My blog is primarily about music, but to think of music in the broadest sense, we sometimes need to step back and look at a bigger picture as it applies to musicians, as well as influences of faith and culture. My faith and who I am as a musician are inseparable from my identity to the point that I’d like to share this sermon here. Let’s jump right in (as a warning, it is pretty long - it took me an hour and a quarter to deliver speaking - it always ends up being longer than one expects!)
Sermon: “As a Man Pleadeth With His Neighbor”
Los Angeles Chinese Church of Seventh-Day Adventists
How many of your parents read stories to you as a kid? I remember when I was young on long car rides especially, we’d go through a ton of children’s books. I still remember Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH, and crying at the end! My dear friend Wesley Chu and I bonded over that book recently when we recalled reading it as kids. There were so many others. I remember when we discovered books on tape at the library and got out Charlotte’s Web in a set of cassette tapes. I thought it was so cool to play with the EQ in the old ’93 Dodge Caravan back then, and that we had discovered the modern technology of books on tape. Good times. Well, the power of storytelling is always there with us, no matter how young at heart we may be. Bernard Taylor, professor at LLU, once said that the God of the Old Testament often reveals himself not by telling us, “Let me teach you a lesson,” or “Here are my rules,” but more often by saying “Let me tell you a story.” Today I’m not here to throw rules or guilt trips at you, or to lay down the law with fire and brimstone, but I do invite you to join with me as I share my reflections on four familiar stories today about Abraham, and wrestle with the broader meaning of God’s word as he reveals himself. May God be with us to illuminate His scriptures today, as dim as the lamp that I shine may be.
Today we’ll be covering four stories from the book of Genesis and a few others. The first story is that of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah:
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were truly depraved. God informed Abraham of his intent to investigate and if necessary, destroy the cities:
Gen. 18:20-21 (KJV) 20 “And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
What was their sin? Well, kids, cover your ears, but this is where we get the word Sodomy. They were clearly perverted in many ways. Yet, in the larger picture, God seems to be most angry with them for their gross inhospitality and heartless neglect of the poor and needy. If you’re asking what the sin of Sodom was, the Bible has a direct answer for you. Let’s cut through all the speculation and listen to what it tells us:
Ezekiel 16:49-50 (KJV): 49 Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
50 And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.
God is clearly angry with societies and systems that exploit the poor and needy. Sodom could have helped its most vulnerable but turned away from them in pride. Additionally, in ancient times, hospitality was vital in ensuring the very survival of travels, and they showed none to their angelic visitors sent by God to investigate the city.
Here is a part of of the story that amazes me. Abraham knows that God is going to destroy the city, but he has the courage to bargain with God, not only for his nephew Lot and his family, but for the lives of everyone in the city. This is the first time in the Bible any individual is recorded talking back to God. Keep in mind that he had a falling out with Lot earlier in Genesis 13, leading him to move away. So he has the chutzpah to bargain with God himself for people he doesn’t particularly care for. I don’t know if I would have had that courage, but here’s what the Bible records:
20 And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
22 And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.
23 And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
24 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
25 That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
26 And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
27 And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:
28 Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.
29 And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake.
30 And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there.
31 And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake.
32 And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.
33 And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
Later the angels went down to Lot’s house, and the city behaved abominably:
In Ch. 19:
To Lot and his angelic visitors: “Bring out your guests to us, that we may know them” (KJV, emphasis added)
I’ll leave it to your imagination what is meant by the word know. It is enough to say that they showed abominable hospitality to Lot’s guests.
God ends up destroying the city anyway, after Lot and his family escape. But Abraham comes off very well in this story for his admirable courage and concern for loss of innocent life. This is where it gets troubling. I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve known this story I’ve always wondered: Would God really have killed nine innocent people, if they remained after Lot and his family evacuated? If I were reading this story for the first time, I might almost think that Abraham seems more concerned with the loss of innocent life than God Himself. We’ll come back to this story later, but it ties into the next one for now.
Hagar and Ishmael:
In Gen. 16, Abraham’s wife Sarai (later renamed Sarah at God’s request) finds herself barren. It was a source of deep humiliation in ancient Israel. In desperation, she asks Abraham to get Hagar her maidservant pregnant. Abraham complies without any objection. Then Hagar (the maidservant’s name) begins to disrespect Sarah as soon as she gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah gets mad and complains to Abraham, asking him to throw her out.
