Last week we looked at the creation story from Genesis 1, and I suggested that Chaos is an integral – perhaps necessary – part of Creation. That, rather than keeping chaos at bay outside the snow globe of creation, God actually ‘fashioned and formed’ it – mixed the power and mystery and unpredictability of chaos in along with sunlight and water and stardust to make stuff, to design life, to raise us up out of the primordial mud.
Chaos, by its very nature cannot be controlled. Maybe that accounts for the burgeoning life force, for the diversity seen even within ‘like things’, genetically similar creatures – (twins, for example) who are not perfectly identical. It’s recognized in quantum physics – as the theory of indeterminacy – the apparent necessary incompleteness and randomness of a physical system – the inability to predict the effect one known, determined system will have on another. There is randomness, variation that can’t be accounted for.
I think chaos may be the origin of original sin – that twist in our human nature, that bit of ‘co-creative ability gone rogue’ that allows us to be like God, and prevents us from being like God – we can’t seem to be imitators of God in grace and love.
Last week I asked if the chaos prevalent in our lives, if the power of the forces that defy God’s desire for harmony with all things living, is an indicator that God has failed.
So, holding those things in mind, we come to today’s reading: here is a summary of the “Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22.
And it came to pass that God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham.”
“Here I am,” Abraham responded.
God said, “Take your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him on one of the mountains.”
So Abraham did as he was told, journeying with his wood for the offering and with his son and his servants to the place that God had told him. On the third day, Abraham and Isaac left the servants and took the wood for the offering, some fire and a knife. So they went, both of them, together.
Isaac spoke: “My father!”
Abraham said, “Here I am, my son.”
“Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” asked Isaac.
“God will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.”
They came to the place of which God had spoken, and Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood and bound Isaac, his son, and placed him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. And an angel of God called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am!” said Abraham. And God said, “Do not stretch your hand toward the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are God-fearing and did not withhold from me.”
Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and lo! There was a ram caught in the hedge. Abraham took the ram and offered it up as offering in place of his son. Abraham named this place, “God sees.”
Hymn response: Great God, your love has called us – #358
Human relationship to God is not a certainty. We have the capacity – the inclination – to doubt, to question, to separate ourselves, to create our own destinies apart from God’s guidance and grace. A reading like this one makes that distance seem like a very good alternative. The connection to chaos is palpable in this story.
I’ve read a lot this week, looking for a path through the thistles.
I’ve been very interested in what the Jewish commentaries have to say. Christian commentaries (not surprisingly) jump to Christ – there are so many similarities in the language and imagery to God’s beloved, innocent son who travelled three day’s journey through the wilderness to death, who carried his own wooden cross, who became the sacrificial lamb God would provide, a ram caught in the thickets, discovered as a substitute for our death. It’s all there in this ancient story. And it’s fine and beautiful in prefiguring the Christian faith – except that in this reading and others throughout the Old Testament, God rebukes human sacrifice – here, staying the hand of Abraham (food for thought for another day). And, for those of us who love Hebrew scripture in its own integrity, reading ahead 2000 years is not a very satisfying response to a troubling text.
These Genesis stories are old, told for thousands of years, around millions of campfires and candle flames. They come out of the late Bronze or early Iron Age – and reflect within their language at least three redactions – three different authors and editors who amend the story and its intent based on their audience and their situation. The Bible places Abraham – actually a composite figure of this collection of stories – some 2000 years before Christ, over 4000 years from us.
There are no archeological traces of Abraham, but the stories are believed to have been recorded in this form during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Jews in exile were left wondering what in the world had happened. How can the Israelites be God’s chosen people if they are repeatedly raped and pillaged by more powerful neighbors? Has Chaos won? Are the gods of Babylonian more powerful? And so they went back to the oral stories of the beginning of all things, back to their formative tales, and renewed their faith through the power of God who was present even in disaster, powerful even in the midst of chaos, the redeemer even of what appeared to be the broken promises of God to the people of God.
Jewish use and understanding of stories such as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, provide a wonderful sounding into the depth of God. In rabbinic thought, scripture is a reflection of the Divine, and so therefore is infinite in meaning. It is idolatrous to assign a single meaning, a single truth to God’s infinite word. (We could learn something from that, too.) As a result, holy scripture for the ancient rabbis and their communities was always filled with possibility. Every reading, every encounter with the Torah was a new opportunity to encounter and understand God’s being and God’s work in a new way, spoken into their life’s new situations and needs.
This story isn’t told as history, or as a reporter’s news, or as a novel that might develop sympathy for a character – it has a different purpose. This story isn’t told about Isaac, actually – and maybe not even about Abraham as a person so much as it is told about God, and about Abraham as the forerunner of people of faith. It’s a bigger story than our indignation or horror at putting ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. It’s a terrible, beautiful – beautifully formed story.
