Many folks have a hard time with stories in the Bible in which God seems to be the opposite of what we want our heroes and heroines, let alone, our Deity to be. Sometimes God appears to be a trickster, capricious, and monumentally unfair. We tend not to find such a God either trustworthy or inspiring. So when we come upon a text like the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, revolt is in the air. It is one of those stories that one has to take pains to explain God’s actions on display. How could a just and loving God jerk around a good old fellow like Abraham with such a horrible, repulsive plan as to commit infanticide? And with that, a great many folks check out of the play completely.
Too bad, really. This story is less about God than about the wiles of the human heart. In fact, I’d say that any story about God is inseparable from the stuff of the human heart—for the only way we can know anything about God is by reading the tea leaves of experience. So if we begin not exactly as the text does, with God saying something outrageous to Abraham, but rather with the human relationship of a father and a son, we might more readily see what the story is driving at.
The twenty-second chapter of Genesis is about ten chapters into a story about an old man who was distinguished not by his morality but by his faith. And faith had nothing to do, as indeed it rarely does, with religious performance, but rather with a capacity to trust. Abraham picks up stakes and leaves his native land deep in the area near the Persian Gulf and moves northwest up the Euphrates River valley to a place called Haran, somewhere in present-day Syria. From there he moves southward towards the Mediterranean coast. Abraham is old. His wife Sarah is barren. One day three strangers come along and talk with Abraham, announcing that sometime the following spring Sarah will bear a child. The child is to be named Isaac, a sort of joke riffing on the fact that Sarah, eavesdropping on the conversation, giggles when she hears that after all these years after menopause and no baby she is, as she puts it, going to "have pleasure."
To this aged couple Isaac is beyond special. He is the seal of divine promise, the proof of God’s faithfulness, the fulfillment of hope, the dream child bringing laughter to life. Who would not dote on such a boy? We know from other stories in this saga that Abraham is incredibly generous and no stranger to sacrificing and offering. It is a part not only of his culture but his nature. So we might imagine that as the boy grows, Abraham begins to ponder whether maybe he doesn’t love the boy a little too much, or a lot too much. He has another son, Ishmael, whose mother is or was Sarah’s slave, Hagar. By comparison, Ishmael holds nothing to compare with Isaac. Abraham is no fool. His relatively recent acquaintance with “God Most High” is bound up with the idea that absolutely nothing comes between him and that God. And yet—here is the boy. Could it be that Abraham becomes possessed of the notion that somehow Isaac has to go? See the neighboring cult of Moloch, where child sacrifice is regularly practiced? Maybe they have it right. The feeling becomes daily more powerful. Abraham becomes convinced that what is in his gut is nothing less than the movement of what you and I might call Holy Spirit. Take the boy to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there, far away from the inevitable devastation of his grief-crazed mother. Abraham is bound and determined.
|Caravaggio, "Sacrifice of Isaac"|
Abraham is bound. He is sure that he is doing the right thing. You know what it is like because you have been Abraham. You have been utterly convinced that you knew what you were doing. Maybe it was the time that you quit your job, or said yes to a marriage proposal, or decided you had to move, or turned down an offer that was most attractive. Something deep inside moved you to believe you were right. And you might have been! But right or wrong, you were bound. It was as if on some level you were being moved by forces beyond your control.
The irony is that it is exactly that state that frequently makes possible the alliance between the soul and its Maker that will change not only you but others around you and perhaps quite literally the world you live in. It is the ability, or more precisely the gift, of letting go of your conscious willing need—your dearest love, your fondest hopes, your Isaac—and march off into the land of Moriah which is all misty and foggy in the early morning when only a hunch tells you that you’re on the right track. So you take your Isaac by the hand and walk up the mountain. It is anything but easy, but you know in your heart that you’re doing what you have to do.
|Rembrandt "Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac"|
But Abraham’s isn’t the only way of being bound. Isaac is a vulnerable child, not an adult. He instinctively trusts his dad. He wonders what’s going on, and feels in the pit of his stomach something’s amiss. He senses the tension in the older man. “Here’s the wood. Here’s the fire. Where’s the lamb?” They get to the place, a great stone table. Suddenly Isaac understands. Does he scream? Plead? Convulse with tears, begging as I did when I was a child about to get a whipping. “No, Sir, please, please, please don’t….” Blindfolded, bound, the splinters of the logs stab his young flesh.
