Gen 22:1-14; Rom 6:12-23
In the Kena Upanishad, we read a story that isn’t about what it’s about on the surface, but about a major theological shift happening in the ancient Hindu community. Here’s the story:
Brahman, the one God, had just seen to it that Indra and the other gods won their latest battle. Indra and the others were taking credit, bragging about their bravery and ferocity, when Brahman appeared to them. They were a bit taken aback and said to each other, “Who is this being that fills us with such awe?” They pushed Agni out in front and told him to find out (he was,
after all, supposed to know everything).
“Who are you?” asked the one God. “I am the god of fire,” Agni answered. “What power do you possess?” Agni replied proudly, “I can burn all things on the earth.” Brahman placed a piece of straw before him and said, “Burn this.” Agni tried and tried, but couldn’t even raise a decent smolder. Agni returned to the other gods shaken and bewildered.
Next the gods sent Vayu, the god of the air. “I am Vayu, god of air and space,” he announced when he stood in front of the mysterious being. “What are your powers?” Brahman asked. “I can
carry off all the earth in a whirlwind.” Brahman held forth the same piece of straw and said, “Blow this away.” Vayu too, returned unsuccessful.
Finally Indra, chief of the gods, squared his jaw and ran toward the being, but Brahman disappeared. All the gods were speechless with wonder, for they knew they had seen the Supreme Spirit, the source of their being.
On the surface, this is a story about the gods encountering a bigger God than themselves. But what this story is really about was the transition from tribal polytheism to a qualified monotheism. Did this myth really happen? Unless you are a Hindu fundamentalist, the answer is probably “no,” but it does embody and point to something that did really happen.
In part, this is the purpose of myth—it embodies a truth known by a community in a story. The story isn't historically or factually true, or it needn't be—because what the story is actually about is true. Such is the case with our story from Genesis today.
Did this story really happen? Did Abraham really take his son to the top of Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? Probably not. So…what is the story about?
One of the main themes running throughout the Hebrew scriptures is the warning against idolatry and the prohibition against worshiping gods other than the God of Israel. We live in a world with great religious diversity today, and our feeling is pretty much live-and-let live. The diatribes against the heathen gods in our Old Testament just rub us the wrong way.
But let’s stop and consider those prohibitions for a moment. WHY are the prophets so adamantly against the gods of their neighbors? Why was this prohibition so important?
There were some significant differences between the worship of Israel and that of her neighbors. The most important difference, though, was the practice of child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was very prevalent in the Middle East, and it was prevalent among the Jewish people as well.
But God, as you can imagine, was not at all pleased with that practice. In Deuteronomy, God tells Moses, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (12:31).
The Jewish revelation was that the practice of sacrificing children was abhorrent and an abomination before God. This is a major shift in worship practice, singling out Israel from its neighbors, and embodied in this story. In this story, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his child. That sounds horrific to us, but in Abraham’s day, this was would have just been a regular Tuesday. “Of course you would sacrifice your first born to the god Molech—that’s what you gotta do to get ahead. It's a dog eat dog Iron Age out there.”
But in this one story, God says, “No more. No more will you sacrifice your child to me or any other god. Such a sacrifice is an abomination in my sight, and anyone guilty of it, their blood will be required of them. I am the Lord.”
This was a huge shift, especially in a time and place where children were not seen as particularly important or precious. With this story, Israel once and for all sets herself apart from her neighbors. Her worship forever changes, her future changes, her attitude toward her children changes, her attitude towards her neighbors change.
No one knows exactly when that change came about—probably sometime before David's reign, because we still hear tales of child sacrifice among Israel's more wicked rulers, such as King Manasseh of Judah in 2nd Kings. It was definitely a thing—a wicked and contemptible thing.
This story from Genesis shows Abraham being tested, but really it is his offspring, the people Israel, who are being tested. Would they follow the way of Molech, of Baal, of the heathen gods made of stone, or would they follow the God of Israel, who demands obedience, not sacrifice? That push and pull is evident throughout the Hebrew scriptures. It isn’t about the prophets being extra cranky about other religions—it’s about God saying, “No more. You shall not do this abominable thing. You will sacrifice your children no more.”
This week, I’ve been thinking that we have a lot to repent of as Americans, especially we who are white Americans. Our country was built on our willingness—nay, on our eagerness—to sacrifice black and brown sons and daughters for the financial gain of a few rich white people. Just imagine an angel staying the hand of the auctioneer, the lynch mob, the cop kneeling on a man’s neck, and the voice of God saying, “No. It shall not be so, never again.”
Never again will crosses be burned on the lawns of black families to terrorize them. Let us say it together: never again…
Never again will a young black man be lynched for failing to be adequately deferential. Let us say it together: never again…
Never again will a black man be shot in the back, or a woman in her own house, because they looked “suspicious,” whatever that means. Let us say it together: never again…
The story of Genesis is a true story, because it tells us something true. It also speaks the truth with a capital T to convict us of the ways that we have not lived up to the calling that God has given us.
Hear what God is saying to us, “Other nations may sacrifice their children—but it shall not be so with you. For you shall love your children, you will protect the orphan and the widow, you will welcome the stranger and the foreigner, you will cherish all your daughters and sons, now and forever.”
We have experienced a shift in public perception. White people are waking up to what black folk have known all along—the system is rigged. Injustice is rampant. And the systematic sacrifice of our children will stop now. The shooting of our young black men will stop now. The mass incarceration of huge populations black and brown Americans must stop now.
We need a new myth that will bring this home to us, we need a new story that fits us like our own clothes. But until that myth arises from our collective unconscious, let us borrow this one. It isn’t a perfect fit, but it fits well enough, and it is no less true for it not being ours.
Our service to Molech ends here. This day, we Americans must choose whether we will serve Molech or the Lord. Thus far, despite our lip service, Molech has won out. But God is calling us to something greater, something higher. God calls us not simply to tolerance, not to “go along to get along,” but to something almost unthinkable given the violence of our history. God calls us to love.
Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Rome, says that we cannot serve two masters. We will be the servant of sin or the servant of grace, we will serve Molech or the Lord. We will serve hatred, or we will serve love. And we must choose.
The choice has never been clearer. God's demand has never been clearer. And never have we been so close to actually hearing it. Let us pray…
Stop the knife, O God. Stay our hand. Shame us and convict us, that never again would we be willing to sacrifice one of our children on the altar of hate, or greed, or white comfort, or convenience. Send your angels, God, to intervene. Save us, for without your help, we as a nation will surely perish. We ask this in the name of Jesus, who should have been the last child ever sacrificed, and the last person of color ever to be lynched. Amen.