...in which God says some messed up stuff
Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw 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; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham 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. 7 Isaac 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?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide 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. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 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 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"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
Can we talk about what just happened? Because that was messed up. Even if it seems like things turned out “all right” in the end…I can’t un-see this disturbing image of violence and trauma. I want to hurry past it. I’m not sure I have the capacity to wrestle with such an obscene experience. I need to either run from it and focus on some sun-shiny highlights, or rationalize it somehow to minimize its ugliness.
What kind of God forces a man to choose between faith and basic ethics? What kind of man is blindly willing to shed blood in the name of God? And under what circumstances could any of that be called good or blessed? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a part of anything that had to do with such characters. And yet, to ignore it or too easily dismiss this story that sits amidst our sacred scripture seems cowardly at best, and ultimately unsatisfying. Stories like this are one of the reasons people take issue with the church and religion and choose to separate themselves from it. Not just because the story is gruesome, but because we, the church, tend to avoid addressing that truth. We dance around it, excuse it, or tidy up the difficulty.
What would happen, if instead, we faced the struggle directly and engaged it deeply? I still don’t want to, afraid of what I might find there….but I need to. Who is this guy that leads his child up the mountain? What is behind and around this critical moment?
The name Abraham is familiar to many, even those who are not religious. But at the beginning, God’s call to Abraham seemingly comes out of nowhere. Abram is just a wandering Aramean to whom God essentially says, “follow me into the unknown.” Today’s passage would lead us to believe that Abram immediately does so without question, but actually he often asks question of God along this journey. He asks if there is a way that Sodom and Gomorrah could be redeemed or spared from destruction. No, he doesn’t just ASK, he PLEADS on behalf of these cities and their people. He and Sarah have their names changed when God establishes an everlasting covenant with their family. They receive the promise that their descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, as many as the grains of sand in the desert. The promise extends not only to the number of people, but to their character. Through this family, God promises, that all nations on earth will be blessed through them.
Abraham literally means “father of many.” Indeed, Abraham and Sarah become the parents of a multitude of generations, but also of various faith traditions. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – the Abrahamic faiths all trace their roots to this man. But this future was not always certain or clear to Abraham and Sarah. They were old and they struggled with infertility. In fact, they laughed at God for the seemingly silly notion that this promise could ever be made reality. They questioned and devised their own way. Abraham and their slave, Hagar, conceived the first-born son Ishmael who would become a patriarch in the Muslim tradition of faith. Years later, when Isaac did eventually come into being, Abraham again pleaded to God on behalf of the older son, Ishmael – begging for him not to be cast aside and forgotten. God honors this request just as God has done before for Abraham. God provides Ishmael a future of blessing as well.
In the desert nations where this great family is from and has lived their whole lives, the people do not know Abraham’s God. They know many gods by many names but they do not know Yahweh. For generations they worshiped these other gods through the stories and tradition handed down to them. To earn the favor and blessing of your god, you must make burnt offerings. The understanding of God was one that needs sacrifice, even the sacrifice of children. It worked as a divine system of tit for tat – you give something, you get something. It is within this backdrop that Abraham’s worldview has been shaped. This culture surely shapes how he understands this Yahweh and the ways in which one interacts with the divine.
Even so, this story of the binding of Isaac still feels cruel, dark, disturbing, possibly even evil – especially to our modern ears. It seems Abraham has two choices and both are wrong – to murder or to disobey. For today, let us pay close attention to these feelings. Why do we still get this sinking feeling in our stomachs? Why does it feel wrong? Why does it make our skin crawl? This text is often lifted up as a story of Abraham’s extreme faithfulness, that he is sooooooo obedient…but what if he had it wrong?
The Midrash is a faithful Jewish tradition where rabbis explore the story between the lines, looking to what isn’t explicitly said, and imagining the world between the Word. They ask questions of the text to discover a wider and deeper range of possible meaning. Here’s the question I want us to wrestle with today: “is this voice, the one commanding Abraham to bind Isaac, is this truly the voice of God?”
