The biblical God expects and commands us to act in similar fashion.
…justice is about the fair distribution of the subject involved. In the Bible, it is primarily about a fair distribution of God’s world for all of God’s people…. The heart of God’s justice is to make sure that the ‘weak and the orphan’ have received their share of God’s resources for them to live and thrive (17-18).
Ultimately, the story of Abraham and Isaac turned out okay. For Abraham, it went like gangbusters. He continued and continues to play a starring role in the Christian faith. He is mentioned seventy-six times in the New Testament alone – more than half referencing his great faith. And in Sunday school, generations of kids learn about “Father Abraham” who “had many sons and” the “many sons” who “had Father Abraham.” God’s non-violent distributive justice will always win out at the end of the day.
Yet, when we decide that some are more worthy than others…. When we hold to ideologies and beliefs that declare some are lacking in our own humanity – that some could not possibly be made in the image of God, like we are…. When we begin to speak from those presumptions and debase with our language those who did not fit our narrative of what it means to be worthy or deserving of the same access to resources that we have…. It is only a matter of time before we enact physical violence.
We fall prey to the same sin that led Abraham to abandon one child to death and to attempt to “sacrifice as a burnt offering” the other. The God of non-violent distributive justice never demands the blood sacrifice of children. The Original Sin is the sin of escalatory violence. Decisions made behind closed doors, decisions which privilege the one over the universal, decisions which demand the blood sacrifice of children – especially by those who proclaim that we are called as a nation by God to live the Christian message – are not of the God of the bible.
Lest we spend or entire sermon today in the New Testament, let us consider for a moment Paul’s reminder to us: “For the wages of sin is death.” Escalatory violence always leads to death.
Today then, may we:
Watch our thoughts, for they become words;
Watch our words, for they become actions;
Watch our actions, for they become habits;
Watch our habits, for they become character;
Watch our character; for it becomes our destiny.