July 2, 2017: Pentecost V
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He 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.’ 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.’ 6Abraham 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. 7Isaac 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?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He 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.’ 13And 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. 14So 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.’*
Book of Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham.
God tested Abraham in this way?
‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
Is this the way that God tests us? Is this the price of faith? This request to sacrifice, in effect, murder, one’s only child? What kind of God is this? Prove your fidelity to me by taking your only son to the place I will show you, and sacrifice him. This sounds more like Whitey Bolger or Tony Soprano than God, at least the God I know, the Author of Heaven and Earth who created humanity in the divine likeness of God’s own self. This is the way God tests God’s own likeness?
This is a terrifying text. And terrifying, in many ways, because it is so confounding.
First of all, Isaac’s birth was on account of God’s miraculous gift of life. Abraham and Sarah were elderly, and there was no way they were going to conceive a child without God’s intention. And so after waiting a lifetime for this miraculous son, Abraham is to offer him back to God as some sign of perverse fidelity? And a fidelity that surpasses, or suspends, the ethical imperative against murder? This request by God in Genesis violates the seventh commandment (from God) in Exodus. God is asking Abraham to break God’s own law.
Also confounding is that last week (in our RCL), God instructed Abraham to banish his first son – albeit at Sarah’s request. So here is Abraham, already down one son on account of his obedience to God, and again God asks him to give up a son, now his only remaining, miraculously born, son. And not just give him up as in send him away, like Ishmael, but sacrifice him on a ritualistic altar, a burnt offering; like a fatted calf.
It is no wonder that as difficult biblical texts go, today’s ranks right up there on the top shelf. It is among the most familiar stories and yet among the most discomforting, disconcerting and to many hearts, disappointing in the Bible. For it seems to be a story about a father willing to sacrifice his last remaining child to satisfy what seems to be a heartless God. What a theological bummer. At least for those of us who believe that our Creator is a loving, life-giving Source of peace and mercy and hope.
This is precisely the theology that chased me from the church at age fifteen, and kept me at a safe distance until I stumbled back into seminary in my mid-thirties.
This is a terrifying and confounding passage; at least if we read it in accordance with most of the commentaries that have held sway on its interpretation for generations. Christian commentaries in particular. Although, in my view, much of the Jewish midrash is unsatisfactory as well.
Even the Rabbis through the ages have not been in much agreement about the correct interpretation of this passage. Some focus on the “happy ending.” That is, they say that the point of the story is that God did not, in the end, require the sacrifice of Isaac’s life.
And so we do not know nor will we ever know for sure if Abraham was truly faithful to God’s obscene request; if he would indeed have sacrificed his only son to pass God’s test. Nor do we know if God would have been equally pleased had Abraham ultimately refused or failed to follow God’s request. Maybe that was the correct answer to the test. Not, yes I will. But, no I won’t. Maybe God was testing Abraham’s love for his son, not his love for his God. And if that were the case, Abraham was just about to fail the test when God offered a random ram in the bush to take Isaac’s place. Maybe God saved Abraham from killing his son, and thereby failing the test.
The point is, we do not know because Isaac was not ultimately sacrificed. We don’t actually know if Abraham was faithful. And even if God were testing Abraham’s obedience to the divine voice in his head, we do not know if God would actually have required the sacrifice in the end. Either way, maybe God never had any intention of allowing Isaac to be sacrificed. So, maybe the happy ending is the thing. In the end, God will always provide. Maybe this is a story about the happy ending that will come if we stick with God. All’s well that ends well.
The problem with this is that we abdicate any sense of responsibility for our actions. No matter what we do, God will bail us out. The happy ending theory absolves us of our accountability, and thus in many ways, our agency. We are free to care for each other or to take each other up the mountain to be sacrificed…..either way, God will provide a happy ending.
Other Jewish scholars say that the important part of this story lies in the authority of God’s command to Abraham. They say the point is that where God reveals God’s will, humanity is obliged to obey, no matter what. This story is the ultimate illustration of the degree of difficulty that will be involved with our claim of fidelity to God. If we say we believe in God, we had better be willing to sacrifice even our child…..or abandon our claim. Where God’s will is concerned it is incumbent upon we who are chosen, to be faithful despite any impulse to follow even our visceral understanding of basic human ethics or the most primitive dictates of our human hearts.
