And What of Love?

anewI’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham lately.

Specifically the story of Abraham and Isaac. More specifically, about Abraham’s call by God to sacrifice Isaac. The so-called “test.”

I’m as bothered by this as I am about God inflicting Job with all his woes as the object of a wager with Satan.

This is not my God, this God who uses and abuses his very own.

It is one of the reasons why any rational person should rebel at the demand that scripture be taken literally. For the God portrayed in these examples is not a God to love or worship. It is only a God to be ignored at one’s peril.

But of course, most of us aren’t literalists. We see that scripture is the reflection of those who came before us on how they came to recognize and live with this transcendent God. How they came to see their relationship to this all-powerful deity. How they came to enter into the grace of faith and understanding.

As is so often the case with scripture, because surely it is divinely inspired, scripture often informs scripture. We find answers to the deeply agonizing questions offered up by one text in another.

Such is the case today, at least for me. Today John tells us that in those final hours in the life of the Master, he said some amazing things. Among them, he issued his own commandment, a “new” one as he said.

love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

Go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Think about it from the point of view of today. Your neighbor comes to you, a pious woman, one who you know goes to church regularly. You see a worn bible next to her favorite chair in her living room when you visit. She often makes reference to biblical passages in your conversations. She is known for her commitment to acts of charity.  She says to you:

“God spoke to me last night. It was the clearest thing you can imagine. He told me that he wants me to take my dearest child, my youngest, and offer her as a sacrifice to him. Please say goodbye to my darling girl, for you will see her no more.”

What would you do? Well, quite obviously, you would either alert the woman’s husband or call the authorities. In any case, you would do all you could to prevent her from this act. If you learned of the act after it had been done, you would expect the woman to be taken into custody and either held for treatment or otherwise confined. Many would of course dispute her “vision” and claim her either mad or a murderer.

That would be the sane response.

Yet we read the story of Abraham and Isaac as if it all makes perfect sense. In the story, Abraham, known to love Isaac as his long-awaited son by Sarah, makes not a single objection. He offers no mental reservation, no agony of decision whatsoever. Is this even normal?

Of course it is not. And the story is just that, a story. God does not and would not ask such a thing of his creatures. The story illustrates in some crude fashion, how important it is to put God first in one’s life. It suggests that God means more than anything else. God’s desires come first. And it is crude, let’s be clear.

As is often the case with a teaching moment, we go way over the top to make a point. This the writer did. If you think you know what loving God means, well let me tell you what it REALLY means, the writer suggests. It’s hyperbole in its extreme form.

God would never ask such a thing. No rational person would do such a thing. It it meant to instruct us on what it means to love God, and of course to show us how very very short of the mark we really are. We cannot comprehend even how to love God like this.

Yet, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows us exactly and perfectly how to love God. He simplifies it for us. Love your neighbor as I have loved you.


Jesus, in his time with his disciples has shown them again and again the meaning of love. This willingness to think of others first, this willingness to get up when tired, and offer help, this willingness to bear the condemnation of others for the “company you keep”. Jesus showed his disciples that to lead, indeed to love, meant being last, being the servant, making sure that each and every person one encountered was brought into wholeness. Jesus was about to show them ultimately that life itself was worth sacrificing for a principle–not someone else’s life, but his own.

The principle of course was that being true to God in one’s heart, and living that out no matter what the personal sacrifice might entail was the way to bring heaven and earth into an embrace. Jesus answers the dilemma we face in the gruesome story of Abraham and his efforts to commit infanticide.  He shows us what the love that the ancient writer was attempting to define actually is in real and practical terms.

Scripture informs scripture, and forever teaches us that the stories are just that, stories which help us jump into the cloudy waters of our minds, to yet peel away another layer of darkness on the journey to the light.



