This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Good News Translation (GNT)
God Commands Abraham to Offer Isaac
22 Some time later God tested Abraham; he called to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Yes, here I am!”
2 “Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took Isaac and two servants with him. They started out for the place that God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham saw the place in the distance. 5 Then he said to the servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, and he himself carried a knife and live coals for starting the fire. As they walked along together, 7 Isaac spoke up, “Father!”
He answered, “Yes, my son?”
Isaac asked, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide one.” And the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he picked up the knife to kill him. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!”
He answered, “Yes, here I am.”
12 “Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you honor and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.”
13 Abraham looked around and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “The Lord Provides.”[a] And even today people say, “On the Lord’s mountain he provides.”[b]
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time, 16 “I make a vow by my own name—the Lord is speaking—that I will richly bless you. Because you did this and did not keep back your only son from me, 17 I promise that I will give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand along the seashore. Your descendants will conquer their enemies. 18 All the nations will ask me to bless them as I have blessed your descendants—all because you obeyed my command
This is a masterpiece as well as a scandalous provocation to the reader. And not just to the modern reader! From the time of its composition readers would have been revolted by its cruelty. Of course the whole episode can be seen as an image of Israel’s relationship with her God; time and again faith in this God leads to her near extinction, as in the Babylonian exile or the Maccabean rebellion. To trust in this God is to risk the lives of your children.
But it seems clear that this story was written before all that history. If so, we can see that it is indeed foundational for Israel’s faith.
What’s going on in the story? We’ve seen how with Abraham, God steps out of mythology where he walks and talks with archetypal humans, and has engaged with the faith of a real person. Neither the person nor God have engaged in this before. Although therefore the storyteller continues to give God words to say, we know that these are present only to Abraham’s faith: he believes he’s being addressed by God; and he tests this “God” by following what he believes to be his instruction and attempting to deduce “God’s” character from what happens. Abraham has left his home in Haran and journeyed to Canaan, where he has lately argued with God about the destruction of the cities of the plain. He, Abraham, has insisted that “God” must be just, otherwise he cannot be “God”. He is not simply a blind believer.
Now he is convinced that his son, his beloved, the bearer of the promise, is required by “God” as a sacrifice. This requirement takes him into the realm of absurdity (as Soren Kierkegaard noted in “Fear and Trembling), for it makes nonsense of the promise he has believed. Yet he sticks to his own stubborn faith: he tests “God” by following what he experiences as his command. But he knows the deed will be his, not “God’s” if he does it. Perhaps he feels that “God” is not real, is just his own fiction, unless God can command something utterly against his own desire. Perhaps, we hope, at the crucial moment, when he refuses to go through with it, he’ll have proved that “God” is simply a human projection.
And what about Isaac, the innocent victim of this drama? Modern canons of parenting would view Abraham’s whole plan as murderous and cruel, regardless of outcome. The Genesis author on the other hand, depicts Isaac as an active partner in the drama. His quiet question indicates some knowledge of what may be about to happen. In a sense he accepts Abraham’s concealment of the truth, ambiguous as it is.
Of course both Abraham and God are inventions of the author, who knows that God doesn’t manifest his presence unambiguously and remains always an”invention” of believers. But perhaps he believed that there are moments when the words ascribed to God are given by God, when the narration is taken over by a greater Author.
God’s response to Abraham’s dangerous trust is perhaps such a moment. “Because you have not withheld your son, your only son from me, in blessing I will bless you…..” The passion of the “God” invented by the author of Genesis for blessing his whole creation, becomes a living option for the reader, who can trust that God’s purpose is always life not death. But the reader will also know that those who live by trust in God, in this world that God has created, may know profound and desperate suffering for themselves and worse, for their loved ones.
The mutual passion of Israel’s faith in God and God’s faith in Israel is memorably delineated in this story; but perhaps a Christian commentator can be excused for saying that God’s ultimate word to Abraham may be, “Because you have not withheld your son, your only son from me, neither will I withhold my son, my only son from you.”