Unlikely Mirrors


God tested Abraham. He said to him “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am’. He (GOD) said.   “ Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, andagr_01-01 offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”.

So two questions arise. Why would God ask this of Abraham, and why would Abraham agree to such a request? After all, we have ample evidence from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 that when Abraham encountered a seemingly brutish and retaliatory streak in God by threatening retribution on all who had displeased him (thank goodness God didn’t have a cell phone), he was more than capable of reasoning God back into divine senses. So why didn’t Abraham, in this instance, reason with God?

He could easily have pointed out to God that this was an ill-judged idea. Why kill the next link in fulfillment of the promise that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky? God’s request seems both short sighted and unbelievably cruel. As if to rub salt into the wound, God emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s only son and not only that, but God goes out of his way to remind Abraham if he needed any reminder that is, that Isaac is the son he loves.

We are given a clue as to God’s intention in the first line: God tested Abraham. Ah, so something becomes clearer. This was a test to see if Abraham loved God more than he loved Isaac. Can God be so insecure, so needy, so desperate to receive exclusive adulation and affirmation?

Last week Linda+ invited us into the Jewish practice of Midrash. Midrash is a process for interrogating the ancient Torah texts. The earliest Midrash commentaries seem to date from the 2nd Century AD, and this tells us that Midrash represents a development in Rabbinic Judaism’s attempt to humanize these ancient and sparse Torah texts, to mitigate their harshness in order to fit them to the experience of a contemporary time.

In the St Martin community, on this coming Monday, we arrive 43-days into The Bible Challenge – a 365-day program for reading the entire Bible. But this only begs the question: Why read the Bible in 21st Century America? Especially these sparse and harsh Torah texts that strike us as so alien to our understanding of God? This is an important question for Episcopalians who over the last 100 years have steadily jettisoned any personal discipline of Bible study. So let me offer responses to this crucial question. I want to identify two responses here.

Story shapes personal identity

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Macintyre suggests here that identity is story shaped. We come to know ourselves through the stories we tell about ourselves as well as the stories that claim our ultimate allegiance. Such stories are responsible for shaping us. Small and mean selfish stories constrict our development beyond meeting our own self-interests. Large stories give us room to grow and change, they invite us into a more expansive vision of interpersonal and civic relationships and responsibilities.

The Biblical epic has always fundamentally shaped Jews and Christians. Judaism seems better at recognizing that stories are multifaceted in that they can be reframed and retold to bring out different emphases. Stories are continually being told and reheard in different ways. We are not shaped by the literal reading of these stories according to a strict dichotomy between true or false. We are shaped more through how we come to interpret their meaning. As Midrash reveals, meaning is a continually evolving process.

Story shapes community identity

The communitarian response to the question why read the Bible today is given greater clarity by Paul D Hanson in A Political History of the Bible in America comments:

To gain a solid footing for understanding the mixed legacy of American political history, it is necessary to turn to the more ancient epic from which the leaders of our nation, from colonial times to the present, and for better or for worse, derived justification for their actions. That epic is the Bible.

So on the weekend when we celebrate the founding of the nation, we are reminded that for Americans the Bible has occupied a more central role in our political process than might be true in other Western democracies. Our leaders and sections of society repeatedly appeal to the Bible in the civic space, and as Hanson notes for better or for worse. In that conversation it’s crucial for Episcopalians to stop ceding the high ground to those who would apply an anti-Midrash spin on interpretation, i.e. take the stories we encounter, especially in these very ancient and harsh Torah texts as literally true and able to speak uninterrupted to our modern context.

Scholars now believe that the Genesis stories were only written down, or at least, re-edited during the very late period of the captivity in Babylon some 1500 year after the time in which the stories are set. We might ask why is this?

Part of the answer lies in how nations respond at points of crisis. At a time of crisis when the very existence of the Jewish people was imperiled they revisited and recast their ancient stories of national manifest destiny. This is a process that we in contemporary America have a feeling for as we face into a crisis of national identity articulated through competing interpretations of our formational stories. The sacrifice of Isaac was a story that spoke about God’s deliverance for those who keep faith, those who in the face of adversity pass the test of trusting in the beneficence of God’s ultimate purpose.

