Today’s bible reading is both a gift and an immense challenge. You can read the text in the post that accompanies this video: Genesis, chapter 22 verses 1-14.
It’s a gift – because this is one of the most well-known stories from the Old Testament: some bibles give it the title ‘ the sacrifice of Isaac’ whereas Hebrew tradition more accurately calls it ‘the binding of Isaac’ (for, after all, Isaac is not sacrificed in the story). It’s a story shared by Judaism and Christianity but which also finds its way into Islam (with the major difference being that it is Ishmael, Abraham’s other son) who is bound and laid on the altar on Mount Moriah.
A gift, but also a challenge, because within the story there are so many awkward questions. ‘What sort of God asks a man to sacrifice his son?’ ‘What sort of Father even contemplates making this sacrifice?’…what sort of example is Abraham? ‘If the story is about ‘Obedience’ then doesn’t Abraham’s blind obedience over-ride any notion of individual conscience? And if the story is about ‘testing Abraham’s faith’ then why must it be at the expense of the innocent child?
My first suggestion, then, in reading this story is to allow yourself to question it and, as with other bible stories to allow your imagination to wander around within the gaps left by the narrator. How, for example, did God speak to Abraham and tell him to sacrifice his son? How did Abraham recognise God’s voice – did he doubt for one moment that he was obeying God? What was going through Isaac’s mind as he climbed the mountain with his father? – the writer hints that it did indeed dawn on Isaac that he was the sacrifice! Did he run from his father as Abraham approached him with the ropes to bind him…was he paralysed by fear…and when the knife was raised over him what was going through the minds of both father and son? We of course won’t ever know. Nor will we know how this event changed their relationship… But for all that these verses are a living nightmare they take us to some dark places that need uncovering, exploring by people of faith – not for nothing does the writer have the Abraham and Isaac going on a journey to a place in the distance, for even the geography reflects the psychology of what’s happening.
The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a terrifying book about this passage called ‘Fear and trembling’ in which he explored some of the passages’ darker features. He found meaning in the story through what he called ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. Teleology is to do with ‘the end of things’: their purpose. What Kierkegaard seemed to suggest is that the story suspends ethical norms (Abraham is about to kill his child for heaven’s sake) in order to get us to the point of the story – which we might say shows us Abraham to be obedient and faithful…and God to be faithful in making alternative provision for the sacrifice. I don’t know whether I can buy this explanation: it sounds too much like ‘the end justifies the means’ but nor can I escape the awkward Truth that God can do what He wants, it’s not for me to judge Him by my standards…though I am free to choose not to worship Him.
So where does that leave us? Abraham and Sarah, promised by God that their family will grow to become a great nation that will bless the whole world. Abraham and Sarah doubting God’s promises and using and abusing Hagar (a slave) so that they can have a child. And then Isaac’s birth…and as we heard last week, the rejection of Hagar and Ishmael. And then this: child sacrifice slapped down in front of us and only narrowly averted.
Two things. Firstly: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, speaking of this passage, says it shows us that we ‘cherish most what we wait for and what we most risk losing’. This child, indeed every child, is a gift worth cherishing, protecting, nurturing. In our current situation all power to our parents and families as they have struggled through lockdown to care for their children, to our schools and teachers as they bring their professionalism to bear on how to support and nurture the next generation, to social workers and mental health workers and all those who will seek to repair some of the damage that lockdown has wreaked on the youngest in our society and have an eye for the young people whose life chances are narrowing because of the economic crisis that looms. Isaac represents future hope almost lost: he must live and so too must our young people.
And then, for those who follow Jesus, a quote I heard this week ‘if we are to be His followers, then we must expect to go to hell and back’. This story saw the future of the people of God hanging by a string: all hope lost, the knife raised to kill. On another hill another Father’s Son actually did die: but God’s love never dried up. Personally, and as churches we may be up against it, but God’s promises are sure – there is a future but it must rest solely on His grace.
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