Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
The saga of Abraham’s life collapses into one terrible command. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” These murderous words in the mouth of God are heart-stopping, and whatever uneasy peace we might make with them, they tend to linger, adding fuel to the fire of our deepest suspicions about God.
We ask – why would God test Abraham like this? Why should consenting to destroy his son make Abraham the father of faith? Do God’s commands make evil acts good?
Gallons of Christian and Jewish ink have been spilt wrestling with the questions this story raises.
For Kierkegaard, Abraham is the father of faith because he proves himself willing to suspend ethical judgement out of raw obedience to God. But this leaves a terrifying aftertaste. If what is good is just whatever God chooses to command, then God is capable of willing what is by all other accounts evil.
For Calvin, Abraham is praiseworthy insofar as he has followed God into a “complete renunciation of himself.” But if faith requires the complete detachment from the desires of one’s heart, what could it ever mean to then later say that one desires God?
We hear God’s command and fear that it must make God not good — for commanding evil — or make us inhuman — for amputating our desires.
But oddly, for Abraham, this haunting demand works precisely the opposite effect. He hears God’s words and knows exactly what God is asking, and why. And he responds with one of the most marveled at acts of faith in human history.
Why does Abraham hear and respond to the question so differently than we do?
As part of her magnum opus on the problem of suffering, Eleonore Stump reads the binding of Isaac, the child of promise born to Abraham by Sarah, as a story that can only be told when it is fitted into the whole Abraham’s life, his other wives, and the children of these women. Attending to the inner workings of God’s life with Abraham, the climactic binding of Isaac seems less like a philosophy problem and more like a scene in a love story.
She tells the tale like this–
The same way someone might set his heart on free-climbing the impassable Dawn Wall of El Capitan, Abraham is fixated on the prospect of patriarchy. His story begins and ends with children– those his wife cannot bear, those who in the end come to bury him. In their 40 years of intimacy, God speaks to Abraham 8 times, and every conversation centers on Abraham’s children or his descendants. In his heart of hearts, Abraham wants nothing more than to be “the father of children, the patriarch of a clan, the ancestor of a people.”
And God wants to share a relationship of love with Abraham. Because God loves Abraham, he wants to bring about his flourishing and give him the desires of his heart. But what is more God wants to be beloved of Abraham precisely for being the One who gives Abraham the good his heart desires.
While she might be a philosopher, Stump sounds a lot more like Joel Osteen here. There are plenty of TV preachers who will tell you that God wants you to have the Mercedes and new job you desire, but they fail to notice the fine point Stump puts on it: a God who hands out good gifts, or even who turns us into ‘good people,’ might be morally good, but a friendship with that God would be pretty bad. No child anywhere wants to sit up long into the night in mutual self-disclosure and shared attention with Santa Claus.
In his first visitation to Abraham God could have said, “Twenty-five years from now, you will have a son; the mother this son will be Sarah; the son’s name will be ‘Isaac;’ through him you will become the ancestor of a great people; these people will inherit the land — and so on” But God doesn’t, because God wants Abraham’s capacity for love to be stretched to include not just offspring and status but also God, as a good and profoundly trustworthy beloved.
Whether or not he knows it or admits it to himself, this kind of trust in God’s goodness is excruciatingly hard for Abraham. Double-mindedness and suspicion are much more his natural disposition. Consider Abraham’s behavior after each encounter with God; he believes enough to obey, but never enough to do so without hedging his bets.
The son Abraham sacrifices to God on Moriah, his “only son Isaac,” is of course not his only son. Abraham habitually acquires substitute progeny for himself (even up to his dying days when he weds Keturah and fathers 6 more children by her just in case Isaac and Rebekkah’s decades-long infertility should not produce a grandson). Conspiring to secure his heart’s desire for himself, Abraham acts as though it falls to him to make God’s promises come out true, and he betrays his deep, tacit misgivings about the trustworthiness of God.
