Reading, Genesis 22:1-19 and Matthew 15:22-28
Image, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Adi Holzer, 1997.
Note, I owe many insights in this sermon to Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah vol. 1 (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), as well as the "Akeidah Verbs" painting series by Richard McBee.
Fear and Trembling … this is what Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard entitled his famous book on the sacrifice of Isaac. A perfect title capturing both the feeling of those in the passage and many approaching it across the generations. Much ink has been spilled and faith tested in the face of what appears to be the most abominable action on the part of God and the most distasteful acquiescence on the part of Abraham.
There are varying interpretations. The aforementioned Kierkegaard sees the story as a testament to Abraham’s heroic ability to overlook all human decency and ethical standards following instead the unflinching command of God. Others take a Christological reading where this story prefigures the sacrifice of a different Son sparing the lives of many, while a more traditional reading is God testing Abraham to ensure that despite having received all he wants Abraham won’t forget his covenant with God. The generous reading of this interpretation – at least as far as the character of Abraham is concerned, is that Abraham was able to proceed with an almost mechanical exactitude because of his complete trust that God would stop him. However (and this we will come to later) there is a problem with this reading, found in easily missed details in the chapters to come. So, let us consider another way into this passage, one informed by what we have already seen in Abraham’s story with God.
The story states that God is testing Abraham. However, what if it is a different kind of test… in the manner of the opportunity God gave Abraham to intercede for the city of Sodom? Today’s story follows Abraham’s refusal to stand up for Hagar and Ishmael, acquiescing to Sarah’s ruthless demand that they be expelled from the household. Hagar and Ishmael, we know from our spirited kid’s church rendition a few weeks back, only survive this expulsion because of God. Abraham, it should be noted, was concerned about sending them away, but God comforted him with the promise that that would not perish, but God would make a great nation from Ishmael, because he too is Abraham’s offspring.
So perhaps the test is thus: given Abraham was not willing to fight for one son, God gives him a chance to fight for another. God says, go offer your son as a burnt offering, and perhaps, God is hoping Abraham will say no, surely the Lord of righteousness, the one who has promised Isaac to me and Sarah would not demand such a sacrifice! There’s reason to believe this could have worked, after all, the prophet Hosea reminds us, God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
If this is the case, then God’s final intercession is not the overall plan, not the great “reveal” poised and waiting, but a last-minute act of grace, that saves Abraham from himself, an act of deliverance when it becomes apparent that Abraham is not going to fight for his son.
There are a few details in the reading that support this interpretation, notice, for instance that God’s promise announced at the end of the scene is not altered or enhanced from the promise Abraham has already received many times (even before any test of faith). But I think it is details that come in the following chapters that most strongly suggest that Abraham doesn’t respond to God’s request in the best way.
Following this event on the mountaintop Isaac disappears from the narrative. He does not even come down the mountain with Abraham but leaves via a different path. He disappears from the story until late in chapter 24, when he returns from the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-roi (an entirely different country, one – mysteriously and intriguingly – connected with Hagar’s encounter with God in the wilderness). Isaac, we might presume, is so appalled that no matter what Abraham might say about the provision of God, Isaac chooses to part ways. Indeed, we do not have another scene with Isaac and Abraham until after Abraham’s death, only then does Isaac return (curiously enough with Ishmael) to bury their father.
What’s more, this event does not solely fracture the relationship of father and son. Abraham and Sarah also part ways. At the end of the narrative Abraham is said to go and settle in Be’er-sheba. Whereas, we learn at the beginning of chapter 23, Sarah remains living in the land of Canaan until she dies at Kiriath-arba, at which point Abraham travels to her to mourn. Indeed it is common in Jewish interpretation, given the proximity of the events, to infer that Sarah dies upon hearing what took place on the mountain.
The near-sacrifice of Isaac fractures and scatters the family – could this be God’s desired result from the test? Did God not foresee that Isaac and Sarah would be more than a little dismayed by this most traumatic event, more than a little disappointed in Abraham? Given all we have seen in these past weeks, the fact that Isaac and Ishmael even return to bury their father is a tremendous display of grace!
It is the trauma and family breakdown caused by this scene, that leads me to at least favour the reading where the test was one which asked Abraham to argue with God for Isaac’s salvation. Abraham should not have heroically transcended his earthly ties, he should have drawn near to God to haggle with the same determination and compassion he displayed for the city of Sodom. Because it is through such a process that Abraham might have even been moved to realise that he should have likewise fought for Ishmael.
To say it another way, Abraham should have been more like the Canaanite woman who argues with Jesus over the fate of her daughter. This woman, unlike Abraham, is not within the covenant, has not received a promise, has not journeyed intimately with God these many years and yet she bursts into the story to demand satisfaction! Even when rebuffed, she only haggles harder. When Abraham argues with God over Sodom, God willingly accepts each one of Abraham’s sliding terms… and yet Abraham does not think to try for the sake of his son. This Canaanite woman receives no such easy negotiation, indeed at first she receives only insult, but by faith she prevails. Her example teaches us, what we must learn from Abraham only in negation – do not settle for an image of God that is not equal to the best picture of God, the best hope of God, the best nature of God. Settle not for anything less that the God who creates with love, redeems with power, and abounds in justice and mercy.
For too many families have been fractured, and too many of God’s children walk the earth carrying trauma, because someone who should have loved them better could not argue against an image of God who demanded sacrifice not mercy, who demanded observance not relationship, who demanded blood and not grace. Do not settle for a picture of faithfulness that makes the love of God dependent on the harm of others.
Perhaps this is why Isaac goes to Be’er-lahai-roi. Perhaps he goes to encounter another image of God, to learn from another story of God, one of the mercy, tenderness, and liberation experienced by Hagar and Ishmael? I hope so.
As people of faith we have much to learn from this story. From Abraham and the Canaanite woman we take encouragement to wrestle with God in our prayer life and reading of scripture – to demand the fullness of mercy, the perfection of justice, and the abundance of life that befit God’s nature and covenant. From Isaac we learn that our life with God need not be defined by one story, one experience, or one person… there are other places to look, other people to find, other stories to search in which we might experience hope, healing, and blessing. And from God, we learn that we are not abandoned, even when we err. God stays Abraham’s hand, and does not rescind the promise. Jesus recognises the faith of the Canaanite woman in her rebellious wit and saves her daughter. And somehow, in some mysterious encounter, God weaves Isaac back into this story. Whether by the errors of others we have been harmed, or through our own we have harmed others, God draws near in faithfulness, love, and kindness and offers us our own personal Be’er-lahai-roi, our own sites of forgiveness, mercy, restoration, and renewal, from which we might find salvation.
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