"The Binding of Isaac"
by Jackson H. Day
Christ United Methodist Church, Columbia, MD
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A June 30, 2002
Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
This morning's Genesis reading is a difficult Scripture. It continues the story of Abraham and Isaac from last week. Last week the promise of Isaac's birth was fulfilled, overcoming great obstacles. In today's reading God commands Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering. We read how Abraham sets out on a 3 day journey with two servants, Isaac, and a mule. The place of sacrifice is Mt. Moriah, where later the temple in Jerusalem would be built. In Abraham's time it must have been a barren place, because Abraham had to carry the wood for the burnt offering all the way from home. On the third day, Abraham and Isaac leave the others and proceed alone, Isaac carrying the wood. Abraham carries the fire -- a reminder of what you needed to do before matches or even flints. Isaac wonders where the lamb is for the offering and Abraham says God will provide it. There on Mount Moriah Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. An angel stops Abraham when the knife is already in his hand, and shows him where a ram is caught. Abraham sacrifices the ram instead. God praises Abraham for his faithfulness and renews the promise God has made.
This is an important story. It has survived 4000 years and is central to the world's three great monotheistic religions:
As important as the story is, and as happily as it ends, it is a horrible story.
Separate it from the aura of familiar acceptance and even
piety we give Bible stories and our true reactions come out. Now
we have Abraham and Sarah -- or is it Abe and Sally -- sitting at
the kitchen table one Saturday morning over coffee in a Columbia
townhouse. Suddenly Abe puts down the newspaper and
announces that God has commanded him to take their oldest
child to a nearby hill and give him up as a burnt offering. The
most instinctive response I can imagine Sally having, once she is
done screaming, is running out of the room, crying, "Abe, you
have gone crazy. I'm calling the police!"
At one time, the church told ordinary Christians simply to accept what the Bible said no matter what problems it might cause. Today, a lot of us who believe God gave us minds believe God didn't intend for us to just check them at the church door. There are religious commitments you and I just can't make -- but there is a powerful commitment we can make. That commitment is to struggle with the Bible, like Jacob struggled all night with God, until God gives us a blessing. What I have discovered out of this commitment is that it is in the struggle that important meeting with God takes place. This morning I want to share with you some of the places this struggle has taken me.
The first thing I encountered confirmed the horror. The Interpreter's Bible reminds us that the ancient world practiced human sacrifice. Even one thousand years or more after Abraham, II Kings (3:22) reminds us that a king of Moab, to increase his chance of success in battle, offered his own eldest son as a burnt offering. It could be that today's scripture's purpose is to tell people that no, God doesn't want human sacrifice ever again.
The second thing was a discovery that ancient Christians saw this story as a precursor of Christ. For them, the image of Abraham offering up Isaac was a precursor of God offering up Jesus on the cross. In this image God is really an abusive God, who must be satisfied by bloodshed, even that of his own son. Perhaps to soften that image, in the book of Hebrews (11:17-19), the idea of resurrection is read back into the story. This Christian book suggests that Abraham knew of the resurrection, so he trusted that even if he killed his son, his son could return to life. That feels like sort of a nice try, but it keeps the abusiveness and weakens the impact of Abraham's faith. I kept on with the struggle.
I went back to the original scripture. The story itself gives an explanation -- Abraham is being tested. It is not that God needed the death of a child to feel good, but that Abraham needed to be tested.
That made me think of psychological tests where you are tested through forced choices. The tester can learn about your values and priorities and personality. Would you rather attend a party or read a book? Would you prefer to cook a meal or write a letter? Would you rather walk to work or eat cabbage? Would you prefer a diamond ring or your sanity; an ideal spouse or one who loves you? In real life you can often choose all of the above or none of the above, but in the test world of forced choices, you have to choose one. Forced choices make you aware of your priorities.
The Presbyterians had a famous forced choice question. "Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?" Do you love God so much that if God asked you, you would be willing to spend eternity in hell? Forced choice questions like this force you to think carefully. Yes, your priority should be to serve God - but a God who loves us so much that God would suffer on the cross for us is surely not a God who would want our spending eternity in hell. The essence of eternity is our relationship to God, and faithfulness is at the core of that relationship. Hell, if we have a close relationship with God, will not be hell, and heaven, without a loving relationship with God, will not be heaven.
