Monday, May 2, 2016

Postscript: The Binding of Isaac

With Brothers John and Curtis, SSJE, in Jerusalem
The Temple Mount in Jersualem is one of the holiest of places in the holiest of cities in the Holy Land. Traditionally associated with Mount Moriah, where the Binding of Issac (or for Muslims, of Ishmael) took place, today the Dome of the Rock is there. It is a contested place - see this Op-Ed piece from just a couple of days ago. 

Many rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, have urged Jews not to go up on the Temple Mount to pray. While we were there, however, we had the place mostly to ourselves because a Jewish group did come up right behind us while we were there (against the shouts of fellow Jews telling them they had "no business doing so" and a sign from the Chief Rabbi warning Jews against doing so.) In fact, there are two separate entrances to the Temple Mount: the one we and the Israeli Jews went in, and a separate one where Muslims enter (where we saw Muslims being turned away as we exited; it seemed very clear that the authorities were trying to avoid confrontations.)

I don't know enough about this to have an informed opinion. I share it as prelude only to saying how easily "holy" places can become "unholy places." That is a theological question, not just a political one. 

But back to Mount Moriah. One of the things about a pilgrimage like the one I just returned from is that you have lots of theological conversations along the way. I got to talking with one of my new friends about the Binding of Isaac and a sermon I preached once on that text - as one way into finding meaning from that very challenging story from Genesis 22.

Upon returning home I went back to find the sermon, having promised to pass it along. It occurred to me in re-reading it that it might make for an interesting postscript here. The sermon was originally preached at St. Francis Church in Holden, MA on June 26, 2005. Because we use a three-year lectionary cycle, it won't come up again in our readings until the summer of 2017. 

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The Word of the Lord—thanks be to God! Like Pavlov’s dogs we’ve been well trained, and the response rolls off our tongues. But it’s difficult for most of us to be truly thankful for this strange word that comes to us today from the twenty-second chapter of the scroll of Genesis. It’s the kind of text that, when we really do hear it, will begin to haunt us, if it doesn’t already.  

Do we really want to teach people “blind obedience” to every voice they think they hear and identify with “God’s will?” I much prefer the texts where Abraham, and later Moses and Job and so many others argue with and even challenge God. Why doesn’t Abraham say, in this text, “what, are you crazy God?”

Now let’s be clear: Isaac is not sacrificed. The story we heard is of the binding of Isaac, and of course his life is spared when the story ends with the sighting of a ram in the thicket.

But still, at what price? What scars will both Abraham and Isaac carry around for the rest of their lives because of Abraham’s “obedience?” So if it all happened that way, it makes me a little crazy that it did. And crazier still to wonder what kind of a faith community would continue to tell such a story. This is one instance where I kind of wish the lectionary committee would just ignore a text and leave it alone, and try to forget it ever happened.

But of course that isn’t possible. It is not possible to forget such a story as this or to sweep it under the carpet. Given that fact, the only thing for us to do is to ponder it, to wrestle with it, to struggle with it. Maybe when faith comes too easily for us—when we can tie it all up and figure it out and reduce it to bullet points—then maybe that isn’t really faith. At least it’s not Biblical faith. Maybe in a society that craves instant answers and simplistic solutions, one of the tasks for people of faith is to keep on telling difficult stories, because genuine faith has got to be bigger than us. It has to surpass our understanding. If texts like this remind us that we are not God and that we don’t have all the answers, and if they bring us to our knees and remind us that we still see through a glass dimly—well then maybe that’s reason enough to haul this text out every now and again and consider it in our journey to be followers of an inscrutable God.

So my job today as a preacher of God’s Word isn’t to explain it away. It’s to try to explore it with you as best we can, with God’s help.

Some of the rabbinic teachings interpret this text allegorically, focusing on Isaac as a representative of the Jewish people. Isaac is both bound and silenced. Jews know what that means, to be bound, and to be silenced—especially after the Holocaust. So the text tells an awful and painful truth: it turns out that being a chosen people isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or as someone has noted “if this is how God treats His friends, I’d hate to see how He treats His enemies!”

In a similar fashion, some Christian scholars also interpret this text allegorically, as a kind of foreshadowing of the Cross. Abraham is not required to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac. But another father, God the Father, will in fact sacrifice his son, his only son, Jesus, on another hill, far away (where there stands an old rugged cross.) What God does not require of Abraham, God chooses for His own Son.

Each of these allegorical interpretations come up short for me, though. It feels like cheating. Theologically they are probably both right. But for what it’s worth, for me they move too quickly away from the horror of the text itself to sermonizing on the text. They may be right, but for me it is necessary to linger a while longer with the text itself.

What does it mean to say that God tests Abraham? Walter Brueggemann points out that you find “testing” in the Bible whenever the dangers of syncretism are greatest. That is to say, God tests people of faith when the stakes are highest, when it is easiest to sell out to the dominant culture and to create false gods and graven images. It’s as if that is when God’s people especially need to be clear about not compromising the faith. So maybe we need to lean in, living at a time and in a place where we face those dangers too.