This doesn’t come off well in the eyes of the New Testament. Paul names Ishmael the “child of the flesh” but Isaac the “child of promise” in Gal. 4:23. This promise was that God had told him in Gen. 12:2 that He would “make of you a great nation”. And Hagar was not Israelite. She was Egyptian. We know how strict the laws later were in the OT against intermarriage. Also, God had promised to Abraham to make a great nation out of him. Why would he need to intermingle his bloodline with that of foreign tribes for God to make his nation great? It doesn’t seem that he thought this through well.
This doesn’t come off well in history either. God promises of Ishmael that “I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). And Ishmael is known today as the forefather of the Arabs. Moreover, Islam claims him as a patriarch. It’s worth pointing out how fair God is to Ishmael and Hagar in the Bible. The political implications are profound. In Gen. 16:10, God says to Hagar “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for a multitude.” In verse 12, God says “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of his brethren.” No other brother is recorded in the Bible except for Isaac, the father of the Jews. So here we have a prediction of the Arabs living among the Jews, amidst mutual violence on both sides, and what does this remind us of today? Palestine and the Gaza Strip. The tragic history of the conflict between the Jews and Arabs goes all the way back to here, and continues to this day. I think it is fated to continue until the end of time.
So it seems from hindsight that Abraham should have thought at some point, “You know, getting Hagar pregnant is somewhere between a bad idea and a really bad idea.” Honestly, although it’s an argument from silence, he seems remarkably checked out with regards to his own household, especially Sarah’s feelings. He’s also being played along by her like a pawn. We see these adverse behavioral patterns continue through generations of the family, as we’ve all witnessed in modern times. Consider how in Gen. 30, Jacob, his grandson, faces similar issues. His wives Leah and Rachel (yes, wives plural, and both sisters - different times, my friends) both asked him to impregnate their handmaids at their request, and big surprise, he complied with no recorded objection. Once again, he seems oblivious to his wives’ bitter competition and scheming. But I suppose that all comes with being a patriarch.
As a side, it’s ironic how in I Peter 3, where Peter commands wives to be in subjection to their husbands (long a problematic passage from a feminist perspective), he cites Sarah as a role model: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord, whose daughters ye are as long as ye do well and are not afraid with any amazement (v.6). It’s humorous, but should encourage us to read this passage between the lines, and see it differently in the eyes of the story in Genesis, I think.
In all seriousness, it is significant to note out the societal implications of this power structure. Bernard Taylor says that in this ancient society, Matriarchs had authority over the women in the tribe, particularly the younger ones. In our own culture at this Chinese Church, we can think of similar examples. Traditional Chinese society was often matriarchal as well, and while it had some benefits, the system was also prone to abuse. The brilliant author Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking and The Chinese in America (both of which I highly recommend!) relates many stories along these lines that will probably sound familiar to many of you. Sons continued living in their parents’ homes when married, where the matriarch of the family would bully their sons’ wives until they produced sons. If you had a daughter, you were cursed, if a son, you were blessed, etc. It doesn’t seem like this bullying would have produced any results, realistically. But that’s how history worked out.
So all of this is to say that Abraham and Sarah were in a very bad family situation. After God answers his new promise with the covenant to Sarah that she will give birth to a son herself in Gen. 17, the household situation intensifies when Isaac is born. Do you know how old Sarah was at this time? She was 90! Loma Linda has nothing on her, as exemplary as we are at staying fit in old age. Abraham himself was 100. It was a miracle that defied the boundaries of Abraham and Sarah’s faith.
So reading ahead to Gen. 21, after Isaac has been born and circumcised, Ishmael starts to cause trouble. Sarah sees him mocking, presumably her or Isaac. This is beyond the bounds of decency, as Sarah sees it, and something finally has to be done:
9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking.
10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.
11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son.
12 And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
God tells Abraham to obey Sarah, and that Ishmael will be ok. Abraham obeys God’s instructions to a T and beyond. Early next morning, he sends Hagar and the infant Ishmael into the desert with nothing but a skin of water and some bread:
14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
15 And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
Hagar and Ishmael were about to die, as Hagar cried out to God. God hears her prayer and rescues her: “21:19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”
17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
So let’s pause here before moving on to the third story. Abraham knew that God said he would make a great nation out of Ishmael. But even knowing this, how many of you would be comfortable sending a woman with an infant out into the desert alone with nothing but a skin of water and some bread? Especially when Abraham was as wealthy as he was? (Gen 13:2 - And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold - also see when he sent a servant to fetch Isaac a wife later, flashing camels and gold). God’s will is infallible in this story, and Abraham is to be commended for carrying it out. But the question I submit to you now, brothers and sisters, is could he have carried it out in a more thoughtful, humane way?
