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Arguing and Obeying

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Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Aug 26 2018

Genesis 18:20-33 and Genesis 22:1-8

            Think with me: If all we had were one or the other of these two stories, what would that mean for our faith? What if Genesis 18 were it? From heaven, God hears of the great, horrid sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah and, accompanied by a small host of angels, goes down to see whether, indeed, things have gotten so bad. Along the way, God and the angels meet Abraham. And Abraham sets off with them. But they do not make it far together; the angels go on ahead to Sodom, but, as the scriptures put it rather evocatively, ‘Abraham remains standing’ before God. ‘Abraham remains standing’ says it all. We see Abraham standing, obstructing God’s path, and in another sense, as the story unfolds, see Abraham obstructing God’s plan. In the verse immediately following, what we heard read as  ‘And Abraham came near’ could as well be translated as ‘And Abraham stepped forward’; the Hebrew verb is most often used of one about to make a formal legal complaint before magistrates, and has an assertive, forceful aspect. So Abraham stands firm and steps forward. He confronts God. He challenges God.

He argues his case: if Sodom does prove to be in the grip of evildoers and deserving of punishment, as God suspects, but, even so, has at least fifty good people living in it – the city must be spared. Abraham does not yet permit God to speak; God is, for now, reduced to silence. And Abraham continues on. Suppose fifty good people should be found in Sodom; how could God allow them to suffer punishment? How could God allow terrible harm to befall the innocent? Fifty good people! How could God allow the righteous to perish along with the wicked? This would be unjust. ‘Far be that from you,’ Abraham twice says to God. Shall not the God who demands justice do justice? God agrees. God agrees that for the sake of fifty good people, all the city shall be pardoned. But Abraham is only just beginning. He presses his argument. If only forty-five good people should be found in Sodom – what then? Forty-five good people are no less deserving of true justice than fifty. They, too, are worthy of saving. Again, God agrees. And again and again God agrees, as Abraham talks God down to forty-five and then to forty and then to thirty and then to twenty and then to ten. God agrees to relent in punishing Sodom for the sake of ten, of ten good people.

What would it mean for our faith if Genesis 18 were it? In this story, Abraham trusts in his own moral reasoning more than he does in the hidden, inscrutable providence of God. Abraham demands that the purposes which God acts upon be transparent to human logic and track the limits of his and of our powers of understanding. As Abraham sees it, something is not good simply because God is God and God wills it; something is good if and only if it comports with what he and what we believe that goodness means. God has no special prerogatives and must act within the same strictures of right and wrong as the rest of us. For God is not beyond or above the moral order, but is the very ground of it. In this story, God is wrong. And in that, God is accountable to Abraham, not Abraham to God. God must answer to Abraham. God must answer to us. God must explain to Abraham what seems, in his mind, to defy explanation – how a just God could allow the innocent and undeserving to suffer unjustly. God must explain to us, what seems, so often in our minds, to defy explanation – how a just God could allow the innocent and undeserving to suffer unjustly. This is a startlingly high view of the human person: Abraham’s and our intelligence and moral intuitions are portrayed as on par with God’s. Abraham knows, if not better than, at least as well as God what justice and goodness look like. God’s omniscience and God’s omnipotence, that is, God’s all-knowing-ness and God’s all-powerful-ness are radically checked. Abraham’s and our insistence and persistence can bend the will of God, and God goes along with this.

But what if Genesis 22 were it? In this other story, God comes to Abraham and tests him – and that one word, tests, signals to us that Abraham and God do not stand on the same plane of being. God can and does intervene in the world and in human lives through whatever happenings God ordains, to whatever end God desires. God contrives circumstances in which to try Abraham, and however Abraham responds to God’s testing, whether he proves faithful or not, there is still exposure to and no protection against the testing itself. Abraham is vulnerable before God. At any time, God can come and stand between Abraham and the future he dreams for himself. At any time, God can come and stand between us and the future we dream for ourselves. God does come to Abraham and tests him. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac, to bind him, to slay him, and to burn him, to sacrifice him. And now it is Abraham who is reduced to silence. So unthinkably monstrous is God’s decree that Abraham is rendered speechless. But Abraham does not protest or bargain or argue back or plead. Abraham does what God demanded, in trancelike, unquestioning obedience. Isaac is tied and on the pyre and Abraham lifts his knife in an act of terrible, fearsome submission to the will of God. An angel appears just before Abraham lets the blade fall, and the boy lives. But Abraham’s willingness to do as commanded, no matter the madness and the agony and the cost of it, is blessed by God, and commended to us all throughout the scriptures.

What would it mean for our faith if Genesis 22 were it? In this story, God is utterly beyond Abraham’s and beyond our understanding. Why God wills what God wills and commands what God commands is not a question that Abraham dares to ask; and no doubt, it is not one that God would deign to answer. For God does not persuade or reason with or entice Abraham, but almost speaks Abraham’s obedience forcibly into being, speaks with such terrifying, grave, and awesome command that Abraham could not but tremble and submit. God’s word calls forth a response from what is essentially the nothingness of Abraham’s own will, in the same way that God’s word called forth creation from the nothingness of eternity past – so mindlessly and almost irresistibly is Abraham carried along by the power of God’s command. The message is clear: God is God and Abraham is not. God is God and we are not. God is God and is sovereign over all of us and over all things, including the kindergarten-ish moral conventions and laws that govern our lives. God is not bound by and cannot be bound by the strictures of right and wrong as we lesser mortals are given to understand them. For then these would be above God, these would be god over God. And only God is God. So God can ask anything of us and do anything to us, and because God is the one asking it or doing it, it would be good and just. And this story invites us to expect that God will ask anything, will ask everything of us.

But, of course, we do not have only one or the other of these two stories and need not choose between them. I contend that we must not choose between them. Maybe it is wrong even to ever read one without the other. Both of these stories are vividly mythic in how they speak of God, and obviously should not be taken literally. This would be, in the one instance, absurd, and in the other, abhorrent. But neither should they be taken lightly. I believe that these two stories mark off the poles, the extremes of what a life of faith looks like. When, in our thinking or in our practice of the faith, we move too far in the direction of either one of them, our thinking or our practice of the faith is diminished and frustrated. When we move too far in the direction of Genesis 18, as Professor Jon Levenson[1] from over at Harvard has put it, we are left with ‘a religion in which God ceases to be a reality,’ in which ‘the human conscience has filtered out all divine directives that offend it and produced a God that is only itself writ large.’ (What we are worshipping then is our own thinking and values. What we are worshipping then is our own selves.) But when we move too far in the other direction, in the direction of Genesis 22, we are left with ‘fanaticism’, with a religion of mean and dangerous zealotry ‘in which God is so incomprehensible to us that praising God as wise or just is meaningless’, and obedience is slavery. The sensibilities of these two stories, taken together, protect a vital spiritual tension: faith is shaking your fist in God’s face and praying ‘not my will, but yours be done’, faith is standing proud and worthy before God and falling on your face in lowliness and awe, faith is questioning and doubting and is deep, wishful believing, faith is honoring human reason and human feeling and humbly acknowledging how small and finite we are, faith is being a little lower than the angels and being but the servants and handmaidens of the Lord, faith is protesting and is submission, faith is arguing with God and obeying God.

[1] See Jon Levenson’s ‘Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence’, especially the chapter on argument and obedience – to which this sermon, conceptually, owes a great deal.