In Bible Challenge group discussions, St. Martin’s folk, especially women among them seem to take great exception to these primitive stories that depict a nomadic society’s very tribal and patriarchal view of God. I encourage us to note our response of repugnance as our first visceral reaction in our engagement with these ancient texts. A visceral reaction, not intellectual insight is where textual engagement begins. But after this what next? Do we simply reject these texts as holding no potential for any meaning? Are we to retreat into our lofty 21st-century judgmentalism that proclaims loudly this is not our God or the God of Jesus?

This attitude blinds us to the contemporary relevance of many of these ancient myths, and so we too, need to develop our own Midrash for textual questioning. We must read these stories because they are where our God shaping story begins. It’s clear from our post-Jesus perspectives that both we and God have come a long way over the millennia. To know our place in the world through the story of which we are a part, we need to begin at the beginning of the relational epic that continues to evolve within historical time through the events of human history.

Genesis 22:1-14

What can we discover through a Midrash-style questioning of this text?

  1. Anthropologically, is this story an echo of a primitive pre-Israelite time when child sacrifice was practiced, which later becomes conflated and given an Israelite spiritual meaning as an event in the life of Abraham? Perhaps.
  2. Did God really command the sacrifice of Isaac, or did Abraham believe that was what God asked of him? Even if we exonerate God the point still remains that Abraham trusted in his experience of a God who had over and over again proved trustworthy. Why should he second-guess God now?
  3. Is this a story about the blindness of human devotion? Religious devotion has proved throughout history an effective instrument for practices and attitudes that flow from the hardness of the human heart. Did not Jesus confront and expose the way religious devotion became a mask, a facade concealing the cruelty of the human spirit?
  4. What’s the ultimate point of this story? At one level the story shocks us. But on closer reading, this story demonstrates that God is not the capricious tyrant we fear, for it is God who stays Abraham’s hand. The dénouement of the story reveals a God who will provide as long as we have the courage to trust.

As we sit in lofty judgment on Abraham and what seems to us to be a grotesque caricature of a narcissistically insecure God, we miss the point that this story shines a powerful searchlight upon us and our motivations. Whatever else this story might be about it reveals our collective collusion in systems that readily sacrifice the weak and the vulnerable while rewarding the strong and contemptuous.

Among that group of young men we refer to as the World War I poets, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) chronicled through his poetry his experience alongside his brother soldiers fighting in the trenches. In The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Owen uses the Genesis imagery of the sacrifice of Isaac as the basis for his ode of lamentation on the willingness of those who represent authority to sacrifice the flower of youth in pursuit of idols, i.e. ideologies and stories that displace our trust in God with something less than worthy of ultimate allegiance.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said,
My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Our 21st-century vantage point is fundamentally shaped by the image of God refracted through the face, words, and actions of Jesus Christ. This lulls us into a false sense of superiority when we encounter the Genesis images of God, refracted as they are through the lens of a tribal, nomadic people subsisting on the precipitous knife-edge of survivability. And yet, these Israelites are our spiritual ancestors. We are among the children of the blessing God brought about through his covenant with Abraham. Thus on closer inspection, I believe the sacrifice of Isaac disturbs us because as Wilfred Owen found a voice to express – it is not God who is barbarous, it is we who continually affirm what is barbarous in the human spirit.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Abraham was shaped by his encounter with a God to whom he gave the allegiance of complete trust. We may quibble over whether this was a good thing or not especially when it leads him to be prepared to follow through on an act of self-laceration. In the end, it was God who stayed his hand and delivered Isaac. Why God needed to test Abraham in this way, we cannot know. But what we can know is the contrast between God’s actions and ours in a society where trust in the beneficence of God has been displaced by lesser and more pernicious creeds that call for the sacrifice of many for the good of a few. The idolatry of ideology reveals itself in the promise of more and the delivery of less.

Wilfred Owen was killed on the day the Armistice was signed at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, in 1918; a different sacrifice of sorts.

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