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Faithfulness to the Word of God

The story of Abraham making ready to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of the central points in the drama of his life with God, yet it must be one of the strangest and most difficult things for us to understand. The whole idea of killing to sacrifice living things to God is abhorrent to modern ways of thinking, let alone human sacrifice; and the sacrifice of one's own children must be the most abhorrent of all. Is that really what God asked of him? Is God like that? How could he have thought so? Can he really be called a man of faith for such a belief? 

In the story itself, it does appear that God did indeed ask it of him as a test of his faithfulness. That is how it was seen even in New Testament times: as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews said:- 

The story itself has it that God gave this account:

Is this the nature of God in whom you believe? You might easily say that the Christian understanding of the nature of God is different, but then there is a problem about whether what you are prepared to accept is really Christian or no more than currently popular opinion. Are modern ideas always best? How do we know? 

Can you accept what the Bible says? We know that Jesus told his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into truth they did not yet know, and it is easy in the modern mind with our common belief in progress, to say that such a story comes from a very primitive time. If we believe that it is primitive, that a better understanding of God has developed and that we know better, we will try to interpret such a story in a way that makes sense in terms of our present day attitudes; or we might reject it altogether and say that we have left those things behind and don't need to be worried about them. In fact I have found it interesting that a number of people have commented to me that they are surprised that I make as much reference to the Old Testament as I do, although, of course I most often preach on the gospel reading. It is not just that the Old Testament provides useful background for the gospel, while Jesus and the New Testament writers like Paul often quoted the old law and the prophets, but people wonder, nevertheless, whether such ancient writings should be a guide to our living today. Officially we say in the church that the Old Testament as well as the New is holy scripture and it has authority for what we believe and teach. It does raise very important questions about how stories like Abraham's preparation to sacrifice his son and the understanding of God that is found in such stories can possibly be relevant to us today; and if we do not reject them entirely, we wonder how we are to interpret them.  

Biblical authority  

I would like to take the opportunity posed by the challenge of understanding a passage that does not fit with our present day understanding to say something that I hope will be useful about how we should interpret the Bible. First, we do accept the Bible as a real authority. This means that we cannot simply pick and choose, taking from it whatever pleases us at the time, as we might perhaps from a book of poetry or a collection of wise sayings. 

Of course, the Bible has within it books of poetry and books of wise sayings, along with history, law and many kinds of literature. But it is more than a great collection of ancient literature from which to mine treasures still pleasing to the modern mind. As an authority it is much more than a collection from which we can take what we want; rather it is something to test and challenge what we want. It is so much a part of our tradition and our faith that we believe we should test all teaching about God by reference to it. As I quoted from the Basis of Union in the written sermon a few weeks ago:  

It should be fairly obvious that if people in any age use the common ways of thinking at that time to guide them in what they will accept from the Bible then the Bible can have very little authority. It is hardly an authority at all if you will accept only what fits with what you already believe. If you make the Bible subject to some other authority, then you can hardly say that we test what we teach and believe by reference to it. Even if some members of our Church appear to have other interests, this principle remains part of our basic commitment. 

The Bible cannot be the criterion of truth about God if we will only accept from it what passes some other test. That is the first principle of Christian doctrine and belief: as the Basis of Union puts it for the Uniting Church -- in the books of the Old and New Testaments the church hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. Note that both the Old and New Testaments are mentioned. Then we say When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. This leads to a second point of fundamental importance. We believe that 

That second principle is very important; indeed it supersedes the first. Christ himself is the Word of God -- the Word that became flesh [John 1:1-14]. Ultimately we should test everything by reference to him. The scriptures are important us who believe in him especially because they are the primary witness to him. There are other ways in which we know Christ: for example, in the sacraments, in prayer, in the tradition of the church and the living witness of other believers; but whatever we may learn by other means should be subject to testing by reference to scripture. The scriptures tell us most reliably about Christ, and at the same time what we know of him helps us to understand all that we can learn of God in any other way. 

If we find different ideas about God in different places, and even in different parts of the Bible, we can test those ideas by comparing them with what we know of God from Jesus Christ. And it is important to recognize that there are different ideas about God in the Bible. Sometimes they do appear to be contradictory and we can only make sense of them by looking at them in the light of the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. 

However, it is important to say, in a community that thinks of itself as progressive, that we do not mean that the New Testament is simply more advanced, or a more developed understanding, like the progress of science or human knowledge in general. While we believe that what was true from the beginning ("In the beginning was the Word"), was hidden, and was "in these latter days" revealed or uncovered, and while it is also true that Jesus taught that the Spirit of God would lead us into a greater understanding, it is not a simple matter of progress, because Jesus the Christ, is both the first Word and the last Word. There is no more complete or perfect word about the nature of God and his relationship to us than was revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word that was made flesh after being with God at the beginning. Because of its perfection and completeness, there is no progress beyond the perfection of the image of God in Jesus Christ, the final Word of God, although we may grow in our understanding of him.

There another principle of importance is in the way we seek that understanding. It does not come to us out of the blue, as it were, as individuals, even when we read the Bible alone carefully and in faith. We grow in understanding by studying the scriptures within the fellowship of believers. As the Basis puts it in what we noted above: 

This principle of sharing knowledge within the fellowship leads us to another commitment in the Basis of Union. Not only should we seek understanding in the company of other believers. We should be prepared to learn from the best available teachers, taking account of the best biblical scholarship. We are expected to use our brains, to employ our God given gifts and those given to others. It is one of the saddest things that I see to find bright young believers narrow their minds with simple minded prejudice seeking dogmatic certainty, black and white answers to complex questions, as an escape from the challenge of understanding the biblical faith in depth. I can understand why it is that they sometimes prefer fundamentalist teaching. Among non-believers they are under attack from a hostile world, especially in the universities, where they feel the need to build strong defences and find value in small close supportive fellowships in which the faith is shared in simple ways. They see that liberal attitudes have compromised the faith; and that is true. But Christians have nothing to fear from the truth and can approach the scriptures with on open mind making use the best critical resources and all our intelligence. So in we say 

Let me now apply these principles, beginning with the last, to the interpretation of scripture in the story about Abraham which we have found difficult today. We begin with the last principle by learning a little of what the scholars can tell us about human sacrifice from what is known of the people among whom Abraham lived. 

How did people learn not to make human sacrifices? 

Most people today, I suppose, have heard of how when explorers and conquerors went out from Europe a few hundred years ago they found some places where human beings were killed and offered to various gods as sacrifices. The Aztecs of ancient Mexico are probably the best known example, where the priests led great ceremonies of human sacrifice which they believed were necessary for the life of the world to continue. On a lesser scale similar things were found amongst people of the Pacific islands. People who then practised a pagan religion have sometimes believed that they needed to shed the blood of real live people on their alters. We know that the people amongst whom Abraham and his descendants settled practised a religion in which there was human sacrifice, and that it included especially the sacrifice of one's own children. This is known from references to it in the Bible and from archeological research. It appears to have existed from the earliest time of contact represented by the story of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, until about a thousand years later. We see it most clearly in the reaction of the people of Israel, as the people of God, against this abominable religion. Towards the end it was mentioned by prophets among those religious practices which God did not desire. For example Micah: 

It was necessary for the prophets to say this because some people were influenced to do what their neighbours did. Jeremiah points to its continuing at Jerusalem: 

The valley of Hinnom where this happened was right against the foot of the hill where the temple was built and within the bounds of the city of Jerusalem. The name of the valley is the word from which we get "Gehenna" in the New Testament which is translated "hell", it was also known as Topheth or "fire pit". So in the history of ancient Israel we read of King Josiah, a little before Jeremiah's time, acting strongly to suppress this religion and drive its influence out the religion of Israel: 

