Imagine that you are surrounded by people who assume that you have to give acceptable sacrifices to the gods—the gods who control harvests and herds, for instance—to keep the gods on their side.
If floods or droughts ruin their crops, they assume that the gods have turned against them. Their sacrifices have been too puny. If their goats stop giving milk or start dying off from some disease, the gods must be peeved. Their solution? They up the sacrifice to get the gods back on their side.
Some of these people used to give grain offerings. But wheat and barley didn’t cut it. Crops failed and livestock died. So these people slaughtered sheep and cattle.
Blood is life itself. Nothing is more valuable than life. So, they turned to giving blood to the gods.
When the goat and cow blood failed to ward off the famine or the locusts or the blight, there was one more step to take. Human blood.
And not just the mean-spirited crone or the doddering codger down the street. You have to give somebody really important. Somebody special. Like children. Like maybe your only child.
In case you’re thinking that nobody did such things, I invite you to brush up on your history of the ancient Near East. For instance the king of Moab offered his firstborn son as a burnt offering. It seems that the Assyrians may have made child sacrifices to the god Moloch.
Now imagine that you wanted to change the world’s mind about the gods. How would you convince them that the gods—or in your case, God—is compassionate and nurturing? How would you convince them that God is not bloodthirsty when almost everybody has been convinced forever that the gods are hungry for gore and burnt flesh?
Well, you could announce rules against human sacrifice. The Bible does just that. That should go well. Right? We’ve had lots of success with laws against popping off fireworks within city limits, driving over the speed limit, distributing drugs, selling women like sex toys, and shooting schoolchildren and coworkers.
Okay, so humans don’t change their worldview and their deeply engrained behaviors just because some authority tells them to think and act differently. So maybe you tell a story. A jarring, powerful story. A story that sends their hearts throbbing right in their throats. A story like the binding of Isaac.
God promised Abraham and Sarah a child. In their old age—and I mean really old age—Sarah gave birth to Isaac. While Isaac was still a boy, God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son.
This is just where most people say, “Hold the bus! God said what!” As Rob Bell puts it in his latest book, “What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son?” (What is the Bible?, Kindle loc. 1579)
Exactly. What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? A bloodthirsty god. An immoral, capricious, wrathful, unreliable god.
That is precisely what the writer wants the reader to think. That’s a god I can fear and loathe, but not a god I could love and joyfully serve. And that is not the God of Abraham.
The story ends with an angel staying Abraham’s hand. This God, our God, doesn’t want human blood. Only humans have wanted that. God is not bloodthirsty. The story is designed to change our minds about God.
And maybe, just maybe, when we’ve changed our minds about God, we will change our minds about each other. I believe that this is what Jesus is about. His way of living embodied God’s way of being.
Jesus never said, “If you hit me I’ll punch back ten times harder.” Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”
Jesus never said, “Crush your foes and destroy their families.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”
In the story of Isaac’s binding, in Jesus’ life and teaching, we see that God is not bloodthirsty. God blesses. God nurtures growth and makes peace. God gives live. The blood that we spill does not honor this God. This God desires only one kind of sacrifice:
“To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)