Grand Jury Declines to Indict Officer in Ferguson New York Killing

Let's see,
  • NYC the police gave a choke hold to an unarmed black man, and choke holds are banned by the NYC Police Department
  • The man repeatedly yelled out, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" but they continued until he passed out. Minutes later he died.
  • The medical examiners concluded his death resulted from pressure on his neck and throat from the choke hold, along with “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." Made worse because of his asthma.
  • There were twenty people who saw the illegal choke hold and heard him screaming.
  • There was a very clear, very graphic, video taken of the event
  • Nobody disputes any of the events in the video or the charges.
  • And a grand jury said that there was not enough evidence to allow it to go to trial.
Well, okay then…

By the way, for what it's worth, Grand Juries are not Court Juries. Their task is simply to hear the prosecutor's case to see if there is enough evidence against the accused to justify a case going forward. They don’t need, and almost never receive, both sides. They are not trying the case, just seeing if the evidence merits a trial. In the new York City case, as with the Ferguson, MO case, they received ALL of the evidence on BOTH sides and in effect tried the case. It wasn't illegal to do that, but extremely unusual and not at all what they were called together to do. That had much to do with their decision. 

The Parable of the Life-Risking, Faithful Servant

Proper 28, Year A

Matthew 25:14-30 
This is the Gospel passage that most people of my particular vocation (mainline, generic, Protestant pastor) try to preach on every three years at about this time, as the twenty-eighth "Proper" after Pentecost, traditionally known as "The Parable of the Talents." And when we do so, we traditionally tend to fumble it badly. The (alleged) allegorical first part is a problem (why would Jesus tell a story about his going away and coming back to judge us, when most of his listeners had no clue that he might eventually go away). And the brutality of the concluding part is a problem (why would Jesus destroy someone and cast him into outer darkness just for not following orders?). So, we wind up preaching something that is sweet and supportive, but also fairly mushy and toothless.

Today I'm more and more inclined to think that it actually has very little to do with "talents" as we know them (singing, dancing, selfie-taking, etc.) and much more to do with money and banking and oppression and power, and also one poor, faithful, schlep who stood up to it all and took a hit for it. That may sound a little strong, but given the First Century transactions by wealthy people with real "Talents" (that is, with money), I think it may be a lot closer to the original intent of Jesus.
Let's start with the money. Most of what we would think of today as commercial trade or "investing" in Palestine was done by the wealthy one percent--meaning rich people, royalty and the priests (who took in and spent investments held in the temple, and then traded with them for foreign goods and currency).

There were two common ways that one with sufficient capital could make a profit from investing. The first was by lending to those involved in the currency exchange business in the Temple. When Jews or others came to Jerusalem from other parts of the world, they needed to change their international currency into the local Jewish currency, and the exchange tables served this purpose. International Jews in particular (and there were many) needed to make a sacrifice in the Temple, but typically only carried Roman currency, with the Emperor's picture on it, so they exchanged it for local currency, which did not (remember the story of Jesus and the coin with Caesar's picture on it?). A wealthy person's investment in this, from fees and exaggerating the exchange rate, could be very high.

The second form of investment was in mortgage loans or bridge loans to small farmer families struggling to stay afloat in the declining first century Palestinian economy. Most loans made huge returns on their investment because interest rates were so astronomically high by today's standards--anywhere between twenty-five to fifty percent. (It's worth noting in this regard that one of the causes of the "lost decade" of the 1980s, for poor and developing countries of the global south, was that the interest charged by banks in the "First World" on loans to countries in the "Third World" rose sometimes to as high as twenty-seven percent.) The purpose for loans then, was primarily for the purpose of getting borrowers in over their heads and then being foreclosed on and losing their property. They would then either become tenants on what had been their own property, or homeless, or join the ranks of the growing number of bandits or revolutionary militias.

You noticed a similar thing happening in southern Mexico (and elsewhere) during the mid-1990s, when the rules of NAFTA allowed the government to stop issuing credit to poor coffee farmers at just the same time that the prices for coffee collapsed to an all-time low. The result was hundreds of thousands of families losing their homes and their farms and becoming beggars, or fighters, or sweatshop workers, or immigrants into the US, fueling the immigration issue decades later that has Congress inflamed today.

