February 28, 2021 – Iphigenia and Isaac

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B

Readings || Lecturas

There is no recording of this homily.

Preached at the 5:00 p.m. Mass at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
[I re-wrote this homily for later Masses.]

Past Years: 2018


Before we talk about Abraham and Isaac, I want to tell you the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia.

As you may recall from your study of ancient Greek myths and legends, Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who rallies the Greek heroes to sail to Troy for the Trojan War.

Unfortunately, on his way to Troy, Agamemnon accidentally kills a stag sacred to the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, and Artemis retaliates by turning the winds against the Greek ships. Without favorable winds the Greeks were now stuck on the shore as the weeks went by and their supplies ran out. Eventually, one of the Greek seers reveals that, in order to appease the goddess, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia, something he initially resists but eventually does.

The Greek tragic playwrights made much of this story, of the agonizing decision of a king and father stuck between country and family, of a mother who cannot forgive her husband for sacrificing her daughter, of the daughter herself who must struggle with the realization that she is about to die at the hands of her father. In some versions of the story, Iphigenia dies willingly as a martyr for the Greek cause; in other versions she is whisked away by Artemis at the last moment, and the goddess of the hunt leaves a deer or a goat in her place.

The story of Iphigenia, of course, parallels the story of Abraham and Isaac in many ways. A child is brought by their father to be sacrificed to a divine entity, for the sake of a promise or a nation. This child may or may not be aware of what is happening and may or may not submit to be sacrificed willingly. In some versions, this child is saved from the sacrifice at the last minute and a different sacrifice is made instead.

As with all ancient stories, it is very difficult to date them, so it is nearly impossible to know if one of these stories influenced the other or if they developed independently.

Though there was commerce between Greece and the Levant, I am partial to the idea that the two stories developed independently. One of the most incredible things about humanity is that our shared nature has created common practices even among disparate cultures, and our shared rationality has caused us to tell similar stories about these common practices. Because we all share a common humanity, many aspects of our cultures end up being common as well.

Child sacrifice, unfortunately, is one of those common human experiences, found in many ancient cultures. As I have mentioned before, the universal practice of sacrifice is rooted in humanity’s profound and instinctive desire to return to our creator. Because we cannot do so directly, we offer to our creator that which is most precious to us, as a reflection and extension of ourselves, as a substitute for the fact that we cannot ourselves return to him. Children, of course, are the most precious thing most people can imagine, so, while tragic and despicable by modern standards, it should not surprise us that child sacrifice was widespread.

It should also not surprise us that, as humanity grew and matured, there should be stories exploring and questioning the practice of child sacrifice, as we have seen with the stories of Iphigenia and Isaac, often pushing humanity to abandon it. In fact, it is commonplace in Biblical scholarship today to conclude that the story of Abraham and Isaac was a Jewish reaction to the predominance of child sacrifice in ancient Israel. Abraham, it is thought, felt compelled to sacrifice his child to his God because his neighbors were sacrificing their children to their gods. The fact that the Lord stopped Abraham from going through with the sacrifice set the precedent that the Jews would not participate in this practice going forward.

Interestingly enough, though, the idea of sacrificing at least the first-born son to God was never completely extricated from Jewish culture. In the New Testament, we see Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the Temple in order to fulfill the Jewish law that required a sacrifice at the birth of a first-born son. Why? Well, first, we have this story from Genesis, where a goat is offered in place of Isaac. Even though Isaac was not sacrificed, a sacrifice still had to take place. Second, we have the Book of Exodus where, after the Lord kills the first-born sons of all the Egyptians and their herds, he also lays claim to all of the Jews’ first-born sons. But instead of killing them, the Lord simply requires a sacrifice in their place for all future generations. So when Mary and Joseph sacrifice a pair of turtledoves, they do so in place of sacrificing their first-born son. The Mosaic law recognizes that there is still the inborn desire to give one’s children back to God in a dramatic, if extremely misplaced, act of thanksgiving, and the law redirected this desire by replacing child sacrifice with animal sacrifice.

What is more, the word for this exchange that is used in the Old Testament is redeem, a word that comes from the Latin for “buy back.” When God demands that a sacrifice be made for every first-born son, the phrase is, “You must redeem every first-born son.” But over time this word has come to reflect what Christ did for us on the Cross. Somehow the redemption of first-born sons becomes transformed into a redemption by the first-born son of God.

Jesus, of course, is the fulfillment of everything. He is the fulfillment of the works of God, he is the fulfillment of our humanity, he is the fulfillment of every human desire. So with something as universal as sacrifice, even child sacrifice, we should expect Jesus to be the perfection of all that is good in that perverse practice. We should expect that the story of Jesus, rather than copying the stories of Iphigenia and Isaac, in fact brings them to their perfect conclusion.

So what do we see in the story of Jesus?

First, we see a Father who desperately wants salvation for his people. Our God has been working for our salvation since our first parents sinned in the Garden of Eden. Unlike the pagan myths, the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not act against us, oppose us, or require appeasement. Our God is himself the one who looks to make a sacrifice so that we might be saved.

And what does he sacrifice? Like with Abraham and Agamemnon, he sacrifices that which is most precious to him, his own child. But this child is no mere child – he is the eternal son of the eternal Father, God himself come down from heaven.

And what of this son of God and son of Mary? In the later retellings, both Iphigenia and Isaac are shown to be willing victims, understanding the greater good for which they were to be killed, and embracing it wholeheartedly. Early Christians commented often on the fact that Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice, just as Jesus carried the wood of his own Cross. But Jesus, omniscient God that he is, has a far more perfect understanding of what he is going to do, making his willingness perfect in a way impossible for his mythological and Biblical predecessors. And his sacrifice is made for all times and peoples, a redemption no one less than God could ever enact. We see in Jesus the perfect of what the Jews and the Greeks only ever experienced imperfectly.

What sits with me most powerfully about all of this is a phrase used in the extended story of Abraham and Isaac. As they are walking together up the mountain of sacrifice, Isaac comments on the fact that they have the wood and the fire and the knife, but no victim for the sacrifice, to which Abraham replies that God himself will provide the victim. And yes, God did provide a ram in the place of Isaac. But what Abraham could not have known is how perfectly he prophesized the true sacrifice of God; that God himself would provide his own son to be sacrificed on a mountain in Jerusalem.

My friends, child sacrifice is a perverse practice, and we are blessed that Judaism and Christianity have always condemned it as barbaric. But it did represent, at its core, that universal human desire to offer ourselves to God through our most precious possessions – a truth explored through Iphigenia and Isaac. What should convict our hearts, though, is that God did not end this practice through condemnation or prohibition. He ended this practice, and all bloody sacrifice, by providing humanity the one, final, definitive sacrifice: God’s own, only begotten son, who willingly suffered and died in order to redeem the world.

Featured Image

Sacrifice of Iphigeneia, att.Thomas Blanchet (priv.coll) crop

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