As the Epistle and Gospel readings leave me a little underwhelmed (even though Romans 6:12-23 has its timely wisdom as July 4 draws near – that freedom isn’t my right to do as I wish, so cherished by Americans, but being set free from slavery to sin, and for obedience!), I’ll be preaching on one of the toughest, puzzling yet theologically profound texts in all of Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14. Ellen Davis wryly points out that “Here we are, only 22 chapters into the Bible, and already our skin is crawling.” Most listeners will shudder, unknowingly siding with Immanuel Kant, who asserted that if you hear a voice commanding something contrary to moral law, it is not God’s voice. Only a deranged person would harm a child!
And yet, don’t we sacrifice our own children on the altar of….? Fill in the blank. Don’t we bind them to the altar of money, or alcohol, or dizzying busyness, or our anxiety or society’s false deities. A conservative might say we sacrifice the unborn, a progressive might say we sacrifice the born but disadvantaged. Plenty of sermon fodder here, isn’t there? Bad parents, all of us… and if you’re a Family Guy fan, this hilarious clip about the world dad in the world elicits a chuckle (but best not to run this video on your worship screens).
The simplest homiletical conclusion to be drawn is that Genesis 22, written during the days when Israel’s neighbors did in fact sacrifice their children to placate angry gods, stands as a bold witness to say It shall not be so among you; this will not be done in Israel.
But is that it? Doesn’t Genesis 22 open up a larger vista of the divine heart and faithful discipleship? Phillip asked the Ethiopian eunuch who was pondering this text, “Do you understand?” His reply, an understatement, so humble and true to life: “How can I unless someone guides me?” What guidance can we offer? The text can always be read as a one-off – that is, it’s about Abraham, not you and me. There needn’t be a “go thou and do likewise” in every text. The Torah marvels as the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, not necessarily urging us to mimic them.
When I was young, I think I touted Abraham as a shining example of total devotion to God. But recently I’ve been reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Genesis. He makes a big point of contrasting Noah, who said not one word in response to God but simply dished up blind obedience (which didn’t impact anybody else!), with Abraham, who talked back to God, who took responsibility, who instead of just letting Sodom and Gomorrah burn fought back, advocating for the citizens there. Why then is Abraham so meek and blindly obedient here? Sacks doesn’t offer us much, except this: “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing… Judaism is a sustained discipline in not taking life for granted.”
More than any passage in Scripture, this one is to be read slowly. Each word bears so much weight, and the emotion – never stated! – is intense. Take your son. Pause… Your only son Isaac. Pause… underlining the ‘only,’ and thus the whole story of barrenness, and then reminding him of his name… which had just meant joyful laughter. Whom you love. Long pause… again, reiterating the obvious, expanding the interior horizon. The pace remains slow, rising early, and as he saddles his donkey.
When they get to Moriah, he takes the wood, and the fire and knife. Then the text lingers: So they went, both of them together. Pause. Absolutely tender, harrowing. These very words are repeated two verses later. Isaac calls out to him “My father!” (which is how Jesus would teach us to pray). Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son” (echoes of Isaiah 6 but with the tender ‘my son’). I love it that the text never tells us how either of them feels. The intensity is greater than if the mood had been depicted in a bunch of adjectives.
The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gifted us with a profound rumination on this text (Fear and Trembling), in which he points out that if Abraham had been heroic, he would have raised the knife and plunged it into his own chest: “He would have been admired ; but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star which saves the anguished.” Kierkegaard’s best line? “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”
Ellen Davis, in her wise reflection on this text, speaks of “vulnerability” as “the enabling condition of covenant relationship with God.” Abraham could not be more vulnerable – and he makes himself even more vulnerable by responding “Here I am.” Perhaps he should have run, hidden, or just said No way. “Here I am” is how we always stand before and with God.
She considers the vulnerability of children in the face of their parents’ faith. How vulnerable was Isaac to his father’s piety? Might this cause the preacher to shudder a bit over the cost to our children of what we think we are doing for God?
So we have a startling text. Abraham is “tested,” not tempted (as is the case for Jesus in the desert). Russ Reno (in his Brazos/Genesis commentary): “Trials and tests are consistent with divine love. They work against our hopeless hope that our finite powers can see us through. To be tested is to be brought back to reality. It is a spank that awakens us. Trials and tests not only purify us of delusions, but also prepare us for a proper loyalty to the world and its finite goods.”
The best I can think to ask is What sort of test was the crucifixion for the heart of God the Father? We know Jesus’ cry of dereliction. How did God hear him? What was God’s swirl of emotion when the taunters jeered, “Save yourself”? There is some harrowing in that moment, some unspeakable agony – which words just cannot capture. Rembrandt’s pen and ink profoundly and unforgettably captures Abraham’s face just at the moment he is relieved of his crushing duty, when he who drew the knife actually got Isaac.
Check out my new book Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Minstering Well series), my favorite (I think?) book I've ever written.