Much of the income from the first century loans was deposited in the Temple to keep the rich from having to pay a Roman tax on it, and also to keep them from officially being the holders of the debt when the Sabbath and Jubilee-debt-cancellation years rolled around. A law called the "Prosbul" allowed them put their money in the Temple just before the seventh year (when debts were to be canceled) so that they could claim that they no longer had the money and were not able to cancel the debt. And then that money held in the Temple was often invested elsewhere by the priests who were the financial overseers of the "bank's" holdings. There are a number of ancient inscriptions that show Priests investing in trade and commodities using this "tax-sheltered" money drawn from mortgages taken out by poor families in rural Palestine. That's probably one of the reasons why Jesus decided to occupy the Temple and set up a temporary boycott of currency trading there as his first official act in Jerusalem. And it is clearly the reason why--when the revolution finally came--the angry 99 percenters stormed the temple and burned the mortgage papers that had been held there.[1]

It was also common, as this parable indicates, for wealthy lenders to pass the dirty tasks of originating the loans, and collecting on them, and then repossessing the properties, down to their servants. It was considered dishonorable for nobility to expand their wealth, and since servants were a class without honor, they were given the job. That gave the lenders the ability to deny any knowledge of wrong-doing if an evicted family's misery became too public.[2] Jesus' story of the widow and the unjust judge is something similar to this (Luke 18:1-8, Proper 24 C).

It's also important to add here that the servants who were entrusted with inflicting this pain on people didn't do it necessarily for monetary gain (because they usually weren't paid anything), but instead they did it for the power and prestige they received for successfully managing the company. As the parable says, if they were successful in little, they would be given power and responsibility over much. The lead character in the parable of the Dishonest Steward plays a similar role. Also reflected here is that interest rates were often as high as fifty percent, so it would not be at all unlikely for a steward of a powerful finance family to double or even triple an investment.[3]

In this story, servants one and two clearly went along with this insidious system and were rewarded handily for their efforts. The first put his money into trading (ergázomai, probably commodities because they were the most frequently traded at the time), and the second used interest-bearing investments (kerdainō, like the loans and currency-trading mentioned above), but both made a healthy profit.

But the third person (often the hero in three-part tales), following the Torah that forbade lending money at interest (Exodus 22.20-30), believed that the system was corrupt, that the leader was evil, that money should not be used as a weapon against homes and farms and families, and he refused to participate. He accused the wealthy one percenter of being a "sklēros," someone who is violent, rough, offensive, and thoroughly intolerable. He accuses him of not actually doing anything to get his wealth: he doesn't plant, he doesn't distribute (diaskorpízō) his wealth. He just collects interest on it from the misery of people who were sucked into the downwardly spiraling system.

So he denounces the crime, buries the money, and in the end gets crucified for his actions. It is telling that he put the money in the ground, which is ultimately owned by God (Leviticus 25:23-28). Is Jesus saying that he gave the money back to God, the ultimate owner? The ground is also where Judas hid his "blood money" when he realized that it had just caused his friend's death.

So, what are the preaching themes and possibilities in this story? There are two traditional readings of this story. The first is that the (evil, greedy, wicked) Master is Jesus, who left us for a while and will come again at the end of time for an ominous reckoning of how we have used or misused our "talents" (usually misinterpreted as skills and gifts). That's an odd role for Jesus, but it seems to have survived thousands of years of puzzled looks during children's sermons. A second traditional reading is that God is the (evil, greedy, wicked) Master who does the judging, and who is just as nasty in the end. Making God the "heavy" somehow doesn't feel any better than making it Jesus, but there you are. The way that my pastors as a child got around this was to ignore that the third servant got tossed into outer darkness, and gave heroic examples of the first two for the non-squandering of their "talents."

Perhaps, instead, this is not an allegory. Perhaps Jesus was simply saying that if you stand up and denounce an immoral, evil, system, you may have to pay for it. Perhaps Jesus was saying that sometimes--like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 1-3)--the right thing to do is to offer up your life as a bulwark against injustice, even if it means losing that life.

Perhaps the message of the story is simply that the story is true, and that if you don't like it, what are you going to do about it?


[1] Flavius Josephus, tr. William Whiston, The Wars of The Jews Book, 2, Chapter 17, par. 6 (
[2] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 149.
[3] William Herzog, "The Vulnerability of the Whistleblower," Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Westminster/John Knox: 1994), p.157-8.

Fr. Joe Mulligan to speak on Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

We are pleased to announce that Fr. Joe Mulligan, S.J. will be touring with Witness for Peace, from this Sunday, October 19th, through Thursday, October 23rd.

Fr. Mulligan’s talk is: "Martyrdom of the Jesuits."

A Jesuit priest originally from Detroit, Fr. Mulligan lives and works in Nicaragua with the Christian base communities. He is the author of The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Celebrating the Anniversaries (1994/2010), about the six Jesuits and two women massacred at the University of Central America in 1989. His presentation will focus on the lessons of the martyrs and their relevance today.
(Click on cover to order)

Fr. Mulligan is a tireless advocate for peace and justice. He served three months in prison for protesting the US Army School of the Americas (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Georgia. He accompanied peace delegations to Palestine (Michigan Peace Team) and Paraguay (SOA Watch). He advocates human treatment of the Guantanamo detainees. He is on the Advisory Board of CLASA (James Carney Latin American Solidarity Archive) and has worked diligently to shed light on the mysterious disappearance of Fr. Carney in Honduras in 1983.

