Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Maunday Thursday 2013: Isaac, Abraham's Passover Offering

A sermon preached at St Matthew's Riverdale on Ex 12:1-14, Ps 116, John 13

          Tonight I'd like to focus on our passage about the Passover sacrifice, but I'd like to do that by starting with an event over 450 years earlier, the binding of Isaac, or the Akedah as the Jews call it.  You're probably familiar with this story.  Abraham, whose wife was too old to have children, nonetheless was promised by God that he would have a child who would bless the nations.  This was Isaac who was miraculously conceived when Sarah was 90.  Isaac was God's gift to Abraham, and all of Abraham's hopes for the future were tied to this son.  Isaac was the one who would carry on Abraham's name, and who would inherit all his property.  Isaac was the one through whom Abraham would live on.  So when God asked him to bind Isaac and sacrifice him, it was to test Abraham to see whether he believed in God's promise.  The point here, as the author of the book of Hebrews tells us, is that Abraham believed that God wouldn't break his promise to provide him an heir; therefore, he reasoned, God would resurrect Isaac.  He gladly and without hesitation proceeded to do the deed, and, as we know, God spoke to him just as he was raising his knife and called it off.  Instead, he provided a ram as a substitute. 

          The meaning of the story should be clear.  As Job said, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away."  On the one hand the Lord freely gave Abraham a promised heir.  Abraham didn't even know to ask for such a thing; it was miraculous, it was beyond anything an old man could have hoped for.  Not only that, but God promised that the entire world would be blessed through this heir.  The life and legacy God gave to Abraham was a pure gift, it was pure grace coming one-way from God.

          At the same time God required Abraham to hand this life and legacy back to God.  By sacrificing his son, God was taking back Abraham's stuff.  And this wasn't just any stuff, he was grabbing back all of Abraham's hopes and dreams.  Isaac was his very soul; Abraham lived through Isaac, they were one.  Without Isaac, Abraham was nothing.  And here God asks Abraham to kill his hope, to kill his future, to kill his very life.  And what did Abraham do?  He went for it.  So God graciously gives a gift, and then he asks for it to be given back freely.  He asks for a sacrifice from Abraham.

          This is the shape of faith.  We have faith in God's promise, and then God asks us to kill that promise.  Why is this?  Why does God want his promise to be killed?  Because all faith is faith in resurrection despite death.  There is no such thing as a faith in God's grace that does not involve a sacrifice and death. 

          Let's move forward to the Passover now.  Notice that the situation is formally similar to Abraham's.  Israel is on the verge of leaving Egypt.  They had been slaves here for 450 years, and God was getting ready to fulfill the promise he gave to Abraham. For how could Israel, Abraham's children, bless the world if they were left as slaves in Egypt?  So the Lord rains down plagues upon the Egyptians to loosen Pharaoh's iron grip.  Finally, he decides to bring one last punishment upon them.  He will send the angel of death throughout the land to kill the firstborn son of everyone, including Gentile and Jew.  But this is odd.  God is trying to rescue the Jews, but he threatens to kill their firstborn sons.  Luckily, despite threatening them with death, God provides a way out.  Each Jewish family is to pay for the life of their firstborn son with a lamb.  The lamb will represent the firstborn son.  So when the head of the house sacrifices the lamb, it is like he is sacrificing his own son.  A son that represents the initial sign of the mother and father's fertility, a son that would carry on the family name, that would inherit their property, a son through which the family would live on, and in whom all of their hopes were grounded.  If God had killed their firstborn sons, all of Israel would have been without hope in the world.  Why would it have mattered if God brought them out of Egypt if they would have had no heirs?  And so, the father of the family proceeds to symbolically sacrifice his son in the form of a lamb. 

          Notice that this is exactly what happened to Abraham with Isaac.  At the last minute before Abraham lowers his knife the Lord calls it off and provides a substitute, he provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.  Abraham knew that God's promise was connected to his son Isaac, and yet he believed God would raise his son from the dead if he sacrificed him.  When God called it off and provided a ram instead, he was in effect saying, "your faith in the resurrection is wonderful, Abraham, except that my promise to bless the nations only comes indirectly through Isaac.  Rather, the promise will be fulfilled through one of Isaac's offsprine, Jesus Christ, and this ram symbolically represents that Son."  Abraham knew that God's promise would come through one of his offspring; he knew that that promise would be proven through a death and a resurrection, but he didn't know that the promise only came indirectly through Isaac.  Therefore, he received Isaac back alive, but he still proceeded to sacrifice his offspring, Jesus Christ, by sacrificing the ram. 

