As we gather this morning, I have at least two reasons to be thankful. For one thing, I am grateful for the weather this weekend. Finally! For another, I am thankful that we did not read the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac on Father’s Day.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most perplexing, painful tales in all of scripture. I have thought long and hard this week about how to preach on something else this morning—the weather, say, or jazz, or what’s wrong with greeting card holidays. But, in fact, the Old Testament reading today—called by Jews the Akedah or “the binding of Isaac”—is one of the central stories in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have tried to make sense of it for thousands of years. At some point, every one of us must come to terms with it.
The facts of the story are elementally simple. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham and Isaac journey three days until they come to a mountain. As they ascend the hill, Isaac poignantly asks his father where they will get the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham replies, “the LORD will provide.” When they arrive, Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac and lays him on it, and draws a knife with which to kill him. God stays his hand and says, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." They spy a ram caught in a thicket and offer the animal up as a sacrifice instead. And then they make their way down the mountain.
There are a few things in what screenwriters call the “backstory” we need to understand. The first is that Isaac is not just any child. He is of course precious, but he is important for many more reasons. Abraham had been called out of all the people in the world to follow God, and that means leaving his home (Ur of the Chaldees, present day Iraq) and his kindred and going to a new place (Canaan, present day Palestine). He and his wife Sarah were old and childless. God tells them that if they follow him all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through them. He says that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert. When Sarah hears this and the related promise that she will conceive and bear a son in old age, she laughs. The name Isaac—Yitzhak—in Hebrew means “laughter”. Sarah laughs, as we do, at what seems impossible or at least unexpected.
So Isaac represents what any child would mean to parents who had waited so long to bear him, but he means this much more: in him resides the future of Israel, the future of Abraham and God’s blessing on the whole human enterprise. As we pick up the action in our story this morning, Abraham has already been asked to give up his past—his homeland, his people. He is now being asked to give up his future. He is making the journey on what the biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad calls “the road out into Godforsakenness, a road on which Abraham does not know that God is only testing him.” [von Rad, Genesis, p.244] We naturally ask: what kind of a God would test people like that? What kind of God would withdraw the possibility of salvation so recently promised?
We cannot explain this story away by using preaching tricks. In a sense, reading the Bible is like surfing: when a hard passage comes along, we need to move into rather than away from it. One way to move into rather than away from the binding of Isaac is to understand how the book of Genesis—in fact how the first five books of the Bible, the Torah—functioned in Israel’s life. One way to think of these patriarchal stories is to see them as Israel’s national story, its epic. As an epic hero, Abraham is the ancestor of all the Israelites and stands for the primordial person of faith. He is the existential loner, the person who is addressed by the universe and has to respond in faith, even if what he’s asked to do seems absurd.
Abraham was called by God for no obvious reason. He wasn’t necessarily the smartest, the most powerful, the best looking guy wandering around ancient Mesopotamia. Israel always understood that its special relationship with God was a gift, not something they had earned on their own. In the act of handing Isaac over and getting him back, Israel learns, as von Rad says, to see itself represented by Isaac,
laid on Yahweh’s altar, given back to him, then given life again by him alone. That is to say, it could base its existence in history not on its own legal titles as other nations did, but only on the will of him who in the freedom of his will in history permitted Isaac to live. [p.245]
One way, then, to understand the binding of Isaac is to see it as an epic representation of ancient Israel’s self-understanding. It’s also a story about the church’s self-understanding, too. We didn’t make all this up. We are a people who owe our life and meaning to God alone. In this gesture of giving Isaac over and receiving him back, Abraham gives up all claim to be the author of the blessing and the promise. Event though all Israel was descended from Abraham through Isaac, the blessing and promise do not originate with Abraham. They come from God. And this story is a way that helps us remember that.
So there’s a national, epic dimension to this story. But something else is going on here, too. To me, Abraham is a recognizable figure. I see something of myself in him. Like me, Abraham wants everything—he wants, as people used to say in the 1970s and 1980s—to have it all. He wants to do right both by God and by Isaac. He wants to be both successful and happy. He wants both reputation and family. In the same way, Abraham is confronted with a choice. God or Isaac? Career or family?