(Click on  cover to order)
Fr. Mulligan, who has lived in Central America for 25 years, was a friend of the Salvadoran Jesuit martyrs and also of Padre Guadalupe (James Carney, SJ) who was martyred in Honduras in 1983. (For those of you who saw Padre Melo last year, Padre Guadalupe was also a close personal friend of Padre Melo and his father. Padre Melo was the person who got Padre Guatalupe’s memoirs to his family in the US after he was murdered, memoirs that became the book To Be A Revolutionary.)

 Come and join us for this compelling speaker!

For more information, contact Susan Letendre, Regional Organizer

  • Sunday, October 19, 10 AM, Sermon, St. Ignatius Loyola Parish, 28 Commonwealth Ave, Chestnut Hill, MA
  • Tuesday, October 21, 4:30 PM, presentation, Rehm Library, Smith Hall, College of the Holy Cross, 1 College Street, Worcester, MA
  • Wednesday, October 22, 12:30 PM, presentation, Blue Lounge, Worcester State University, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA
  • Wednesday, October 22, 6:30 PM, presentation, Room 100, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston College (Brighton Campus), 9 Lake Street, Brighton, MA 02135
  • Thursday, October 23, 3:30 PM, Merrimack College, location to be announced, 315 Turnpike Street, North Andover, MA

Ideology and Climate Change

If you’ve been watching this page, you know that this is the second part of a larger post. My first post was a brief discussion of the economist, David Ricardo and his views on the growth of inequality and how to tax it back into balance. 

If you read my post of a few days ago about the great economist Ricardo and his argument for progressive taxation, this will be something of a follow up to that. A “Part Two.”

He argued that since the amount of food-producing farmland in England always stay more or less the same size, but the population would always increase, then the value of land would go up because of its relative scarcity. And one class of people would become richer and richer, not because they created something or produced something (at least something more than what they were already producing), but simply because the demand for their product had gone up. And if this continues, it would skew the economy and do damage to those who did not have access to this resource.

So, he argued for something that we might call today a “Progressive Tax,” that is, increase the taxes on land to keep the land owners’ income more within the range of ordinary Brits.

This post today has some overlap with that, that’s why I am considering it the second part of a two-part, longer essay. Recently (Friday, September 13, 2014), Bill Moyers had on his show a climate scientist named Katherine Hayhoe. When he asked her why it was that so many people simply denied the science about climate change, she answered something like the following, with my additions and commentary.

She said that for Republicans (not to be confused with “Conservatives,” who share some of the same positions, but who do not have the restrictions of fund raising in influencing their opinions), there are two conflicting problems. For one, they strongly believe (or must claim they believe) that government is bad, and government programs do not work. That’s not totally true, of course. Most modern day Republicans will support government funds for the military and police and roads programs and a few other things. But generally speaking, as a broad philosophical position, they are the first to say that government is the problem (and the last to say that it is the solution) and that trust in the free market is the answer to most problems. On the other hand, Climate Change is a huge and global threat like nothing we have ever seen before. Left unchecked, it will destroy the globe and all of our children and children’s children. And, perhaps more importantly, it is something that simply cannot be addressed without massive government intervention. Your own personal recycling simply will not get us there.

So, how do they reconcile those two positions? They can’t deny the existence of government. They can’t deny the fact that it will take a major government action all over the planet to turn around the problem. So, what they wind up doing is denying the existence of the problem. They continue to claim that there is a debate about it when there actually is not, or that it’s true, but humans did not exacerbate it (and it will go away) or that there is nothing there at all and the problem is just a hoax.  

It’s a tragic paradox for them, but given the fact that they have to be re-elected and they have to maintain their belief that government cannot fix things, then they almost have to create this illusion that their denial of the science somehow has some legitimacy.

She was also asked by Bill Moyers her thoughts on climate science deniers “in the street.” She is a practicing Christian, so he put it pointedly: why do Christians believe this in such large numbers?

Her first answer was that most people just don’t know the research, but it was more complicated than that. People don’t have time to look up Climate Change and study the issues. So, they make up their minds by following people who they trust. And the guy (usually a guy) who they elected into office is one of those. When they don’t know how to look into it on their own, they trust their Congress person, and if he or she says there is no issue there, then they feel like they have to agree. It’s not malicious, it’s just the way that people have to be to make sense out of things that are above their abilities (and time).

It may well be that one of the reasons why Democrats or Liberals (also not always the same thing) tend to believe in the emerging climate disaster is because they tend not to be afraid of government. Democrats have historically had more trust in government programs, even while wanting to question or change a few of them along the way. Their openness to government’s abilities (admittedly spotty on occasion) allows them to look at the reality of the gradually disintegrating climate more clearly. Not because they are smarter, but because they are not hamstrung and held back by an anti-government ideology.