So perhaps another way of looking at the Binding of Isaac is that it was like a forced choice test from God that Abraham acted out. "What would you rather have, a good relationship with me, or the life of your favorite son?" And Abraham gives the desired answer: "Yes, I love you, God, yes I put you first in my life, yes, if you asked for it, I'd kill my own son for you - forgetting that the reason I love God is that God would never ever ask for such a thing.
Eventually, as I struggled with this text, another perspective on this scripture came to me. Perhaps it is too much a 21st century thing to fit easily into Abraham's ancient world. But it works for me, and I offer it to you.
Dreams can be wonderful motivators. Throughout the Bible dreams are seen as the presence of God. The prophet Joel knows the Holy Spirit is present when young ones see visions and old ones dream dreams.
But our dreams can become disasters when we place our dreams on others, and when our dreams replace God. Then our dreams become demons which haunt us rather than enlivening us.
We spent last week looking at the cost to Abraham and Sarah of their dream of a multitude of descendants. They had to wait so very long for a chance at this dream. They hardened their hearts and expressed cruelty to Hagar and Ishmael. They deprived Isaac of his own half brother as a playmate. Is there a point at which they began worshiping their dream instead of God?
Not only their relationship with God but their relationship with Isaac was affected. Were they raising a son? Or raising a dream? Did it matter who their child was, or was he simply a means to an end? Do we recognize in Abraham's dream for Isaac the parent who organizes his child's life toward becoming a doctor or lawyer, sports hero or CEO regardless of the child's own gifts and wishes?
Now I re-read this passage. Now the phrase about "Isaac, your only son, whom you love," begins to ring hollow. I know that Isaac is not Abraham's only son, but perhaps Isaac is the only son for whom Abraham has a dream. I begin to see Abraham's heart gone astray - one son with no dream attached, cast out into the wilderness, another son whom he loves - because there is a dream attached. Does Abraham love Isaac, or does he love Abraham's dream? And I think a good God would be suspicious, because when you love your dream for your child more than you love your child, there's a good chance you love your dream for your child more than you love God.
And so God knows that for the sake of Abraham, for the sake of Isaac, for the sake of all who follow, there must be a change in Abraham's heart, a letting go of Abraham's idolatry, Abraham's worship of the dreams he has for his son. And this calls not just for a testing, but for a cure.
How do you root out an idolatry which is so human, so natural, so deeply rooted in our psyches? An idolatry which even now has Abraham so confused that when he sees Isaac, he sees not a human being, but simply his own dreams? You have to get Abraham to sacrifice that dream, and when he looks at Isaac, that dream is all Abraham can see. And so you tell Abraham to offer up Isaac, for that is the only way he will let the dream go.
Abraham rises to the challenge. He doesn't know what else may await him, but he knows God has told him to let go of the dream.
Isaac surely is traumatized by the experience on Mount Moriah, but perhaps Isaac has already been traumatized by having a father who looks at him and doesn't see a human being, only a dream. The dream is so powerful he has seen it deprive him of his brother Ishmael. For Isaac, the dream could be a curse, for in the presence of that dream, he is no son to his father, and Abraham is no father to his son.
The Scripture doesn't tell us about the embrace of Abraham and Isaac at the moment the blindness of his idolatry fell from Abraham''s eyes, but we can imagine what happened. The moment the angel tells Abraham, no, don't take the life of your son, the spiritual blindness falls from Abraham's eyes, and he looks down and sees not a dream on the altar, but a son. Perhaps it is the first time in Abraham's life that he has looked at Isaac and seen a human being, a son, flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood. And in that moment Isaac would have looked and seen for the first time a father, a human being horrified at what the dream-holder had been about to do. In that moment they would have looked and seen the ram given by God for a sacrifice, but they would have looked at each other and seen human beings.
I think of Abraham and Isaac going down the mountain. They have been faithful to God, but they have found each other. Yes, God has now given back the dream, but it no longer matters so much. It is no longer Abraham's idol. It is no longer Isaac's curse. It is once again a gift of God and not a wall between people and God.
If that is a possible reading of this story, then it's no longer a strange tale with no connection with us. Instead, it speaks to us where our own dreams lie, and asks us if we too sometimes let our dreams or our fears become so important people don't matter, or whether we have been able to keep God in first place.