The Binding of Isaac

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on June 29, 2014 is based on the Old Testament reading assigned for Proper 8 of Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

So it’s probably been about 8 or 9 minutes since we heard it. We said a psalm. We heard a New Testament reading and just now a gospel reading in the interim… but I’m guessing that it’s the words of today’s first reading from the book of Genesis that are still echoing in your ears this morning. The Akedah, the binding of Isaac story that is nightmarish in quality; sort of indistinct and blurry references to time, and to distance, and location; things happening that don’t quite make sense, where is Sarah when they load the donkeys and ride out of camp that morning? It is a story that is deeply disturbing in its content and its narrative. God says to Abraham take your son Isaac the one whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there on a hilltop that I will show you… How can this be?   How can God be instructing Abraham to sacrifice his son, the son whom he loves?

You would think that a story this disturbing it might just be shuttled off to the side to be read as infrequently as possible in the lectionary, to receive a little attention. But this story is one that has some real traction. It is a story that stays with us, a story that writers and theologians and philosophers and poets return to again, and again, and again. So I think it’s worth our time this morning to examine this story in its context and to see what might be happening. What makes us keep this story within reach and within view?

Terah, the father of Abraham, brings his family from Ur of the Chaldeans on his way to the land of Canaan.  He stops in Haran and instead of continuing on his journey he settles there.   It is there in Haran that God calls to Abraham. God says leave your family, your tribe, your people. Leave everything you know behind and go to the land that I will show you. No named destination, no road map, no clear way to get there. Just leave it all behind and set off into the wilderness. And Abraham does it! Along the way Abraham encounters God again. This time God tells him that he will make Abraham the father of nations, that nations will come from him, that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, as impossible to count as the dust on the earth, and that his descendants will be a blessing to all people.

Years go by. Abraham is traveling through the wilderness with his wife Sarah and his family and he starts to get worried. He starts to get nervous that these promises won’t come true because Sarah still hasn’t born him a son. So he and Sarah take matters into their own hands. In an attempt to ensure the promises that God has made Sarah sends her handmaiden Hagar in to Abraham’s tent and she bears Abraham a Son named Ishmael.

Some time later three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah in the desert by the Oaks of Mamre and Abraham provides them with hospitality, providing them water to wash their feet, a place to rest and food. They promise that by the time they return the following year Sarah will have borne a child.   But by this time Abraham and Sarah are so old that the birth of a child seems impossible and Sarah laughs loud enough for the three strangers to hear her. But it happens. The promise is fulfilled.   And it’s such a remarkable thing that they name the child Isaac, which means “laughter.”

God made promises to Abraham. Abraham went into the wilderness leaving everything behind. God continued to reiterate the promises. Abraham and Sarah tried to take things into their own hands ensuring the fulfillment of the promises through the son of Hagar the handmaid. Now finally, after all these years, they have a child of their own. This child is the key. Through Isaac Abraham’s descendants will populate the world. Through Isaac Abraham will become the father of Nations and his children will be a blessing to all people.   So when God comes to Abraham and says take your son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and sacrifice him it’s an outrageous demand!   To sacrifice your own child is an awful act but there is a threat here to the promises that God has made to Abraham and around which Abraham has structured his entire life for the last 25 years.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like. That three-day journey with Isaac and with the servants heading for that unnamed unknown mountain must’ve been like a nightmare to Abraham, one of those nightmares that wake you up in the middle of the night shaking and sweating, unsure of who you are and where you are. Like one of those nightmares that when you finally have recovered enough to fall back asleep picks right back up where it left off.

So here’s Abraham going up the mountain.   He’s now transferred the wood from the donkey to Isaac’s back and he’s carrying the fire and his knife. Isaac speaks up, “Father?” Abraham says, “Here I am.” Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here but where is the Lamb for the burnt offering?” Here’s where I think the story becomes really interesting and the key for why we keep this story within reach and within view.

Scholars will tell us that when they examine the structure of the Hebrew in these verses there is a pattern. There’s a call, a response, and an address, a call, a response, and an address, a call, a response, and an address. There is a strong repeating strophic pattern in this passage. That pattern is broken by one verse, Abraham’s response to Isaac. This response falls right in the middle of the story dividing the first from the second halves and throwing the whole thing out of balance. Abraham says, “God himself will provide the Lamb for the offering my son.”

Think about the history of the relationship between God and Abraham. God has made promises. Abraham has followed God’s call but he’s wrestled back and forth.   He’s laughed. He’s tried to take things into his own hands. God continues to reiterate the promises. Abraham’s unsure whether this is really going to happen and now suddenly there’s this child. It seems like it’s all true the prophecy is about to move forward. But, given all this wrestling, all of this back and forth, God doesn’t know how Abraham will respond, in this moment, to the promises being fulfilled. That’s what it says later in the story when the Angel stays Abraham’s hand. “For now I know…” For now I know.

At this moment, as they’re going up the hill, God doesn’t know how Abraham is going to respond. But at this moment Abraham and God are in similar places because Abraham doesn’t know how God is going to respond either. Abraham’s response to Isaac, “God himself will provide the Lamb…” was surely uttered with this subtext running in Abraham’s head.   “Okay. Okay. Here I am God. I’m being faithful and doing what you asked.   But you’ve made all these promises and I trusted you.   Maybe I haven’t been perfect but I tried my best. Please figure out a way to get us both out of this mess!”

God is testing Abraham to see if Abraham will be faithful. Will Abraham trust that no matter what, in spite of it all, no matter how it looks, God will be faithful and God’s promises will come true.   Abraham is saying to God please be true, be faithful to the promises that you have made. Abraham is, in this verse at the center of the story, in this verse that breaks the symmetry of the poetry, putting God to the test. This understanding of the story is buttressed by the way that it ends.

“So Abraham called tat place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:14.)

It’s not a one-way testing that’s happening here. There is mutual accountability in this relationship, there is a mutual testing and trying, there is a push and pull, there is a wrestling with God that is echoed again and again through the Old Testament. Isaac’s grandson Jacob will wrestle with God at the river Jabok and come away limping with a mark on his hip. Marked for life by his encounter with God and the wrestling that they do.   There’s no question in my mind that both Isaac and Abraham are marked by their encounter with God in this moment, changed forever, because in this moment when Abraham is faithful and God is faithful their relationship is sealed forever.

It’s still a very dark difficult and mysterious story one from which we might be tempted to turn away. But we haven’t done that. We keep this story within reach, within view because in some ways it describes our experience of life. Our inscrutable God will demand things of us and ask us to respond.   Sometimes we’ll understand and sometimes we won’t. And sometimes we will be faithful and sometimes we won’t. The relationship that is depicted in this Scripture is the one to which we are called. We are called to wrestle with God. And in that wrestling we will find that God provides, and that God is faithful. So don’t be afraid to wrestle. Don’t be afraid of the struggle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to push back. Start here with this story, today, wrestling with God because it is in that wrestling that we discover God’s truth and God’s faithfulness.

It is through wrestling that we finally learn that God’s promises to us are true.

Amen

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