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|Genesis 22:1-14||Psalm 13||Romans 6:12-23||Matthew 10:40-42|
By Paul S. Nancarrow
The story of the Binding of Isaac is one of the most horrifying episodes in the Abraham saga, and has been identified by commentator Phyllis Trible as a “text of terror” in the First Testament. It is so horrifying to us that we tend to recoil from it with a kind of blank incomprehension: How, we ask ourselves, could a loving God be so bloodthirsty as to ask for the sacrifice of an only son? How, we ask ourselves, could Abraham be so emotionally disconnected and so morally bankrupt as to consider even for a second giving in to the demand of such a bloodthirsty God? The story today rouses us to question deeply any kind of devotion to religious authority that would make it seem easy to sacrifice any other person in any way to some “higher cause.”
And I think that in some ways that is not just a post-modern interpretation, but was part of the original purpose of the story in its original context. The story as it is told in Genesis is in the form of an etiological myth: it closes by noting how a certain mountain got its name, and how a certain proverb entered into the common vocabulary of the tradition. In addition to these explicit etiologies, I think the story is also meant to explain why the descendants of Abraham did not practice child sacrifice. It was a commonplace of West Semitic religion that all life comes from God, and all life belongs to God, and that the first of any new life must be offered back to God to honor life’s origin. Thus we see the traditions of offering the first fruits of the harvest in sacrifice to God (eg, Exodus 34:26), and of offering the first of the lambs and the kids — “all that first opens the womb” — in sacrifice (Exodus 13:12). There are indications in the Hebrew Scriptures that this sacrifice of the first life extended also to human children among some of Israel’s neighbors — although to be sure it has been argued that these references are really little more than anti-foreigner propaganda — as in 2 Kings 23:10 and its reference to sacrificing sons and daughters to Molech. But the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice their children (see, eg, Exodus 13:13b), but instead were required to “redeem” their firstborn males by sacrificing something else in their place, as for instance Mary and Joseph do for the infant Jesus in Luke 2:23-24. It is suggestive to read this story of Abraham and Isaac as the etiological myth explaining the origin of the tradition to make a sacrifice on behalf of — but not of — the firstborn son. Abraham in the story is trapped in an unendurable dilemma: he must honor God who gave life to the child of promise, the one neither he nor Sarah could have hoped for on their own, and that means sacrifice; yet if he gives the child of promise to God in sacrifice, then he dishonors and destroys the very promise he intends to honor. Two differing ideals of religious duty are at war in Abraham, and he can see no way to resolve the dilemma; and perhaps that accounts for the affective “deadness,” the strangely muted tone, of the entire narrative. It is only when God presents a third alternative — the ram stuck in the thicket — that Abraham perceives a way to honor God and save Isaac; and that third alternative is the one that became part of the religious tradition of Abraham’s descendants.
So, as horrifying as we find the aspect of child sacrifice in this story, the story itself seems originally geared to argue against child sacrifice, and to present God’s call to people to find ways of honoring God by preserving life. Where the story can speak most powerfully to us today is in the promise that God will act in and with us to present new alternatives, new constellations of possibilities that can hold together religious and spiritual ideals without requiring the destruction of the other.
This psalm has no direct connection with the narrative in Genesis 22, but it is suggestive to read it here as evoking the inner state of Abraham’s emotions during his trip with Isaac to Moriah. The “pain in my soul” and “sorrow in my heart all day long” lamented by the psalmist could surely describe Abraham’s sense of being trapped in a dilemma, and the anguish that God Godself is the source of that dilemma would certainly feel like being forgotten by God, like having God’s face turned away. But over against that sorrow is the sense of steadfast love, and the final outburst of praise that God “has dealt bountifully with me,” in the provision of the new alternative that reconciled the dilemma. Set in tandem with the Genesis passage, the psalm throws into high relief the theme of trust in God that brings us through contradictions and dilemmas to new possibilities.