The connection between this and the comment about Ricardo is that both problems require government action (they can’t be fixed by waiting for the free market to fix them) and both problems are denied either relevance or reality by modern day Republicans. If Hayhoe’s theory is correct, then today's  Republicans simply cannot admit to the reality of either problem—or for that matter any problem that requires government action. We cannot support any new government action on anything, therefore we cannot believe in any problem that is so large that it requires government action. Now, that  is a problem that needs something other than Government help.

Ricardo and Progressive Taxation

I have two observations about ideology and crisis. The first one will be today and the second (or “Part Two?”) will be tomorrow. The first is about wealth and income inequality and the second is about Climate Change. No new ground being broken in either one, but just one observation that links the two (and probably other problems) together.

The first has to do with the great Portuguese and British economist, David Ricardo, who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th Century in England.

I confess that it’s been a long time since I have read Ricardo. (In fact, probably since graduate school, but I won’t go look that up because the embarrassment would be too high.) But I’m reading Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and he makes an interesting observation about Ricardo, which I had totally missed or forgotten.

One of Ricardo’s important observations was that in England in the 19th Century, the population was going up and therefore demand for food (etc.) was going up, but the amount of available farmland was not. Therefore over time the value of farmland would feel more and more scarce, relative to the hungry mouths that needed to be fed from it and its value (and the wealth of its owners) would go up—way up. That’s usually called “Rent,” not like the rent on a house , but the difference between the value of the rise of supply relative to demand. That is, when your wealth goes up because there is more and more demand for your product--even if you didn’t put in any new labor or effort or costs--then that increase is your “rent.” And that was what was going on with land owners when their land was becoming increasingly in demand.

He believed that this growing share of national income that was going to the land owners and declining share that was going to poor people who needed food, upset the national equilibrium. Piketty, commenting on this, says that “For  Ricardo, the  only logically and politically acceptable answer was to impose a steadily increasing tax on land rents.”[1] That is, Ricardo was proposing a progressive tax. The higher the wealth and income of the land-owners, the higher should be their taxes because otherwise they would skew the economy. In my childhood reading of Ricardo, I had missed that. Unless I missed another great economist back there, he may be the first political economist to raise the idea of a progressive tax, the kind of tax we used to have in America, back when we believed that “all men (sic) were created equal.”

Now, as it happens, in the long run Ricardo was slightly wrong. The value of rent on food-producing farmland did not actually continue to go up. Over time, the value of other production in England (industrial products, for example) began to rise more rapidly, making the value of farmland rise more slowly relative to these other items. But his main point, I believe, was still accurate. When the “rent” (the non-labor-related income and wealth) rises faster than the labor or production-related income and wealth, it throws off the basic equilibrium of a society and causes dangerous inequality. And the best (though clearly not only) way to stop it is by a graduated tax that keeps that income and wealth closer to the center.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

[1] Capital, p. 11.

Border crisis 101: eight things to know about unaccompanied children

A great brief run-through of some of the questions about the issue. Forward it around. More to come.  

Christian Science Monitor
JULY 10, 2014
Linda Feldmann, Staff writer July 10, 2014

Since last October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the US-Mexico border illegally – a surge that has taxed US resources. The White House says “most” of the children, many from Central America, will be deported. But is that realistic? What kind of rights do these children have?

With the help of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, here’s a look at today’s immigration crisis and how it compares to the recent past.

1. What is an “unaccompanied alien child”?
That’s a term used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to categorize many of the children who have flooded across the southern US border since last October. Many of them are in fact not alone, and some are even accompanied by a parent, but are classified as “unaccompanied alien children,” because of how they are processed.

To avoid classification as “unaccompanied,” a child must prove that any accompanying adult is either a parent or guardian. DHS used to extend custody to close family members, like grandparents and adult siblings, but opted for a stricter definition in 2006. Even if an accompanying adult is confirmed to be a parent or guardian, that adult may be placed in detention as a criminal alien, separate from the child, and so the child becomes “unaccompanied.”

Also, a lack of bed space may force a child’s adult companion to be housed in separate facilities, rendering the child “unaccompanied.”

2. What are the trends with unaccompanied children?
In fiscal year 2013 – Oct. 1, 2012 to Sept. 30, 2013 – 82 percent of the 47,000 children age 17 and under apprehended on the border were unaccompanied. Between FY 2009 and FY 2013, the number of apprehended unaccompanied children doubled. That number is on track to double again by the end of FY 2014.

