YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between June 26 and July 2)
In Jewish tradition this story is known as the Akedah, i.e. ‘the binding’ (of Isaac). It is full of drama and dread, heightened by the long silence between father and son as they go on their way to an unknown destination. As a narrative, this text hinges around the pathos of Isaac’s question, ‘but where is the lamb?’ (v. 7) and concludes by developing the thought in Abraham’s answer: ‘The Lord himself will provide’ (v. 8).
The story essentially concludes the cycle of stories about Abraham, a cycle that started back in Genesis 12. Although Abraham will appear briefly in the chapters to follow, Genesis 23-24, and his death and further descendants will be noted in Genesis 25, the story of his journey of faith and ‘unfaith’ concludes with Genesis 22. A number of elements mark this clearly. Gen 22:2 echoes the threefold call of 12:1, using the same words lek leka (‘Go!’ obscured somewhat in the NRSV by ‘Take your son …’) as well as the phrase about the place ‘that I will show you’. The promise text of vv. 17-18, outside today’s lectionary portion, echoes earlier promises and especially the blessings on Abraham and his offspring and the nations mentioned in Gen 12:1-3. Verse 18 ends with the reason for the blessing: ‘because you have obeyed my voice’. This not only sums up the obedience demonstrated in Gen 22:1-14 but the whole experience of Abraham from chapter 12 to this point. Genesis 22 must be understood in the context of Abraham’s whole journey.
Of itself today’s story poses some difficult questions. Are we to see God as such a heartless being that he would test an individual’s faith in such a way? Are we to see Abraham as an example of one faithful to the point of losing all sense of love and concern for his own son? Surely the story cannot be read in such ways. Who would in the end want to follow such a God or emulate such a character? The story needs to be examined both in terms of its detail and in terms of its place in the whole Abraham cycle to probe ways in which it might be understood. The aim here is not just to sanitize an abhorrent tale. But we cannot simply dismiss the story because we find something about it disturbing. It has been passed to us as part of a long tradition. Let us see what it can tell us about God, those who seek faith, and the limits of that faith.
First, the Hebrew word translated ‘test’ is important. We may understand it in the sense of ‘examine’ but that does not bring out the full meaning. Some translations (e.g. KJV) have translated the word as ‘tempt’ which implies either that God may not have intended Abraham to comply or that God had no real intention of letting the exercise go as far as stated. The fact that we as readers know it is a ‘test’ while Abraham does not could also be seen as a way of softening the story. But to follow these lines only serves our own consciences. It obscures the nature of what is called for in the story and ultimately detracts from understanding what the story has to say about faith and allegiance.
The verb nissah ‘to test’ is used in several places in reference to the Israelites’ rebellious attitude to Moses and God in the wilderness (e.g. Exod 17:7). This testing of God at Massah is everywhere condemned (e.g. Deut 6:16; Ps 95:8-9). However, Gideon put God to the test without condemnation (Judg 6:39). A similar positive viewpoint appears when the Queen of Sheba came ‘to prove’, i.e. ‘to test’, king Solomon (1 Kgs 10:1). Similarly, there are several texts that speak positively of God testing or proving his people, notably Ps 26:2. This Hebrew verb appears also in Mal 3:10, where the Lord says: ‘put me to the test’. The English translation ‘to prove’, in the way that metals or other substances may be ‘proven’ or ‘tested’ in terms of taking them to their limits, probably comes closest to the meaning of the Hebrew. The Medieval Jewish writer Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3.24) expressed something of this idea when he emphasized that God made the example of Abraham to serve as a test case of the extreme limits of the love and fear of God.
Genesis 22 is a journey into darkness for Abraham, into a place of God forsakenness. It speaks of a place where faith is pushed to the limit and where even God seems to oppose God’s own promise and will. God is calling Abraham to a place where the divine promises upon which Abraham has built his life seem to have no future. All possibilities for an heir, and descendants, as Abraham viewed it have disappeared. His nephew Lot moved away (13:12). God rejected Abraham’s servant Eliezer as a possible heir (15:2) and even Ishmael, whom Abraham fathered by Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl, has been lost to him (21:8-19). Abraham had favoured Ishmael over Isaac whom Sarah loved (21:9-11), but now even Isaac is to be taken. There is possibly a touch of irony in Gen 22:2 where God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son, whom (he) loves’. This is the only verb of emotion in the whole story and now even this one whom Sarah called ‘her son’ is to be taken from Abraham in a manner parallel to how Ishmael and Hagar went. In both stories, what will turn out to be the means of death is carried by the one sent to death, water in the case of Ishmael and Hagar (21:14) and wood in the case of Isaac (22:6). In the end, however, it will be an angel of God who steps in to preserve life (21:17-18; 22:11).
God calls Abraham into a place where his faith in the promise and the God who promises is severely tested. Abraham experiences the depths to which faithfulness and righteousness can be pushed. He is opened up to the suffering that can go with the struggle of faith. It is a suffering which is understood and experienced by God in Jesus Christ on the cross.
We ought not to confuse the way this story is told with the point of the story. One impression that could be read into the story is that in Abraham, faith is reduced to the unswerving obedience of an automaton. But that is not how the story is told. For a story with so great an emotional charge, it is strangely devoid of words of emotion with only the verb ‘love’ in v. 2. Yet the reader cannot but fail to bring emotion to the story. This story lets us experience something of the pain and suffering that can be part of the journey of faith. Even our reactions against the picture painted of God arise from such anguish and confusion. Such pain can even come from a sense of God’s own abandonment of both the faithful one and the divine promise. Abraham’s unswerving obedience in this story is a way of speaking about the commitment to God that lies even beyond the promises we claim from God.
The passage set for today ends at v. 14. We should not miss the additional vv. 15-18 which is where the story actually ends with the renewal of the promise itself, the very thing that was threatened. This promise is not divorced from the dark moments of God forsakenness. God is somehow present even in those times of stark absence.
This story is nowhere else mentioned in the Old Testament. However, it did receive a good deal of interest in later Jewish tradition and in Christian writings. For example, a Jewish prayer for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) recalls how Abraham ‘suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart’ and on this basis can appeal to God’s compassion for his people. In the New Testament the only reference to the story is in Hebrews 11, which extols the faith of Abraham who offered up his future in Isaac, because ‘He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead …’. The writer may be drawing on another Jewish tradition that argued that since there is no closing reference to Isaac in Gen 22:19 it shows that he really did die, because the angel came too late, but he was later resurrected. These traditions show that faithful people have been struggling with this story for millennia.
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