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What, in the name of all we call holy, is going on in this story? Previously in the Abraham saga, we have seen a character who was a pretty good fellow, albeit with a few rather significant flaws. He started out by uprooting kith and kin from the ancestral home in Haran to set up housekeeping in the land of Canaan because God told him to do it, a journey, as it turned out, that was full enough of sex and violence to be the script for a thoroughly modern mini-series. There was the lie to the Egyptian Pharaoh that turned wife Sarah into a harem girl and Abe into a wildly wealthy man. There was the military campaign against the four eastern kings; the sex with Hagar, the servant girl, that produced Ishmael; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the unlikely birth of Isaac; the cat fight between Sarah and Hagar; the exile and abandonment of a mother and son. And mixed in with all the action is God's regular promise to make Abraham the father of a people more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sands of the sea.
Truth be told, even though Father Abraham is revered as patriarch of three great religions, the Genesis record does not treat him very kindly. He lies, he mistreats his women, he abandons one son and is ready to murder another. About the only good thing we can say about him is that Abraham is nothing if not 100% faithful to his God. Up to now, Abraham is not the hero of this saga, God is. We watched as a gracious God chose an aging nomad to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. We loved God in the tent scene with Sarah and Abraham when the All-knowing One disclosed the almost-too-wonderful word that a couple of very senior citizens were about to become parents. We looked on as God, the Tender Caregiver, provided a well and a wife for Hagar's son.
God is our Rock, our Refuge, our Strength. God is the One who deals bountifully with us whether we deserve it or not. In scripture, God is the Creator who made light and life, brought worlds into being and hung the stars in the skies.
"God tested Abraham...Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." Huh? How are we supposed to make any sense of this? Even if Abraham is not particularly heroic up to this point in the story, at least God has been. Are we supposed to believe that God someday might order one of us to kill our firstborn just to see if we are willing to do it? What kind of God would propose such a depraved test?
And then there is Abraham. No questions. No word of protest. "Sure, God. I have already lost one boy, but no matter. Whatever you say, God." Why not at least argue and bargain with God a bit like he had done in trying to preserve Sodom and Gomorrah? Needless to say, he mentions nothing of this to Sarah, because we can easily imagine what kind of a scene that would have been - he would not have had to worry about killing Isaac because Sarah would have taken her husband out first. Abraham calmly arises, saddles his donkey, summons two assistants and took his son - the only son he has left now - up on the mountaintop in search of a nice flat rock that would be suitable for human sacrifice, to satisfy what appears to be the malevolent whim of some evil deity.
For three days they walked. Isaac says, "The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Dad answers, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." Uh-huh. They arrive at the appointed place - no indication how Abraham knew - he builds an altar, lays the wood out carefully (the wood that he had made Isaac carry), then he binds Isaac and places him on the altar. No indication of any resistance from the boy, which is strange enough all by itself. Abraham stands over his son, lifts the knife to complete the ghoulish task, and, praise be, hears the heavenly voice calling him to stop. "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Hallelujah, Hallelujah...Hallelujah, hallelujah, hall-le-lu-jah!
Then there is the ram caught in the thicket - talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time - the sacrifice, and finally Abraham naming the place, "The Lord Will Provide." And they all lived happily ever after.
What a relief! God had tested Abraham, and Abraham passed with flying colors. Go thou, and do likewise. End of story, right? Not for me, it isn't. Not for me. This is still the second worst story in the Bible, as far as I am concerned.
A century and a half ago, Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard devoted an entire book to this episode.(1) He recalls how he heard this Bible story as a child, and how the older he got the more his admiration and enthusiasm for it grew, while the less and less he understood it. He puts himself in Abraham's shoes, as it were, and shudders as he contemplates what Abraham might have thought and felt. He imagines four different scenarios.
In version one, Isaac lunges at Abraham's legs and begs for his life. When he looks at his father face, his "gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror." Abraham rebukes Isaac and screams, "Do you think it is God's command? No, it is my desire." Abraham then prays softly, "Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you." Here Abraham tries to "protect" God by blaming himself for the atrocious command. At least this way Isaac will not construe God as a monster before he dies.
In version two, Abraham and Isaac journey in total silence. At Moriah Abraham builds the altar and wields the knife, then at the last minute God provides a ram in Isaac's place. Of course, this is how the Genesis narrative unfolds as you know, but then Kierkegaard adds a twist by imagining the consequences. Abraham obeyed and Isaac was preserved, but the father is deeply traumatized and psychologically scarred for the rest of his life. He could not forget that God had ordered him to do this, so, in Abraham's act of faith, he loses his faith.
If human memory haunts Abraham in version two, in version three Kierkegaard highlights his regret, agony and utter disbelief at having been ready to commit an unthinkable murder. What could he have been thinking to kill his own son? Abraham "threw himself down on his face, he prayed to God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to sacrifice Isaac, that the father had forgotten his duty to his son." Surely it is the universal, ethical duty for parents to love their children and not to murder them! Here Kierkegaard imagines that Abraham concludes that he wrongly believed that God told him to murder Isaac.
Version four concocts an entirely different scenario, in which Abraham suffers a failure of nerve, an explicit act of disobedience, or, conversely, a return to his senses and sensibility. He simply does not do it. He cannot bring himself to kill Isaac, and as a consequence Isaac loses his faith. And why not? Who could have faith in a God who has wanted you dead?
Kierkegaard then concludes his four imaginary scenarios: "Thus, and in many similar ways, did the man of whom we speak ponder this event." How is that for understatement?
This is a VERY old story. Scholars say that it comes from such a dim and distant past that it pre-dates any nation of Israel. That being the case, the story will reflect some ancient realities that you and I would find uncomfortable. One of those is that this story comes from a time when child sacrifice was not only acceptable but expected. One of the differences between Israelite religion and the religions of her neighbors is seen right there. What we may have in this story is the beginning of an understanding that the God of the Universe, the God Israel worships, is a God of mercy, a God of love, a God who cares, a God who can be trusted to keep promises, and certainly NOT a God that requires human sacrifice. As barbaric a scenario as this is, it actually represents an advance over the common practices of the time.
This is a story that holds a most revered place in Jewish tradition. It is referred to in morning prayers and the prayers offered during the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Here is the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God's will and the symbol of Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages. In Hebrew, this story is known as the Akedah, or the "binding" of Isaac. (Interesting that the emphasis is NOT on the testing of Abraham as we might presume.) To Jews it is a wonderful word of hope in the face of the constant threats to their collective life through the centuries. The knife is poised to strike, but then suddenly God stops it. Good news.
Early Christians also saw the Akedah as one of the most important of the biblical stories. It is referred to twice in the New Testament, James 2:21-24 and Hebrews 11:17-19. In both passages, what Abraham did is held up as an example of supreme faith. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the site where tradition says the crucifixion occurred, looking from the altar that marks the very place where the cross is thought to have stood, up at the ceiling to the right of the altar, one sees not a scene from the New Testament, but the binding of Isaac portrayed right next to the mosaic of Christ on the cross. Important story.
"God tested Abraham...Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."
If you can believe it, to some folks, that is a strangely appealing image of God. Will Willimon tells of a Bible Study group one night seeing a film of the story and then discussing it afterward. One man said, "When I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I'm near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham's God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God."(2) Well, to each his own.
Perhaps more people feel like that than we know. And that is probably a reflection of our culture that cannot understand anything that flies in the face of "You get what you pay for," or "Ain't no such thing as a free lunch." If God is going to give us something, there is some quid, pro quo, so let's get on with it. What would you have us do, Lord? Fly a plane into a building? Strap dynamite around our waist and blow up a police station? Maybe just shoot an abortionist. What would you have us do, Lord?
"God tested Abraham...Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." We say Abraham passed the test? Perhaps the test was whether or not Abraham understood his God well enough to know what God really wanted. Then, yes, he passed. Go, thou, and do likewise.
By the way, if you are sitting there waiting for me to wrap this all up in some neat little package, don't hold your breath. This story, as far as I am concerned, is still the second worst story in the Bible. Just remember what we have been saying from the beginning. Abraham is not the hero of this narrative, God is. And if that is the case, what are we to make of it?
Leave it at this. Move the story forward a millennium or three. The sky darkens, the wind howls and a young man walks up another Moriah. He carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for a fire. Not the SECOND worst but the WORST story in the Bible. And what did God do with that?
1. Fear and Trembling (1843); see Dan Clendenin, "When God Tested Abraham," 6/20/05, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20050626JJ.shtml
2. "On a Wild and Windy Mountain," The Christian Century, 3/16/83, pp. 238