In The Thicket

3 Jul

There is much said and written about the found violence in the Quran and some interpretations of its voice. Media and politicians and some church leaders are quick to point the finger at the text as the reason for the violence of terrorism, war, treatment of women and children and its own form of law.

I am no expert on Islam but I do read the Christian scriptures and am constantly challenged by the violence there in, the violence accredited to heroes of faith, and the violence that emanates from or is sheeted home to God. And I am always challenged by the violence of the cross as the central focus of our faith.  It doesn’t matter how I read the texts, last weeks or this weeks, I am left with a sense of unnecessary violence as an integral part of my faith.

This violence is in full view in the Genesis reading of the binding of Isaac – the akedah – and the intervention of God at the very last moment to rescue the boy. It is often this intervention that is spoken of as the compassion of God but the reality is that Isaac was facing death at the hands of his father because of a command apparently given by God. Human sacrifice was prevalent in Abraham’s time. even though it had been banned by his people it still had a deep hold over the people and their understanding of God. Otherwise there could be no story. Abraham would have dismissed this idea as a madness and left it behind. He didn’t’. He went along with it.

“Not only do the prophets condemn such sacrifices in honour of Molech, but the Hebrew Bible even notes the power of such sacrifices when deployed against Israel in battle:

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. [2Kings 3:26-27]

The story of Isaac—horrific as it is—must also be read alongside the even worse story in Judges 11 where Jephthah offers his daughter as a human sacrifice in fulfilment of a vow.” (Jenks) It is a confronting story to read. There is no intervention by God; no last minute testimony to their faith, as the story of Abraham and Isaac is often interpreted; it ends as it was intended to, with the father killing his daughter to maintain a vow.

In the story of Isaac we get the straying sheep stuck in a thicket and all ends well. But does it? Has the damage been done? Have we ended up with a tainted God, a God who is not afraid of using violence and who is not impartial – he saves Isaac but not the daughter of Jephthah? Has this image of God continued to haunt the church, not the least through the interpretation of the cross as the inevitable means to solve God’s relationship problems with his creation?

Modern day atheists such as Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and others cite this seemingly in built desire for violence as the reason to dismiss any discussion of a god or God’s existence. You and I have our own stories and questions regarding the seeming disparity in justice, fairness and compassion shown by the world to those we love and care for. Where was God? Why did God allow such and such to happen? Why did God do no thing about this tragedy or disaster? Many who no longer profess faith can point to a moment when the perceived disparity between a God of love and a God of violence changed their heart and mind.

We cannot simply pass this off as an Old Testament anomaly. There is much in the birth of Christianity that raises the same questions. The history of the church in all its forms is replete with violence ranging from inquisitions, crusades, persecution of witches and women, the abuse of children and more seem to make a lie of the image of God as all consuming love.

What are we to do with these stories and experiences and how are we to frame or reframe the image of God? How are we to read the scriptures and the history of the church containing many such stories in such a way that we too do not find it all too incongruous and slip away ourselves?

We could:

  • Simply ignore that they are there and go merrily on our way oblivious to the impact they have on others – the ostrich approach;
  • Embrace them and spruik a wrathful God who will do what ever he please to whomever he pleases, but never to us  – the bring it on God approach;
  • Spend copious amount of time to study the research and academia and develop an appropriate intellectual understanding of why this would be so in this particular time for this particular people – the there is always a rational reason for stuff we don’t like approach;
  • Simply accept the incongruous nature of evolution of thought and understanding and get on with living out our understanding as truthfully and respectfully as possible – the living with the questions approach.

Living with the questions and the questionable seems to be the way faith and understanding has developed or evolved. It does not come pre-packaged fully comprehended ready to roll. It has to be grappled with, argued about and lived to become real. There is a sense that the stories which disturb us are a part of that process. Abraham’s almost murder of Isaac was stopped when Abraham had an insight and recognised the foolishness of his ways. Jephthah fails to stop his crime because his vow was more important than the outcome and he didn’t recognise the very same insight. The accrediting of the process in both cases to God forgets the cultural impulse to child sacrifice and the incredible growth in understanding required for Abraham to change his mind. No wonder the story is told with God at the centre, Abraham had to frame his experience this way to explain how he could do such a tremendous about turn.

If we are seeking a squeaky clean narrative of the evolution of the understanding of humans interaction with the Divine then we won’t find that in the scriptures. If we are seeking a nice neat interpretation of stories such as today’s Old testament story then we are fooling ourselves. The path to spiritual understanding and experience is a prickly one, as prickly as the thicket that caught the lamb. Not to learn to live with incongruous stories of an evolving relationship, and to learn to live with all our questions will find us  running the risk of abandoning our faith. Embrace the questions and the messy stuff, it is the only way.

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