An unacceptable tale

An unacceptable tale
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Ewingsdale
2 July 2017

As you may guess, by choosing to offer my sermon directly after the reading from Genesis 22, something is afoot.

In our Wednesday morning Bible study group we reflected on this passage, and discussed how best to deal with it in today’s services.

We had a number of choices:

  1. Read it like any other passage and allow it to pass more or less without comment.
  2. Choose not to read it at all, and simply avoid the problems it presents.
  3. Read the passage, but offer immediate comment to assist with its reception.

As you can see, I have opted for the last of those three choices.



Context is always import when we engage with Scripture:

  • the context in the ancient texts
  • the context in which we hear the passage
  • the context of our own lives

When the international lectionary committee chose the readings for this week, they could never have guessed what else would be happening in our context here as this passage was read aloud in all the major churches across Australia today:

This week we have seen the data from last year’s national census. Among other things the census demonstrated a continued decline in the number of Australians who identify as Christians (now just 52%), while a record high number of people (30%) reported they do not have any religion at all.

Then, at week’s end, came the announcement that Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, has been charged with historical child sex offences and will face court later this month.

While George Pell must enjoy the presumption of innocence until a court determines otherwise, and while it is hardly news that fewer of our neighbours still share our faith, both those stories about religion in the national media this week sit very awkwardly alongside today’s reading from the Old Testament.

Genesis 22 is a ‘text of terror’ and it resonates darkly with the major religious headlines of the past few days.


Texts of terror

The phrase ‘texts of terror’ was coined by American biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, in her book of that title first published in 1984. It refers originally to texts that involve “abuse, exploitation, and violence against women,” but can be extended to includes stories, laws, and apocalyptic texts that promote genocide, ethnic cleansing, tribalism, and dystopian visions of reality.

Today’s reading is certainly a text of terror even though it was not included in the original study by Trible.

Let me briefly sketch the layers of terror and horror in this central biblical narrative:

God is portrayed as testing Abraham’s faith by demanding his son Isaac as a human sacrifice: “your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac”. God allows this cruel test to proceed to the point when Abraham has a knife poised over his son’s neck. Only then does God rescue Isaac and relieve Abraham of his tragic mission.

Abraham not only accepts that God might make such a demand, but goes along with the request—revealing his murderous intention neither to Isaac nor to Sarah.

Isaac is the one figure to emerge from this despicable tale with his character intact. Having unwittingly assisted in the plot for his own murder, he is rescued at the last moment. He too, it seems, accepted that God could make such a demand and is prepared to submit to the abusive authority that controlled his fate.

Sarah makes no appearance in this story, but is a secondary victim to the psychological and physical abuse that Abraham is inflicting on her son—all in the name of religion. A few episodes earlier she was punished for questioning her capacity to conceive Isaac in her late 90s, but now Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to murder their son a few years later.

Truly this is a text of terror.

Imagine what the media would make of such a story if it were read out in a mosque this morning.

Imagine how respect for the church and openness to the ancient wisdom of our spiritual tradition would be impacted if our neighbours realised what we are reading in church this morning.

Imagine the impact of this biblical text on women and children who have been abused by men with a distorted sense of religion and a confused understanding of male privilege as something endorsed by God.

As we discussed all this last Wednesday morning, I remembered that I grew up with a father and later a stepfather who tried to kill me and my sisters, and who would both slip into dark and violent rages. That knowledge had slipped from my mind but was lurking in the shadows of my psyche.

Discussing this story on Wednesday morning revived those memoires.

How many other people hearing this story or reading the news reports these past few days will also have been reminded of violence and abuse in their own families, even in religious homes and in families who are leaders in the local church?


Communities of healing and hope

Last week I said the following:

… when read in our context, [this] is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

We must name and reject abuse and violence, even when it is found in the Bible—and especially when it is projected onto our understanding of God.

The God we see in Jesus challenges us to reject the dark and violent depiction of the divine in this and other biblical texts.

The God we encounter in Jesus invites us to form communities of hope and healing, where the victims of violent abuse find safety.

The God who comes us in Jesus is never to be found among the violent and abusive, even when such people drape themselves in religion and claim to be doing the will of God.

So now let us stand to hear the Gospel, the Good News, after which we shall sing our Gospel acclamation:

Alleluia, the Word of God is living! Alleluia!
The Gospel is among us! Allleluia! Alleluia!

[©2004 Richard Bruxvoort Colligan]


Suggestions for further reading

(1) For those interested in more detail about the receptionn history of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) tradition from Genesis 22 within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I have previously published some notes about the Akedah tradition online.

(2) Another aspect of the reception history of the Akedah tradition is the idea that this was the last and most challenging of ten tests that Abraham had to overcome to demonstate his total loyalty to YHWH. All 10 are not found in the OT, but complete lists (albeit inconsistent) occur in much later Jewish tradition. Here is a link to an essay by Prof. Scott B. Noegel (University of Washington) that outlines this post-biblical tradition in some detail.

(3) Here are 2 versions of the Ten Trials of Abraham (from

There are actually a number of schools of thought about this. Here are some.
Maimonides lists them as follows:
1. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. G‑d tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. G‑d tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
Note that all of the tests in Maimonides’ list can be found clearly in Scripture. Most other lists include events that are recorded only in midrashic accounts. For example, the following list is brought by Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro. Notice that the first event listed—Abraham’s being thrown into a furnace—is one that is not recorded in the Bible, but is known to us only by way of midrashic traditions.
1. He is thrown into a fiery furnace.
2. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
3. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
4. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
5. He faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
6. He is told by G‑d that his children will be strangers in a strange land.
7. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
8. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
9. G‑d tells him to send away Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
10. Abraham is told by G‑d to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.
Should you want to do more research, you can find more lists in Midrash Tehillim, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, and the commentary of the Meiri on Ethics of Our Fathers.


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