I’d argue from scripture that the answer is yes. Think of the story in the Gospels where Jesus is tempted by the Devil. In this story, the Devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple. Then (Matthew 4:5-7):
5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
This is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16, sometimes translated as “Put the Lord thy God to the test. In this story, the people complain about their struggles in the wilderness, and Moses strikes a rock that gushes forth water. God gives him the power to make it gush water, but is not proud at being put to the test. I’d imagine it looks like the split rock fountain sculpture at La Sierra University. Ever seen it? It’s in front of the cafeteria. The waters were named Meribah, which means bitter.
We don’t have to look far in the OT to see how far out of line with God’s rules Abraham and Sarah’s handling of the situation was. First of all, although God told him to send her away, he never told him to do it as soon as humanly possible. Yet Abraham wakes up early and does it first thing in the morning. We can only imagine what a rude awakening that must have been.
Also - Exodus 22:16: “If a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.” - Keep in mind what “entice a maid” is most likely a euphemism for. This is something to take very seriously. Abraham would have to have married Hagar if he had lived at that time. Abraham and Sarah’s rationalization of expelling Hagar because she is only a maidservant in Gen. 16:8 wouldn’t make sense. Even the designation of maidservant in 16:6 and bondwoman in 21:10 is dubious, as Gen 16:3 she “gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.”
It’s true Hagar wasn’t an Israelite. But even so, God’s directive on how to free Israelite slaves in Deut. 15:14 suggests how Abraham could have handled the situation better.
14 Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.
15 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.
This is a beautiful verse that shows the loving, compassionate side of the God of the Old Testament. I could preach a whole sermon on it, and someone else could preach a whole sermon on it better than I could.
You could even say that in the big picture, laws were added later in the time of Moses, 430 years later, in order to eliminate the stories of injustice that we see, and to close loopholes in the laws. Think of the story of Isaac’s son Jacob tricking him into giving Isaac his blessing and taking his birthright. Think of the story of Laban tricking Jacob by having him serve him seven years in order to marry his younger daughter Rachel, only for him to wake up with Leah and have to serve seven more years for Rachel (conversely, a friend of mine cited this story as the perfect example of Jacob thinking with something that wasn’t his head - don’t do this to yourselves, guys! Seven years of his life!). Perhaps God is building a case for the rights of the oppressed here. Maybe this inspired Lev. 19:13 and Deut. 24:14-15 against holding back the wages of hired servants.
Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is a lawyer among lawyers today. His Orthodox Jewish background has informed his legal opinions throughout his career, and he has been recognized throughout his career for his principled stand against injustice and discrimination. He goes so far as to trace the liberal ideals of American democracy to a founding in the Bible. I understand this is a controversial point of view, and that the scope of such freedoms is tragically limited in many ways even today. Still, he has this to say in his 2013 autobiography Taking the Stand, comparing the United States against monarchies and Leninism-Stalinism:
In our own United States, however, with the help of G-d, political evolution has always been based on the concept of mishpat, justice or, as we prefer to call it, democracy. We…demand that all law be opened to the checks and balances of mishpat. (30)
I have a Taiwanese-American friend who graduated from Harvard Law School and then went to Juilliard for a Doctor of Musical Arts program as a pianist. Brilliant young lady; she just got married this year to a Taiwanese violinist. One day we were talking about the rampant corruption in mainland China and she said she thought the principles of equality and fairness (at least ideally) written into American laws by the Founding Fathers were related strongly to Biblical principles of justice. She took classes from Dershowitz and said that although he was a rather disagreeable and unpleasant person to be around, he had the same ideals. So as controversial and abstracted as this idea is, I at least think it’s worthwhile to consider.
God worked through Abraham, through whose bloodline Jesus came to redeem creation. Still, Abraham was only human, and we are fortunate to serve a God who is understanding of our weaknesses to a degree beyond which we could ever hope to deserve. The point of contrasting the story in Genesis with the later laws of Moses is to suggest that God unveils his law as human consciousness and moral codes emerge, in order to make His will ever more clear to us. The God of the Old Testament is a compassionate God towards the poor and disadvantaged, and we see Him codifying laws for their protection as soon as His people become potentially receptive.