12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aliceny
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 11:16:28

    Thank you, Sherry,
    The Abraham/Isaac story is such a difficult one to interpret. You have given one of the clearest, most profound exegesis that I have seen. Those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture miss so much; they never really get the full meaning. And if one tries to explain the passage as you have done here, they get angry. How much richer the full interpretation could make in their understanding of God’s Word for their lives.

    I am so glad to see that you make a point of the use of hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) as a literary technique in Scripture. This is a method of writing that was used especially in the Old Testament. It was the method of writing and speaking used in biblical times. But until one is told that this is a technique to help us understand what is being said, or done, one never really gets the point. If we listen to or read what Middle Easterners are saying today we will notice that same sense of hyperbole in what they are saying. (Too bad those in our State Dept. don’t understand that!)

    My idea, or picture, of God as a young child reading the Old Testament Bible story textbook in a Catholic grammar school resulted in a totally distorted, almost frightening concept of God. He became a stern entity to be feared. He was always watching me, waiting to judge and then punish me. Never did I get a feeling that He was Love or, specifically, that He loved me. I think that most young people at that time (1930s-40s) who heard bible stories grew up with the same impression of “God.”

    In the mid-1950s I was divorced after four years of marriage (to a monster). I had one child. I was treated like a pariah — by my church and by some family members.
    Again, it was the cruel and distorted words of Jesus that were used against me — from Scripture, some of the teachings of the early Church Fathers, and on and on – right down to the local pastors and priests. So, I left the RC church for a few years. I did return, and was baptized in the Spirit in 1989. My life in Christ and many years of parish ministry (including leading a Scripture study class for 14 years), began then.

    Unfortunately, that same idea of punishment carried over well into the mid-1960s, at least in the Catholic Church, until the advent of Vatican II.

    Another O.T. story that has always alarmed me is the one in Genesis in which God is supposed to have given instructions to those entering the land of Canaan to kill everyone — everyone! I have since read some excellent interpretations of this story but it took some digging.

    Glad you mentioned John 13:34-5 as it ties in with the Abraham story. Our (RC) liturgical celebrations, I think, are unique in that all of the Scripture readings are tied to one theme. Sometimes it’s a stretch to make them mesh but most often they do. I’m not sure if that is done by other Christian denominations.

    Keep on ‘truckin,’ girl. You are doing holy work in a blessed, much-needed ministry.


    • Sherry
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 09:41:31

      Such incredibly kind words from you. I thank you profusely. As you point out, there are many such stories in the bible that are at the least disturbing (our new atheists are so good at pointing these out to us). I grieve for your treatment by the Church. I have taken the position that my own “sin” as the church defines it is, simply something I ignore. I belong to a parish, and I partake fully of the sacraments. I have no desire to “confess” that my marriage is not recognized by the church (my husband who is not Catholic was previously married–and never to a Catholic either). I see the church as the vehicle I use to express my faith and worship. They are my tool, not my parent. I look to it for guidance, but never for approval. Perhaps that is self-serving, but I know that I am far from alone in that position. there are gays who are doing the same, as well as plenty of other “dissenting Catholics” who refuse to give up our right to our church. Bless you for coming through all your trials with love still in your heart. You are blessed.


  2. ipray4ublog
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 13:54:59

    I repsect your view, but I do have to say that I don’t agree with your take on this “story” – or the “stories” of the bible. Though I do agree with you that the teaching of Abraham and the request to sacrifice his son Issac is a hard lesson to take, I do not see it as a mere story. Though a litteral interpretation of this scripture is harsh, it is plainly laying out the damands of God. it says: “Obey Me!” “Sacrifice the things that mean the most to you to show faith, obedience, and love.”

    You said the following: “This is not my God, this God who uses and abuses his very own,” and the commentor above said “resulted in a totally distorted, almost frightening concept of God. He became a stern entity to be feared. ” These comments were made as if God should NOT be feared… but infact, He should be feared. He almighty, all powerful. Though His all things are possible. Fear of our God should be natural, and a steady reminder that He is above all other things. We should most definitely fear his judgement and punishment when we have disobeyed Him, but that is no different than we as children of our earthly mother and father.


    • Sherry
      Apr 30, 2013 @ 07:59:28

      We simply disagree. I don’t believe for a second that God demands obedience, or that He is to be feared. Such is a God unworthy of praise or worship. God is, as I and I believe many believe him, a gracious, patient, God, who loves his creation, and calls to us incessantly to join him. God demands no obedience for if he did then we don’t come freely. Faith is not real unless it is freely given, certainly not out of fear. I’m sorry your vision is like this. It is hard to love when you are feeling so compelled out of fear. Blessings to you. !END


      • ipray4ublog
        May 01, 2013 @ 15:28:34

        “It is interesting that Paul appealed to both “fear” and “love” to explain his motive to witness (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). To “fear the Lord” (v.11) means “reverential fear … of God, as a controlling motive of the life, in matters spiritual and moral, not a mere frear of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him” (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol 2, p84).

        There is no contradiction here. If Christ loved the world enough to die for all, we should think twice about treating him and his message casually.

      • Sherry
        May 02, 2013 @ 07:39:39

        It interests me why fundamentalists like yourself always quote Paul yet never Jesus. If you wish to fear God, by all means do so. Most of us prefer to love God and follow him as we understand him knowing that we have nothing to fear. !END

    • aliceny
      May 01, 2013 @ 21:01:51

      Since I am the “commentor” quoted above I reply:

      There is NO separate word or phrase in Hebrew or in Greek for the words, or phrase, “fear of God.” As a Scripture reader, you probably know that the original language of the Old Testament (BCE) and later for the New Testament (CE or AD) was Hebrew. Both were eventually translated into Greek (Septuagint) and finally, Latin. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Now, most Scripture linguists seem to prefer the original language, Hebrew.

      (Another linguistic difference that occurs in the Greek language is for the word, “Love.” That has four meanings. The Hebrew word is “ahab.” The Latin word is amor.)

      Another thing to consider: the last time I checked there were at least ten or more “translations,” with many being continually revised. Now that IS confusing. By the time we keep making revisions in certain “easy to understand, modern-day English” translations we will have completely adulterated the WORD as it was originally written.

      We do get into difficulty when we try to attach a literal translation to Scripture passages because, in many cases, there is no Hebrew or Greek equivalent word.

      I have read where Jewish scholars have posited that there may have been scribal errors in the O.T., especially when portions of the scrolls were copied and re-copied. There were no computers or typewriters. There were fallible human beings, most often writing in poor light. The errors were not in the message or in the intent of the inspired Scripture writer,

      The word ‘fear’ as most written and understood by Paul in his original writing meant “reverence, respect, being in awe of God.” In the Corinthian section you cite above, I found this in a Commentary, “What he [Paul] really means is Christ’s awe and reverence.” (Wm. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p.246.)

      Quibbling or carping over linguistic minutiae when reading Scripture can cause needless angst among Christians. It can demean the Word that we should be praying so hard to understand and to guide our following of Christ Jesus..



      • Sherry
        May 02, 2013 @ 07:50:01

        Well said indeed. You are correct both in your exegesis and in your conclusions as far as I know. The only copies of “NT” books are in Greek. With more than 5,000 individual manuscripts, it is indeed true that there are many discrepancies between them, mostly on minor things. Scribal errors were common and there are points in the OT where lines have been inadvertently repeated, because the scribe lost his place. There can be no “word of God” in any real sense any more, if there ever was one. In fact one manuscript contains in the margin a admonition to the scribe not to alter the words as written. It was apparently quite common for scribes to think at times that the writer “misspoke” or that they understood what the writer was trying to say with inelegant language, and “cleaned it up.” In any case, a literal reading, as you say, is almost always wrong. One striking place where words are not translated correctly is in the famous place where Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?” As you recall that happens three times…but Jesus’ Love word is not the same as Peter’s answer Love word. Jesus asks for the all incompassing love and Peter responds with a “friendly” love. Two different greek words, yet the translations are always simply love. It makes a big difference in how you understand what happened. Fundamentalists miss the richness of the text, and also the meaning when they insist on placing 20th century meanings to often-ill translated words. This is especially true of the KJV which is one of the worst translations, but the only one most of them will read. Thanks for your very helpful additions to the discussion! !END

      • aliceny
        May 02, 2013 @ 07:59:30

        Thank you, my sister in Christ. You have put additional meat on the bones of what I said. It didn’t want to elaborate too much more. It wasn’t the place to do so and I don’t think it would have made any difference in this situation.

      • Sherry
        May 02, 2013 @ 08:22:46

        You are much wiser than I. Although I’ve talked to fundamentalists for years, I still hold out hope that a mind might open to the wonders of a loving God. Bless you. !END

  3. Tim
    May 04, 2013 @ 13:25:59

    Gosh, Sherry, I’m unable to get here sooner (due to work and travel and whatnot) and finally arrive to find all sorts of wonderful conversation going on! What a pleasure–first to read your post, which is full of wisdom and common sense, and then to follow the thread. So much great learning here!

    When it comes to the OT, I’m aligned with Walter Breuggemann’s idea that it should be read “dialogically”–i.e., as an ongoing conversation between God and humanity. It is first and foremost the story of continuous covenant, in which its characters’ trust in God’s promises are tested on an impossible scale. The Exodus, of course, is the core narrative and every step of that journey finds the Israelites in extreme circumstances that demand unyielding trust in their God. The actuality of the story isn’t relevant. It doesn’t matter that archaeologists and historians can’t find any proof of Semite enslavement in Egypt, or that scientists can’t explain the parting of the Red Sea, water flowing out of a rock, and so on. To burden these accounts with literalism is to crush their power and beauty. They are given to magnify our need to trust God in all our circumstances. Their overt exaggeration is a sacred gift.

    African slaves intuitively grasped this, which is why their spirituals constantly referred to OT stories of intervention and deliverance as prototypes of their trust in God’s promises. They adopted Biblical folklore as their own and the faith it inspired sustained them. Indeed, it continues to do so in African-American faith communities, which commonly hold “if God could do it for [name any OT character], God can do it for me.” That’s the point in the sacrifice of Isaac story: God brings Abraham to this unimaginable place to prove God is faithful. We are right to resist the cruelty of God’s request. Yet, in the end, we should marvel in the mercy that results from Abraham’s trust. And the hyperbole is effective, simply because nothing God ever asks of us will equal the demand placed on Abraham. Yet if God would provide a ram–both as a reward for Abraham’s faith and a tangible demonstration of God’s mercy–we can be confident that God will do no less for us.

    This is the conversation at the root of the OT. God promises, we trust. We don’t obey God out of fear of what may happen if we don’t–or (in Abraham’s case) if we do. We trust God and out of that trust grows our reverence for God and desire to discern God’s will at work in our lives. There is truth and there are facts. Facts must be proven true. Truth need not be burdened with facts.

    Your reading of this most perplexing passage liberates the mighty truth it contains. As always, I’m so grateful for your courage to wrestle with tough questions that draw us into meaningful dialogue with our Maker. As Rob Bell has often said, “The hard questions scare us, but God isn’t afraid of them. There’s nothing we can ask that God can’t handle!”

    Many blessings,


    • Sherry
      May 04, 2013 @ 16:20:06

      Tim as always you add so much to the discussion. Your command of both scripture and history lends an added dimension to this blog for sure. You are so helpful in pointing out that the deepest meaning of these stories is our learning to trust God in every situation no matter how desperate. He is always faithful. And of course, we learn to be so much more to ourselves and others when we become that to God. Don’t ever apologize for being “late”. I consider it a huge privilege that you add to this blog by your wonderful comments.


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