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June 28, 2008
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.
Genesis 22:11

Somebody walks in off the street, maybe, or come back to church after an absence that began when she was eighteen and is only now coming to an end, and she's forty-seven. She sings her first hymn in all those years, and is quietly pleased that it is one she still remembers. She is glad she came; she has needed something more in her life.

Then someone gets up and reads the story of how Abraham feared God so much that he was willing to kill his own son if God told him to, and she is not so sure. This is barbaric, she thinks, feeling her face grow hot and her heart begin to pound. This sort of thing is why I left, for crying out loud. What kind of God even allows a father to think he wants his child killed? So what if it's only a test of Abraham's faith -- the test itself is barbaric. And what about the terror of a little boy who lives for the rest of his life with the memory of the time his father almost slit his throat?

So don't stand up there and preach about something else. Her anger is righteous. You won't distract her. If you leave it be, she may disappear for another twenty-nine years.

Here is what I think: I think we are witnessing, in this ancient story, a moment of transition in Israel's understanding of who God is. We know that human sacrifice was an occasional feature of Hebrew life -- we hear prophets and holy men inveighing against the practice, which they wouldn't have had to do if people were not drawn to it. We know about the god Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children by burning, the very act in which Abraham is engaged when a voice from heaven stops him. Many of the people around Abraham must have sacrificed in this way; he knows just how to do it.

And then God stops him. The words of the story tell us that he is stopped because God is now satisfied with his devotion, but the fact of the story, the fact of its inclusion in our holy scripture, suggests another reason: our God is not Moloch. We don't have to relate to God as if that were the case. If ever you think God is telling you to act violently in defense of his honor, think again -- both about what God is and about what honor is. We're past that now.

Pentecost 7, Proper 8, Year A
Genesis 22:1-14 or Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 13 or 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Mathew 10:40-42
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