The absolute number of children being apprehended at the border is similar to that of the early-to-mid-2000s, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. But as a percentage of all apprehensions, the number has been rising. That figure ranged from 8 to 10 percent before the recession, but went up to 11 percent in FY 2013.

3. Where are these children from, and where are they going on the border?
An unprecedented number are now from Central America. In FY 2004, 83 percent were Mexican. So far in FY 2014, just 24 percent were from Mexico, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The biggest flood of unaccompanied children has occurred in the Rio Grande,Texas, border sector. Between FY 2013 and 2014, about 93 percent of the increase in apprehensions has taken place there.

4. Why does country of origin matter?
Mexican children can usually be deported easily. But children from Central America have additional rights, under a 2008 law during the Bush Administration, aimed at curbing child trafficking. The law grants children from countries that don’t border on the US (meaning Canada and Mexico), the right to formal removal hearings.

The Department of Health and Human Services takes custody of these children and places some with sponsors. The number of migrant children in government custody has more than tripled between FY 2011 and FY 2013. That number is on pace to double again in FY 2014, overwhelming US facilities.

5. How old are these children, and how many get “relief” in the US?
In FY 2013, 24 percent were 14 or younger when they arrived. That’s up from the 10 to 15 percent who were 14 or younger in FY 2007 and '08.

In 2011, 42 percent of unaccompanied children in government custody were found “potentially eligible for relief” to remain in the US legally, according to a study by HHS’s Legal Access Project in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice.

6. What kind of legal status can these children receive in the US?
Of 42 percent found eligible for relief in 2011, more than half were categorized under Special Immigrant Juveniles Status, which is aimed at foreign children in the US who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. Children who get a green card through this program can live and work permanently in the United States, but they can never petition for a green card for their parents. They also cannot petition for a green card for any siblings until they become a US citizen.
Children can also stay in the US if they can show that they may be persecuted or tortured if they return home. One such form of relief is asylum, as defined under international refugee conventions. Another protection is called “withholding,” which is for people not eligible for asylum, but who still may be subject to harm in their home country.
Other protections exist for children who are victims of human trafficking or criminal activity.

7. What percentage of children fail to appear in court?
Specific figures for unaccompanied children are unavailable, according to the Legal Access Project. But children who are placed with a sponsor and leave government custody have more opportunity to skip their court appearance. Statistics from the Executive Office of Immigration Review Show that 20 to 30 percent of all immigrants failed to appear in court between 2008 and 2012.
Juan Osuna, director of the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review, told a Senate panel on Wednesday that "46 percent of juveniles actually don't show up before their immigration hearings."

8. What’s behind the flood of unaccompanied children?
Analysts cite many factors:

  1. Increasing drug and gang violence in the “sending countries.” The three major “sending” countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) are among the five most violent countries of the world (Honduras is the most violent). 
  2. The Obama administration’s policy of not deporting young undocumented people who arrived as children (see no. 3, below).
  3. False rumors about that policy spread by human traffickers to desperate, often illiterate, families, that all children, whether accompanied or not, would be given citizenship if they made it to the border. (In fact, both the law and the executive order applied only to children brought here accompanied by a parent or guardian, and only applied to children brought here before 2007.)
  4. The 2008 Bush-era law saying that children coming from countries other than Mexico or Canada had to go through a special (and lengthy) court process before being deported or assimilated. That backlogged the process when the surge began. 
  5. Family reunification. Many of the children already had a family member who had gone ahead of them. The parents in the sending countries frequently hoped that the settled relative could take them in and save them from the violence at home.
  6. The (again, falsely promoted) prospect (very unlikely in reality) that Congress would eventually legislate a path to citizenship for those who made it to the country illegally.

“Do Not Lay Your Hand on the Boy"

Proper 8, Year A

Genesis 22:1-18

This is an enormously complicated and difficult and even painful passage. It has been the subject of contentious debated since forever, perhaps from the first time that anyone passed it down from one generation to the next. In terms of preaching and teaching, there are usually three fairly consistent popular interpretations of it.

First is the one on its face. Abraham is tempted by God to see how faithful he would be. To see if he would be willing to sacrifice everything, including his own son and the promise of descendant blessings in order to obey God. This is the one most commonly used by preachers. Brueggemann stresses this point in his Interpretation: Genesis commentary. William Willimon followed this thinking in an old 2002 Pulpit Resource article.

The second is that the story was constructed by the Elohist writer to help combat the child sacrifice of his time. Child sacrifice was found in Judah during the time in which the Elohist was writing (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6 (“He made his son pass through fire”); 23:10 (“He defiled Tophethso that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech); Jer. 19:4,5 (“Because the people havefilled this place with the blood of the innocent, 5 and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree,…6 Therefore…”). The so-called “Covenant Code” allows for the first born child to be “given” to the deity just as the first born animal was given. Cf. Exodus 22:29-30,
“You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.”
So the theory was that the Abraham and Isaac story was written to help overcome child sacrifices in ancient Israel during the divided monarchy, when “E” was writing. And it’s true that subsequent ancient legislation contained clauses which provided for the replacement of a potential child sacrifice with an animal (such as a “ram”).

