|"The Binding of Isaac" by Adi Holzer, 1997|
Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:40-42. I take a certain perverse pride in not ducking tough readings (as I could have, this week, if I'd chosen the second track in the lectionary), but this one's definitely a challenge.
Atheist Gary, after he'd edited this for me -- and it required more editing than usual -- said, "Do you think it will be controversial? I mean, you're kind of saying God's being a jerk."
"I've said that before," I told him, and we both laughed, but it's a good question. We shall see.
This is the season of hard sayings. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He went on to promise that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” This week, as if to fulfill that promise, Abraham has bound his son Isaac -- his only son, whom he loves -- to an altar, and is standing above him, ready to bring down the knife.
This is an appalling story. Now, in 2014, we would never consider “God told me to do it” an acceptable reason to threaten a child. We call people who act on such commands mentally ill. They wind up on the evening news. They wind up in prison, or in hospitals. And yet this reading is at the core of the three Abrahamic faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham is our revered spiritual ancestor. Around the world, many people have had to struggle to make sense of how he could even begin to go along with the charade of sacrificing a child.
The situation’s all the more incomprehensible because just four chapters before this reading, in Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God to spare the lives of the residents of Sodom, people he doesn’t even know. But when it comes to Isaac -- the child of his old age, the son he and Sarah had despaired of ever having -- he’s willing to follow God’s orders to take his life?
As long as the faithful have been hearing this story, we’ve been trying to find ways to make it less horrible. One common strategy is to turn it into an uplifting story about trust in God. According to this interpretation, Abraham trusts that God will ultimately spare the boy, which is indeed what happens. Abraham has passed God’s test by exercising blind trust and following orders no matter what. Hurrah for Abraham. Enter the angel. Enter the ram. Happy ending.
But what about Isaac? What does this ghastly incident teach him about trust? If people threaten to sacrifice you, just go along with it, because somehow you’ll get out of it at the last minute? Do you think Isaac ever trusted his father again? Would you trust a parent who threatened to kill you? If that parent said, “I was faking, the knife was just for show,” would you say, “Oh, good, I feel so much better now”? One school of Jewish scriptural interpretation holds that Isaac never spoke to his father again after this day. Who could blame him?
Christians often try to take the sting out of this story by making it a metaphor for the crucifixion. I’m not comfortable with this strategy, either. Jewish author Elie Wiesel says that the Isaac and Abraham story is better than the crucifixion, because Isaac doesn’t die. I think it’s worse, because adult Jesus knew what was going to happen. He went in with his eyes open. Isaac didn’t. Isaac asks Abraham,“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” He doesn’t understand what’s happening, and he hasn’t consented to any of it. He’s been lied to. He’s been tricked.
I think the best way to deal with this hideous story is to ask questions about the test at its heart. The text says that God is testing Abraham’s faith, but a Jewish friend tells me that her favorite question about this passage is, “Did Abraham pass God’s test, or fail it?” Maybe the way to pass this test is to say, “No God worth following would command me to sacrifice my beloved child. No, I won’t do it.” Some people, on the other hand, think Abraham is testing God to see if God will make him go through with the sacrifice. In this school of thought, Abraham is calling God’s bluff; and, luckily, Abraham is right.
But these approaches focus on Abraham, not Isaac. Whatever else we say about this reading, at its core is a terrified child at the mercy of powers greater than he is, a child who has been tied down while someone who is supposed to take care of him stands over him with a knife.
Who’s being tested here? I think we are: the bystanders, the listeners. And I think that the minute we forget about Isaac, we flunk. The minute we say that his helplessness and fear are less important than the contest between God and Abraham, we flunk. The minute we say that his trauma is only a metaphor for the crucifixion, we flunk. The minute we say that his terror doesn’t matter, because the story supposedly has a happy ending, we flunk. We flunk when we try to turn this story into a parable about trust. We flunk when we try to intellectualize it into a historical commentary on ancient practices of child sacrifice. We flunk when we respond with anything but appalled, enraged empathy for the child at its center.
Ultimately, God does spare Isaac. The angel shows up in the nick of time to stay Abraham’s knife. If we, here and now, are God’s hands in the world, what are we doing to prevent the sacrifice of helpless children? Angels are God’s messengers. As God’s human messengers, what are we doing to keep those knives from coming down?
In today’s Gospel, which is not about swords but about divine hospitality, Jesus praises “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.” As usual, he commands us to care for the least of these: the ones who are so often dismissed, unnoticed, overlooked. Among other things, this means saving the Isaacs among us.
Isaacs are sacrificed every day. We’ve all heard about the human trafficking of children. People here in Nevada, and especially in its faith communities, have been a powerful force in passing legislation that will help those kids. We’ve all heard about the huge number of children entering the United States, alone, from Central America. Our justice system is doing its best to find safe shelter for those children, and to work with their home countries to address the conditions that made them flee in the first place. We’ve all heard about the terrible effects of hunger on children, who cannot grow or learn properly without adequate nutrition. That’s one reason our food pantry here at St. Paul’s is so important.
Nonetheless, the situation remains grim. The Children's Defense Fund, in its report The State of America's Children, 2014, writes that even here, in this wealthy nation, “Every fifth child (16.1 million) is poor, and every tenth child (7.1 million) is extremely poor. Children are the poorest age group, and the younger they are the poorer they are. Every fourth infant, toddler and preschool child (5 million) is poor; 1 in 8 is extremely poor.” According to this report, “The greatest threat to America’s economic, military and national security comes from no enemy without but from our failure, unique among high-income nations, to invest adequately and fairly in the health, education and sound development of all of our young.”
If the angel hadn’t stayed his hand, would Abraham have killed Isaac? Before Isaac’s birth, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Would Abraham really have endangered that promise by sacrificing his firstborn?
If Isaac had died, Jacob and Esau would never have been born. If Jacob had never been born, his twelve sons would never have been born. There would never have been twelve tribes of Israel. The history of the world would be unimaginably different from what it is now.
According to Jewish tradition, the death of any one person is the death of a world. Whenever we don’t save Isaac, whenever we allow even one child to be sacrificed, we endanger everyone’s future in ways we cannot guess. As God’s messengers, let us never overlook any frightened or threatened child. Let us do whatever we can to invest in the health, education and sound development of all our young: to ensure that everyone who is born can grow and learn in peace and safety, enjoying the welcome and abundance that Jesus commands us to provide.