This past Sunday, the text in the Narrative Lectionary was the Binding of Issac found in Genesis 22. It is one of the most disturbing pieces of Scripture that there is in the Bible. Having a father ready to sacrifice his son has to rank up there as most horrific thing about the Bible.
As I put together the Bible Study and prepared for Sunday, I was all set to focus on the the distrubing aspect of the Abraham wanting to off his son, but I felt that I was giving this passage the short shrift. I remember hearing something years ago from a professor about how people are hungry for the good news. “Give us gospel,”she said.
“Give us gospel.” People want the good news. But is there good news in this passage? A lot of progressive Christians would say no and move on to some other passage, one focused more on justice, one that didn’t show a god asking a father to off his son.
Rachel Held Evans wrote in 2014 about her misgivings if God is actually doing such atrocities:
God is God.
When people say this, what they seem to be saying is that God is power. And if God is power, God gets to define love however God pleases.
While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love. If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.
Among mainline/progressive Christians, there is a question on how to deal with passages like this. More often than not, we want to ignore these passages or try to give them a meaning that feels more comfortable to us. But I don’t think we can just ignore some of these stories just because they are disturbing.
When mainline/progressive Christians encounter passages like the Binding of Issac, we tend to say to ourselves, “If God is like this, I don’t want to worship God.” When we ask those kind of questions it gives away how we are looking at the Bible. Methodist theologian David Watson wrote in 2014 how where is the starting point for studying the Bible. In the 20th century the question progressive Christians were asking dealt with theodicy, why a good God allows the existence of evil.
Many mainline Protestants will immediately object, “Why did God act in one instance, but not in another? If God behaves as you suggest, then God is unjust.” I think they would respond—and I would agree with them—that we are not the judge of God. God judges us, but not the other way around. There are simply things about God that we cannot know or understand. Suffering is heartbreaking, but this does not mean that God is an absentee landlord.
What we tend to do when we encounter troublesome texts is that we start to judge God. If God acts a certain way, then we can’t follow God. While I get this in some way, we are in essence trying to judge God. We want to see if God is worthy and not the other way around. What if we were able to read these texts in a different way?
This past week was the 20th anniversary of the death of Christian artist Rich Mullins. One of his signature songs is “Awesome God,” which is found in his 1988 album, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth.” Some have seen the song as not as meaningful as his other songs, but I’ve always liked it because Mullins was able to talk about the “good” and “bad” of God. This is the second verse:
And when the sky was starless
In the void of the night
(God is an awesome God)
He spoke into the darkness
And created the light
(God is an awesome God)
Judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom
Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross
I hope that we have not
Too quickly forgotten that
Our God is an awesome God
The God that created the world, also destroyed it. The God that sent wrath on Sodom, showed mercy on a cross.
It’s easy to think that the awesome in the song is about how cool God is, but I think it is really about standing in awe. God is not understandable. We are left with questions at time. Maybe what we take from these stories is not about seeing if God is really good, but about learning to appreciate this God we serve and understand how this God works in our lives. I am reminded what Will Willomon wrote about the binding of Issac:
How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.
I think sometimes, we are so wanting God to bend to our wills that we forget to actually meet God. To see the awesomness of God in the way that one does when seeing the Grand Canyon or the ocean. When you realize that there is something much bigger than you that rearranges how you think about your life.
Our God is an Awesome God. We don’t always understand this God, but God is bigger than us, God’s ways are not our own ways. Sometimes we need to stop judging God and just take in God’s awesomeness.