There are many terrifying stories in the Hebrew Bible - and we rarely hear them on Sunday mornings. The lectionary "gods" intentionally omitted most of them because they are simply too brutal. The Abraham and Isaac story, however, which I think falls into this category is one that we read together on Sundays. And brutal as it is, it is also foundational to not one - but three religious traditions.
In the Jewish faith this story is known as "the Akedah" - the binding of Isaac. And there are many rabbinical texts that expand on the dialogue between God and Abraham:
God said, "Take your son." And Abraham said, "I have two sons."
God answered, "Your only son." Abraham said, "Each is the only son of his mother."
God said, "The one whom you love." Abraham replied, "Is there any limit to a father's love?" God answered, "Isaac."
It is such a hard passage to listen to - let alone imagine. Why is it a part of the canon? Is it just about Abraham or does it have meaning in our lives? What questions does it raise about our relationship to God and the ways in which we grow in understanding that relationship?
This is a Good Friday story. We hear it on that day in Holy Week because it confronts us with sacrificial love - surrounded by God's directive that while sacrifice is a part of our transactional world - it is not a transaction God requires. To be clear, the story is an injunction against the practice of human sacrifice, child sacrifice, in that time and place.
This is not the first time Abraham has been asked to give up a son. Last Sunday we heard an equally gut-wrenching story. God tells Abraham to send Ishmael, his son by Hagar, into the wilderness of Beer-sheba. We listened in as Hagar in the heat of the desert, out of food and water, places her child under the shade of a tree and then goes a good way off to plead with God - Do not let me look upon the death of my child.
And as in today's story an angel speaks on behalf of God to say, not only will you both be ok, the Lord will provide as Abraham repeats, God will make a great nation from Ishmael. The Muslim faith - the third branch of Judeo-Christianity. Dig deep and the roots of all the traditions are intertwined.
The theological significance that God who created the good earth; God who told Abraha he would be the beginning of a nation that would outnumber the stars; God who smiled when Sarah laughed. This God, unlike the 'gods' before, is not a God of violence.
"After these things, God tested Abraham." Many of us seem to share a belief, especially in trying circumstances, that we are being tested by God. God puts difficult circumstances in our midst - or sends us problems to overcome - so that we can prove ourselves.
"Testing" in Hebrew Bible has a different connotation however. Such as in Deuteronomy where we read, Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments." (8:2)
Testing someone in this way means knowing them deeply, discovering their true identity. It isn't a test you pass or fail. Its more like that phase infants and toddlers go through that we call "separation anxiety." You know how they scoot away into another room, but then run right back grab hold of their mom's leg! They keep doing that bit by bit, testing that the parent will always be there when they turn around. Its a phase that can last two years (for some 25!)
If anything, God seems to be trying to figure Abraham out. Abraham tells the group that travels with them that after "we" worship on the mountain, "we" will return. And Abraham's confidence in God remains unshaken throughout. So who is testing whom? We think of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. So does God change God's mind? Is God surprised that Abraham was going to follow-through with what was being asked of him?
A few chapters before this, Abraham bargins with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, convincing God little by little to spare the city if there are 50 righteous people and manages to get God all the way down to 10! Abraham keeps testing the boundaries of their relationship. Who is this God so unsure of God's self? Could we see in that how our understanding of God always changes and grows - is never fixed?
God does indeed seem startled when Abraham is about to go through with the sacrifice. "Abraham, Abraham," God shouts, "Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not held your son, your only son from me."
Now I know, God says. This is not an immovable mover God. There is no predestination or heavenly control. Perhaps so much depends on Abraham - father of three religious traditions - that God needs to push the bounds of their relationship too. So that God could trust Abraham who will stake everything on a promise, the fulfillment of which he will not live to see.
Could we actually dare to read the story seeing that Abraham is the one with the power to influence and surprise God? That Abraham shows God the power of human trust – what Here I am – really means? What if in the challenging circumstances of our lives – where the bounds of our relationships are being tested – we took ownership of just how much autonomy God gives us? How nothing is predetermined or fixed – but there is simply – possibility?
Abraham is an example of one who trust God – yet also questions. Someone who talks with God and challenges God – while still believing the Lord will provide. Abraham is willing to give it all back to God – the promise and the gift God had given him.
That’s a claim the story makes on us – can we risk seeing everything we have as belonging to God? Do we trust our ability to be active participants in our relationship with God – allowing ourselves (and others) to change and grow in our understanding of God? The binding of Isaac is a story that raises more questions then it answers. And it forces Christians to acknowledge the violent texts of our religious tradition. Ultimately, though, it is a story of trust. About the power we have when we trust that God is in our lives.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu says – Our God is a God of surprises. Perhaps we too can surprise God and ourselves by our faithfulness. Amen.