We now arrive at our third story from Genesis for today. It’s the story in Gen. 22 where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (known as the Aqedah). Of all the stories from Abraham’s life, this is probably the most disturbing to read:
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
Going to the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, Paul in his midrash (Jewish rabbinic commentary) cites this story as a legendary example of faith, which it most definitely is. In his explanation, Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead:
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
I want to make it absolutely clear to all of you this morning that I stand with Paul in his approbation of what was to be the crowning act of faith of our forefather. God spoke to Abraham after the event and blessed him again:
15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
This story is also ripe with symbolic interpretations. Isaac is a clear symbol of Jesus, in the symbolic sacrifice. It reminds us of Isa. 53, where “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” (Isa. 53:7)
Allegories to the passover: God commands every household to take a lamb on the tenth day of the first month, sacrifice it on the fourteenth, and place the blood on their door. God will smite the firstborn of every house not marked thus. Ex: 12. Jewish tradition holds that the event occurred on the 14th day of the first month, and that Abraham held a seven-day feast upon his return to Beersheba (Jub:18:19), which is the date of the Passover Feast, instituted in Exodus (Levenson 92).
Nevertheless, to me at least, there is still something disturbing about this story. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Let me ask all of you right now: If God told you to sacrifice your child, how would you feel?
You don’t have to answer that. But I will say that if any of you feel entirely comfortable with sacrificing your child, there is something seriously wrong with you.
[Omit: The philosopher Immanuel Kant, though not a Christian in the traditional sense, wrote in 1798 that if a voice claiming to be God told you to sacrifice your child, you had better question whether or not that voice is truly God, and I must go out on a limb and say that for our purposes today, you’d better believe him (Levenson 106).]
I believe that this is a powerful text that God intends for our edification, and I believe it reflects positively and profoundly on God’s character. But let’s take a closer look into what Abraham said and did. In verse 5: 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
According to Hebrew scholar Jon D. Levenson, professor at Harvard, the word ‘worship’ can also be translated to ‘prostrate’ (73). He suggests that prostration in an act of worship could be a sign of obeisance to God and a form of pleading with God to not make him sacrifice his son. Wouldn’t you at least try something of the sort first?
Yet the scriptures make no mention of Abraham prostrating himself or worshipping God before holding the knife over Isaac ready to sacrifice him, unless Moses didn’t think it necessary to include that Abraham indeed worshipped or prostated himself before preparing to offer the sacrifice. I don’t know, but it just seems bizarre that Abraham would plead for the lives of an entire city in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to the point of bargaining directly with God, and yet make no objection to sacrificing his own son.
Note, in fact, that in both stories he rises early in the morning to carry out the plans immediately following the conversation with God. In this regard, he arguably goes beyond what God asks for in his lack of any hesitation at all, just as in the previous story he follows God’s command to exile Hagar and Ishmael with almost reckless alacrity.
Kierkegaard: “Isaac strove as before, but Abraham’s eye was darkened; he could see no more.” Despite the blessing Abraham received from God, Kiekegaard read a disillusionment with God’s will into this text (Colaiaco 260). That’s not necessarily my opinion. But it is the opinion of various non-Christians I’ve talked to, including one of my own teachers, which is why I include it this morning. Please bear with me.
If we read further, we notice that Abraham is never recorded talking to Isaac or Sarah again. In fact, Abraham settles in Beersheba away from Sarah, who dies in Hebron in Canaan, and Abraham apparently only hears of her death remotely, coming to mourn for her and make funeral arrangements (Gen. 23:2). Although it is speculation, it seems at least plausible to infer a connection of family trouble to the issue of the sacrifice. It would be a pretty awkward thing to come home to afterwards and reveal.
I thought and prayed about whether or not I should mention the following discussion. I think I will though - here we go. Maybe this is not a good story to start with when we reach out to unbelievers. But my viola teacher 陳則言 does ask about how I’m doing and what I’m spending time outside of music at my lessons, and when I hinted at this sermon, he seemed to be well acquainted with most of the stories of the Old Testament, particularly this one. Never assume that churchgoers know more than those outside. Frequently it’s the other way around, especially for people as educated as him. I think in witnessing, it is important that we engage seekers where they have questions and not shy away from the hard ones. People know when we’re trying to skirt a difficult issue, and that’s never effective in the long term, especially to someone as fiercely intelligent as this man. As a witnessing opportunity, I thus took the opportunity to explain to him what I thought. To him, this is an example of a God who commands child sacrifice. He expressed bewilderment at anyone who thinks positively of obeying such a command, as well at the Christians who simply say to take everything on faith, and that if you object you must either be wrong or your faith isn’t strong enough.
