Divine Alternatives

Wilfred Owen was a British poet, born of Welsh descent in the late nineteenth century. He was best known in his young life for his poems about World War I.

He wrote most of his more than 80 poems in just slightly over one year, from August 1917 to September 1918, while on the front lines of that war. In November of that year he was killed in action in Northern France at the age of 25, just one week before the Armistice.

Owen experimented with a variety of images to convey the horrors of war, especially what transpired in the trenches of the First World War—let’s not forget that by the end of 1914, just five months into that war, more than four million men had already been killed or wounded in those trenches.

In one of his attempts to write about that war Owen turned to the harrowing story from Genesis about Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son (Gen. 22:1-14). Here is what Wilfred Owen wrote:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

To our horror, the poem’s ending differs from the biblical story; Isaac is not spared—the offspring of Europe are not spared.

Perhaps more horrifying still, and just like the biblical version, there was a way out. God provided an alternative path—as Owen described it, to sacrifice their pride—and that path was not taken.

Owen shocks his readers with the violent ending hoping they would be equally horrified by their own actions—or inaction concerning war. He was convinced that war subverts everything we hold dear as human beings: goodness, justice, empathy, and compassion. Owen subverts the ending of the biblical story to make his point about what war itself subverts and destroys.

The iconic story from Genesis appears repeatedly in Christian history. Most of the theologians writing in the first five centuries of Christian traditions, for example, chose to read this story from Genesis symbolically. Abraham and Isaac arrived to the place of sacrifice on the “third day”; this represents the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Or it refers to the day of resurrection after Christ has been sacrificed on the wood of the cross—the very wood Isaac himself carries, who is himself a symbol of Jesus, who carried his own cross to his death…and so on.

While I whole-heartedly endorse symbolic language in our faith traditions, I also worry sometimes that symbols themselves divert us from the actual story right in front of us.

Abraham was poised to kill his dear son, the one he thought would never be born, and the one through whom God had promised to bless the world—Abraham nearly killed him, but he did not, and God prevented it.

“Binding of Isaac,” Abel Pann

Right there is the key to this story, especially when we keep its ancient Mediterranean context in view. In many of those societies, child sacrifice was not uncommon as a way to secure the favor of the gods—whether for a good harvest, victory over enemies, or prosperity for your extended family.

This story, foundational to Israelite history, suggests that Israel’s God is not like all the others. Israel’s God wants violence to end, and provides an alternative.  

That’s exactly why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up, Jehovah jireh! That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story—the Lord will provide.

Notice the significance of that confidence in this story: even when your course of action seems wise, or prudent, even socially expected, perhaps the only one imaginable, God will nonetheless provide an alternative—and in this case, it saves Isaac’s life.

This story of Abraham embracing God’s alternative still matters, perhaps now more than ever, especially given Wilfred Owen’s brilliant and deeply troubling insight about the human condition: even when we believe God will provide—even when we see the alternative with our own eyes—we won’t take it; inevitably, we choose our own path, even when it’s violent.

Inevitably? Really? Oh, I really want to reject that, which is what worries nearly everyone who reads Owen’s poem. He doesn’t question whether God provides; he wonders whether we will ever take what God provides! Today that quandary applies no less compellingly or urgently in the war we are currently waging against the ecosystems that give us life.

Embedded in a resource-extracting, profiteering, consumerist economy of relentless commodification, Jehovah jireh! God provides a way out—why aren’t we taking it?

Factory farming is simply today’s default standard for our food supply—the daily, hourly torture of thousands of sentient, living beings—Jehovah jireh! God provides alternatives; why aren’t we embracing them?

Meanwhile, the world runs on the burning of fossil fuels—Jehovah jireh! God provides a host of alternatives; but we aren’t adopting them, even while we choke on the smoke of our own fires.

Yes, I know all those instances of “we” are problematic. So whom do I mean?

I mean “we” as individuals, and also “we” as members of Christian churches, and also we the citizens of the United States of America, and yes, We the People—not we the corporations, not we the CEOs, not we the political action committees, not we the lobbyists, but we the people, who once upon a time declared our independence from an empire for the sake, we said, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We European Americans declared that independence nearly 250 years ago, and as members of the Body of Christ today, we have something to say about that agenda: the life must be for all beings on this planet and not just some, and that liberty must include every demographic category we can possibly ever imagine, and happiness should never come at the cost of anyone else’s wellbeing—true delight is shared, not owned.

Perhaps as we celebrate Independence Day this week, we might notice that God provided an alternative to the way things had always been done back in the eighteenth century. Some courageous souls stepped up and followed it.

It’s time we stepped up again, especially as the Body of Christ in a world that is unraveling and in pain.

The way we have done things in the past will not serve us in the future, nor even now.

The God who provided an alternative to the sacrifice of Isaac continues to provide alternatives today, and also the courage and companions we need to follow those alternatives.

This week invites the perfect occasion for giving thanks for such a generous God—Jehovah jireh!—and then, for the love of everything good, and true, and beautiful, to live like we believe it.

“Abraham and Isaac,” Alissa Kim Tjen

Jehovah Jireh! God Will Provide a Different Way to Live

These are strange days, an unsettled time of deep anxiety, and yet also, perhaps, a time of emerging potential for a different way to live on this planet, and with each other, and with so many other creatures of the same God.

