This morning we hear again one of the most dramatic stories in all of Scripture. Its Jewish title is the “Akedah” – the Binding of Isaac. Just nineteen verses long (we did not read the last five this morning), it is noteworthy that this event is referenced nowhere else in the entire Old Testament. No prophet, no psalmist, no king, no priest ever spoke of it or wrote about it in such a way that it made it into the biblical canon.
It is tempting to hold that the entire story was simply too toxic to touch, but, in fact, this is not true. It is one of the most discussed and plummeted episodes not just in the bible, but in our entire culture. Countless people down through the ages have reflected on one aspect of the story or another. Ideas are explored, opinions put forth, and new insights continually emerge.
For example, why did God want to test Abraham? The Book of Jubilees, written two centuries before the birth of Jesus, connects this testing to the testing of Job. Jubilees contends that a dark angel by the name of Mastema went to God and questioned whether Abraham’s faith was a strong as God believed. This set in motion a testing just as Satan’s question about Job begins his ordeal. According to Jubilees, Mastema and the angel Gabriel accompany Abraham and Isaac up the mountain and Gabriel eventually intervenes to save the child.
What does Abraham think of all this? Some rabbis writing material contained in the Talmud and Midrash hold that he is stoic and obedient while others contend that he is wracked with guilt and washed over with distress. And what about Isaac? Does he have any idea what is about to happen? Does he resist or submit? Is he afraid or does he have faith? Some suggest that he actually asks to be bound so that he is not able to flinch at the last second and ruin the sacrifice.
There is a 15th century work called The Brome Play. It is a short drama performed by a travelling band out of the back of a wagon. The only characters in the play are Abraham, Isaac, God, and the angel. As the drama unfolds Abraham confesses to Isaac about the impending sacrifice. Isaac, puzzled, asks what he has done wrong. Nothing, Abraham replies. God requires it. Isaac accepts his duty, but Abraham begins to waver.
And is it God’s will that I should be slain?
Yea, truly, Isaac, my son so good,
and therefore my hands I wring.
Now, father, against my Lord’s will
I will never complain loud or still:
He might a send me a better ending
If it has a been his will.
Forsooth son, unless I did this deed
Grievously displeased our Lord would be.
Nay, nay father, God forbid
that ever ye should grieve him for me…
Therefore do the Lord’s bidding,
and when I am dead, pray for me.
But father, tell ye my mother no thing.
Say I am in another country dwelling.
A, Isaac, Isaac, blessed may thou be.
My heart beginneth strongly to rise
to see the blood of thy blessed body.
Philosophers from Augustine to Kant to Kierkegaard have seen in this story how the ethical becomes suspended by the religious. In his 1920 poem Upon the Altar, Yitzhak Lamdan sees in it the trials of Jews down through the ages, always being sacrificed and offered up to God. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son"
Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
As I said, there a wide array of folks who have looked at this story down through the ages.
I spent the week reading James Goodman’s book But where is the lamb? In it he explores the way this narrative has been imagined and reimagined over the centuries. He attributes the vast diversity of thought to two factors. First, the story itself is so dramatic and its primary characters demand or do things we would never expect. And second, the narrative is so utterly economical and lean. While it tells much, it leaves out even more: God’s motivation, Abraham’s thoughts, Isaac’ understanding, and more. These gaps invite reflection and interpretation and keep the story always alive and always fresh.
And it is possible for the same person to turn it and see something completely different than he saw years before. I hope you had a chance to see the e-news that came out on Friday. In it I included pictures of two works by Rembrandt inspired by this story. The first, an oil painting, was done in 1634. In it, Abraham forcefully holds down his bound son. His arm is cooked, but a small angel flying above him has grabbed it and the knife is falling. Abraham seems startled that the proceeding has been interrupted. He is prepared to do his duty and is puzzled that it is suspended.
Rembrandt’s second work is an etching completed in 1655, twenty-one years later. By this point in life, the artist has had to bury children and now has only one son. It goes without saying that he possesses a much broader and deeper emotional experience than when he did the oil. In the etching, Abraham holds Isaac close to himself. There is an angel behind him whose wings fan out from one edge of the work to the other. This angel has both arms wrapped around Abraham in an embrace so tight and intimate that the arm with the knife is unable to move. The angel is so close it appears to whisper in Abraham’s ear and he is turning to face God’s messenger. In this second work, Abraham appears not to be startled but emotionally exhausted. This experience has taken a toll on him, just as life has taken a toll on the great artist who created it. Yet, through it all, the more he has gone through the closer he has experienced God to be.
Reflecting on the insights of current biblical scholars, Goodman writes,
“The story we know can only be understood in the context of [God’s promise to make Abraham’s offspring a mighty nation] and the threats to [this promise], which means in the context of the entire Abraham cycle. It begins with God’s first call and command (give up your past) and God’s promise (I will bless you) and proceeds from there, ever so slowly, characterized by confusion about both the promise and the plan, by questions about who was going to get what when, by uncertainty and doubt, by snares and detours, by heartaches, grave threats, and near death. Nothing is for certain. Nothing comes easy – without testing, trial, without degradation.”
I think the older Rembrandt would applaud this statement. Perhaps more than anything else, the Akedah speaks to the reality that life is not always blue skies and seashells. There are times when it is downright gritty and gut-wrenching. Faith is not for the faint of heart. The only way through life is the way of testing, trial, and degradation – what Jesus calls the Way of the Cross.
The person of faith will exhibit both obedience (as did the Abraham in Rembrandt’s oil) and reflection (as we see in the etching). The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believes that the key moment in the narrative is when Abraham drops the knife. “That Abraham obeyed the first voice,” writes Levinas, “is astonishing: that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to hear the second – that is essential.”
Well, in addition to my “copious” research, I spent the week in conversation with several colleagues who also were eager to gain a deeper understanding of the Akedah. The finest insight I received came from that noted theologian, choir member, food pantry volunteer, and bulletin folder, our own Nancy Bangley. When I told her I was reading about the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, she looked off into the distance and said, “Well, sometimes life is really difficult and you don’t know what to do, and then – puff (as she said this she waved her arms in a big circle) – God shows you the way to go and everything is OK again.” That just may be the single best summation of this story in the last 3,000 years!
We all have had our Akedah moments of testing, trial, and challenge. More await us in the days and years to come. At these times, if we locate the moment in this story, some of the following thoughts emerge for us to ponder:
· Why is this happening? Did I cause it? Is God behind it? Is the only reason this is happening is because it is?
· How is this moment affecting me? Have I distanced myself from my emotions or have my emotions taken over? Either way, is it helpful or not? Am I thinking clearly? Who can I share this with in order to gain the wisdom and perspective of another?
· Where is God in all of this? If I don’t know, then can I trust that God is present and have faith that I will see and sense God at some point in the future? Do I believe as Abraham did, that on this ‘mount’ the Lord will provide?
· What is the ‘knife’ I have to drop? What is the thing I must let go of in order to transform this awful moment into something holy and grace-filled?