I said that any Christian who makes a cheap, lazy argument like this hasn’t read and gotten the point of the book of Job. I submit to you that if you do, you will see these challenging Old Testament stories we have covered in a new light, and it will testify favorably to God’s character in a profound way. I gave him the rundown of what I’m about to say - at least I got what we’d call a dress rehearsal in for this sermon. and we can only pray that God will use what I said to good ends. As dim of a light as I may be, it was the best I could do. Let’s dive right in.
The book of Job is a truly progressive work. I can’t think of any other book in the Bible which challenges our preconceived notions of God so radically. It fascinated John Calvin so much that 159 of his 700 sermons centered on it (Yancey 47).
Essentially, the book of Job recounts a wager between God and Satan regarding a righteous man Job who leads an exceedingly prosperous life. Satan bets that his obedience is conditional and that if all the blessings are taken from him, he will curse God to His face. God bets that Job will remain faithful no matter what happens. So God gives the Devil permission to wreak havoc on his life. You might object at this point that it seems pretty unfair to the poor guy. But that’s the way the story begins here. Bear with me.
There is a wealth of material and lessons to be gleaned from Job, but for the time being, let’s take a glimpse at a few key passages. In the first round of speeches, Job attributes his sufferings to some extent to God:
Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in? (3:23)
Job is saying that God has hedged him in. This feels dangerously close to accusing God of wrongdoing.
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar attribute his suffering to divine retribution for wrongdoing in their infamous speeches. They’re perhaps well-meaning, but staggeringly unhelpful. This takes on special relevance now in light of the recent natural disasters of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. I hope none of you are mimicking Job’s friends and glibly asserting that we need to accept the death, pain and suffering as God’s will.
Nevertheless, Job maintains his integrity and goes so far as to criticize God for his plight: “Not for any injustice in mine hands: also my prayer is pure” (16:17).
19 Also now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high.
20 My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth out tears unto God.
21 O that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbour!
Job is not afraid to speak out about how unfair the situation is, and wishes he could bargain with God, as a man might for his neighbor, perhaps in court or in any other civil dispute. There’s a lot that can be said for maintaining your own integrity in the face of suffering, even when life is not fair as we see it.
“And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath (Job 42:7) Job’s friends hold to a simplistic worldview where all suffering is the victim’s fault, and blind, self-rightous faith is the answer to everything. This is clearly abhorrent to God. In fact, God commands Job’s friends to offer sacrifices and allows Job to intercede for them, lest He punish them for their blasphemy. Job is rewarded with double what he had before - 14,000 sheep vs. 7,000. This recalls the law of restitution - Ex. 22- where thieves had to repay twice what they stole. This is a sign that God is indeed fair.
The point I’d like for us to take away is that God seems not to be offended at those who question him, even when we, as Job, are bound by the limits of human perception. God reminds Job of the limits of his understanding in verses such as “Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding,” 38:4. Life is not fair as humans understand it, and it’s ok to admit that. In the end, Job, who openly questions God but maintains his integrity as he understands it, is the real hero. There is a lot to be said for adopting Job as a role model in the face of the unremitting tragedy of life.
Alan Dershowitz in his book The Genesis of Justice (2000) takes this principled stand on the book of Job:
“To accept the conclusion of the Book of Job that God’s justice is not subject to human understanding, is to abdicate all human judgment of God’s actions and to accept the injustices of our world…In the wake of the Holocaust, it is more difficult to shrug one’s shoulders and sigh that God works in mysterious ways.”
So I don’t think it’s wrong for us to question Abraham’s execution of God’s will in the Old Testament, or even to question if God’s will is fair as far as we are able to understand. If you still have doubts as to whether or not blind obedience is a good idea, let me relate another story. This one I have to give credit to Tim Gillespie for pointing out - he’s the senior pastor at Crosswalk, a relatively young SDA church in Loma Linda many of you may be familiar with. In this story, Jehu enacts revenge against the evil house of the his predecessor, King Ahab.
God foretold and to some extent commanded a massacre through Elisha the prophet in II Kings 9:7-9:
7 And thou shalt smite the house of Ahab thy master, that I may avenge the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel.