In this interpretation, our relationship with God (forgive me) trumps all else, even our regard for human life, even if that life is our own flesh and blood. With this interpretation, the point of this story is that Abraham blindly (and rightly) obeyed what he thought God was requiring of him. And so in our hearing of this scripture, we are called to the very same blind, and maybe even heartless, obedience.
Among the deep problems with this interpretation is that we have no way of knowing for sure whether the voice in our head, the one telling us to violate everything we know in our heart, is truly God’s voice, or if that voice beckoning us to violence and destruction is…….not God’s voice at all. We know all too well about the extremists among us, who wreak holy havoc in this world in the name of strict obedience to a voice they call God. If any voice calls us to do anything other than tend each other, to sacrifice anything other than ourselves for love (and even that is a dicey proposition), I can tell you with utter certainty that that voice does not belong to God….not the God I know.
And so happy ending or blind obedience; neither of these interpretations cuts the mustard seed, as it were. Neither feels a satisfactory settlement with this intensely difficult bit of holy narrative.
But part of the discomfort is that the whole story is so very speculative. Again, from the text, we don’t actually know what God expected or how God hoped that Abraham might respond. The sacrifice is never carried out. We have no way of knowing whether or not Abraham could or would have gone through with it.
All we know for sure, is that Abraham showed up. God said: Abraham! And Abraham responded: “Here I am.” And Abraham followed what he thought God wanted him to do. He ascended the mountain with Isaac. But before he could harm his only son, God appeared and again called his name. This time, though, God called his name twice. Almost as though Abraham was misunderstanding his charge. The way we might call to a child who responds to our request in an unintended way that puts that child in danger.
“Sebastian, take this box to the neighbor across the street.” And when Sebastian heads across the street without looking both ways to see that a car is coming, we yell to our beloved again, but with much more urgency and intensity to get his attention before disaster strikes: “Sebastian! Sebastian!”
This is how I hear God calling Abraham on the mountain. God’s beloved’s knife in hand. Raised even, ready to go through with something that God may never have intended for him to do in the first place. And so God calls to him. Frantically. Urgently. Abraham! Abraham! We read this very politely from the lectern. But I am quite sure that God was screaming God’s lungs out. Abraham! Abraham! And again Abraham responds, “here I am!” And just then, a random ram miraculously appears, stuck in a nearby bush. And Isaac is spared. We do not actually know if Isaac was spared by God, or if he would ultimately have been spared by Abraham. Or maybe he was just spared by a random ram stuck in a bush.
But the pattern of God’s call to Abraham in this passage allows some of us ( okay, it allows me) to interpret this whole episode as a possibly mishearing or misunderstanding on Abraham’s part. And just because the text says that God was testing Abraham by requiring a sacrifice, we do not actually know if the testing was in God’s exact word, or in Abraham’s contextualized hearing.
It is a well-known adage that the wise one will not believe everything she thinks she hears or sees. Thalia and I have a lot of neighbors who are over-renovating the beautiful old center entrance colonials in our neighborhood and turning them into behemoth McMansions. It is among our favorite things to gripe about with our friends. And the newest culprit just up the street seems to have followed suit by going up a floor and refinishing the attic, which, in our closely-knit neighborhood puts a set of windows above the neighboring houses and removes any privacy that folks across the street previously had through their second story windows. Another neighbor has seemingly added an obnoxious third floor with the attendant dog shed dormers springing forth from the roof…spying on the mere second story hovels below.
But yesterday while I was walking the dogs past that very house, the sun was hitting those new windows just right, and low and behold I could see that the windows were fake. I could see the roof underneath. And my assumption that they had outsized another gorgeous old colonial and were invading the privacy of their neighbors was totally false! And even though I might have sworn in a court of law that they had renovated the third floor (the new windows were proof positive) I would not be even close to accurate in my testimony.
Abraham! Abraham! I think you did not hear what I said. Hear again!
