Sermon Research and Comments

“Obedience, Not Sacrifice”


Delivered in of course a somewhat different form on June 9, 2005 at the Employee Chapel of Indiana Wesleyan University


1. Introduction: my usual fare on the Bible as a sacrament of revelation. This sermon was the first of its kind for me. Rather than swim around a topic or the original meaning of a passage, I swam through various spiritual interpretations of a passage. No one would know it, but it was a fair illustration of where I am at currently hermeneutically.

Basically, I see the task of appropriation and proclamation as a word for today and a specific audience. To find and proclaim that word best, we must sit at the table of revelation with the committee of witnesses. As preacher, I am the one appointed to bring the decisions of the council to the congregation/audience.

Sitting at the table are several committee members. The ones who I usually let speak first are the original meanings of the passages of the Bible. They speak to each other, discuss and debate. The words of Jesus have special weight in that discussion, and the New Testament has authority over the Old. Also sitting at that table is orthodox Christian theology, which itself is a subcommittee of the church, which sits there as well. They help me prioritize the biblical discussion. In some respects they have veto power over the appropriation of individual biblical passages, stop signs that keep those voices from leaving the committee.

The church has many voices as well, recognized spiritual thinkers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Tozer, etc... There are also voices there like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Keith Drury, Max Lucado.

My task as the speaker for the committee is a daunting one. I am required to bring Spirit filled, faith filled thinking to bear on their discussion, the discussion of the ages. I must pray and humbly wait on the Spirit to illumine me. I want to be in conversation with as much of the church as I can and in continuity with the faith of the ages. Then with a prayer that God's word will be heard in my words, I dare to speak.

2. I focused on the biblical words, "obedience, not sacrifice."

This first led me to the story of Saul and Samuel.


The title is misleading, because I'm not preaching on 1 Samuel 15:22, where Saul gets tired of waiting on Samuel to arrive for the pre-battle sacrifice. Like a child (or adult) impatient to get the "prayer out of the way," he offers the sacrifice and gets on with it.

Of course, in good sitcom fashion, Samuel arrives just as Saul's given up waiting. A cruel irony! Or perhaps the failure of a test on God's part. Samuel sets things straight for Saul--obedience is more important than the sacrifice.

But that's not the text I'm preaching on, even if this story in the end may have similar overtones to where I'm headed.

No, my text is Genesis 22--the binding of Isaac, the Aqedah!

What a troublesome story this is to so many! I remember learning about it as a child, but I don't remember that it bothered me in particular. Thought and reality have always been heartily separated for me, so it never seemed that strange to me, the way it no doubt would if I were to experience it. That's why I like philosophy. That's why I don't find some humor offensive while others do. Things just aren't very concrete to me, I'm afraid.

But this story has troubled countless Jews and Christians through the ages. How can this be the God that we serve? What's going on here?



Tozer and Abraham

3. Then I turned to the Abraham passage, which I was most interested in today.

First Tozer gave witness to a spiritual understanding of the passage. His part of the phrase was obedience...


A. W. Tozer found in the story of Abraham and Isaac a mirror of the soul's struggle to let go of worldly possessions and to become poor in spirit.

Tozer made sense of the story by supposing that Abraham had a problem. Isaac had become the idol of his heart. When the significance of Isaac had become so great to him that his very soul was in peril, God set before him the choice. Sacrifice the thing most important to you on earth and make Me your all.

When Abraham gave Isaac to God, Abraham truly became poor in spirit, someone who possessed nothing of earth. He became "a man wholly surrendered, a man utterly obedient."

There's an old hymn I remember from my childhood that may very well allude to this same story. One line asks, "Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?" Tozer saw in this story a very Wesleyan idea, the idea that we must all come to a point in our lives where we give everything to God. God will sooner or later bring this same test to us that Abraham experienced. At some point God will bring this choice: "just one and an alternative." Will we give everything to God or not?

All these spiritual points are true. We must give the whole of our lives to God. How could we truly call Jesus "Lord" if we were still ruling some part of our life?

And in a sense, we have much more to give to God today than most people in most times and places. That is not simply to say that we possess more, although on average we certainly do. But we have more time and more potential, not to mention a greater awareness of ourselves.

Although I work all the time, I enjoy my work. In some ways I feel like every day is a Sabbath rest for me. I think back to one summer I did construction when I want to picture what the daily lives of people in Abraham's day must have been like. I would lay down during every break that summer before going home, eating supper and collapsing. Although business brings its own temptations, I feel like the relatively leisurely pace of our lives today gives ample time for our hearts to wander. "Idle hands are the Devil's business."