We read, “1 After these things God tested Abraham.” Neither God nor Abraham say that this episode is a test, only the narrator. To test….an interesting word. One I hear often in time of unknowable challenge, and certainly one I’ve heard a lot after Hurricane Harvey, that “God is testing you.” A test conjures up images of grade school in which you can either pass or fail. It can evoke the feeling of being tricked – where your innate responses and assumption are used against you in pursuit of a nearly impossible solution. But “to test” can also mean “to know,” to uncover the truth. When you test a ship’s seaworthiness the goal is not to sink the ship or even cause it undue distress, but to know its boundaries and capabilities, to identify small leaks and areas that might be tweaked before going farther into the ocean. To know a thing is to build trust in it, to strengthen the relationship between objects previously less familiar. Perhaps this is an experience that serves to strengthen Abraham’s trust in God’s promises. But perhaps, it provides Abraham a means to know God’s voice from the many.
The practice of discernment is a holy work in which we look to ourselves, of God within us, and to our communities, of God around us. In this way we form the body of Christ together in order to know and follow God’s will for us and the world. I personally engage in this practice with a spiritual director. I was spending time with her recently when I reflected that I’m most productive when I’m busy. I do well with a full slate and it forces me to focus. All she had to say to me was, “is that really true?” I had convinced myself it was but as soon as she created the space to reflect differently, I knew it was false. I’m not most productive when I’m busy, I’m most productive when I’m focused. What are other, healthier ways I can achieve focus?
This piece of discernment is missing from the story. We do not hear of any personal or communal reflection on Abraham’s part. This man, who has not been shy of asking big questions in the past, falls silent now. What terror can emerge from the lack of discernment?
So what if Abraham got it wrong? What if he was misguided by the echo chamber of his own experience? What if the voice calling him to violence is false? It’s possible. Look at what the voice says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." But Isaac isn’t Abraham’s only son, it’s not true. Since Adam and Eve, the voice of the evil one corrupts the truth, crafting subtle variations that are close enough to be convincing but that miss the heart of God’s Word.
Words are important. There are subtle differences in the Hebrew text. In this passage, every time the word God is used it comes from the Hebrew word Elohim, which is used to describe a more generic sense of god. It’s God with a lowercase “g,” the general word for deity. It’s the same word that any of the desert peoples would have used for a number of gods.
Isaac speaks up and begins to ask questions, “where is the lamb?” It’s a tragically heartbreaking thing to hear. But perhaps the asking of a simple question is enough to create space for other voices to be heard.
It isn’t until the angel arrives that we hear the command to stop and not to harm Isaac, that we see the word LORD in all caps. In this moment, the intimate known name of God, Yahweh, considered too holy to be spoken is translated as LORD in full capital. It is THIS voice that is differentiated from the others that speaks on behalf of mercy and life. Were the voices before this moment only shadows of what Abraham thought God wanted? After all, it would have fit within what his culture had demonstrated as the desire of God and how to be in relationship with the divine. Even as the text continues with the reader’s relief, the word for god dips back into Elohim as we hear the bizarre affirmation of the act, saying “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Ultimately, the truth at the end remains…that the LORD provides. Still, the experience of confusion causes trauma. Abraham and Isaac are never seen to speak to each other again in the scriptures. Sarah’s death follows not long after. Let us reflect on what happens when we don’t test the voices we perceive as God within community.
And yet, within this tiny sliver of Yahweh that is lifted up in this story, we see a God that is not like other Gods. This is a God who does not function in a tit for tat system or require our own sacrifice in order to earn grace and favor. We see echoes of the cross. The Gospel of John invites us to “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Like Isaac, Christ will carry the very wood that will claim his life. God takes the altars of sacrifice that we would create for ourselves and takes them upon God’s own shoulders. God provides the liberating sacrifice that is more than we could offer or accomplish. God’s faithfulness to the promise of blessing is tested and truth remains unchanged – that God’s ultimate purpose is life. It’s a truth we need to be reminded of day after day, week after week so that we might live in the light of these promises. It’s a truth that may be more profound now that we have wrestled with it. It’s the truth that flows from this sacred table – that God’s love knows no bounds. Amen.