When God promises to make of Abraham a great nation he tells Abraham to leave his land, his family, and his father’s house. And Abraham does… but not without bringing along his nephew Lot as an insurance policy, a potential heir by which he might ensure descendants should it turn out that his 75 year-old loins are perhaps not the means by which God intends to provide.
When Lot has been sent off, and children are nowhere else forthcoming, Abraham adopts his steward Eliezer as an heir. Then God reappears, only to drill down further on the promise, specifying to Abraham that his seed will in fact “come from your own bowels.”
But of course the mother has not yet been spelled out, and so Abraham and Sarah contrive to help God make the divine promises true by means of Sarah’s maid Hagar.
Only once Isaac, the child of promise, is finally born and survives through weaning does Abraham trust God enough to place all his eggs in that basket, casting Hagar and Ismael out into the wilderness, and setting Isaac up as sole heir.
Abraham hears and immediately understands God’s command to immolate his son Isaac precisely because of the way it echoes and recapitulates this first episode of near-certain filicide. Because of what he has done to Ishmael, a demand to sacrifice Isaac is the precise test Abraham needs to move forward in his relationship with God.
In a murderous rage, Sarah had demanded that Hagar and the teen-aged Ishmael be expelled into the desert with all of its perils. Abraham is left to choose whether to capitulate to Sarah’s evil demand or resolutely refuse. There is only one moral course, but strikingly, God comes down on the opposite side. God makes the seemingly preposterous claim that expulsion and exposure in the desert is in fact good, and will lead to everyone’s highest good.
Rather than wrestle with God as he did even over the strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham quickly and quietly consents and sends his son of sixteen years into the desert with nothing but a bottle of water and a loaf of bread. Why is Abraham so swift to obey God’s promise here? Is it from deep trust in God’s goodness and ability to bring life out of death? Or is it brazen self-interest, keeping peace with his irate wife and simultaneously clearing the path for his heart’s desire by ridding his household of the one potential threat to Isaac’s legitimacy? In such complex circumstances there is no way of knowing, and there may in fact be no fact of the matter.
But it matters a great deal for Abraham’s soul. If Abraham is even the tiniest bit double-minded in the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, he is guilty of great evil, “of using God as an excuse to do a dreadful injustice to an innocent child and his mother” and of believing “that God would not much mind being used as an accessory to serious evil.” At this point in his life Abraham is either seriously alienated from God in these ways, or he is wholehearted in his trust in God’s goodness. The only way of knowing for sure, the only way for Abraham to either clarify his love for God, or come to recognize his distance from God and repent of it is to see what Abraham would do if goodness and self-interest were on opposite sides.
So God gets Abraham’s attention, and tells him to take his only son – the only son he has left – and to do to him what he did to the first – obey God in risking Isaac’s life, and in so doing prove his trust in God’s goodness and power and willingness to bring about life from death. Forced to choose between God’s goodness and his self-interest, Abraham is silent “because he understands perfectly, and because he is holding his breath in the struggle with himself to trust Isaac to God.”
In suffering and passing the test Abraham is given back not just Isaac, and his heart’s desire to be a patriarch, but he is made glorious in his faith in God, and his heart’s desire is transformed into something even he could not have imagined. With this act of trust in God he becomes the patriarch not just of a tribe but of the whole family of faith.
We don’t hear God’s command to Abraham the way that Abraham does precisely because it is God’s command to Abraham. It occurs at the climax of a long and arduous, deeply intimate process of trust-building between God and a naturally double-minded human.
What we must hear are the commands God is giving to us. Abraham’s story invites us to imagine that God might be equally desirous of a relationship of love with us. It invites us to wonder whether God can be trusted with our most deeply prized pet desires. With Abraham as the father of all the faithful, faith cannot mean ripping out our heart and resentfully feigning love for God alone, but neither can it let us cling so obsessively to the desires of our hearts that we shut our ears to the one who longs for our highest good even more than we do.
Image Credit: Abraham’s Sacrifice by Adi Holzer