Binding our children in our 'modern' age

May 25th, 2022

In one of scripture’s most haunting and disturbing scenes, a father and his son climb a mountain carrying the instruments of a sacrifice.

When they come to the right spot, the father builds an altar, binds his son, and reaches out for a knife to kill the boy.

Just then, an angel stays his hand, and the father notices instead a ram caught in nearby briars. He takes the ram and offers it instead on the altar, and from then on he called that place, “the LORD will provide.”

I wonder what you’ve found most unsettling in that story; it’s hard to pick a single part. The readiness of a father to kill his son? The questions of providence and divine will, the lengths to which obedience and faithfulness might take us? It’s hard to turn this story toward the beautiful and the good, no matter how you twist it round in your hands.

In the midrashim reflecting on Abraham’s journey up Mount Moriah, one of the rabbis says that God waved Abraham around like an ensign, like a flag for all the world to see. Most of our translations set the scene by saying that God put Abraham to the test.

So, does Abraham pass the test?

Perhaps our revulsion with this scene mixed with our interpretive history—how many sermons have proclaimed Abraham the faithful hero of this moment?—enables us to pass too quickly by, without challenging the absurdities that this binding suggests about both Abraham and God. Perhaps a closer inspection may yet reveal surprises to us.

The rabbis, in their midrashic interpretations, teach us to pay attention to the smallest, niggling details. From the beginning, this dark scene contains plenty of signals that all is not as it should be, that all is not right with Abraham in the land of Canaan.[1] 

He arises early to avoid his family, and saddles his own donkey, rather than having the servants to do it—signals of subterfuge and a desire to hide his actions. He prepares wood for a sacrifice, when surely the place he is going will have wood enough to kindle a fire.

And even more strangely, Abraham is silent. This patriarch who found the courage to negotiate the LORD down on Sodom’s destruction, who challenged the Judge of the earth to do what is right if only ten good people could be found in the city’s walls, is now suddenly silent in the face of injustice with an even greater personal cost.

Even more subtly, the chapter begins with “God (ha-elohim) tested Abraham,” the first time Abraham has been addressed not by the covenant name—inviting the reader to at least ask, “Are we talking about the LORD here, or are we dealing with “the gods," for whom child sacrifice is an all-too-frequent ask?”

In the dynamics of the unfolding revelation of the God-who-is-not-like-other-gods, we forget that these people are just as often unlearning to hear the voices of other gods as they are learning to recognize the LORD’s voice. And by the end of this story, the evidence suggests that Abraham has failed the test. His family is scattered: we only see Sarah again at her death, while Abraham goes on to Beersheba; no mention is made of Isaac coming down off the mountain, and even when we do see him again, there is great distance between him and Abraham.

The story is too replete with shadowy ambiguities to allow for any clear, concise reading. And yet, perhaps we can see that in many ways Abraham fails the test—and that the LORD doesn’t commend Abraham, but instead concedes, keeping the LORD’s promises even while recognizing that Abraham has not yet grasped the LORD’s full, gracious character enough to protest, to argue, to refuse the “divine” request that this God so clearly rejects and abhors (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31; Jeremiah 19:5).

This moment may be God’s attempt to unlearn from Abraham the predilections and possibilities of child sacrifice, to draw out of him like poison from a wound the imagination that says, “if this god asks it of me, I will even offer my son, my only son.”

And if that is the case, if this is the test before Abraham—if he can recognize the gracious voice of the LORD among the hungry calls of the nations’ gods or not—then Abraham has clearly failed.

And maybe our unwillingness to recognize Abraham’s failure can help explain our own blatant moral bankruptcy.

I am writing this article on the morning after an 18-year-old Uvalde resident shot and killed 19 elementary school students and two adults before being shot to death himself, adding yet another horrifying scene of death to our national story.

We have been put to the test, and we are clearly failing. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, in 2020 firearms became the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the U.S., surpassing motor vehicle crashes. The gods of the nations, with names like “freedom” and “security,” keep calling out to us to offer our children as entire offerings, and we are met again with our own startling silence. Our schools have become the sites of immolation, teaching our children to offer themselves as distractions, waiving and shouting at someone shooting at them in order to give other students the chance to escape. 

No doubt in the coming days, there will be calls from politicians and pundits for more armed security officers in schools and an expansion of active shooter drill programs as a response. Meanwhile, our nation’s nine great high priests continue to mull over New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, the most recent second amendment case before the court seeking to regulate carrying concealed guns in public. District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago are strong indications (and with little other precedent to suggest otherwise) that these priests will continue to make it easier for such sacrificial acts to take place. 

