Genesis 22:1-14 July 2, 2017
Today we continue with the second of several stories from the Book of Genesis as we settle into the summer lectionary readings. We are exploring the saga of Abraham and Sarah and their descendents. These are complex stories and ones that will, no doubt, make your eyebrows life, your face cringe at the very least and be utterly repulsed in every sense of the word.
There is a part of me that asks, ‘What made me think this was a good idea to use these lectionary scripture readings?’ Good question. But I tend to not shrink from challenges and so we continue because they are the stories of our faith and because they confront us with some unpleasant realities and push us to a greater level of thinking. They invite us to go deeper into our relationship with God as we explore what it means to be a person of faith.
Today is about the binding or sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son. You’d think last week’s text would be enough. That was a harsh moment in the life of Sarah and Abraham not to mention Hagar and Ishmael banishment to the desert and Ishmael’s brush with death. And yet God saved, God sent a well for Hagar to draw from averting Ishmael’s death and giving him life. So these are the things that the author refers to when we begin the passage for today.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He 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.” So 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. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then 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.” Abraham 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.
Isaac 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?” Abraham 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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He 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.” And 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. So 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.”
Artists have depicted and theologians have written about the binding of Isaac. There have been many images throughout years of this story. There is a poignant Donatello statue sculpted in 1418 depicting Isaac at the mercy of his father, Rembrandt’s painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac in 1635 is equally as emotional with the ethereal angel’s light shining upon the face of Isaac and Abraham. Chagall’s image in red, blue and browns shows a strong image of deliverance with the crucifixion in the background.
And George Segal, sculptor designed the memorial for Kent State killings in 1970 that equate the killings at Kent State to the sacrifice of Isaac pointing out the moral injury of such killings. Rashi, a Jewish commentator from the 10th century made comment, and theologian/philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled ‘Fear and Trembling’, in which he sets forth the idea of the “theological suspension of the ethical” or the challenge of the moral system for the sake of a higher law. All this to say, the sacrifice of Isaac has haunted us for thousands of years and it indeed asks us to suspend any ethical or moral fibers that are threaded within our psyche so that we can pull out meaning for our lives and I believe this too is that what God asks Abraham to do.
Let’s put it in context. Abraham has lost Ishmael, the son he fathered with Hagar the slave woman to Sarah. Now he is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac, his long awaited for son, the son promised to Abraham and Sarah while they were in their 90’s – the son that was supposed to be the progenitor of great nations. Another test?
What is important here is that we have to remember that Abraham and Sarah are living in a time and place where there were many, many gods, with a small g. Pearl S. Buck has an interesting interpretation on this scripture, she says, “God had one more test for Abraham and it was a difficult one. The Lord taught his people that he required their complete faith and love, even their lives, and that they should be willing to offer anything to ‘him’ [sic]”.[i] So listening to or being persuaded by the surrounding polytheistic culture wasn’t going to cut it for God.
And also, the Lord said that they should not shed the blood of another that a burnt offering from the flock given freely is enough. The sacrifice of a human and especially a beloved child was wrong in the eyes of God. Let’s get that straight. God was not like the other gods. God wanted to be sure that Abraham understood this while he proved his love and faith. So God asks for faith and love and to give of our lives but not in the sense of killing. God wanted Abraham to be sure he got it, hence the test. Abraham obeyed God but failed the test. And yet God saves and God continued to love and bless Abraham.
The angel called to Abraham to which he answered, here I am. The angel lets him know that God now knows that Abraham loves God above all of the other gods out there. Then, Abraham ‘looks up’ or in the KJV ‘with eyes uplifted’ he sees the ram in the thicket and this is what he is to use to sacrifice.
He hadn’t noticed it before, it was only at this moment that the ram became apparent to him in plain sight. If ever there was a time to use that platitudinous phrase, “God works in mysterious ways” this would be one of them. Abraham had to redirect his hand and his thinking away from his son and the awful sacrifice and to undergo a change. He had to lift up his eyes from what he was doing to see the ram. You just wonder what went through his head at that moment.
Midrash of the rabbi’s say that “it isn’t so much about this mountain ram as it is about our own potential to grow in understanding and insight and to find miracles to be grateful for even under the direst of circumstances.” They suggest that the ram was always there in the sense that God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac, but the ability to see the ram, to perceive a better choice can be understood as the everyday kind of miracle.[ii]
Miracles occur every day. It is a matter of how we see and interpret those miracles particularly when we are in the ‘direst of circumstances’. It’s often when we are in those dark places that it’s real difficult to see, I get that. It’s hard to see from where any help or relief will come. It’s tough to understand that there is goodness and hope and that you are not alone when things come crumbling down around you. And yet there is this ram waiting to be seen.
It’s the miracle of the ram when a sick friend realizes that your phone call to him was all he needed to get through the next hour of pain. It’s the miracle of the ram when you don’t have enough to cover the rent and your neighbor pays back a debt owed to you. It’s the miracle of the ram when someone is just there for you, could be a stranger or a friend but they are there compassionately listening to you and lifting you up.
God is always providing for us, God is always there through miracles seen and unseen. I once saw a sign that said, ‘Bidden or not, God is present’. It is a reminder that God’s presence is never far away but only as close as we can see and understand. While today’s story is one of the more difficult ones it is also one that stands as a stark reminder of this relationship between humans and God and the ways in which we feel tested by life’s troubles but also relieved and redeemed by God’s care.
“The ram is always there, if we will but lift up our eyes.”[iii]