In Hebrew it’s called the Binding, the Akedah, and that’s our first clue into its meaning. There are four characters who are bound. Isaac, of course is tied with the cords of death. We don’t hear much from him on this journey, other than his wondering about the lamb for the sacrifice as he carries the wood on the way up the mountain. The lamb, Abraham assures him, God will provide.
Abraham is in quite a bind. He has followed the guiding hand of God for decades believing in the promise of heirs and descendants. Finally, at a very old age, when his wife Sarah was beyond the way women, they are given this beloved son whose name means delight and laughter. And God, who has promised progeny as numerous as the stars, as plenteous as the sands of the shore, now says offer this child of promise as a sacrifice, as a test. How can God be asking this? For Abraham to disobey the command of God is wrong, and to obey this command of God is wrong. Abraham is stuck between the love of a father for his son and the love of God with whom he has a history and who asks – who demands – to be trusted. It is a terrible, fraught-ful, exquisitely binding place to be. We’ll come back to Abraham.
Sarah is not part of the story. She is not mentioned either biblically nor rabbinically. However, we have affinity for Sarah. She is bound by silence, by gender, by the cloak of invisibility. She is an unseen, unrecognized victim of this word of God. In Sarah, we find a person to embody our agent-less suffering, our inability to understand, the taken-for-grantedness of those occupying the background of life… Sarah is us, in our human condition, bound by indeterminacy, the necessary incompleteness of God’s plan, the effect of decisions and indecisions that fan out beyond the predictable, expected conclusions.
But God, too, is bound.
God is bound to our limited understandings, our misunderstandings of God’s will and way, our misunderstandings of God’s voice. The layers of editing are significant in this story. The name of God in Hebrew leads us into the depths of Jewish thought and our own faith in God.
Elohim is the name the biblical writer called the “Elohist” always uses for God. This is the name used by the Northern tribes of Israel for God. It is the oldest, cultic, tribal name for God. Yahweh is the name of God always used by the author called J, or the “Yahwist”, who wrote from within the tradition of the southern kingdom of Judah. There is another author, distinct in the theme and language, called P – the “Priestly” writer – who edited and and merged the two traditions during and after the people’s exile in Babylon. This explains, for example, why there are two different creation stories – the one we heard last week of the magnificent 7 days, and the one in chapter 2 of Adam and Eve.
And that’s why there seem to be multiple Abrahams – the one who follows without question and the one who argues with God for the sake of the righteous people in Sodom, but who – a few chapters later – does not argue for the sake of his own son. Abraham hears Elohim tell him to take his son to the land of Moriah, to the heights which God will show him. Abraham has followed Elohim before without question. He took his wife Sarah and left his homeland and family in Ur to go to the land which Elohim would show him. Abraham goes out into the night to gaze at the stars that Elohim will show him to receive the promise of children. The Elohist story perhaps did have Isaac’s death as a story of faith consistent with the sacrifice common among the neighboring religions of the time.
But the Yahwist author who received this story had a very different view of God that overrode the calling of Abraham’s blind faith. Yahweh, the God who created Adam and Eve, who walked with them in the Garden of Eden, who provided for them even as he banished them, would not ask this of a human creature.
This story is the perfect example of Binding. There is on the one hand, the expectation of human obedience, human will bound by Elohim(God’)s performative word spoken into our lives, and, on the other hand, God(Yahweh), bound by love, bound by promises to provide for these stiff-necked and wayward dustlings of his creation.
As it stands, this story is a polemic against the sacrifice of human lives for the mistaken understanding of God’s will. God’s love overrides God’s law. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” God says through Hosea. “A broken and contrite heart, a humble spirit are acceptable offerings,” the psalmist says for God.
God is bound to faithfulness, bound to the mundane details of earthly life, bound to keep trying, to keep creating new ways forward for these stiff-necked and inventive human creatures. God is bound by his word… which is a word of life.
So perhaps this is the test for Abraham and for us. “Are my human creations capable of trust,” wonders God. “Are they capable of belief, capable of listening for my voice, of discerning the way of life in the midst of Chaos and death?”
Perhaps it speaks to the binding of our lives — choices we have to make when it seems no right choice can be made, or those times when we are carried along, swept up within a powerful force without choice, or when our voice isn’t heard, times when we seem to occupy the acted upon background. The rabbis did not shy away from questions and open endings because they knew their God was immense, a God for whom questions indicate genuine engagement, a real relationship.
How do we hear God’s word when it contradicts our will? How do we discern a sacrifice of what we hold dear? Do we listen beyond our fear, or follow, or trust, or open our minds to the possibility of a ram stuck in the thicket behind us? Do we have the nerve to answer, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, and I will listen?” Jesus complained of those who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear. The life of faith is not one to undertake without our whole hearts and intellect and strength. It demands no less than the best, most flexible, adaptable, creative spirit we have to offer.
In the early rabbinic period, the Akedah found it way into the people’s public prayers of intercession – and it sings today for you: “May the God who answered Abraham our father on Mount Moriah answer you – hearken to the voice of your crying this day, and loose the cords of your binding.”
Peace be yours this day.