I invite you to turn to page 17 in your pew Bibles if you want to follow along with today’s Scripture lesson. To add nuance to the story and give it a slightly different flavor, I thought I’d read the Scripture lesson from The New Jerusalem version of the Bible while you follow along with the New Revised Standard version.
Read Genesis 22:1-14…
Although it may seem a bit incongruous in light of my pastoral vocation, there was a period in my late teenage years when I loved watching horror movies. Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead…I watched those kinds of movies religiously…I realize an interesting word choice…nearly every weekend. I can’t say I’m a big fan of horror movies nowadays, but I used to spend half my movie hours waiting for something terrible to happen and the other half of my movie hours watching something terrible happen. Not to mention all the time I spent trying to figure out why the fraternity member ran down the basement stairs when he should have jumped into the running car in the garage. Or why the babysitter headed into the woods when she could have walked around the corner and stood on the shoulder of the well-lit highway…
I’m convinced my change in movie viewing habits had something to do with getting married. As I remember it, there were a few parts in The Lion King Kristin had a hard time watching. And then when we had children, my horror movie days officially became a distant memory. It was hard to conjure up horrible thoughts as I sat on the couch watching Winnie the Pooh with Micaela, Josh, and Hannah sitting on my lap…
Nevertheless, I’ve thought a little about horror movies this week. As some of you walked through the sanctuary doors at the end of worship last week, I could tell by your comments and your facial expressions that the story of Abraham and Isaac didn’t exactly warm your heart. It’s one of those Bible passages where you spend half the story waiting for something terrible to happen and the other half of the story imagining the terrible thing that did happen. Or at least almost. While no one came out and said it to me directly, I suspect a few of you wondered why we have to focus on this particular story for five weeks in a row…
One of the things that makes today’s story so distasteful is the fact that the Abraham and Isaac narrative has all the elements of a good horror movie. The innocent victim, the unlikely protagonist, the white knuckle suspense, the terrifying moment of truth, and the “it’s okay to open your eyes again” resolution. When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor, Phyllis Trible, had a name for such Bible stories and that name became the title of her most noteworthy book. She called stories like Abraham and Isaac “texts of terror.” You can find such Biblical texts of terror from the story of Noah’s Ark near the beginning of the Old Testament all the way through to the crucifixion story near the end of the Gospels in the New Testament. And none of them are easy to read or hear in their un-sanitized version.
At the same time, the other element that makes Abraham and Isaac especially hard to stomach is the fact that God is the one who instigates the violence in the story. If God is supposed to be good and God is supposed to be merciful, how do we swallow the truth that this time around God actually orders Abraham to sacrifice his own child? What kind of God would ask a man to put his own son to death as a test of faith?
As I outlined last Sunday, Isaac went on a three day hike with his dad. Like most sons, Isaac looked forward to some father-son bonding. And from the moment Abraham ordered the servants and the donkey to remain at the foot of Mount Moriah, Isaac had Abraham all to himself. But picture the scene for a moment. As the two of them began their ascent, Abraham actually strapped the wood he was going to use to burn his son’s body on Isaac’s own back, thereby forcing Isaac to carry the very kindling that would lead to his own demise.
It doesn’t take much of a mental leap to imagine Isaac as a pre-pubescent Christ, foreshadowing the Savior who would bear on his back the cross shaped wood that led to his own demise on the Mount of Calvary generations later.
So how do we rationalize and justify God’s actions in this father and son horror story? That question has begged an answer for a long time. And centuries of history and religious tradition have weighed in with a a number of theories that attempt to take God off the hook.
For example, have you ever heard someone make reference to the notion that the Old Testament is basically just a precursor to the New Testament? In the Old Testament, there was all kinds of senseless violence and destruction, but the terror came to an end in the New Testament the moment Jesus died on the cross. The major problem with that idea is the fact that our Jewish brothers and sisters wind up linked to an Old Testament God of wrath while Christians end up embracing the sweet, serene Jesus who welcomed children into his own lap.
To contrast an Old Testament God with a New Testament God is neither fair nor accurate. In fact, that way of thinking often leads Christians down a slippery slope towards anti-Semitism. The truth is that in both testaments, there is an ongoing tension between God’s divine wrath and God’s divine love. Not to mention the fact that there continues to be ongoing violence in our 2015 world, much of it perpetrated against children. It’s hardly as if the world was filled with death and destruction before the crucifixion and the devastation suddenly came to an end the moment Jesus took his last breath.
On the other hand, could we look at the Abraham and Isaac story and excuse God by saying that God’s ways are mysterious? We don’t really know God nor can we understand what’s going through God’s mind, so the only thing left for us as human beings is to trust God knows what God is doing. To me, that theory sounds passive and mealy-mouthed. It falls well short of satisfying when it comes to Abraham and Isaac.
Or could we chalk the story of Abraham and Isaac up as an extreme example of our human fallibility? In other words, the human beings who wrote the Bible attributed the dark motives in today’s story to God when they actually belonged to Abraham. For all we know, Abraham took Isaac up the mountain of his own accord. Teenage children sometimes have a way of enraging their parents and maybe Isaac stretched the limits of Abraham’s patience. Meanwhile, God serves as merely the foil or the fall guy.
In the end, however, I’m not willing to excuse God in this story. God’s command to Abraham to kill Abraham’s only son, the same son Abraham and Sarah had waited ninety long and bitter years for Sarah to conceive, the same son Abraham loved with all his heart, is truly hard to fathom, much less forgive. Contrary to popular opinion, there are times in life when God gives people more than they can handle. In fact, sometimes God pushes people to the breaking point. And sometimes God grants a last minute reprieve when the knife is poised high in the air and the unthinkable is a split second away from becoming reality. But sometimes there is no last minute reprieve. And children die. And tragic accidents happen. And people take their own lives and the lives of others. Unbelievable, unimaginable, inconceivable violence happens anyway…
After Abraham unties his son and carries him down from the platform and after Abraham sacrifices the ram in Isaac’s place, it’s never made clear in the story whether God’s reassurance to Abraham was enough to set the record straight. Abraham passed God’s horrific test God with flying colors, but at what cost? How in the world did Abraham go on from that moment? How in the world did Isaac go on from that moment?
I wonder whether there’s really a happy ending in the tale of Abraham and Isaac. All’s well that ends well? No harm, no foul? Que sera sera? Or do texts of terror like this one remain embedded in the Bible like a thorn in our sides, reminding us of the darker side of human nature. Reminding human beings that we need to learn to live together without jealousy, ambition and self-centeredness…and without resorting to violence.
What’s more, maybe stories like Abraham and Isaac in the Bible teach us that we can’t always script the happy ending. When we inevitably walk up to the edge of life’s breaking points and it feels like nothing is going our way and the pain is unbearable and grief washes over us and we can’t fill the empty place in our spirits and violence threatens to shatter us into pieces, maybe God won’t come swooping in. Those are the occasions when we need to shake our fists at heaven. We need to sob without consolation. And we need to get right up in God’s face and confront God about why God offers no relief…
One final thought this morning as it relates to Abraham and Isaac. We never quite know what will happen if we don’t listen to God and trust God utterly. Sometimes almost dying has a way of teaching human beings what life is ultimately worth. Meanwhile at its deepest, faith beckons us toward resurrection even when we are staring death in the face.
Noted sci-fi novelist Ursula LeGuin summarizes this Scripture lesson well…at least for today. “Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison, and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning…living, as we do, in the middle.” Amen.