          So, in both stories the firstborn sons are substituted with sheep, and yet the sacrifice of those sheep still represent the death of a firstborn son, Jesus.  They still symbolize a radical act of sacrifice where the father of the family symbolically kills the thing that his hopes and future depend on.  He symbolically kills his own descendent, Jesus.   

          On the night of the Passover when Jesus was betrayed, he instituted the Eucharist that we will celebrate shortly.  Here was the one that the sacrificial lamb of the Passover prefigured, the one who was prefigured by the ram sacrificed by Abraham.  He was the true firstborn Son who substituted for Isaac and for every firstborn son ever born in Israel.  He was the one who would finally fulfill all of the promises given to Israel, and here he announces his own death: "this is my body given for you." 

          We know that at first the Apostles just didn't get it.  They didn't believe that the Messiah had to die.  But by looking at the story of Abraham and the Passover, we know that this had to happen.  True faith is sacrificial faith.  It is to receive goodness from God, and to then give it back again believing that God will raise it from the dead in an even better form. 

          So on the night of the Passover Jesus takes bread rather than lamb and says "this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."  Notice he first gives them the bread as a gift.  Grace is free, and he gives them his body freely.  Then, however, he asks them to "Do this in remembrance of me."  That is, they are to repeat this action.  They receive grace, they receive Jesus himself, then they are to give him away like Jesus gave himself away.  Indeed, they are to sacrifice him.  They receive this wonderful gift of the Son of God then they are to give him away in thanksgiving. 

          What does it mean to sacrifice Jesus?  It doesn't mean to hand him over to death like Judas, the false-Apostle.  It means that we receive Jesus and we give him away like Abraham was willing to give Isaac away.  We receive grace from Jesus: we are forgiven, we are healed of our sin, we are served by Jesus, we have our feet washed by Jesus.  Then, having received this grace we don't hold onto it, we go and do the same for one another: we forgive one another, we serve one another.  In other words, we sacrifice Jesus by sacrificing ourselves.  By eating Jesus we become one with him so that when we sacrifice ourselves, we are sacrificing Jesus.  When we receive the grace of Jesus we receive life and hope; we become one with Jesus who is life and hope.  In a response of thanks we then give Jesus back.  That is, we give back our life to God. 
          You might think that this primarily means service, but it is more broad than that because our entire life is a gift of grace.  The Lord has given us everything for a time and then he asks for it back again: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away…" it is our job to say with thanks, "blessed be the name of the Lord."  In time everything will be taken away.  Did you think that you were going to be healthy?  "The Lord taketh away."  Did you think you would have outward beauty?  "The Lord taketh away."  What about a husband or a wife, a boyfriend or a girlfriend?  Did you think they'd be around forever?  "The Lord taketh away."  How about children, or the wealth to support them?  What about friends? Even they are inconsistent, and sometimes God takes them away.  Possessions, property?  The Lord takes them all away.  Has your faith in God been crushed?  Has God even taken himself away from you?  Think about the Apostles whose hope, whose Messiah, whose God, hung there on the Cross in front of them.  The Lord even took that away.  He takes everything back … everything.  The angel of death passes over everything and takes it all.  At the end of your life will you be able to say "blessed be the name of the Lord"?  Will you be able to lift the knife like Abraham and sacrifice it all, to give it all back to God as a thank-offering?  All things work together for good for those who love the Lord, says St Paul.  On this side of the Resurrection this can only be seen by faith.  A faith in the Resurrection despite the death of all things, including the death of God, is what separates the sheep from the goats. 

          As you take the Eucharist now, be conscious of the fact that in this piece of bread you receive your entire life.  Everything: friends, family, health, hope and a future, even God.  In the broken bread you see the broken body of Christ in whom all of these things die.  And yet at the same time you consent to this death, for you know it is God's will that you give all of your good things away.  See them all die, and yet believe in the Resurrection of the dead.      


  1. Hey Jeff,

    A few questions: if it came to you, and you were placed in Abraham's position, would you follow suit? What do we say of people, today, that hear the call to kill their children and attempt or succeed at doing so, and how would we differentiate between Abraham and them?