I have in mind of course this frightening coronavirus pandemic—which is far from over—and the ongoing ecological crisis that threatens countless species (including our own), and also the renewed urgency to address the longstanding pain and trauma of systemic racism fueled by white supremacy in this country. Still more, we are near the end of Pride Month, and today, June 28th, is the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which many mark as the beginning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to notice how the biblical texts many Christians heard today from the lectionary might stitch together these various markers of this current moment. I’ll begin with where I want to end, with the wonderful phrase from the story in Genesis: “The Lord will provide.”

Abraham said that, and it’s the name he gave to the mountain where he was preparing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. At the very last minute, God provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son (Genesis 22:1-14).

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio (1602)

I’ll return to that story, but first do notice some things about the other two texts for today, beginning with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Frankly, hearing a passage from Paul during Pride month, especially from his Letter to the Romans, is a bit like pouring a diabolical salt in a religious wound. As you may know, the first chapter of this letter has been a source of great pain and anguish for gay and lesbian people; it has often been cited by those who wish to condemn and exclude LGBT people.

I strongly suspect Paul himself would be truly horrified by such a hateful use of his letter; at the very least, using it that way is a bit ironic given that one of Paul’s purposes in writing this letter is to critique the self-righteousness of the gentile Christians in Rome, and an overarching theme of the whole letter is to praise the God who shows us a wildly extravagant grace and divine generosity in Christ.

So I’m wondering if we might take that stress on grace and map it to what we heard from Matthew’s gospel about a hospitable welcome. It’s a deceptively simple little passage, and also a powerful one about mission, which is something Matthew seems to care quite a lot about.

Matthew’s Jesus is sending out his disciples to do the work of ministry and what we just heard is part of the instructions he gave them. Anyone who welcomes you, he says, welcomes me, and those who welcome me, welcome the one who sent me (Matthew 10:40-42)

This posture of welcome—and I can’t help but use this image—this daisy-chain of welcome sounds infectious. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this when the energy of a welcoming hospitality feels contagious and it spreads in the community—but here it is for life, not death, for breathing not suffocating.

Welcome, hospitality, grace, generosity—these infectious characteristics of a faith community are so important in a society like ours today where so many have experienced religion as hurtful, damaging, and even lethal. Here, in this passage, Matthew frames ministry itself with the hospitable embrace of God, a welcome that is encountered in the unconditional welcome offered by God’s ministers.

This sense of divine grace and generosity offers a much-needed framing for the story about Abraham and Isaac from Genesis. It really is a troubling story. Does God really demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, his only son, the son he loves so much?

No, it turns out, God does not demand it. Set aside all the troubling bits for a moment about God testing Abraham in this story. Please, do not fail to notice that God interrupts that act of sacrifice and provides a ram instead. That’s why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up in my Evangelical Christian home, Jehovah jireh!

That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story. In Hebrew, what we see translated as “The Lord will provide,” is just two words. The first is what’s known as the Tetragrammaton, or the very name of God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; to this day, Jews generally don’t try to pronounce that name—it’s not entirely clear how one would pronounce it, actually, but they don’t try mostly out of a sense of piety, of deep respect for the Name itself. So instead they substitute “The Lord” wherever God’s name appears in the text, which many English translations today also do.

The second word, yireh, actually means “to see.”
God sees.
God will see to it.
The Lord will provide.
Jehovah jireh.

This phrase became much more important to me than I ever imagined it would when I came out as a gay man as a young adult. That same Evangelical tradition made clear that I was faced with a significant choice: either sacrifice my sexuality for my faith, or sacrifice my faith for my sexuality, but I couldn’t have both.

No, that’s not true. Jehovah jireh. God will provide another way.

Remarkably, I believed this as a young adult—and thank God I believed it because many who don’t end up taking their own lives, even to this day.

I believed God would provide another way to live, a life in which I could love Jesus and still be gay. Lo and behold, God’s grace is even more wildly generous as I managed to live a life far richer than even that; I became a better Christian because I’m gay, and that has shaped a wonderful fruitful life of writing, teaching, preaching, and activism.

  • So whenever religious leaders and faith communities insist on sacrificing their own LGBT children for the sake of doctrinal purity, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever politicians insist that our elders and grandparents must be sacrificed for the sake of the economy—remember calls for exactly that at the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic? Whenever we hear that we can and must say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever multinational corporations insist on sacrificing entire ecosystems to ensure profits shareholder value, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever the institutions rooted in systemic racism insist on sacrificing black and brown bodies we must rise up and say No! Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way for us to live together in peace and with justice.

It turns out that God provides another way by inspiring white people to do our homework and become better allies for our siblings of color; and by inspiring economists to come up with different models for sustaining our common life; and by inspiring whole communities to rally around their most vulnerable members to protect them from viral infection; and by inspiring straight, cisgender people to march with us queer folk in pride parades, and accompany us to wedding banquets, and to honor whatever gender anyone wishes to manifest in the world.

Jehovah jireh—God provides all these other ways to live, and more, for the sake of thriving, flourishing life, and not just for some but for all.

The world is hungry for that reassurance, for that good news, for even just the possibility that religious traditions are up to the challenge of this present moment. Indeed, people are desperate to learn how to tap into the deep wells of faith, hope, and love.

Let us encourage each other as people of faith with those words of an ancient faith: we may not know what the future holds, and indeed, we have no idea what the future will bring. But somehow, someway, God will provide.