“Testing” may sound to many of us like a primitive notion, like an Old Testament theme. But don’t forget there is a lot of testing in the New Testament too. And the early church felt tested daily as it tried to be faithful in an empire hostile to its message. The prayer we pray every week asks God to “lead us not into temptation.” Or, more accurately, to “save us from the time of trial.” Don’t test us, God, not like you tested Abraham! Even more to the point, when we do face times of trial it feels to most of us like we are being tested, whether by God, the devil, or life itself it’s hard to tell. But when the doctor says “cancer” it still feels like some kind of test to most of us.

In both testaments, the Lord is a jealous god: God wants all of us. That’s what we’ve been hearing about from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel over the past few weeks as well, about how hard discipleship is. God wants our whole hearts, and our whole minds, and our whole souls. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, we blithely sing. But first means first, and that means even above family relationships.

So Abraham is tested: where does his trust lie now that he has a son, now that God has delivered on the Promise? Is the future all secure and settled and resting on Isaac’s shoulders? Or is God still the only One who deserves Abraham’s trust, since the future still belongs to God? Abraham has to wrestle with a profound faith question that to a lesser extent all parents must wrestle with on some level. Isaac is the one; he is (as the text reminds us) the only one left. What an amazing burden that must have been for him! What tremendous responsibility!

Imagine being Isaac, and being told the story of how mom and dad left the land they knew behind, left kin, because of the Voice of God, because of a Promise. And now he is the fulfillment of that Promise. It’s hard enough to be a kid in this world, but what a terrible weight that must have been when all Isaac wanted to do was go out and play with the other kids in the neighborhood. I wonder if Abraham and Sarah weren’t just a tad bit overprotective of this son of theirs, born to them late in life. (Who could blame them if they were tempted to be helicopter parents?)

“Mom, can I go over to Johnny’s this afternoon?” No…I want you to stay here and play in the yard, where I can see you, Isaac. “But mom, I’m thirty-four years old!!”

So maybe it is his attachment to Isaac that Abraham has to let go of. Our kids are not our own. Our kids have their own dreams, their own hopes, and their own gifts. If we can learn to see parenting as a ministry, as a kind of stewardship, then we begin to grasp that while there are no guarantees there is at least a chance that we will not stifle our kids with our own agendas, our own neuroses, our own fears. (All of us need to be reminded of this when our kids are looking at colleges, or preparing for their wedding day.)

Or to put it another way: the job of being God is already taken. God is still the one with the weight of the world on Her shoulders, not Abraham, not Sarah, and not Isaac. Not you or me.

Maybe Father Abraham helps us to remember that we mustn’t sacrifice our kids on the altar of the culture’s ideas of success, or the altar of some lesser god. And in a sense, when we baptize our children we are in a very real way climbing our own Mount Moriahs. We baptize them into the death of Christ, so they can be made alive to God. We give them back to God. We let them go. And then God turns around and entrusts us (with God’s help and with the faith community’s help) to “raise them into the full stature of Christ.”

Let me offer one more word, I hope that in the midst of this very difficult text it is a word of grace and hope that gives us the courage to keep on struggling with it. While it may be difficult for most of us to read past verse one, to get beyond the notion of God testing Abraham, we need to keep on reading to the end. There we heard: “the Lord does provide.” This is a very difficult translation. The Jewish Publication Society version says that “there is vision.” Everett Fox says “Yahweh sees” Literally, that is probably exactly right.

The question then, is this: what does seeing have to do with providing? A clue is provided to us by the great Karl Barth, who pointed out that the Latin root for the word provision.  Pro-vision—get it?Literally “to see before.” Or better still, “to see to.” On Mt. Moriah, God “sees to things.” God sees to it that there is a ram in the thicket. God has the vision here, even before Abraham can see it clearly. God provides the means for faith to grow and to deepen.

I wonder if that isn’t an even harder act of faith sometimes than being tested; namely, to see a way out when it is provided. To look and to trust that the Lord is to be seen there. That the Lord is seeing what comes next, even when we can’t.

Jesus said, “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” That is—see the world! Really see it! See that the Lord does provide for your needs, does provide a way out—even when you are tested. When the Israelites faith is tested in the wilderness, the Lord will provide manna and water. When Jesus is tested in the wilderness, the Lord provides angels to minister to him.

So, too, with us. There will be times in our lives when our faith is tested. Times when we feel we are in the wilderness with no options before us.  I can’t explain that or understand it fully—and I wish it were not so. I wish we all were always saved from the time of trial. But I know better than that. The truth is that the deeper we go into the heart of God, the more likely it is that we will find ourselves in some measure climbing Mt. Moriah.

We will most definitely find our faith tested. But when we do, it helps to remember that the God we know—the God we love, and who loves us—does provide. God does “see to things” envisioning a brighter future before we can. Even when it does sometimes seem to come at the last possible minute. Even when it does follow the long and lonely and arduous climb up the Mt. Moriahs of our own lives.

God sees. The Lord provides. Our job is simply to look up, so that we might see for ourselves, and give thanks. 


  1. Thank you Rich. Fantastic insights into this most difficult text! I don't know if you are familiar with Britten's War Requiem, but he uses this text as interpreted by poet Wilfred Owen killed in the last days of WW1. The leaders (patriarchs) of the warring countries hear the angel ask that they offer the sin of pride instead of Isaac. But they refuse "But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one by one"

  2. Should be Ram of pride not sin