I am mindful we now are living in – we pray we are living through – straightened circumstances, the like of which few if any of us have experienced previously. We well may be discovering within ourselves a need, or at least a longing, for an appearance of a messenger (angel) of Yahweh in something like the immediacy of the Akedah (“binding”) event we ponder in this lectionary portion. Of course, Abraham and Isaac’s encounter cannot be repeated; we would not wish it to be. Yet it carries insights and understandings of God’s nature, and of God’s relational intentions, which can instruct and comfort us, too, in these circumstances that confront us with an urgency something like that of Abraham on “the mountains of Moriah.”
Please indulge me for a moment in another, entirely different, kind of “preliminary” note. The Akedah is one of the great texts, not only in Scripture, but in all world literature. From the many attestations of its importance we could find and ponder, I would commend to your attention first the “Old Master” Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’ The Sacrifice of Isaac, painted about 1612-13. I won’t advise you how to approach or study it, but I hope at least you will find it on the internet. Spend time with it. It is evocative; it is powerful. If you live in or near Kansas City, it is worth the journey to study the original in the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
An important and insightful novelistic treatment of the Akedah, imagining its lifelong impact within and upon Isaac’s family – specifically, upon Jacob – is Frederick Buechner’s The Son of Laughter, published in 1993. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister, an extra reason for those of us also in ministry to acquaint ourselves with his work.
To the text itself. Early in my introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a teacher presented what he characterized as a rabbinic midrash (commentary) on verse two, which expands God’s instruction to Abraham into a dialogue. This teacher did not cite the location of this midrash; I’ve not previously tried to trace it; now, it does not readily pop up for me in an internet search. But here it is:
God: “Take now your son.” Abraham: “Ishmael is my son.” God: “Your only son.” Abraham: “Ishmael is the only son of his mother [Hagar].” God: “Whom you love.” Abraham: “I love Ishmael.” God: “Isaac!”
Of course, this imagined expansion presents numerous insurmountable problems; it can represent no historical reality. In any case, Ishmael was grown and gone (Gen 21:20-21). It illustrates vividly, though, Abraham’s likely inner turmoil at this appalling instruction: God, is that really you? Am I hearing you right? Are you really asking me to kill the son of my old age, the son you designated the son of the promise?
“God tested Abraham” will trouble us on other grounds if, as some have done, we mistakenly link this statement with James’ word that God “tempts no one” (James 1:13). We may rest easy on this score, however. Even a cursory word study shows that in these two contexts the Hebrew verb means “tested,” the Greek verb means “tempts,” and the two actions are vastly different. Far from being required, linkage emphatically is disallowed.
Yes, God tested Abraham, and Abraham demonstrated obedience. (“Listening-to-and-following” God’s instruction is a better understanding.) In several ways, Abraham’s promptness was/is exemplary: “God said, ‘. . . and sacrifice him there . . .’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and . . .” (vv. 2-3). Well before the advent of any form of what we often call today an “open” theology, many questioned how God could not have known already what the messenger (God’s agent, speaking “for” God), declared, “For now I know you reverence God” (v. 12). Perhaps we may venture that even God did not yet know this “experientially.” Moreover, as C. S. Lewis observed, whatever God knew, Abraham did not know the extent of his commitment to God until he went so far as to raise the knife over his son.
The geography of this narrative merits a note. Abraham and his family were living in or near Beersheba; the party of four returned there following this event. Traditionally, Moriah is identified with the Temple Mount, just north of Melchizedek’s Salem in Abraham’s day (Gen 14:18), now inside the eastern wall of today’s Old City of Jerusalem. Moriah/Jerusalem is about fifty miles north-northeast of Beersheba, a three-day’s journey on foot (v. 4).
The text twice emphasizes Abraham’s confidence in God’s reliability. Instructing his “young men” to stay with the donkey, he said, “I and the boy [or “the young man” – the same Hebrew noun] will journey until [we get] as far as there, and we will worship, and we will return to you.” Not, “I will return” but, “we will return.” Were this Abraham’s only such statement, we could think ourselves justified in attributing his words and tone to the need to put on a good face in front of his men, to a false-hope kind of bravado, or even to a grim masking of despair. But Abraham’s second utterance establishes the genuineness of this one.
As they walked together toward Moriah, Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (v. 7). Abraham’s response rings true for the believer down to these troubled and troubling days we are experiencing. We could translate it in several slightly different ways, but they all come down to, “God will see to it [for himself], the lamb for the sacrifice, my son” (v. 8). The end of verse 8 marks with elegant and eloquent simplicity the assurance of Abraham’s response and Isaac’s acceptance, “So they walked on, the two of them together.”
As do all great texts, this one invites us to adopt multi-valent, multi-dimensional, mutually complementary (not “contradictory”) readings. About twenty years ago, in a lecture at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Walter Brueggemann opined that in “bargaining” with God over the fate of Sodom (because his nephew Lot lived there; Gen 18:23-32), Abraham was “teaching God to be God.” Brueggemann may have gotten the order backwards there (perhaps for a rhetorical splash?), but in the Akedah –just four chapters later in Genesis – God certainly was teaching Abraham, and all Abraham’s children in the faith, to be truly children of God, teaching us early on that devotion to God is not demonstrated by human sacrifice.
With immense theological power, Genesis 2 pictures Yahweh Elohim as forming the first human with God’s own fingers. This same Yahweh had invited Abraham into a lifetime journey of faith in and with God. Centuries later, kings descended from Abraham himself would become more frantically depraved in their practice of child sacrifice than any of Abraham’s own neighbors ever did – and within a mile of Moriah. In such a context, this stands as the first “lesson objective” of the Akedah: God decidedly does not want humans to sacrifice sons and daughters (ours or others’) to prove our “obedience,” our devotion, or anything else, as so many misguided persons and systems continue to assert even in our own day. Even this early in the “old” theological economy (as some characterize it) a ram is for sacrifice; a son, and a daughter, are for taking home.
Of course, we have only touched the surface. En fin, we may reference an observation often noted, but still powerfully accurate, especially in this season of transition in the liturgical calendar. At the last moment, God provided a substitute for Abraham’s son, but when it came time to sacrifice God’s own Son, God could not do that, if the human race (and all creation with us) were to be rescued from death. The words of John the Forerunner encapsulate the hope realized on Mt. Calvary – if not Abraham’s Moriah, then very near it – “Behold the lamb of God!” (John 1:29).