    What is the earliest appearance of the concept that Abraham went ahead with his intended sacrifice of his son because he thought that Yahweh would resurrect him? Is there a midrash or some other text for that? If the earliest it appears is Hebrews, that'd make Hebrews suspect, in my view, as it would make Hebrews something of a midrash in itself, rather than necessarily scripture(well, I suppose on a certain view it could be considered both midrash and scripture).

    What tangible data do we have that Hebrews spent approximately 450 years in Egypt? Last I remember reading(early 2000's), apologists stated it had to do with a people connected, somehow, with the Hyksos, but when I examined that, it was terrible evidence. Aside from them, though, I'm unaware of any source other than Exodus that makes the claim. Within the exodus claims themselves, how plausible do you think the numbers are, with some-millions of Hebrews leaving Egypt and wandering for a while, and what not? If it is real, is there corroboration you're aware of? If it is myth, does it matter for doctrines that make use of it?

  2. What a great set of questions! I've been thinking about the first one a lot lately. I can't put forth any definite opinion at this point, and it would take many many blog posts to get there, but I could say a few basic things. I've thought for a while that a psychological interpretation of the Abraham stories was somehow off target. People get caught up in why he went down to both Egypt and Abimelech and said that his wife was his sister. Conservatives puzzle over how to legitimize Paul's allegory of Hagar and Sarah. The usual explanation is with reference to Abraham's strength of faith at the time of copulation: he was doubting the promise when he impregnated Hagar so her son is a symbol of slavery, but he was believing the promise when he impregnated Sarah so Isaac is a son of promise. I don't find any of this convincing for reasons I won't go too far in to. Suffice it to say that I think Abraham is someone we aren't supposed to identify with much of the time. As my sermon illustrates, I think we can identify with the Akedah as a figure for authentic human existence in the face of life and death as explicated by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But as a figure it stands over our experience and sheds light on it--at least I think that follows from the nature of what the Christian canon is. Figures are not on the same interpretive plane as our own experiences (which is not to say that they can't be interpreted as if they were on the same plane through historical criticism, just that properly speaking as divine words they aren't). In other words, we don't find a commonality between ourselves and Abraham based on a third thing that we share--an intentional or psychological state, a common situation and context, etc.. Whatever that third thing is, it stands over us and Abraham and has a hermeneutical priority over each. But a figure is that thing that explains what is below it. Or to put it Platonically, we participate in the figure, it does not participate in another form along with us. I think the figural approach explains much better what Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus are doing when they reference Abraham, which is completely inexplicable in terms of a non-figural hermeneutic. Much follows from this for how we ought to read the Bible, just one of those things being that I will never find myself in the position of hearing God tell me to sacrifice my son because I am not the biblical equivalent of a platonic form like Abraham. It would take an entire dissertation to unpack this though!

  3. Okay, cool. Brings up more questions for me now.

    In your view of Abraham(and I like the analogy of platonic figures) is he a historical figure or a mytho-prototype? I.e., is he, and the events surrounding his life, an origin story for the Hebrew people that explains their standing with regard to Yahweh; independent of history as an actual person, yet explanatory, as an archetype, of the Hebrew people as a whole? Or was he both prototypical and historical? Or historical which became a conceptual prototype? Something else?

    If you want to answer this set of questions after the other ones, that's cool, but those are the things that came to mind when I read your explanation, so I thought I'd get them out before I forget(!).

  4. In the exam I'll be studying for soon I've been going over the time period when myth became an explanatory category in theology from Herder and Semler to John Robinson and Bultmann. It hasn't been my main focus, but it seems like there's a lot of different ways to understand the concept. I wouldn't go down any of those paths. Then of course there are all sorts of definitions of history. If I had to choose from your list of options, I'd say both historical and archetypal with a proviso on what it means for an archetype to be historical. All I'll say right now is that we can't go all the way with Platonism and make the Archetypes/divine ideas/Forms a-historical or uncreated. But I think the logic of Platonism is solid when it makes time dependent on, and an expression of, the world of Forms. So biblical figures are in a formal relationship to every other moment of history, which is to say that they are the beginning of time as such. This has important implications for what counts as history. It definitely cannot be the case that something historical becomes prototypical, as you put it. That puts the cart before the horse and makes the archetype (I prefer this to "prototype") dependent on time and not the other way around.