In 1965, James A. Michener published a novel titled “The Source.” In typical Michener style, it was a protracted, wide-ranging story. The story centered around a well, the eponymous source of drinking water in the desert of northern Israel. Michener fabricated a multi-layer story that reflected the multiple layers of data discovered by archaeological excavations in the area.
Michener’s tale began in the stone age and concluded in the twentieth century. It contained the whole spectrum of human experience, including a great deal of conflict, brutality, and destruction. I was reminded of one part of the novel when I read today’s first reading.
There were many gods and goddesses worshiped in Canaan prior to Hebrew monotheism. Some of those gods retained a hold on people’s imaginations, even after such worship was forbidden by monotheism. One of those gods was called Moloch.
Moloch was a fertility god to whom children were sacrificed in order to obtain a successful harvest of agricultural crops. At one point in his novel, Michener describes a lottery process by which children were chosen for sacrifice by immolation. This was followed by the predictable lamentation and equivocation on the part of the parents who learned that they would lose a child for the benefit of the village’s crops.
For the most part, the idea of burning young children alive as sacrifices to a pagan god is both foreign and reprehensible. I say, “For the most part,” because if you’ve ever seen the faces of the some of the childless elderly people who choose to sit in the cry room, then are annoyed by the sound of children crying (in the room specifically designated for crying children), you know that not all people are entirely opposed to sacrifice by immolation.
As odious as the practice is to most of us, it held a great deal of power over people in ancient Canaan. Even after monotheism became the universal religious practice among Hebrews, there remained the temptation to worship of Moloch. The Hebrew Scriptures attest to this.
Today’s first reading is an example of the enduring hold that worship of Moloch had on the imaginations of the ancient Israelites. The story of Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah for sacrifice exists in the Hebrew Scriptures as a reiteration of the prohibition against child sacrifice. The fact that this story was included in the final edition of the Hebrew Scriptures attests to the longevity of the practice, even after the Israelites settled in the Land of Promise.
Later, when the problematic issue of worship of false gods grew less intense, the story was reinterpreted as prefiguring the Sinai Covenant with Moses. Abraham’s unshakeable faith was presented for imitation by the Israelites. Abraham’s morbid determination in the story became a metaphor for the unconditional fidelity required by participation in the Sinai Covenant.
By Jesus’ lifetime, the story had taken on yet another meaning. The Israelites’ deportation to Babylon during the Exile altered the nature of Hebrew religion. It had always been the case that a few people remained faithful, while the majority chased after false gods and false hope. The Exile created a new appreciation for the fact that not all people had the strength of character to endure in the life of faith.
This admission of the historical scarcity of real faith led to an awareness of a new vocation for the faithful few. Those who suffered in order to remain faithful came to understand themselves as being like sacrificial offerings made for the benefit of all the People. Like Isaac, the self-sacrifice of the faithful few would have redeeming effects for all and would be rewarded by God. The story appears in our Liturgy of the Word this Sunday because of this latter meaning; it prefigures Jesus’ redemptive suffering and sacrifice.
This interpretation of the story offers consolation to the faithful few today. If there was a time when the majority of people lived in ways faithful to God, that time has passed. I say, “If there was a time,” because I am not convinced that this was ever true. Nonetheless, if there was a time when the majority of people were faithful to God, that time is no more.
It is not the majority opinion that one should be honest, trustworthy, forgiving, compassionate, generous, or grateful. Rather, it seems to be the opinion of most people today that one should look out for one’s own interests, seek to accumulate as much wealth and notoriety as possible, and treat others as stage props that form the backdrop for the drama of one’s life.
Those of us who are committed to live the faith taught by Jesus might be tempted to despair about the future of the Faith or to grow judgmental about the future of humanity. The Scriptures offer another possibility; the Scriptures portray the faithfulness of the few as redemptive suffering for the salvation of all.
It is truly sad that so many people lead lives that are so lacking in faith and virtue. There may be very little that we can do to change the minds and hearts of the faithless. There is, however, something that we can do on their behalf; we can remain faithful. We can hold onto the faith taught by Jesus; we can offer our suffering among a faithless generation as a sacrificial offering to God. Jesus did this on our behalf; now, it is our turn to do the same on behalf of others.