Paul’s argument in this section of Romans might best be read as an extended contrast between sinfulness and righteousness as “fields of force,” causal influences that shape new moments of experience that arise in their environments. That is, sinfulness and righteousness are not just qualities that may be predicated of discrete, individual acts, but are characteristics of groups of occasions — societies of occasions in Whitehead’s phrase — in which later occasions inherit characteristics from earlier ones, and so create a “harboring environment” for the continued reproduction of those characteristics. Sinful acts in sequence tend to create a psychospiritual environment that conditions future acts toward sin; righteous acts tend to create a psychospiritual environment that conditions future acts toward righteousness. This is just how experience works, part of the organism of reality, as it were: no discrete, individual act happens in a vacuum, as a simple exercise of moral choice upon a tabula rasa; but all new occasions of experience arise within an environment whose defining characteristic limits the range of options open to that occasion’s decision. Sinfulness and righteousness are therefore, in Paul’s usage in this passage, psychospiritual environments that are in some sense beyond the reach of individual acts of choice. Sinfulness and righteousness are not options within a moment, but are prevailing conditions that highlight some options and obscure others for any given moment. Therefore sin can “exercise dominion,” it can “make you obey,” it can “enslave,” in that the environment of sinfulness predisposes subsequent acts toward sin prior to any conscious act of choice. But, having established that, Paul’s point here is that the psychospiritual environment of sinfulness is also conditioned by conscious intention and choice. Acting within the environment, any human moment always has some degree of choice whether to “present” itself to sin, to “let” sin exercise dominion; that is, each moment has some degree of choice whether to accept the prevailing environment or to look for an alternative possibility from God. Even when one is deeply enmeshed in the environment of sinfulness, Paul says, God gives one’s new moments an aim, however small, to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Presenting the self to God, especially as that self-presentation is reinforced through repeated member-experiences of being “obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted,” introduces a new characteristic into the environment of the personal society of occasions, the characteristic of righteousness, and as that characteristic comes to define the overall society, new moments are correspondingly predisposed toward godly aims. Or, as Paul puts it in admonition to the Romans, “now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” The creative transformation from sinfulness to righteousness is never an all-at-once single occurrence, no matter how many dramatic conversion stories, including Paul’s own, make it seem that way. Instead, the creative transformation from sinfulness to righteousness is a long process of growth by which the self learns through repeated moments of experience how to constitute itself around the acceptance and embodiment of divine aims. This view of the contrasting “fields of force” of sinfulness and righteousness and their influence on any given moment of human experience should be an important component of any moral theology, and should curb our arrogance in judging any other person’s moral choice.
These three short verses from Matthew set before us what we might call “the mystery of representation.” “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus says; and we can understand that in process terms to mean that disciples of Jesus represent Jesus, literally make Jesus present again, just as Jesus represents God, so that those who welcome disciples are themselves welcomed into christic relationship with God. Jesus in his life and ministry embodied ideals derived from God, ideals that emulated and represented God’s own creative love in the specific conditions of human life. Those who knew and followed Jesus prehended in him those humanized divine ideals, and as they allowed those feelings to shape their own experience and behavior, they also embodied divine love. Therefore those who welcome and receive a disciple, who prehend in her or him the activity of divine love and allow it to activate their own experience and behavior, likewise receive ideals from God and relationship with God. God is made present in Jesus, so those who represent Jesus in the world also thereby make available in the world Jesus’ particular form of present relationship with God. This central thought is repeated with variations in the verses about receiving a prophet and receiving a righteous person: insofar as a disciple embodies the prophetic quality of speaking-from-God or the righteous quality of acting-from-God, those who welcome the disciple receive those qualities into their own self-constitution, and so receive their reward. This reward is not to be thought of as simply a promise for the future, “brownie points for heaven,” but instead as an active instantiation of divine aims that lead to a greater richness of experience and greater depth and breadth of love in one’s present life. The “mystery of representation” is thus an invitation to make Jesus present in our own self-constitutions as we embody divine ideals for justice, peace, and love in the concrete circumstances of our particular social settings and lives.