Sunday, March 04, 2012

God of Love and Human Sacrifice, Abraham and Isaac

At Mass this Sunday, we heard one of the more troubling passages of scripture, that concerning God asking Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Many people are troubled by this, asking how could God ask this if He is supposedly so loving and good?

There are some basic principles one needs to keep in mind if one wants to properly understand a given passage from scripture. You cannot read the passage in isolation, but must read it in the context of the entirety of the Bible, especially in light of Jesus Christ (indeed, this is one of the lessons of the Transfiguration, which was the Gospel reading, where Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, appear with Jesus, the Word), as well as in the context of the historical context of the time and place in which the passage was written, including extra-biblical history.

The book of Genesis informs us that, in opposing God, who is Life, man necessarily brings death upon himself. The result of Original Sin is that a wide gulf of separation between God and humanity was created, a separation between man and love, truth, and life. And not only are proper relationships between mankind and God severed, but, as we see with Adam turning against Eve, and Cain killing Abel, proper relationships between human beings themselves are estranged, so that, instead of living a life of love and truth toward others, mankind has lived a life of selfish self-gratification and exploitation of others; instead of harmony, there is discord.

Now God, who is Divine Mercy, knew this rupture would happen. God knew that His covenant of love with Adam would be broken, and He already had a plan for reconciliation. This process of God calling humanity back to Himself is called “salvation history,” and this plan of redemption was to establish a relationship with a specific people and develop them so that they could learn to know God and live according to His will of love and truth.

Salvation History was necessarily a gradual process, given that humanity had lost almost all understanding of God after the Fall, such that mankind believed all sorts of false ideas about God and had adopted all sorts of evil ways. Thus, we see the text of the Old Testament moving from the more vague and ambiguous (as viewed from a modern perspective) to the more specific as it draws closer to the time of Jesus.

Also, and most importantly in interpreting and understanding those "hard" passages in scripture, we must understand that, in leading mankind back to the truth of Himself, God necessarily dealt with mankind as it was at that particular time, that is, in the fallen, ignorant, and evil state of that era, using terms and images and concepts that such a harsh and blood-thirsty humanity would understand.

As part of this process, God established the great covenant with Abraham to set apart a people to be His own. (Gen. 12, 17) To show that He was not merely the god of a particular place, as was believed to be the case by the polytheists of the time, but that He is the One God who is Lord everywhere, God told Abraham (then called Abram) to leave his home in Ur (present day southern Iraq) and go to a far land, Canaan (present day Israel), which would be given to him and his descendents. To demonstrate this covenant with Abraham and his descendents, the sign of the covenant, circumcision, was made on the instrument of procreation. Through these chosen people, God would bring salvation to all mankind.

At this time in human history, not only was polytheism widely practiced, but human sacrifice was a part of some of those religions.

In order for Abraham (and we) to fully understand the gravity of the situation, and so that he could demonstrate and prove (to himself) that he had total faith in the Lord, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, God followed the expectations of the times and told Abraham to offer him in sacrifice, which Abraham dutifully prepared to do. (Gen. 22)

God did not test Abraham in order for God to know the extent of his fidelity, the omniscient God already knew. Rather, God tested Abraham so that Abraham would know that he was so faithful that he was willing to sacrifice his own son, whom he loved. God does ask us to put our love for Him before our love for others. However, God does not, in fact, desire human sacrifice; He desires mercy and a loving heart (Hos. 6:6). And in loving God before loving others, even our own family, we actually end up providing even more love, and even more perfect love, to others.

In order to graphically demonstrate that He does not desire human sacrifice (and wanted the widespread practice to end), God had Abraham proceed to the brink of sacrificing Isaac only so that He could then stop him. Neither Abraham nor any other member of mankind would be asked for such a sacrifice. Instead, as Abraham told Isaac, God Himself would provide for the sacrifice, as He also did in providing Himself as the Lamb of God -- the same Lamb of God whose Immaculate Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe, would appear to the lowly Juan Diego many years later to end the culture of human sacrifice by the Aztecs.

