“Present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.” Romans 12.1
Several years ago, I enrolled in a course offered at Wilfrid Laurier University that examined the cultural origins of the Brother Grimm fairy tales. Scholars tend to associate fairy tales with women at home, who told stories to one another to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks such as spinning (which often turns up in these narratives). The Grimms lived during the early nineteenth century with the industrialization of Prussia and the rise of German national identity. Industrialization was starting to simplify or eliminate certain domestic chores. For that reason, among others, the oral tale was beginning to disappear.
The brothers began their collection with the purpose of creating a scholarly treatise of traditional stories and of preserving the oral tradition as they had been handed from generation to generation. The stories the Grimm Brothers appropriated as being uniquely German had existed in many versions and regions throughout Europe. The brothers saw fragments of old religions and faiths reflected in these stories which they thought had continued to exist and survive through their telling. The stories are horrific. To a great extent, their cruelty and violence reflected the medieval culture from which the tales originated. They have justified nationalism and anti-Semitism. Their cruelty and violence are directed primarily toward innocent children, subservient wives, and defenceless old single women.
This is not Disneyland. For example, in the Grimms’ original version of “Snow White”, the Queen is Little Snow White’s own mother who orders her Huntsman to kill Snow White and bring home the child’s lungs and liver so that she can eat them. The story ends with the Queen mother dancing at Snow White’s wedding wearing a pair of red-hot iron shoes that kill her. The Grimms’ version of “The Prince and the Frog” describes the princess throwing the frog against a wall instead of kissing him.
The story of Hansel and Gretel may have originated in the Baltic regions of Europe during the Great Famine of the early 14th century. It is reported that, at that time, desperate families abandoned their children and even resorted to cannibalism. It’s the horrific story of a young brother and sister kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch living deep in the forest in a house constructed of cake and candy. After fattening up the two children, the evil old woman prepares a hot oven in which she intends to roast them alive. Just in time, the little girl shoves the witch into the oven and she and her brother escape unharmed.
Knowing this, I wonder how many of you would choose to read to your children or grandchildren the story of Hansel and Gretel. I’ll also ask why any would wish to read to them the Old Testament story of Abraham and his son Isaac.
Let’s return to what we read and heard this morning.
Abraham’s supreme tribal god commands him to take Isaac, his only son, out into the wilderness. There Abraham is to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. That is, Abraham is to kill his only son to prove his allegiance to his tribal god. Without any question, without any objection, Abraham takes Isaac, along with a couple of servants, to the place his god has designated. They carry firewood and the means to make a fire but do not bring along an animal as a sacrifice. Near the designated place, Abraham tells his servants to wait while he and Isaac head up one of the hills with the firewood and fire. Isaac is just a boy, old enough to ask why there’s no animal for the sacrifice but too young to defy his father’s will.
Abraham builds an altar and places the firewood on it. He then ties Isaac onto the altar and raises his knife to kill him. It is only then that his god’s angel intervenes, announces that Abraham has passed the test, and tells him not to harm his son. Abraham then unties Isaac and together they discover a ram nearby to be used as a sacrifice in place of Isaac. The angel then announces that because of his obedience, Abraham will be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore.
It is inconceivable to me that this is historical, but that it is reflects the transition of tribal culture from human to animal sacrifice. I assume it was conveyed as an oral tradition to teach a lesson. It teaches blind obedience to god, regardless of god’s command. Abraham does not question whether the command is truly from god. Nor does he question whether his god really meant what he seemed to have commanded. Nor does he point out to his god that he has been instructed to commit a horrible sin.
Our stories from Genesis, including those of Abraham, are rooted in an oral tradition. They remained that way until the Jews returned from their period of exile in Babylon and sought to restore their national identity and to rebuild Jerusalem. Our stories of Abraham originate from the oral tradition of nomadic tribes within the upper regions of Mesopotamia in the Middle East over four thousand years ago. The Abraham tradition supported particular tribal identity and cultural practice by combining tribal memory, legend and myth. It remains so, to this day, within the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Christianity is rooted within Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. His earliest followers understood him as having fulfilled the expectations of the Torah and of the Prophets. To fully appreciate the message of our New Testament scriptures, it is necessary to appreciate those of the Old Testament. The apostle Paul and those who wrote the gospels interpreted the significance of Jesus by referring to their Jewish scriptures. But such interpretations may no longer be relevant or make sense today. Our 21st century understanding of existence, of the universe and of the human condition is far removed from those that were prevalent during their time. We don’t have to discard the stories of Abraham, but we need to see them for what they are.
Classical interpreters of the biblical stories made Abraham the first monotheist, whereas the stories in Genesis speak of Abraham’s tribal god as being the supreme god among many gods. Today’s story demands that particular allegiance. Many religious cultures have used human and animal sacrifice and blood rituals to appease their deity, support their culture’s priesthood, or to maintain control. Today’s story re-enforced that superstitious understanding.
In the story it is assumed that Abraham’s one supreme tribal god required Abraham to show his full allegiance. The apostle Paul interpreted the crucifixion of the Messiah Jesus as a sacrifice to appease almighty God for the sins of the whole world. Many share that understanding of the atonement and we make reference to it in our Eucharistic prayers. As an interpretation, it is one of many, and it is not mine. I not only find it repugnant, I consider it bad theology. I refuse to associate it with my view of Jesus, of God and of what it means to be a Christian.
What kind of god would order someone to commit a heinous crime just to prove a point? Or, worse, just to demonstrate his power to command allegiance? What kind of person would obey such an order? What lesson is to be learned from placing an individual in such an unresolvable dilemma? At what point would one disobey an order from someone in authority when that order is to commit a crime? What should one think of a culture that considers the Abraham/Isaac story as having positive moral value?
For too long, we have rationalized bad theology. We question the extreme and diabolical theologies of some who speak in the name of Mohammed. We must question the extreme and diabolical theologies of those who speak in the name of Jesus. This morning’s story of Abraham and Isaac is a dark and distant memory of our human struggle to survive and to break away from cultural practices rooted in ignorance, fear and superstition.
Jesus came to deliver good news for all people. News that they might have not only life, but life in all its fullness and possibility. The God of whom Jesus spoke and lived was no tribal god. There are no tribal boundaries where you love your neighbour, whether friend or stranger, as yourself. I choose to identify with the God of Jesus. His God was life and the fullness of that life was seen in him. Love is realized when it is lived and expanded. Life is fulfilled when it is expended for others that they too may have life. That is what sacrifice means for me. That is why I choose to follow Jesus. In his name, may we seek to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service.
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo, Ontario