8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel:
9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah:
God commands some sort of strike against the house of Ahab. But notice when God says that the whole house of Ahab shall perish, he is not commanding Jehu to make that a reality. Perhaps it would have happened naturally. At any rate, Jehu seems to get carried away and doesn’t stop at the family and administration of Ahab. He kills 42 men who had been loyal to Ahaziah, related in an extended fashion to Jezebel, wife of Ahab, former king of Israel. Not only them, but by deceptive means he salughters all the worshippers of Baal, whom Ahab had set up. Note how killing all the relatives and allies of your predecessor was historically well-precedented whenever power changed hands. Jehu’s actions come off relatively well in II Kings, but the prophet Hosea rebukes Jehu, King of Israel for the massacre of Ahab’s sons and family line at Jezreel (Hos. 1:4), and attributes the fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians to divine retribution for this massacre.
Why would God punish Israel for doing what He commanded? In keeping with the theme from Job and earlier of the need for thinking obedience, it seems that it matters not just that you obey, but how you obey. Let me say that again, because it’s something I want to take away from all of these stories, even if you remember nothing else:
God cares deeply not only that we obey, but how we obey.
Maybe a light should have gone off in Jehu’s head at some point where he questioned if it was really right for him to be initiating an out-of-control bloodbath. Is that really something God would want? Even if God commanded it, is it right?
How many of you are teachers, or have ever participated in an organized teaching situation? Everyone has their pet peeves, but for me, there are few things worse than students who go to uncomfortable lengths to please you. I teach a student [name redacted] at USC. He’s taking a nonmajor viola class from me. On the first lesson I asked him about his other classes, and he said he was taking German, but that his schedule was busy and he might have to drop it. He assured me that he would maintain due diligence preparing new music up to his high standards for me every week though. Let me tell you, my discomfort upon hearing that was palpable. I think he saw on my face how uncomfortable it made me, and then added, “It’s not because of viola lessons.” I sure hope not! I want him to improve at viola, but if he’s mature enough to make his own decisions, he better not sacrifice something I didn’t ask him to and blame it on me. Maybe that’s how God felt in these stories.
Let me make an emphatic assertion at this point. If you don’t remember anything else from today, remember this. Blind, unquestioning obedience to one select rule or principle at the cost of all other considerations is never the answer. It can cause eating disorders, abnormal purchasing habits, or movements in an ungodly direction on a political scale. I’m sure you can all think of examples. For me, this is nowhere more evident than in the realm of music, where any single-minded focus will almost by definition make you sound like a robot. It is instantly recognizable and immediately uninteresting. The worst thing you can do is to take a piece of advice from your teacher and idolize it, applying it far out of context.
I’m reminded of a story from an orchestra rehearsal. An LA-based group I play in has a young conductor named Yuga Cohler who is half-Japanese and half white. I think he might be half-Jewish. In his earlier experiences leading the group, he acquired a reputation for being unreasonably demanding and unduly temperamental which eventually overcame by studied effort, for which my colleagues and I all admire him. Before he overcame this issue though, I remember one rehearsal of a challenging modern aria for soprano and orchestra, “Mysteries of the Macabre” by Georgi Ligeti. It’s from his opera “Le Grand Macabre,” written as an aria for the chief of police, named Gepopo as a matter of fact. I think, where a piccolo is supposed to sustain a high A (thank goodness I wasn’t sitting next to her!). Now legend has it, and I’ve asked flute players who’ve confirmed this, that it takes more air to play a piccolo than a tuba. And the higher the note, the more air it takes. Knowing how inconsiderate many composers can be in their orchestrations when they’re dealing with human players rather than midi tracks, this was a recipe for disaster. Yuga snapped at the girl, saying, “Why can’t you sustain that high A as long as the composer asks you to?” She looked stunned and scared, and after thinking for a moment, answered with false confidence, “I can!” She tried again, and it sounded exactly the same. At the point Yuga thought for a moment, and asked her, “Talk to me on an emotional level. What’s really going on?” She admitted it was all but impossible, and as soon as he understood it was a technical limitation, they worked they worked out a perfectly practical solution to play it faster and slightly softer, and the problem was solved with no hard feelings. To me, though, it was utterly cringeworthy to hear someone say, “I can!” when they can’t. I like to think no sane human being wants unquestioning obedience that defies reality, and even this guy was no exception, melting under the same reaction I had. Would God expect any differently of His chidren?