Then again, we are so self-focused today as well. I do psychotherapy on my children all the time, trying to give them the requisite hug time each day so that they turn out to be well balanced individuals. So many of us spend so much time looking into ourselves, doing therapy. I imagine it was easier to give yourself entirely to God when you were so busy you rarely had time to think about anything but eating and protecting your own.

But of course as true as all these things might be, Genesis says nothing about Abraham struggling in this way. To us, God just tells Abraham seemingly out of the blue to sacrifice Isaac. Tozer saw spiritual truths in the text the way we all do as God made the text come alive to him.

The truth we learn from Tozer with regard to obedience is that God requires total obedience, not one shred of our lives must be out of His governance.

Footnote: Tozer gives us some great pre-modern interpretation in his chapter "The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing" in The Pursuit of God. I delighted to read of Abraham's agony the night before sacrificing his son, as Tozer put himself in Abraham's shoes and felt what he would have felt if he were Abraham. I'm sure Abraham felt agony, but I suspect it was vastly different from the way Tozer or we would agonize. After all, child sacrifice was the rule of the day, and lots of people sacrificed their firstborn sons back then.

Similarly, he makes this great comment about how no one perhaps struggled as much as Abraham did until the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, the flow of the canon is history to Tozer, and since he finds no similar struggle in the rest of the Old Testament, he is inclined to think there never was one.

Next he has this great sentence where he says, "As is frequently true, this New Testament principle [first Beatitude] of spiritual life finds its best illustration in the Old Testament" (24). This is classic! The Old Testament is not read in context, but as a typological backdrop to the New Testament understood as a compendium of timeless principles. Great stuff and I hope you know I'm not dismissing the spiritual truths so many see by reading the Bible this way. It's just textbook pre-modern lack of awareness of how to read the words for their original meaning.

Finally, he reads Abraham through Hebrews, as Abraham trusts God for the resurrection of Isaac. This is also great pre-modern conflation. The New Testament, like Tozer, reads the Old Testament spiritually as well and out of context. It is unlikely in the extreme that the historical Abraham trusted God for resurrection, as we have no evidence of belief in resurrection until some 1300 years after Abraham (and that's actually highly debatable even then). I'm not at all discounting what Hebrews says, for the New Testament consistently reads the Old Testament spiritually. The points that the New Testament makes are true--as are Tozer's, I think. But they're made by way of a spiritual meaning rather than a strictly contextual one.

The sermon part is at the top, but I couldn't resist a teachable moment at the bottom.



Does God require immoral acts?
4. Then I explored the difficulty of the Abraham passage, how it leads us to wonder whether God requires something immoral here.

I read James 1:13-18, which says God doesn't tempt people with evil. Telling someone to murder seems an aweful lot like telling someone to do evil.

5. I talked a little about 2 Samuel 24, where God tells David to number Israel in a sting operation, then sends a plague on Israel for doing it.

But I went on to show that 1 Chronicles 21 says that it was actually Satan that told David to do this. I did my usual thing on the lights of revelation coming on between Samuel and Chronicles with regard to the Satan. I mentioned Job and how from Job's perspective, he never finds out that in fact he was just a pawn in a wager between God and the Satan.

By the way, this theology in my opinion debunks the all too common idea that Job is the earliest book of the OT written. I think the idea is usually that the story of Job must predate Israel since there's no awareness of Israel in it. In some cases, this is the same kind of pre-modern thinking that would unthinkingly assume the gospels were written first because Jesus came before Paul. Or there are those who put true on quizzes that say 1 Corinthians was written by Paul from Corinth to us.

This is the pre-modern inability to distinguish between the content of these texts and these texts as events in history. The gospels may be about Jesus but they are some of the later books of the New Testament written and in some cases represent the later theology of the New Testament. Similarly, regardless of when Job might have lived, the book need not be written at that point.

All the evidence points to the idea of the Satan coming into Israelite thought after the Babylonian captivity. Samuel doesn't have him, Chronicles in the Persian period does. My sense is thus that Job in its current form must date to the Persian period.

6. I have suspected for some time that if Genesis had been written in the Persian period, it too would identify Satan rather than God as the one who gave Abraham these instructions. I was thus delighted one day to find that in fact this is exactly how the book of Jubiliees tells the story, a possibly Essene writing that dates to about 150 BC.