The public debates will continue to treat these matters as if it is a simple binary—either you can have unrestricted access to firearms, or you cannot have any, and then how will you protect yourself—instead of recognizing that there is a wide space of possible futures in between. In the meantime, many of us find ourselves exhausted from all of it: the pointless debates, the political and judicial inaction, along with the grinding anxiety that comes every morning as kids get on buses for another day on the altar…I mean, at the school.

When we are exhausted, as Willie Jennings points out, we would do well to remember the words of Jesus to his disciples when they asked why they could not cast demons. He told them that “this kind comes out only by prayer,” with later editions added “and fasting” to this verse, a helpful and insightful amendment. As Jennings invites us to see in this moment, prayer and fasting may translate into refusing to listen to voices that drive our social antagonism, “and instead listening for those voices that speak our hopes. It also means finally entering the kind of fasting that we Americans have refused.”

Jennings describes such a fast so compellingly:

“We need a gun fasting. It is time to give up guns. We need not only prohibitions against war weapons in our streets, but also gun-buy-back programs, and gun-destruction community parties. Yet more than these, we need new police practices that make the use of guns the absolute last resort. More than all of this, we need to declare a time of an actual gun fast. No more hunting, shooting competitions, gun sports, range shooting practice, gun buying, gun shows, etc., until we see a 50 percent reduction in gun violence in this country. I would prefer to see Christians give up their guns, but for so many such a request feels like giving up a family member, their culture, their identity. So let’s take a smaller step: fast.

A holy fast clarifies one thing: that one’s love of God and neighbor is more important than the things we need for life and health. It is time for us to show such love by denying ourselves something we need neither for life or health—our weapons. Every Christian in this country ought to make a solemn vow today to either get rid of their weapons or to put them away.”

Some readers will inevitably argue with Jennings’s challenge for those of us who call ourselves “little Christs,” and we can continue to debate reasonable quantities and limits like another round of the sorites paradox, but the fact remains that we are getting more skilled at justifying and more comfortably numb to the realities of child sacrifice. The truth is that rather than try out such a fast and even try to find a reasonable set of exceptions for why folks could have firearms at hand, we continue to tolerate horrific violence and ever-growing death tolls as the acceptable price for 'freedoms' and 'rights' in a country that holds up 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' as its foundational aspiration.

And it’s long past time for us to wake up.

Jennings wrote this article I’m quoting just after the shootings and murders of Alton B. Sterling, Philando Castile, the five Dallas police officers, and still more Black men in 2016. Yesterday’s elementary school shooting comes a week after the murders of 10 Black folks shopping at a Buffalo supermarket. There is nothing helpful in making comparisons between different kinds of death; however, we also cannot ignore the ways that anti-Blackness and Black death are somehow given less attention, somehow subtly more acceptable a sacrifice than a school full of children. 

Churches and faith leaders that were shockingly silent after the Buffalo domestic terrorist actions are outspoken about the school shooting today. Gun rights advocates, already filling the social media feeds with op-eds about how to make schools safer with more armed staff, were shockingly silent when Philando Castile—a registered firearm owner who did everything right when pulled over by police—was shot and killed for having a firearm in his possession. The shootings are all morally reprehensible. They all demand our unequivocal action, our response, and our refusal to participate in the sacrificial logics that make any of them possible.

My own United Methodist Church passed another resolution in 2016, calling for an end to gun violence. In that resolution are several practical steps that we can take to prevent further gun violence, including forming ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with faith communities that have experienced gun violence in order to support them and learn from their experiences, as well as leading or joining in ecumenical or interfaith gatherings for public prayer at sites where gun violence has occurred and partner with law enforcement to help prevent further gun violence.

Such actions are helpful, and I suspect still all too rare even among United Methodist congregations. But we must first learn to hear the voice of the LORD, who says that we must not give any of our children as offerings to Molech. The LORD who says that while we have built shrines to Baal to offer our sons and daughters in the fire, the thought never crossed the LORD’s mind to command such a thing. 

We must learn to discern that voice from among the other gods’ voices, so that we will no longer go up the mountain carrying our flint and tinder with us, ready to offer our children’s bodies for the sake of false promises and hollow visions of freedom.

We too easily read the Old Testament stories as if their characters’ lives are so far removed from our own, as if so many of their behaviors are ignorant and antiquated and unenlightened. We too easily move past their struggles as if they are no longer our own, as if we are somehow too advanced than to fall prey to their premodern foolishness.

And yet, as far as I can tell, Abraham never tried sacrificing another child after coming down off the mountain. Maybe he failed his test, but at least he only seems to have failed it once.


[1] The interpretation I offer of Genesis 22 is greatly influenced by J. Richard Middleton, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, The Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

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