Garry Friesen has a model of Godly decision-making that he developed. It is illustrated on the charts here. In his classic Decision Making and the WIll of God, he identifies three concentric circles of God’s sovereign will, moral will and individual will. God’s sovereign will is his cosmic plans throughout history, which are irrefuable, try as any man might. His moral will encompasses his moral directive as laid out in the Bible. His individual will, however, can be open-ended as long as it lies within the scope of his moral will. See the diagram here.
There was a girl I knew at the previous school I went to who played flute ( I seem to be telling another flute story!) She was a little Korean girl with an inexplicable lung capacity, and smoked like a chimney. And she wasn’t the only one. She was best friends with my roommate Jake, and his flute buddy, all of whom smoked. I’ve never understood that. Why do some flute players who play so brilliantly also smoke heavily? Anyway, she was a very sweet girl, but the story everyone knew was about her one day in a freshman class. Now this is different from any high school class I could imagine. It contained future Fulbright scholars. There was a kid who had played in the Queen Elisabeth violin competiton there. Some people have gone on to prestigious teaching or orchestra jobs. Many students were dual-degree enrolled at Columbia University. But she raised her hand and asked at certain point midway through the first day of class, Teacher? He asked, “What is it?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “Yeah, just make sure it’s outside the classroom.” The laughter was uproarious. and the story had persisted for maybe two years by the time I’d heard it. I think we’ve all been there in one sort of similar situation or another, but it’s amazing how at a certain level of maturity, to not exercise one’s freedom becomes disruptive. To simply walk out of class and back in again is the least rude option available as far as the teacher is concerned.
Something that Pastor Ma emphasized last week in his sermon was how God desires to make our wills align with his own: This is founded in verses such as Romans 12:2:
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Any parent knows that this process is rarely as simple as issuing black-and-white commands. THink of the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar patch, where Brer Rabbit becomes entangled with a Tar baby and tells the Fox to throw him anywhere but the Briar patch. Thinking that this will be his ruin, the Fox throws him in, where he is able to escape from the tar baby using the thorns. If it takes contradictory or even morally dubious commands for a child of God to align his will to the divine, who are we to judge God for employing such strategies as necessary? In some cases, it may be the best way to truly test what someone is made out of.
Isaac and Rebecca:
The story of Isaac and Rebecca is an illustration of how God allows human agency that can flout his will at some levels. It’s fascinating to me what freedom in decision-making this story allows. This very sweet story is told in Genesis 23. Abraham’s dying wish is that his son Isaac be married to a women of his tribe, and not a Caananite women from the surrounding people. He sends a servant out to find him a wife, and has him swear an oath to find such a woman. He leaves a condition that if he finds such a woman but she refuses to come, then the servant is released from his oath (24:8).
The servant goes out to the well and asks God for a sign, that the first girl who offers him and his camels water when he asks for a drink be the one. He sees Rebecca, and she is a lovely young woman from his tribe. It seems to be love at first sight. Commentators have referred to her as ‘basherte’ by which I refer to the Yiddish term of endearment. I’m thinking of a lawyer I follow on instagram, Andrew Leventhal. Now this is the guy to know if you ever get in any sort of trouble with the law. One of the best criminal defense lawyers out there. His instagram posts with his fiance are just the sweetest thing. Basherte can sort of mean a match made in heaven from your own tribe. It’s a lovely Jewish family. She indeed offers him and camels water. But note that at this point he is still uncertain if she is the one God intends (24:21). He is clearly thinking this through.
Now this poor servant, whose name is not even recorded, did pretty well. I think he deserves credit as one of the greatest wingmen in the Bible. He makes his next move by flashing some conspicuous consumer consumption and giving her two golden bracelets of ten shekels’ weight. Ten shekels of gold - that would be between 6 and 7 thousand dollars today. 5 ounces. Unbelievable amount (It could even be twice that, depending on how you read the story, if it was 10 shekels each bracelet). If you go to the King Pawn Shop on 8th and Vermont, you’ll see what I mean. King Pawn - what a pun - that’s a funny name. There are a bunch of big Mexican guys there for security. They have to buzz you in to the back room. They get really sketched out easily - they’ll start asking questions like where are you from, did you just move here, etc. Anyway, they’ll charge around $500 for a men’s gold chain. Maybe a little under $400 for a really short one, but that’s not going to cut it if you’re average height or taller. These are ~20k chains for men, way more expensive than women’s necklaces due to the thickness of the metal, and still they’re under half an ounce. Ten shekels is an absurd amount of wealth to throw around.