Last week I heard a radio interview with the novelist Ann Patchett, the author of the bestseller, Bel Canto. [Bookworm 6/9/11] She was talking about her new novel, State of Wonder, in which a female anthropologist contemplates the choice between a big career and having children. Listen to what Ann Patchett said about that:
We make choices, and somehow in this country we forget that there is a choice, and you don’t get to just leave all your options open forever. So if you decide that you want to be a doctor and you don’t want to pursue a relationship and you want to be on your own through your forties, then maybe you have made a choice about whether or not you’re going to have children.
To which the interviewer, Michael Silverblatt, replied, “What we’ve discovered is that life is a spectrum of impossible choices.”
“You don’t get to just leave all your options open forever.” “Life is a spectrum of impossible choices.” The story of Abraham and Isaac makes us uncomfortable not only because it’s about child sacrifice. It makes us uncomfortable because it crystallizes the dilemma that affluent professional men and women face every day. Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” God offers Abraham the impossible choice between love and work, and, to all our chagrin, Abraham chooses work over love, chooses career over family, chooses to sacrifice his son on the altar of his God. It is only God’s grace and mercy that save Abraham from the consequences of that choice. In this respect, Abraham is exactly like you and me—or at least exactly like me. He wants to have it all. He wants to forget that there is a choice, that you don’t get to just leave all your options open forever. We want to be successful and we want to have fulfilling relationships. And our culture offers us a fantasy that somehow, if we manage things just right, we’ll be able to get everything we want. But the culture easily forgets a central biblical truth. We’re finite, we’re limited. We can’t have it all because we can’t do it all. Life is a spectrum of impossible choices. We can’t leave all our options open forever. We do have to choose.
We could call Abraham’s impossible choice the choice between obedience and relationship. We could call our postmodern, affluent suburban version of that the choice between success and family. Abraham laid his son on the altar of obedience. More than we would like to admit, you and I lay our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends on the altar of success. And when we’re most dishonest about it, we tell the ones we’re laying on the altar that we’re doing it for them. If Abraham’s story makes us squirm, it’s because we see ourselves so clearly in him and in his dilemma. Abraham is not some ancient Bible-land mythical figure. Abraham is any one of us who wants to live as if life won’t hand you an impossible choice. None of us can keep all our options open forever. Each of us has to choose.
As hard and as weird as the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac may be, it nevertheless brings us some surprisingly good news. The hard truth is that when he finally had to, Abraham made a choice, and it was a stunningly bad one. He laid his son on the altar of his own fulfillment. That choice looks bad to you and me. It also looks bad to God. All of us want to believe that we can have it all, that we can totally pursue our ambitions and perfectly nourish our relationships. We’re like the parent talking on a cellphone while playing with their kids, pretending that they are attending to both love and work. To believe that pretense, you have to believe that you have infinite capacity for everything. But God knows that we have limits, that we can only do one thing well at a time. The good news is that God would not let Abraham rest with his bad choice. God stopped Abraham’s killing hand and gave Isaac back to him. God offered Abraham the chance not to choose between work and love, but to find a way to balance them. And in balancing work and love Abraham became the father of Isaac and Ishmael, the husband of Sarah, and the ancestor of all of us who believe.
Life may be a spectrum of impossible choices, but its cornerstone is built on the way we balance work and love, balance the pursuit of our ambitions with our responsibilities to others. Abraham misread God: he believed that faithfulness in one area of life required that he turn his back on the other. So ask yourself: how do you misread God? On what altar are you sacrificing your loved ones or your own authentic self? On the altar of your work? On the altar of your principles? On the altar of your fantasies? On the altar of your ideology? Abraham was about to give himself and his son over to a future of unimaginable horror, but he was rescued from his bad choice by a God who knew him better than he knew himself. What this story gives us is God’s refusal to make us live with our bad choices. We regularly hand our loved ones and ourselves over, but God stays our hand and gives them back. May we, like Abraham, be open to the staying hand of that saving God who knows and loves us, who saves us from bad choices, who stops us when we try to place those we love and even our own best selves on that sacrificial altar, and gives us back each other and ourselves as we and God hope we might be. Amen.