THE FIRE AND THE KNIFE
A sermon on Genesis 22:1-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
June 28, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
It is one of those stories in the news that comes along every now and then that creates sensational headlines—not an easy thing to do given the social and political climate in which we find ourselves these days. It started off with the disappearance of two missing children last seen in Idaho back in September. But as the story has unfolded, it just seems to get “curiouser and curiouser.”1 The more information that comes out about the case, the more it strains belief. Maybe you have read about it too…
At the center of this bizarre story is a woman named Lori Vallow. Ms. Vallow has been dubbed by the media as “The Doomsday Mom.” When she was arrested in Hawaii in February, she was charged with a long list of felony offenses having to do with the disappearance of her two children. Those charges include reckless endangerment, child abandonment and obstructing a criminal investigation. That is bad enough, but as the story has unfolded and more details have emerged, it has become even darker and more sinister. About two weeks ago, the bodies of Ms. Vallow’s two missing children were discovered in shallow graves on property owned by Lori’s fifth husband, Chad Daybill.
Lori and Chad are members of a group that call themselves “The Church of the Firstborn.” According to testimony in court documents, Lori has claimed to be a god-like figure who is responsible for ushering in the biblical end-times by leading the 144,000 servants of God mentioned in the book of Revelation, chapter seven. The beliefs of The Church of the Firstborn seem to be a mixture of bits and pieces of Mormon teachings combined with what one family member has called ideas that were “ripped [from the pages of] a Dungeons and Dragons manual.”
In a conversation with one of Lori’s nieces that is part of state’s evidence, it has been revealed that Lori believed that her children had become “zombies.” She explained that the bodies of her children had had their original spirits forced out of them. Their bodies had been taken over by either a demon, a worm, or a slug. When this kind of thing happens, she said, the person’s true spirit goes into “limbo” until the host body is physically killed. After the body has been killed, then the original spirit is released from limbo. Ms. Vallow believes that she is on a mission from God to rid the world of zombie creatures. She also claims to hear the voices of the ancient Old Testament prophets and she believes that the return of Christ will occur sometime in July 2020.
1 To use Lewis Carroll’s memorable phrase in Alice in Wonderland.
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As of this writing, Ms. Vallow and Mr. Daybill are being held in an Idaho jail on $1 million bond. At their next court appearance, it is likely that they will have charges of murdering her two children added to the already long list of charges that they face. If they are charged with those crimes, then it will be because Ms. Vallow and Mr. Daybill believed that she were obeying what God told them to do by killing the two children…2
Today’s text from Genesis 22 is one of the most controversial stories in the entire Hebrew Bible. Let’s not try to sanitize it. At the very least, this is a deeply troubling story. It raises all kinds of questions for the thoughtful reader. It raises questions such as these: What kind of God tests someone by asking a human father to sacrifice his son? Does this really describe the God that we worship? Is this a God worthy of our devotion who would test a man in such a way? What kind of horrific father was Abraham anyway to agree to do such a thing? Notice that, in the text, Abraham does not raise any objections at all with God. Incredibly, he does not seem to struggle at all with God’s command to kill Isaac. Such behavior is hard to fathom, wouldn’t you agree?… And what about Isaac? The actions of his father Abraham on Mount Moriah that day must have left some deep emotional and psychological scars on him. I imagine that the memory of that event haunted Isaac for the rest of his life. Really…How could it not? I wonder if it is significant that the scriptures never record any more conversation between Abraham and Isaac again after this chapter…I’m not sure what that means… And what does the story tell us about Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac? In the previous chapter of Genesis, Sarah plays a prominent and quite vocal role in demanding that Hagar and Abraham’s other son Ishmael be banished from the household into the wilderness to die. But here, even as Abraham takes Isaac—her only child—to the mountain to be sacrificed to God, Sarah is strangely silent. Unbelievably she says nothing. And she does nothing.
Usually when Christian preachers approach this text, they invariably draw the parallel of God offering up his son Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin and Abraham offering up Isaac as an act of worship. I get that. It was the great 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth who wrote that Christ is the lens through which the Old Testament is to be interpreted. And I think that there is a lot of truth to his statement.