See for example, Exodus 13:13-16:
“But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.16It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”
“So, it is possible that the E story, in which Abraham, the father of the people, with whom the descendants feel corporate responsibility, was meant to dramatize the deity’s demand for the substitutionary practice, and was one of the factors which brought about cultic reform and the abandonment of human sacrifice. The biblical prophets and the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid this practice, but that fact also implies strongly that it continued to occur. In fact, the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac suggests that Abraham was familiar with human sacrifice. He knew how to do it, and he was not surprised by Yahweh’s demand.” [a]
The third interpretation is that Abraham knew all the time that God was just testing him and there was really nothing particularly scary about the story. He was going along with it because he knew that God would never make him actually do it. The story of “faith” in this version is that he had enough faith in God to know that God wouldn’t actually do it (or, better, allow Abraham to do it). I personally think this is bunk. It’s demeaning and detracts from the pain the author or the real life participants went through in the story. However, I have, and I’m sure everyone has, heard a sermon on this text using this theme.
A fourth possibility is from Michael Lerner, which repeats some ancient thinking of the rabbis on the story. In it Abraham is internally torn because of things that had happened to him by his father in his own youth and he was repeating down to his child the habits and demonic voices of that pain. “The real task,” says Lerner, following this interpretation, “was for him to be able to separate out the voices within him and discern the voice of the one true God from the gods of the pain and destruction of his childhood.”
What follows is the gist of my sermon, based roughly on Lerner’s theory, but I’m not altogether happy with it.

The story is basically from the Elohist, though there is some confusion over the use of the name YHWH (Yahweh) at vv. 11, 14, and 16. Some believe that vv. 14-18 are insertions from the hand of the Yahwist. But that doesn’t explain the first use of YHWH at v. 11, where the angel of the lord comes to Abraham again and tells him not to sacrifice Isaac. The insertions appear purposeful, and appear to make a statement. My guess is that it probably has to do with the primacy of Yahwist religion over Elohist religion. Exactly what is the key question of the passage.

Michael Lerner, in “Cruelty Is Not Destiny: Abraham and the Psychodynamics of Childhood” (Tikkun, n.d., p. 33 ff.) argues that Abraham is a man wracked with conflict over abuses in his own childhood, stories of which Lerner finds in early Rabbinic midrash on this passage. Abraham, according to the stories, grew up as a monotheist in a typically polytheistic society. His father was a maker of idols for the culture, and Abraham early on realized how useless they were for helping crops or love lives. In a very revealing story, once Abraham’s father went away for a while and left Abraham to sell the idols by himself. “A man came and wished to buy one. ‘How old are you”’ Abraham asked him. ‘Fifty years,’ was the reply. ‘Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old-object!’ At this the man became ashamed and departed.” (p. 33). According to the story, these exchanges continued, and finally the father, who made his living supporting these idols, turned Abraham over to the king, who tortured him to make him believe in the idols, and threw him into a fiery furnace. Abraham does not die from the occasion, but he comes out scarred both externally, and internally. His internal burns are probably deeper and more dangerous than his external ones. He never again lives in his father’s house, and eventually, when his father dies, he leaves the country altogether and travels north to Canaan becoming a wandering nomad. The root definition of the word ivri, which we translate as “Hebrew,” is one who crosses boundaries, who is rootless. It is to this troubled, boundary crossing, contradictory, sometimes violent, unhealed monotheist that God finally comes and chooses as the beginning of his new religion.

In the Abraham and Isaac story then, according to this interpretation, Abraham is a victim of “repetition compulsion,” a Freudian term which means he is repeating on his son the same horror he experienced by his father (remember “Corporate personality”? We pass it all down to our kids). The Rabbis theorized that the first message that Abraham receives in v. 1, is from Elohim, the many raging internal gods which tell him that he has done despicable things in the way he has treated Hagar, his wife, his child Ishmael, and deserves not to have the blessing of God, and now the best way to get out of the pain is to destroy the promise, to kill the child of laughter. He, Abraham, is a child of violence, and unable to deal with the world without violence, and now in his despair and misery with his life, he resorts to end everything with violence. The voice he hears from the beginning is the voice of the pain of his childhood which he projected into the voice of God, telling him to do to his own son what was done to him. As he was thrown into the fire, so he will pass the pain on to his own beloved. “Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and offer him in burnt offering.…”