You know what it’s like to be Isaac because chances are you have been bound like Isaac. Bound to someone’s agenda. Bound by somebody stronger, bound by circumstances you had no way of changing, bound by habits you honestly couldn’t quit, bound by forces well beyond yourself, but in a different way from the bound and determined Abraham. Isaac is a victim, handed over to suffering and in just a hair’s breadth of being handed over to death.
When we look at the story like this, though we might not be able to match it up exactly with our personal experience, we can see that what is playing out is a well known dynamic in human history. Yet something happens that changes everything. At the moment when the knife is drawn and the shaky old hand is ready to come down with the fatal blow, time stops. Maybe it is a moment of insight. Abraham! Abraham! What are you thinking? Hold on! This is not what God wants. Not death, Abraham, but life! And as the knife falls clattering on stone, Abraham must think something like, “Oh my God! Oh my God! How could I have been so wrong, so stupid? I just didn’t understand. I thought I was following the deepest voice within me. Now I see that I was way off base.”
That, you may argue, is not how the story goes. But it is how my story goes. Sometimes when I have been most certain that I was doing exactly the right thing in the right way I have come to see that I had it all wrong. One such time happened when I was rector of my first parish. We had a youth retreat. One of the kids invited a friend to come along. His name was Ian. He was Jewish. A cute kid, he was a spark of light in the group, and obviously liked being among us. On Sunday morning I foresaw what was coming. We were going to celebrate a eucharist and, as a priest who wanted to do everything just right, I knew I couldn’t share the Body and Blood of Christ with an unbaptized person. So I pulled Ian aside and told him what was about to happen. I explained why I wouldn’t be able to share the communion with him, and asked him if he understood. He said he did. Well, he didn’t understand what I was saying and was probably too embarrassed to admit so. When I was distributing communion around the circle, Ian reached out his young Jewish hands and I reached up and gave him a blessing instead of the bread. He blushed scarlet. At the end of communion he made a bee line out of the circle. I went to him and tried to explain. He was polite. Polite and devastated. He never came back. If I had the chance to relive my ministry I’d make a bee line to that moment and change it. I look back and say about that “Abraham” moment, “How could I have been so stupid?” So now what do I do? Wail on myself? Or take a deep breath, realize that I was and am simply human, and come to my senses by the grace of the one whom I really do at bottom love profoundly and want to serve?
I once knew a woman who had an Isaac moment. She sat in her bathtub, razor blade in hand, ready to slit her wrists. She was bound, you see, to depression, which is a cruel master. One might say that it was not she so much as the inner darkness that possessed her that held the blade ready to do the deed. And at that moment came a voice. “Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though…” She began remembering Robert Frost’s poem and got down to the last lines, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and ….” She could not for the life of her remember the last line. Finally, she laid down the blade, got out of the tub, dried herself off, and went in search of the poem. “Do you know,” she wrote to me, “that voice of Frost’s saved me?” Tell me that is not Providence. “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Right there in the land of Moriah, a bath tub, a bound woman, and a voice.
But then there’s a lamb—a ram, really, but let’s call it a lamb—waiting in a thicket, mute, ready for the moment when nothing but a lamb will do. And you know the name of that Lamb. He is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God that liberates both those who are bound and determined and those who are bound in helplessness. He himself has been bound as he was when he set his face towards Jerusalem, his own Moriah, bound and determined to get there where he would be bound in another way, mounted on and tied to wood.
In these days when we are thinking about and celebrating liberation and freedom, we would do well to remember that more is in play than our national story. Moving not only in the global sphere of human affairs but in lives like mine and yours and Abraham’s and Isaac’s is a mysterious Stranger who at once likes us bound to his service but at the same time teaches us that that service is perfect freedom. When at times we have it all wrong, he is there to stay our hand calling us back to our senses. And when we are most helpless, there he is, waiting for the chance to set the captives free, even to the point of becoming a captive himself.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017