And that certainly seems to be implied by the writer of the book of Hebrews when he wrote these words: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who received the promises was about to sacrifice his only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that
2 Info gathered from several news sources including www.usatoday.com/story/mews/nation/2020/06/13/lori-vallow-chad-daybill-case-jj-vallow-tylee-ryan-dead/5010775002/. (Accessed June 23, 2020)
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your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”3
But I am not sure that injecting New Testament ideas into Old Testament readings is always the best way to interpret an Old Testament text. Traditionally Moses is said to be the author of the book of Genesis, though it must be said that nowhere in the book itself is Moses identified as the author. If Moses is indeed the author, then that means that Genesis would have been written sometime during the 15th Century BC. Based on the internal evidence of the book, other reputable scholars have suggested dates as late as the Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century BC. In either case, the link between Genesis 22 and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion could not have existed for those first readers since they are separated by many centuries. The point, then, is that it is probably best not to push the interpretation that Abraham and Isaac represent a foreshadowing of Christ’s crucifixion…and that certainly is not how the first readers of the book of Genesis would have understood the story…
The story begins as Abraham receives a word from the Lord to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah and to sacrifice him on one of the mountains that God would show him. The scripture does not tell us, but I suppose that God spoke to Abraham in a dream, for the next verse says that Abraham got up early on the next morning to prepare for the journey. In addition to two servants, Abraham took wood for the sacrifice and started on the road with Isaac.
There’s not much in the way of conversation recorded while on the journey. Perhaps the air was filled with a deadly silence, both Abraham and Isaac being lost in their thoughts. Perhaps these are some of the thoughts that filled young Isaac’s mind:
Mile after mile we have walked toward a distant hill in silence. The wood grows heavy on my shoulders, sticks for the altar biting into my neck….My father carries a smoldering coal in a pot which sends smoke rising around his face. The smoke must sting because I think he is weeping…I see him touching the knife in his belt, lifting it again and again, as if its weight, like the wood, is burdensome…To distract myself from my burden, I ask, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice, Father?” “God will provide the lamb,” he says, and looks away again toward the mountain as if he must study the path up its flanks…How old he looks, walking beside me, shoulders slumped beneath his beard, his bent legs seeming to quiver…
Abraham too is mulling over the purpose of the journey and what he has been commanded to do. He thinks to himself:
Of all the roads that I have traveled, in all the years of journeying from Haran, this has been the road that is hardest to walk…This fire is consuming me, this knife is cutting into the heart of me, the grief stealing the breath in me, even as we near the chosen hill…How hard it was to lose Ishmael, whom I sent into the wilderness with Hagar, though God has assured me that the boy will be father to his own nation…But is not Isaac the child of God’s promise, through whom my descendants will be numerous as
3 Hebrews 11:17-19.
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the stars?…God, I have heeded Your voice from Chaldea to Canaan, followed Your calling with trust in Your word. I have faith that You bless Your servants. Yet giving up Isaac may cost me more than perhaps I have strength to bear…I did not know that faith was such fire. I did not know that faith was so knife-edged. God, is this wood he carries meant for my son alone?…Or is the altar that I will build for my own heart as well?
At last they reach the hill that God has shown to Abraham. Leaving the servants behind, Abraham and Isaac ascend the hill. And when they reach the summit, Isaac thinks to himself:
At last I get to lay the burden of wood here at the top of the hill…How carefully now my father arranges each stone and stick of the altar; each piece set in place like a gesture of love. Again I ask him, “Where is the lamb?”…His eyes are wet beneath his gray brow, his gray beard trembles, like the hand on my shoulder, his other hand holding rope. “You know that I love you,” he whispers…and as he begins to bind me, he sobs it again. And I begin to tremble too…Both of us now are weeping, as with his old arms he lays me on the altar…
As the time for the sacrifice has drawn near, Abraham’s thoughts go to what he is about to do…
In my hand is the knife, at my feet the coal. The boy on the wood, shaking and crying. My own vision blurred with tears…and then I hear the Voice, the angel saying, “Stop.” And I am glad to stop, and gladder still to see the ram caught in the thicket, its horns tangled in branches…and now I am crying with joy as I cut loose my son and seize the provided sheep for the sacrifice…And I shout praise to God for the giving of the gift…
Freed from his bonds, Isaac steps away from the altar and watches as the lamb is sacrificed and the fire on the altar is kindled:
I too give thanks to God for the giving of the gift…I am still shaking as the fire consumes the altar…but curiously my father does not clean the knife when he is finished. He says, “I think that I will keep it like this,” his gaze fixed upon on the blood-red blade. “I think I will keep it like this as a reminder. Thanks be to God for the gift…”4
Let us pray:
O Lord, we trust in Your unfailing love and we rejoice that You have called us into Your kingdom. We praise Your name that You do not abandon us, though we wrestle with doubt and sorrow. Do not turn away from us and, instead, shine Your light into our darkness. Life us up when we fall and may our hearts rejoice in You, now and forever. Amen.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
4 I am indebted to Andrew King’s poem “The Fire and the Knife,” from which I have adapted this last section. www.earth2earth.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-pentecost3 (Accessed June 23, 2020)
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THE FIRE AND THE KNIFE