All of us do this. We act out of the fundamental traumas of our childhood. There is something about doing the things that were done to us as kids that somehow makes us think we can master them, or have control over them. In childhood events in which we were powerless or victimized, we attempt right ourselves as adults by repeating the sin on someone else. (“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” [Jeremiah 31:29]). We pass down or pain to our offspring as a prize f their inheritance. Then they despise us for it and pass it down to their offspring. All but a few of us hated something in our parents. And all but a few of us who have children have something in us that we have blotted them with that came from our childhoods and which they hate within us. We should put our wounds in our wills, for that is the largest thing that people inherit from us.
Whoever inserted “Yahweh” as the speaker in the second message, v. 11, intended it to be a different voice than the first. Lerner, following the Rabbis, believes that it was intended to represent a word that is truly from God. The task (“test”?) of Abraham was not that he was willing to take his son Isaac to a mountain and sacrifice him to God. The real task was for him to be able to separate out the voices within him and discern the voice of the one true God from the gods of the pain and destruction of his childhood. To separate out the voices of the gods of humiliation, and defeat, and abuse, and unlove, and to hear instead the voice of the God of the Covenant and the gift and the laughter, and the God who gives sight and vision to see the resources what will rescue us. the greatness of Abraham is not that he was tough enough to obey a God’s command to kill his own son; the greatness of Abraham is that he didn’t go through with it! “At that very last moment, Abraham hears the true voice of God, the voice that says, ‘Don’t send your hand onto the youth and don’t make any blemish.’” (Lerner) Don’t do it, God says, you don’t have to do it. You do not have to hurt others to get over your own hurts. You do not have to damage others to get over your own buried sense of damage.
The distinction of the voices is that the first one is plural, “the gods.” The many voices that Paul speaks of that torture us with threats and challenges. The second is YHWH, the one voice, the one God. The God who says the chain of pain can be broken, who the God of the redemption and liberation of Israel from Egypt.
Note that Jews read this story every year at Rosh Ha Shanah, the traditional time of atonement. It is the time when that which has been in our lives does not ultimately and completely have to bind us, limit us, make us less than we could be and should be. If Abraham can transcend the voices of his childhood, the ceremony says, then so can we.

Genesis 22:1-18

After these things[2] God[3] tested[4] Abraham.[5] He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”[6] 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,[7] and go to the land of Moriah,[8] and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”[9]
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw[10] the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there;[11] we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”[12] 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide[13] the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[14] his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord[15] called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”[16] 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw[17] a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”[18]; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”[19]
15 The angel of the Lord[20] called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”[21] 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba;[22] and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

[a]Victor harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[2] “After these things”: A conventional opening to a new section, meaning sometime afterwards. See also 15:1; 22:20; 39:7; 40:1.
[3] “God” (’elohim ) Plural of 'elowahh, deity in general, or the Deity. In the ordinary sense it means “gods,” but usually used (when plural) of God.
[4] “Test” (נסה nâsâh) verb, to test, try, prove, tempt, assay, put to the proof or test (BDB Dictionary). “Testing, however, does not always suggest tempting or enticing someone to sin, as when the Queen of Sheba tested Solomon’s wisdom (1Ki. 10:1; 2Ch. 9:1); and Daniel’s physical appearance was tested after a ten-day vegetarian diet (Dan. 1:12, Dan. 1:14)….can refer to the testing of equipment, such as swords or armor (1Sa. 17:39)” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary).
“In most contexts nasa has the idea of testing or proving the quality of someone or something, often through adversity or hardship. The rendering ‘tempt’generally means prove, test, put to the test, rather than the current English idea of “entice to do wrong.” In a number of passages nasa means to attempt to do something. It is used of attempting or venturing a word which might offend the hearer (Job. 4:2), of venturing to touch one’s foot to the ground (Deu. 28:56), and of trying to take a nation (Israel) from another nation (Egypt) (Deu. 4:34)….The largest number of references, however, deal with situations where a person or a nation is undergoing a trial or difficult time brought about by another. Though man is forbidden to put God to the test (Deu. 6:16), the OT records that he did so. The wilderness place of Massah (“trial”) becomes a byword in this regard, often combined in a play on words with nasa, “to try” (Exo. 17:2, Exo. 17:7; Deu. 6:16; Deu. 33:8; Psa. 95:8, Psa. 95:9; cf. Deu. 9:22). Those who put God to the proof in the wilderness would not see Canaan (Num. 14:22-23). The hymns of Israel reflect this defiant attitude (see Psa. 78:18, Psa. 78:41, Psa. 78:56; Psa. 106:14)” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament).
[5] “God tested Abraham”: Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, God tests the people Israel: see Exodus 15:26; 16:4; Deuteronomy 8:2, 16; 13:3; 33:8.
[6] “Here I am”: Often used to indicate readiness and availability with respect to God’s command. See also 31:11 (Jacob); 46:2 (Jacob); Exodus 3:4 (Moses); 1 Samuel 3:8 (Samuel). Used here three times, vv. 7 and 11. Especially interesting is v. 7, where Abraham says the words in response to being addressed by Isaac.
[7] “Whom you love.” This is the first time that love is ever mentioned at all in the Bible.
[8] Moriah (mountain) Traditional (but unlikely) site of Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem, on the threshing floor of Araunah. Cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1 “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” However, the image of Abraham sacrificing on Moriah Mountain was seen as a prototype to the Moriah temple and Isaac’s “sacrifice” was seen as the foundation of the sacrificial system. There is a substitutionary nature to sacrifice. As later in the Passover, a ram is slaughtered in place of a son (cf. Exo. 12), and over the centuries the blood of bulls and goats is added to the blood of the ram slain for Isaac. In the latter days, Jesus is the Passover sacrificed for us. Adapted from “Blogging toward Sunday,” Peter J. Leithart, Theolog (
[9] “Go to the land of Moriahon one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Evidence of a redaction: Moriah is the name of a mountain, not a region. You can’t go a particular mountain and then wait for God to tell you which mountain to go to. The name “Moriah” was probably added to tie the story to the founding of the Temple Moriah in Jerusalem, to imply that Abraham was the founder of that temple. But he clearly was not.
[10] Saw, yi’reh, a prim. root; “to see,” lit. or fig. Also, “provide,” “cause to (let) show (self).” The first of a series of plays on the word yi’reh, which continues the complex wordplay on “seeing,” which has been prominent throughout the Abrahamic stories, 16:13-14; 21:9. Seeing and providing are closely linked linguistically in Hebrew, and especially theologically in these passages. See especially below on 22:8, and 14.
[11] “Over there.” The IB notes that in accordance with Hebrew Scripture usage, if they were really going to Mount Moriah, then Abraham would not have said that we will “go over there,” but that we will “go up.” Another indication that Moriah was a redaction to the earlier story.
[12] The first and last conversation between Isaac and Abraham.
[13] Godwill provide, ’elohim, yi’reh, same word as used in v. 4. Means in this case, “God will see to it” or God will make it visible.” Haslam suggests that the phrase may intend irony as in “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering - my son.”
[14] “Kill” (ָשַׁחט šāḥaṭ). Verb, to slaughter, to kill, to offer, to slay. Haslam says that “The Hebrew word is a technical term used specifically to describe animal sacrifice.”
[15]Lord (yhwh, Yahweh). Note the change from Elohim to Yahweh. Some believe that it was inserted by the redactor to make a distinction between two gods. Others say it is two different understandings of the one God, or it is the merging together of writings by two authors (Elohist and Yahwist). If it is two writers, then vv. 14-18 are probably from the Yahwist, because they relate naming the place using Yahweh’s name. But that doesn’t explain v. 11, where Yahweh first appears. It is fairly clear that a redactor stuck it there for a reason. What the reason was, is the question. See below on Michael Lerner, who relates rabbinic Midrash that said it was two voices within Abraham’s head. The good God and the bad God.
[16] “Here I am” (ִהֵנּה hinnēh) Behold, or look. Continuing the theme of sight underneath this passage. “An interjection meaning behold, look, now; if. It is used often and expresses strong feelings, surprise, hope, expectation, certainty, thus giving vividness depending on its surrounding context. Its main meanings can only be summarized briefly here: It stresses a following word referring to persons or things (Gen. 12:19; Gen. 15:17; Gen. 18:9). It is used to answer, with the first person suffix attached, when one is called (Gen. 22:1, Gen. 22:7).” (Complete word Study Dictionary)
[17] Saw a ram, yi’reh. Perhaps, “had provided for him a ram.”
[18] The Lord will provide, Yahweh yir’eh, literally, “Yahweh will see to it.”
[19] On the mount of the Lordprovided, yhwhyi’reh. Either, “The mountain where Yahweh will provide (a ram)” or “where Yahweh can be seen.” Either is possible.
[20] “The angel of the Lord.” For the angel’s role in story of the flight of Ishmael and Hagar, see 21:17-19. The J writer typically has God speak directly to humans. The E writer usually speaks through angels.
[21] God has made promises to Abraham six times: see 12:2-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15; 17; 18. Now the angel repeats for the seventh and climatic time (12:2-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15; 17; 18) the great promises in their most generous form. For the first time, Abraham is blessed because he has heeded God’s command. [NJBC]
[22] Beersheba. “This important city, often identified as the southern limit of Israel’s territory (Judg 20:1; 1 Sam 3:20), is traditionally located in the northern Negev at Tell es-Seba’ (three miles east of the modern city). Its name derives from its association with the wells dug to provide water for the people and flocks in this area (see Gen 26:23–33) (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).