What in the world is happening? What was good is now evil. What was clear is now blurry. The stars might as well have fallen out of the sky. The ocean might as well have reclaimed the land. Everything is wrong and disoriented and awful.
God has asked Abraham to kill Isaac.
Not only has God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, when God gives Abraham the instructions to do so, God seems to have forgotten who Abraham is. Robert Alter, an Old Testament Scholar, points out that we seem to be hearing one side of a two-sided conversation. The Hebrew reads, “Take pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac. . .” And you can almost hear Abraham saying, “But I have two sons. What about Ishmael? I love both of them. Oh, you mean Isaac.” From the very beginning of the conversation Abraham is disoriented, we the readers are disoriented, the whole world seems disoriented.
After all, we’ve just spent several weeks with Abraham and Sarah, a rare opportunity to spend more than one Sunday on any particular Biblical character. We have journeyed with them. We have joyfully and with trepidation followed behind them as they took the risk to follow God in the first place. We have waited, and waited, and waited with them for the birth of their long-promised child, Isaac. And when Sarah and Abraham were finally blessed with the squirming squealing newborn we laughed with them in astonishment that God’s blessing actually came true, despite the incredible odds against that blessing.
Now should be the time for celebration. Now should be the time to raise Isaac into a responsible young man. Now should be the time of passing the torch from one generation to the next. Instead, God seems poised to rip the promise he has made right out of Abraham’s faithful hands.
Strangely, Abraham does not even argue. And Abraham knows how to argue with God. In fact, in Chapter 19 of Genesis, Abraham goes head to head with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants to destroy the cities, but Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family live there. Abraham bargains with God until God agrees that if even ten people in the city are righteous, he will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The argument finally resolves when God enables the righteous Lot and his family to escape, and then destroys the city. Abraham may not have affected the ultimate outcome, but he did learn that he is allowed to argue with God.
But now, when his son’s life depends on it, Abraham does not argue. Abraham is silent and obedient. Abraham splits wood, gathers a cleaver and some rope, calls to Isaac and begins the journey up the mountain. They must have left early in the morning, maybe even before Sarah awoke. I imagine she would have had a thing or two to say to Abraham if she knew what he was doing.
We are not given any information about Abraham’s thoughts or emotions during this test. We don’t know if he really believes he is going to have to kill Isaac or whether he trusts God to find another way. All we know is that he makes the trip, reluctant step by reluctant step. We know he piles the wood, binds his son’s arms and legs, and lifts his cleaver.
What we have here seems more like a script from a horror movie than a biblical passage.
When we talk about God in the Church, we have a tendency to focus on the love of Jesus or on the power of the Holy Spirit. We talk about intimacy with God, tenderness, grace, acceptance. We talk about God in ways that make us comfortable. We think about God in ways that do not challenge the ways we live. Because God has been mediated through Jesus, we forget that God is a consuming fire. We forget that God is powerful and that the sacrifice God wants is us, and as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies.”
But God is a consuming fire. God’s love is powerful and devouring.
And it is this love that motivates God to test Abraham.
God has taken a big risk with Abraham. He has staked a future with Abraham and his offspring. This did not work out well with Adam and Eve. Even Noah dissolved into a drunken mess after awhile. God is trying one more time and he wants to make sure he gets it right. So, he tests Abraham.
God wants all of Abraham. He wants all of Abraham’s passion and love and commitment. He wants Abraham’s devotion so much, God is willing to see if he will sacrifice his very future, his beloved son, his promised blessing, to prove that devotion.
God tests Abraham to make sure he is the kind of man that will follow God in any situation.
And Abraham passes God’s test.
And we are left feeling ambivalent and uncomfortable because in passing God’s test, Abraham showed his willingness to commit a horrible act, an act so abusive and traumatizing that we cannot fully celebrate Abraham’s success.
We do not know exactly how we are supposed to interpret this difficult passage. We do know that Abraham saw God in a new way after the test, and in fact the words see, eyes, and look are peppered throughout this passage. Moriah even means “he sees”. Abraham’s trip up the mountain was a transformative experience for him as well as for God. Abraham learns that God will provide for him even in the moment of greatest need and God learns that Abraham will be faithful to Him even at great personal cost. Yet still, we feel tension.
And perhaps we are meant to remain in that tension. Tension helps us not get too comfortable with God. Tension prevents us from taking God’s will for us too lightly. Tension prevents us from us taking God’s sacrifice too lightly.
After all, Isaac’s horrible story sheds light on another Son who traveled up a hill, carrying the very wood on which he would be killed.
Perhaps this story helps us remember that other story, the story we honor with Easter bunnies, pastel dresses and decorated eggs. This story helps us remember Jesus’ story was filled with fear and dread, too.
Perhaps Abraham’s story reminds us that though Abraham passed his test, as a human race we were unable to remain faithful to God. But God was willing to make the same sacrifice he asked of Abraham. And that sacrifice was brutal and cruel and bloody. Perhaps, as we imagine the pain Abraham experienced, we are to discern a bit of what God experienced when his own Son was sacrificed. God was willing to give us all of himself, so that we could be in relationship with Him.
In any case, this passage reminds us, as Charley told us last week, that grace is not cheap. Discipleship is not easy. A relationship with God demands that we give to God all that we consider most dear, even at great personal cost.