I have a confession. Sometimes it’s hard not to sympathize with secular humanists who see the god of the bible — the one whom I have committed my whole being to — as a jealous psychopath, ready to commit genocide at the mere idea that some groups of people wouldn’t be that into him. Do a survey of this week’s lectionary texts and you will find two interesting examples. First, on Wednesday we have a selection from the Jonah story where God seems to have a divine nuclear warhead pointed at Nineveh and is simultaneously sending a reluctant prophet, Jonah, to deliver the message: repent or die. Then, this coming Sunday we have one of the most well know texts in the bible where God tells Abraham something like: Remember that son you wanted for your whole life and couldn’t have, but then I gave to you? Ya, Isaac. You need to kill him, with your own hands, like one of the common goats you would put on your table for food.
I have to confess, sometimes I read texts like these and think, “Maybe those fundamentalist atheists have a point. Who is this crazy deity!?” Maybe Theresa of Avila was feeling the weight of these stories when in one of her visions she recalls Jesus saying to her, “This is how I treat my friends.” And she responds, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
Another confession. I often sympathize with those Medieval Catholic priests as well. The ones who did not want to have The Bible available for just any ol’ Joe to read. I wonder if they could see the writing on the wall? A bunch of people reading these ancient texts as if they were written to us. A bunch of people reading these texts as if they are a manual for being a good person. A bunch of people standing in judgment of God because these texts don’t seem to match our modern sensibility of what “good” is. As if good is the same thing as being civil or tame. I wonder if these forebears of ours knew something we’ve lost. Namely, that the biblical canon as a revelation of God’s personhood is much too wild to be read alone.
God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am!” he replied. Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing— all this because you obeyed my command.”
I have to admit that, in this story, God kind of looks like a mob boss trying to scratch the itch of his own insecurity by testing the loyalty of his closest follower, Abraham. The reality is this all seems so unpalatable, and frankly embarrassing. Why are you treating Abraham like this? No wonder you have so few friends.
I wonder if some of the tension we feel when we read this text is that this God of Abraham could not fit into our white-washed, gentrified society. The God of Abraham is much too unpredictable. We want a god that can behave. A deity who would obey all the traffic laws, say please and thank you at dinner, always wear the appropriate clothes for the situation, never say the wrong thing at the wrong time, always be politically correct, never offend, always open the door for others, never use the carpool lane illegally, and pay the bills on time every month. Maybe we have forgotten that God is not safe, God is wild.
The God in this story reminds me a little of my daughter. A wild girl who is testing the world around her at every juncture; every interaction is an opportunity to know something she didn’t before, or to know it in a new way. A wild girl that sees every interaction as an opportunity to connect, to love and find love, to know and be known. Her mother and I want her to behave, she wants to be loved, known, seen, and heard. What if God is like a wild little girl who has no regard for our civil, polite society and will do anything to connect with us, anything to love us and be loved by us. What if God is like a little girl who will test the very limits of our patience, even to the point of breaking, because it is at those limits where discovery, beauty, and love can be found. Like Abraham or Nineveh, when we are pushed to these moments of breaking we find that there is very little about our fears that were real. For Abraham, there is a ram instead of Isaac. For Nineveh, “. . . he [God] repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” When we stand on the precipice of our furthest limits, our worst fears are not realized, the break does not lead to destruction or murder, only back to grace and mercy.