As Anais Nin once said: we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are. We see what we expect to see. We extrapolate our understanding of things based on patterns that we have already seen and accepted. For centuries Christians have believed in a God who sent his only son to be sacrificed in the most brutal way to show the Father’s love. It is no wonder that we Christians call this reading in Genesis: The Sacrifice of Isaac.
The Jewish tradition, however, calls this story The Binding of Isaac, in accordance with the actual Hebrew text (the Akedah). Because Isaac was bound. He was not sacrificed. And so our Christian tradition has opted for a headline that is (in the vernacular of the day) fake news. Nevertheless, The Sacrifice of Isaac fits our expectation and our theology in a way that makes the lack of an actual sacrifice, almost immaterial. Like dog-shed dormers with nothing behind the windows.
And so the way we tell and interpret this story not only suits our existing theology, but I think it contributes to the way we Christians often treat each other with outrageously callousness and cruelty. Because when we read this passage as an imperative; as a model of faithfulness to God, even as a father is seemingly intending to murder his own son, this passage tells us that tending each other is not the ultimate divine accountability; it tells us that there is something more holy than loving each other with everything we have; that there is something more pious than refusing to do violence or harm to each other; that there is a power of obedience that supersedes the power of love. We are saying that the guide and authority for our behavior is not to be found in the absolute hospitality of the heart, but in the preferenced perception of the ears. The traditional hearing of this passage tells us to hear God without consultation of the heart.
And so Christians throughout the ages have felt justified in taking the lives and disrupting the peace of those they deem to be……disobedient to God. Justified in their vilification and sometimes even “sacrifice” of abortion doctors, and transgender teenagers, and anyone else that does not fit their godly yardstick.
Our traditional interpretation of this passage suggests that humans are tools of God’s testing. Isaac was a tool for Abraham to prove the faithfulness of his pudding. But once we have established the practice of sacrificing each other to prove our own faithfulness, it is not a stretch to see how we are willing to sacrifice healthcare for the most vulnerable in our midst for tax cuts for the most economically pious. It is not a stretch to see how we are willing to sacrifice the entire planet in obedience to our God of capitalism. It is not a stretch to sacrifice the truth of life to the will of power.
But what if this passage is not about sacrifice? What if it is about the way God stays with us through our own transgressions?
This week, this month, at this juncture in the life of this beloved community, I am hearing this passage not as The Sacrifice of Isaac, but as The Sanctuary of Abraham. Our beloved community is preparing to offer hospitality to some of our most vulnerable neighbors. It is a precarious proposition. And yet, how can we do anything else?
And so as we discern our willingness to undertake this civil disobedience, I think most of us (I’ll just speak for myself), I understand the danger inherent in Abraham’s deep desire to obey God; even if it requires a whopping big sacrifice. It is a terrifying desire; thoroughly certain and uncertain all at once. Is this what God is calling us to do? Or is this just Gretchen’s idea of what God is calling us to do? Tis a puzzlement. And so I understand Abraham’s desire to hear, and be clear, and get on with it.
What I do not understand is Abraham’s willingness to violate one love for another. His willingness to violate his love for his son for his love for his God. That does not mean that God does not ask us to make immense sacrifices for love. I think that sacrifice is inherent in the work of love. But if our sacrifice violates another human being, or I might even go so far as to say any part of God’s creation, I think we must be wary of the voice that we are hearing make such a request.
And so in my own interpretation, I think Abraham may well have misunderstood God’s charge. We have no way of knowing. But in my imagining of this story, maybe God did ask Abraham to ascend the mountain with Isaac. The Hebrew words for burnt offering and ascension are dangerously close. And maybe God did ask Abraham for a sacrifice. But maybe it was not the life of his son. Maybe it was something else that Abraham valued, and he projected his fear onto God’s request. And so when God saw what Abraham was about to do, God called out to him before it was too late: Abraham! Abraham! Stop what you are doing! And in that moment, Abraham entered the sanctuary of God. He was immediately released from the terror of his own misunderstanding. His ordeal was over. God was with him.
And all at once, there was no more testing. No more terror. Just peace. The peace that comes when God opens God’s arms and saves us from ourselves.
Praise God for The Sanctuary of Abraham….and all of Abraham’s children!
© July, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw