From tonight through to the middle of August, the lectionary will have us reading from the book of Genesis, wrestling through a series of stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the biblical faith. We are called to listen to these texts precisely because these people are our forebears—our ancestors, our mothers and fathers—and so their stories are also our stories. Sometimes the characters are oh-so-recognizably like us in their humanness—we see this in the laughter of Sarah, for instance, or in mixed emotions of Joseph when he is presented with the opportunity to reconcile with his brothers—yet still their world remains an utterly strange and unfamiliar one. Tempting though it can be, we do well not to attempt to gloss over the differences between their world and ours, or to soften the edges on these stories and try to make them fit our expectations and assumptions. Rather than making these stories suit our worldview, we need to enter the imaginative landscape that is their world—what Karl Barth called “the strange new world within the bible”—and across the 3000 year divide stand alongside of these characters as they contend with the God they are just beginning to discover.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
This is particularly true of a story such as the one we read tonight: “the akedah” or the “binding of Isaac.” I’m not sure there is a more troubling story in the whole of the biblical tradition, in spite of all attempts to rationalize, justify, or even piously sentimentalize it. “Some time later God tested Abraham,” it begins, and already some modern listeners will begin to bristle. God tested Abraham? As Walter Brueggemann notes, “In our sophistication, we may find the notion of ‘testing’ primitive.” We’re not convinced we want a testing God, but rather just a providing one; a gracious one. “How odd,” Brueggemann adds, “that settled, complacent believers pray regularly, ‘lead us not into temptation.’”
As the story continues, let it shake from you any settled complacency.
God said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “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.”
This is how God tests Abraham? Remember, this is the son born to Sarah long after she had given up all hope of ever having a child. This it the son named “He Laughs”, in recognition of the audacity of life coming out of barrenness; the one whose birth had been celebrated as the fulfillment of the promise that Abraham and Sarah would be the first parents of a great people. Notice, too, the careful choice of wording: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love,” and sacrifice him. Kill the promise you’ve been given. Kill the boy you love.
You heard how the story unfolds from that point. The next morning Abraham gets up and begins to put it all in motion. It is not as if he can just grit his teeth and commit the sacrifice right then and there, either, for it takes three days to travel to Moriah. Provisions need to be carried, wood needs to be cut for the fire. The traveling party includes not only Abraham and his son, but two servants as well. This is a pre-meditated action he’s prepared to do. God knows what the old man thought about during those traveling days, but this much is clear: he is prepared to go through with it. And just he is about to bring the knife down, he is stopped.
But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “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.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide.
There are different ways in which this story has been read and interpreted, one being that it definitely prohibits any practice of child sacrifice from the faith of Israel. Many of the cultures of the Ancient Near East did observe such practices, and so Abraham’s willingness to do the same was not nearly so surprising or appalling as we might initially think. He is prepared to do that which others in his world had done, but then at the last minute the child is spared, a ram offered in his place. The ancient Israelite practice of animal sacrifice is declared sufficient.
In a Christian understanding, animal sacrifice will in time be declared null and void; allowable by God in a more ancient world, but ultimately revealed as unnecessary. This same Christian interpretive tradition also received the story of the binding of Isaac in light of the larger gospel proclamation. As Kathryn Schifferdecker observes in her comments on this passage,
[T]he willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son became for early Christians one of the greatest examples of his faith: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17, 19). In the history of Christian interpretation, Genesis 22 has continued to be understood as a story of faith against all odds, and as a foreshadowing of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.
And yet both the larger Genesis narrative and the longer Jewish interpretive tradition resist too easy a resolution. From the moment of his calling in Genesis 12, Abraham had interacted with God in a way that can only be described as conversational or dialogical. They speak almost as friends, and at times Abraham even engages God in debate. Yet after this episode there is not a single instance of Abraham speaking with God, almost as if this testing had come at the cost of the relationship. Similarly, the incident that follows the story of the binding of Isaac is the death of his mother Sarah. In Genesis it is simply recorded as a matter of fact, but the long rabbinical tradition has often read this as being a death brought about by a broken heart and broken trust. Grief stricken by her husband’s willingness to do such a thing—and by the very fact of God’s testing—Sarah simply gives up and dies. Later in the narrative, when Isaac’s son Jacob refers to God he does so by speaking of “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.” (Genesis 31:42) Should we be surprised that the name for God that Jacob has learned from his father Isaac is “the Fear”?
This story announces that God tests and God provides, yet in between and after there is a cost; a wounding. The deeper relationship between God and this family will not be fully restored until the third generation—until Jacob—and even there the highpoint is a wounding. There is, in short, much to wrestle with in these illusive stories, and overly neat resolutions will avail us little.
Lest we too easily lean toward saying that such ancient stories are Old Testament / old covenant texts, and that because we are a New Testament / new covenant people we need not contend with these issues, I offer this from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” So far, so good. We’ll not be tested beyond our strength… though I’d hasten to add that some people here might well tell you that they’re not convinced even on this point. It is how Paul concludes that gives real pause, as he writes, “but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (10:13) “With the testing.” I’m not entirely sure what you mean here, Paul, and I confess that I struggle to make sense of a God who tests with one hand and provides with the other.
In the meantime, I need to pay attention to Paul’s insistence that “God is faithful.” I’m also thinking that at the moment in the liturgy when we pray those words, “lead us not into temptation,” this night at least we should transcend all settled complacency, and pray them with a new depth of urgency and an authentic vulnerability. Just as Abraham had earlier argued with God, and Jacob will later wrestle with God through a long dark night, when faced with such stories we too must be prepared to contend and wrestle with the things that unsettle us. It was the way of our forebears, after all.