So, what we should take away from the story of the testing of Abraham, of God asking him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice is NOT that God is cruel, but quite the opposite -- God is Love -- He does not desire human sacrifice; He desires mercy and a loving heart (Hos. 6:6). As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) writes --
A misunderstood theology has left many people with a completely false image, the image of a cruel God who demands the blood of His own Son. They have read out of the Cross the image of Job's friends and have turned their backs on this God in horror. But the opposite is true! The biblical God demands no human sacrifices. When He appears in the course of the history of religion, human sacrifice ceases. Before Abraham can slaughter Isaac, God speaks and stops him; the ram takes the place of the child. The cult of Yahweh begins when the sacrifice of the firstborn, which was demanded by the ancestral religion of Abraham, is replaced by his obedience and his faith -- the external substitute, the ram, is only the expression of this deeper reality, which is not a replacement, but rather looks ahead to the future fulfillment. For the God of Israel, human sacrifice is an abomination; Moloch, the god of human sacrifices, is the embodiment of the false god who is opposed by faith in Yahweh. For the God of Israel, it is, not the death of a man, but his life that is the act of worship. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed this in the wonderful formula: "Gloria Dei homo vivens" (The living man in the glorification of God.) And this is the kind of "human sacrifice," of worship, that God demands. (The God of Jesus Christ, pp. 54-55 (1976)
God does not delight in holocausts. He neither needs nor wants animal sacrifices, He neither needs nor wants grain (cereal) sacrifices, even though He had provided certain regulations for both types of sacrifice. What use has God for burnt animal flesh or grain?

So why the long history of animal and grain sacrifice, as recounted in the Old Testament?

It would appear that it was merely preparatory for the real sacrifice that is desired by God -- He who is Love. What the God of Love desires is love -- we were made by love, out of love, for love. And love, true and complete love, is necessarily sacrificial -- one sacrifices himself for the sake of the other, one gives of himself and puts the other before himself and his wants; he does not use the lives of others or otherwise sacrifice them for his own gain.

This sacrifice of self in love is the sacrifice that God desires. The sacrifice He desires is not that of an animal's life, not that of our children, but of our own; the blood sacrifice He desires is not the blood of an animal, but our "blood," that is, our own life, that is, our spirit -- a sacrifice of love. Just as He sacrificed His own Precious Blood and poured out His Spirit upon us, so too does He ask this of us. God desires it, but does not command it, because love, by it's very nature, is something that must be freely given.

The sacrifice that is desired by God and is acceptable to Him is the sacrifice of self, the sacrifice of a pure and contrite heart, renouncing prior infidelities and giving one's life back to Him who made it, placing one's self at the service of God. That is, loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind and all thy strength, and loving one another as He has loved us.


John Carswell said...

Hi, and thanks for commenting on this reading. I've pondered it and seen its beauty a number of times in the past, but for some reason today I was struggling with it.

First off, I really appreciate your comments as a whole. However, there was one thing I didn't quite get.

You said:

"Rather, God tested Abraham so that Abraham would know that he was so faithful that he was willing to sacrifice his own son, whom he loved."

I'm not sure I follow this. I had to re-read it a few times, and I'm still not sure if the 2 "he" occurrences = "Abraham" or "God." I certainly agree that this passage "foreshadows" God's own handing over of His Son in sacrifice for the life of the world, but I'm not sure why Abraham needed to know his own faithfulness.

I do wonder what Abraham's thought process was. I've heard someone else say that there is a deep sense of humor (or irony) in the original language, as if because God was good (and not a God who desires human sacrifice) Abraham trusted Him to somehow provide an alternative or a way out, even possibly resurrection. Thus, verse 8 (not in today's reading): "God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering."

Still, this is one of those amazing, curious, haunting passages of Genesis. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm teaching catechesis to 6th graders starting this year, and it's good to know there are "in-depth" resources like this out in the blogosphere.

Bender said...

I'm still not sure if the 2 "he" occurrences = "Abraham" or "God."

Little "h" = Abraham
Capital "H" = God

It is a bit clunky this way, but --
God tested Abraham so that Abraham would know that Abraham was so faithful that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Abraham's own son, whom Abraham loved.

Conversely, we do see later on that God is so faithful to those He loves (humanity) that He was willing to sacrifice His (God's) own Son, whom God loves.

Much of this thought is from Cardinal Ratzinger in The God of Jesus Christ. See also God is Near Us, p. 32. (And I'll add a quote from the book to the main text.)

What was Abraham thinking at the time? I would think complete and total dread and heartbreak, but obedient and trusting.

Bender said...

Continuing on Abraham's thoughts --

If the above interpretation is correct (and it follows Pope Benedict's exegesis), then I would think that God, in playing to Abraham's expectations, wanted him to experience and feel the horror right down to the depths of his soul -- He wanted to scare the hell out of him, so to speak.

It is one thing to merely talk about ending evil and abominations and sin. Talk is cheap. Talk is words in one ear and out the other. Merely talk about ending human sacrifice with Abraham and you might get, "sure thing Lord," without much thought or appreciation for it.

But you ram it home, you let Abraham get so close that he can feel the loss of Isaac already in his bones, and he will never forget it. And his gratitude will be real and not merely a polite curtesy.

And more to the point -- we will remember it.