Like millions of Americans this past Sunday, I sat down to watch the much-hyped, The Bible miniseries on the History Channel. But you can only cover so much in ten hours, so viewers ended up watching the Bible’s greatest hits, a series of theme-park tableaus of one disaster after another. The stories played out like a Mel Gibson redux, where suffering dominates the religious landscape. The lyric and joy that gives life and hope to believers was lost in this turmoil of struggle and sacrifice.
Unfortunately, at least in the first week's presentation, the series overlooked the fact the Bible is a must read touchstone of Western civilization. As a layman who has spent a fair amount of time reading the Bible, I can tell you that there is some really good stuff to soak kin. Well yes, you have to overlook al those “begats.”
And maybe it’s not unanimously considered great literature, in the genre of Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky or Proust. But remember that unless you believe that everything in the Bible is the absolute word of God, then the Good Book is not one homogenous work by one author, but a collection of writers or oral historians passing down their interpretations from one generation to the next. Many would argue that each book must stand on its own. Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon offer beautiful, uplifting inspiration. Other books are, well, boring.
I write all this as background to a big problem I have with God, which is set out in the book of Genesis. Most biblical scholars consider the Book of Genesis to be the foundation for belief in the Biblical. Genesis is not just the first book of the Bible, it is the bedrock for the rest of the theological truths found in all the books of both the Old and New Testaments.
The miniseries uses the narrative from the Book of Genesis that portrays Abraham as the Biblical father of all mankind. God apparently felt he had to test the faith of his chosen one and commands Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. In the mini-series last Sunday, it wasn’t pretty. Wailing and emotional pain by father, mother and son engulfed the whole episode. And for good reason. “Go kill your son to show me your faith and devotion?” My reaction has always been-What’s up with that? How could anyone kill their own blood? There was no “Sophie’s Choice” here. It was a command to commit murder.
Oh yes, many scholars would argue. It was a test. Maybe even an allegory. It was supposedly a challenge to see if Abraham had complete faith. But how cruel. How could a loving God even consider putting his pick for the father of all mankind to be put to such a test? Why would any being, God or man, force such a horrendous choice?
Bob Dylan poignantly and pointedly asked the same question on the title track of his “Highway 61 Revisited “album that came out in 1965. The song challenges the moral dilemma of killing one’s own son at the request of the Almighty. The lyrics lament:
“Oh, God said to Abraham, Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “you can do what you want Abe but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
Oh, I’ll continue to watch the Biblical miniseries on Sunday nights in the weeks to come. No doubt it will be like a trip through a Christian theme park. As the New York Times television reviewer, Neil Genzlinger, writes, “Next stop on the tour, ladies and gentlemen: the Noah’s Ark tableau, followed by the Daniel in the lion’s den diorama.” For believers, the bible is a complex drama of hope, forgiveness, and salvation that simply cannot be done justice in 10 hours.
I happen to be one of those believers. But along my personal religious journey, whenever I consider God’s cruel testing of Abraham, I will have no qualms with telling Him that he either badly stumbled in putting Abraham to such a vile test, or with telling those who were chosen as his earthly interpreters, that they just didn’t get the message right.
Most of us understand that faith often needs to be strengthened and validated. Put to the test if you will. But I would rather believe in Proverbs (21:3) that challenges us: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”