It does the trick though. He asks her if he can stay at her family’s house, and she graciously puts him up and feeds his camels. Interesting story - back then it was a much simpler deal. She was a beautiful young woman from the tribe and he was representing a wealthy man from a well-known family. She agrees to marry Isaac. When her family asks her to stay for ten more days (a reasonable request when you’ll never see your daughter again), she declines.
Conceivably, the servant could even have asked for a different sign, or asked for none at all, or Rebecca could have said no, and the servant found someone else, and the original oath with Abraham sworn by God would still have been honored. This shows a great deal of freedom given to the woman being married as opposed to what was probably conventional in surrounding cultures at the time. I think it’s a profoundly liberating illustration of how human freedom and even challenges to God’s plan at one level may be compatible with obedience at a higher level.
In Czarist Russia, before 1905, the Jews were regularly subjected to mass murders known as pogroms. The legal system was perennially dangerous for any Jew who raised the attention of the authorities. Charges of sedition could lead to arbitrary imprisonment or capital punishment. There were two men who had sworn an oath of brotherly love, however, that they would remain faithful to each other through thick and thin until death. One day they were both arrested for their writings, and interrogated separately. Each was given the option of release in return for incriminating the other. Both refused, willingly accepting the threat of imprisonment or worse. At this point, the Czar has them summoned to his chambers and dismisses everyone but the two men. He is unable to hold back his tears, as when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt. He tells them: “All my life I have sought throughout the kingdom for two men who showed such brotherly love as this. I have been never witnessed its like until now. From this time on, count me as the third man in your oath.” Brethren, I can’t think of a better example of God’s love as he would have us show it.
As Seventh-Day Adventists, I want to close in ackowledgement of the doctrine of Progressive Revelation. This refers to the progressive unfolding of God’s will, the revelation of the true purpose of the law, and the revelation of His plan for redemption. Psychologically, we can see the Bible as God addressing a growing human consciousness. Just as a parent would teach a child, we see this in the progression from absolute commandments based on reward and punishment in the first five books of the Bible to the meaning of the law as revealved by Jesus. Think of Jesus’ discussion of the Sabbath in Matthew 12, as discussed last week in Pastor Ma’s sermon. In a nutshell, when Jesus says that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, he reveals a higher understanding of the law than the Pharisees acknowledged in their rulebound legalism; the spirit of the law over the letter. This is encapsulated at the beginning of the book of Hebrews (1:1-2):
1 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds…
As Seventh-Day Adventists, we believe that this revelation continues into the present day. We are honored to celebrate Ellen White as a prophet from our own church, appointed by God to illuminate our times with a unique message. We find in reading the Spirit of Prophecy [essentially her writings] that she was far more progressive for her time than many could imagine.
From her commentary on II Kings, here’s what she has to say about the massacre by Jehu. Keep in mind that it’s a controversial opinion to call Jehu into doubt, but that’s exactly what she does:
1-31. Jehu Religion Unsafe—Men are slow to learn the lesson that the spirit manifested by Jehu will never bind hearts together. It is not safe for us to bind our interests with a Jehu religion; for this will result in bringing sadness of heart upon God's true workers. God has not given to any of His servants the work of punishing those who will not heed His warnings and reproofs. When the Holy Spirit is abiding in the heart, it will lead the human agent to see his own defects of character, to pity the weakness of others, to forgive as he wishes to be forgiven. He will be pitiful, courteous, Christlike.
My friends, let us take inspiration to fight courageously for God’s will as we are given the light to understand it. Let us obey the will of a loving God as we understand Him to the fullest imaginable extent, and let us remember always His injunction: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Amen.
Colaiaco, James A. Wrestling with God: Job Defends His Integrity. San Bernardino: St. Martin's Press, 2014.
Dershowitz, Alan: Taking the stand: an autobiography. New York: Crown Publishers, 2013.
Dershowitz, Alan: The Genesis of Justice. New York: Warner Books, 2000.
Friesen, Garry: Decision Making and the Will of God. Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980.
Levenson, Jon D. Inheriting Abraham: the legacy of the patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012
Yancey, Philip. The Bible Jesus Read. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
White, Ellen G. Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, pg. 1038. Accessed 9/9/17 from <https://text.egwwritings.org/publication.php?pubtype=Book&bookCode=2BC&pagenumber=1038>