While in a sermon I didn't feel comfortable saying it with any strength or assertion, I suspect that what we see in Samuel/Chronicles also applies here. Taking the fullness of the OT into account, we should probably more precisely see the Satan as the instigator of the sacrifice rather than God directly. God is of course the Ultimate Sovereign whose permissive will is involved in everything that happens in the world, both good and evil.

However, the Satan is the instigator of temptation in the later OT, and the NT in James confirms that God does not tempt anyone directly with evil.


Kierkegaard and Absolute Faith
At this point in the sermon I talked about Kierkegaard and the mystery of God. I read Romans 11:33-36.


For Tozer, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed the level of his obedience. He is in the James category--James uses the Abraham story to show that a person is considered right with God by the things they do and not simply because of what they say they believe (James 2:20-24).

By contrast, Soren Kierkegaard predictably saw Abraham as an example of faith in the preposterous and absurd. As for Paul, Abraham was the consumate example of faith (cf. Romans 4; Galatians 3).

For Kierkegaard, the thing that God commanded of Abraham was absurd. After all, God himself had given him Isaac as a miracle in his old age. And now God was taking him away! Who among us would not doubt? Am I sure that it was God talking to me? Maybe God isn't really serious.

Yet Abraham believed unwaveringly. Without a moment's doubt he got up early, proceeded at a measured pace to Mt. Moriah, and proceeded to sacrifice.

To me, Kierkegaard's Abraham is a reminder that I can't put God in a box. There is something just a little fearsome about Him, and my puny mind can't hope to understand His ways.

There are some Christian philosophers who think they can tell you about God's nature, how He must behave because of who He is. I say with Kierkegaard that we can talk about who God is because of who He chooses to be. I don't think for one moment that I have God all figured out or that I can assure you how He's going to act on any given occasion.

Are you going through a time of great suffering? As we speak there is a funeral going on at College Wesleyan--that's why we're here in the PAC. I won't pretend to tell you why God allows the innocent to suffer or why we sometimes endure the things we do. I don't know why God allows tsunamis or 9-11's.

But I believe that God is good and loving, and I believe that God is in control. And perhaps He'll let me in on the details when we get to heaven.

Footnote: Fear and Trembling is the work where Kierkegaard discusses Abraham. Of course I also think Kierkegaard goes too far with his idea of blind faith. I don't think God is a trickster, and you'll eventually see where I come out in terms of the original meaning of the Abraham story.



The Original Meaning of the Story
Finally, I gave what I think is a more accurate original meaning for the passage.


The light at the end of the tunnel for me with regard to this story is to realize how foreign human sacrifice--or any animal sacrifice--is from my world. Indeed, even by the time the Old Testament books were reaching their current form, human sacrifice was becoming a horrible thing of the past.

But in Abraham's world--and perhaps at whatever time this story is approaching the form in which we now see it--child sacrifice was a known category.

The Greeks knew legends about Agamemmon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia at the behest of a god to ensure Greek victory against Troy.

We remember that Jephthah offered to sacrifice the first living thing that came out of his house when he returned from battle if God would give him success. It turned out to be his daughter and Jephthah followed through with his vow.

Solomon and other wicked kings horribly allowed the sacrifice of children in the valleys outside Jerusalem.

In one of the most startling OT stories (2 Kings 3), the king of Moab sacrifices his son to the God Molech on top of the wall of Moab to keep Israel away. And the horrible thing is that it works. Israel withdraws!

It is in a context such as this that we realize that offering his firstborn son is not an unusual thought for Abraham. The remarkable thing is that God does not actually require it! If Tozer emphasized the obedience part of my title "obedience...," the original meaning of Genesis 22 emphasizes the "...not sacrifice" part. God does not want or require human sacrifice.

Abraham of course had no Bible, not even the Law. He did not have Deuteronomy 12:31 that tells Israel not to be like the horrid Canaanites who burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. In the world of Genesis, this story is the narrative proclamation that God does not require human sacrifice, a proclamation of His "nature" in this regard.

Ironically, the very point of this story is that God is not a God who requires human sacrifice. It is an amazingly optimistic story that tells of God's graciousness, not his arbitrary whimsy!

I ended the sermon with the echoes of this story in the story of Jesus. The words at the baptism, "This is my son whom I love" and the words of John about Jesus as God's only son, allude to the fact that God sacrificed his Son for us. Genesis 22 begins the same way, "Take your only begotten son whom you love..."

I ended with words from 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 5:7-8, and finally, John 3:16.