You will see that both these texts refer to Molech as the god to whom children were sacrificed. The same god was known by other names behind which lay a name which was used for the "evening star", the planet Venus. So the god Molech was an astral (or star) deity, like so many others, and interestingly his name is associated with Jerusalem, where human sacrifices were still taking place long after it became a Hebrew a city. Ancient texts use the name Shalem for the evening star and that appears to have been the origin of the name of the city Jerusalem, the foundation of Shalem. It is first mentioned in the Bible when the priestly King of Salem met Abraham (Genesis 14:18) and blessed him. Salem is often thought of as meaning peace, and later it did, but here it probably meant something more like "completion", which might include the idea of peace and rest, as at the end of the day when the evening star appeared. That is to us a strange association with the sacrifice of children. However, the worship of Molech or Shalem was located in and around Jerusalem.

Now where was it that Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac? In Genesis we read 

In a later history we are told that this was the site of Jerusalem, and indeed more than that: 

If you go the Jerusalem today, on the Temple Mount, at the very sacred Moslem shrine called the Dome of the Rock, they will tell you that this is "Abraham's Place", where the sacrifice was attempted and the Jewish temple was later built. It may be so, but scholars know that there was a small Jebusite city on at least part of that mountain for some centuries before the time of Abraham; and it seems that Abraham had gone to a mountain in the wilderness. The same group of mountains covered a wider area. The main point that remained part of the tradition, however, was that it was a place where there was a cult of human sacrifice. 

Some of the people of Israel were influenced by the religion of the people around them. They were not alone in that. People are always influenced by the cultures which surround them, some much more than others. The influence often came through intermarriage. Solomon is well remembered as a wise king and one who built the temple, but he was also at fault for compromising the religion of the one true God by trying to please his many wives. In the history of the kings we read,

It was those shrines that King Josiah ordered to be pulled down three hundred years later. The struggle between belief in gods requiring brutal sacrifices and faith in the one true God, whose principle desire was said by the later prophets to be justice, peace and humble communion with himself, went on for a long time. The people of Israel remembered this when they recalled the struggle Abraham had to learn what God required of him. 

What Abraham did was to act in faith in his relationship with God in a context where the people around him believed that the greatest test of one's faith was willingness to sacrifice one's own child. For him it was an especially severe test because he had believed he had been promised a great many descendants through this one son who had been born almost miraculously late in life when he and his wife were quite old.

Molech, the god who was believed to desire the sacrifice of children was the national god of neighbouring nations. So there was a question of national rivalry as well as a moral question that was related to a dispute about who was the true god or what was the true nature of the one God. Was he a god who required human sacrifice? Abraham discovered through his terrible faithfulness that he was not, but it was many centuries later that his descendant came to accept fully what Abraham had learned about the nature of God.

The most important point for us is that Abraham learned what he did about the nature of God by acting in faith and not through the human wisdom which then predominated in his environment. His understanding was still limited, but he did not sit down and talk it through with his neighbours who had false beliefs. Had he been any more influenced by the people around him, he would have sacrificed his son. He broke free from their abominable religion by being radically faithful to God, and trusting as he said to Isaac 

We are not called to take Abraham as an example in what he was prepared to do, but as one who was prepared to trust God. If we now apply the great principle of testing what we believe in by reference to Christ we appreciate the radical faithfulness of Jesus. Indeed it was his obedience, even to the point of sacrifice -- the sacrifice of his own life -- which eventually set us all free from the tyranny of all false gods. 

How then do we interpret this scripture? Not by picking and choosing according to human wisdom in the society around us at the present time, or at any time, whenever and wherever it is, but by seeking to remain faithful to God, seeing how what was hidden is revealed in the way God deals with people of faith, however limited their understanding, and by testing all we believe by reference to Christ. If what we learn about God fits with the revelation of God in Christ, as Abraham's willingness to trust God does fit, then we can know that we will be led to the truth, in which we have cause to praise God. Praise be to him, for his faithfulness to us in spite of our limited understanding. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

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