22.1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Please bear with me as today's homily is a bit more didactic then usual. Today, I chose to concentrate on the first reading, which is about the mystery of testing and providing. However, a God who will command the murder of a son is problematic and difficult to understand--not only for me, but also--for today's people of faith. To gain insight into this part of the Abraham story, I sought insight from Jewish as well as Christian sources. This story leads to a new disclosure of God. At the beginning of the passage, God is tester (v. 1). At the end, God is the provider (v. 14). These two statements about God form the frame of the story.”1
Today's Hebrew Bible story, known as the Akedah or binding, occupies a central role in rabbinic theology and was eventually incorporated into the daily liturgy. In Jewish tradition, this story is regarded as the tenth and final test of Abraham, the first Jew.
The first verse gives us a clue into Abraham's character. The Hebrew "hineni," translated “Here I am,” indicates readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions and serves as a kind of refrain throughout this passage. It suggests the attitude Abraham has –and—the attitude we are to have in response to God and in contemplating God. Abraham uses it in response to God and to the angel.2 Abraham also uses it in response to Isaac in the following verses 6-8, which are part of this story but were omitted from lectionary reading.
Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
I am always reluctant to read Christian understandings backwards into the Hebrew Bible. However, the Jewish Study Bible, offers the following comments regarding the verses I just read:
The image of Isaac's carrying the wood on which he is to be burned adds enormous power to the story. A midrash relates this to a Roman (not Jewish) method of execution that was sometimes used on Jewish martyrs: "It is like a person who carries his cross on his own shoulder" (Gen. Rab. 56.3). 7: Our ignorance of Isaac's age makes it difficult to interpret his poignant question [but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?]. Most rabbinic commentators see him as an adult and thus a willing participant in his own sacrificethe prototype, that is, of the Jewish martyr.... Even after their exchange, father and son still have a single resolve: "the one to bind, and the other to be bound; the one to sacrifice, and the other to be sacrificed."3 ...
Then regarding the last part of the story, the Jewish Study Bible commentators write:
The second angelic address conveys the LORD's final blessing on Abraham.... Only this time, the earlier promises are reinterpreted as a consequence of the 'Akedah [/binding]'.4
As I said, I am always reluctant to read Christian understandings backwards into the Hebrew Bible but in this case, the testing and providing, is analogous to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection belong together and are inseparable. Jesus' crucifixion is the ultimate expression of the testing of God.
Brueggemann suggests that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, like Abraham, is in a situation where he must choose. But also, like Abraham, Jesus trusts only in the promise. Just as Jesus' passion sayings speak to the testing of the crucifixion, they also speak of the resurrection, God's ultimate providing, the miracle by which God provides new life in a situation where only death is anticipated. The dialectic of testing/providing in the Judaic story translates into the dialectic of crucifixion/resurrection in the Christian story.. It is also a story of faithful discipleship. “The structure of the story corresponds to a central teaching on discipleship: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it (Mark 8.35).”5
But what does the story tell us about God? Perhaps the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 10: 13, where Paul tells us, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
So the God who tempts is the same God who provides. The truth about the God who tempts and the God who provides is that God is faithful; God provides; and, God keep's promises. What if, as Brueggemann suggests, this story is not so much about Abraham being found faithful but about God being found faithful?6
This is only a cursory look into this story of God, Abraham and Isaac but I hope it will do two things: first, that it will prompt you to contemplate and explore the meaning of this scripture passage on your own and; secondly, that you will reflect on these three questions posed by Brueggemann, who suggests the Scripture Writer may be asking us to ponder.
What do we mean when we say the word “God” and how does the meaning of the word “God” in serious faith differ from that in the harmless, one-dimensional, contemporary civil piety?
In what ways are we prepared for the God of Abraham who gives and takes away, who promises but also commands and tests?
To what extent are we prepared for the radical God who meets us in the Crucified One who is risen?
1Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 188.
2Berlin, Adele, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael A. Fishbane. The Jewish Study Bible: [Featuring the] Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 45.
3ibid, p. 46.
4Ibid, p. 47
5Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 194.