Proper 8 Year A
June 26, 2011
On Friday, I saw Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” Malick is a filmmaker whose every work is mined for its meaning and significance. In almost 40 years as a director, he has completed only five films. “Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. It is a sprawling, beautiful, incomprehensible film that asks its viewers to ponder life’s meaning. It begins with a verse from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” It is the first line of God’s response to the case Job has constructed against God, a case based on Job’s righteousness, and his suffering.
The central event in the “Tree of Life” is the death at nineteen years old of one of three brothers. We assume he was killed in Viet Nam, although there is nothing other than the mid 60s dress and décor that leads to such a conclusion. But that death continues to resonate, presumably with his parents, but also with his elder brother, who recalls their childhood, and the little torments a boy inflicts on a younger brother.
At the very end of the movie, in a vision of heaven, the boys’ mother says, “I give you my son.” Resigned to her fate, reunited with the child she has lost, she can now rest peacefully, knowing that both she and he are in the nearer presence of God.
“I give you my son.” Those are words any parent fears, to lose a child, whether it happens when they are an infant, or in childhood, or even as an adult, to lose a child is an awful thing. We know that, even if we ourselves have never had children. But losing a child, indeed offering a child to God as a sacrifice, is the center of the story from the Hebrew Bible we heard today.
Several decades ago, Phyllis Trible, one of the early female biblical scholars, wrote a book entitled “Texts of Terror.” In it, she dealt with a number of the most horrific stories of the Hebrew Bible, stories we don’t hear in the three-year lectionary cycle because they seem to have no redeeming value. They were stories of rape and murder, stories in which God seemed to act more like a petulant child than the God of Love.
Trible’s title continues to resonate for me as I work with scripture. It came to mind again as I re-read the lesson from Genesis 22 this week. However, before we delve more deeply into this disturbing story, I would like to remind you of several other episodes from Abraham’s life. Because Easter, and therefore Pentecost, were so late this year, we missed the earlier stories—of Abraham’s call by God, and the promise that he would be the Father of a great nation and possess the Promised Land. We also missed the story of his visit by three angels, who predicted that he and Sarah would have a son, named Isaac. We also missed the third episode, in which Isaac grew older, and his half-brother Ishmael, with his mother Hagar, were driven out into the desert.
Now the story picks up with those ominous words, “And Yahweh tested Abraham.” This story, called the sacrifice of Isaac in the Christian tradition of interpretation, may be familiar, at least in its outlines, but I hoped as you listened, you were attuned to its horrific implications. What kind of a God could demand human sacrifice? We quail at that question and recoil—it can’t be about human sacrifice. It is about human sacrifice. A man is asked by his God to sacrifice his only, beloved son. We know from other texts, both in the Hebrew Bible and from parallels in other texts from the Ancient Near East, that while human sacrifice was not particularly common, it did happen, both in Israel and among Israel’s neighbors.
We can’t imagine the mindset of someone who would sacrifice their son; and if someone told us today, or tomorrow, that God was demanding it of them, we would think they were mentally ill. What sort of a human being, whether in the ancient world or in the twenty-first century, could conceive of such a thing?
We might be inclined to write this story off as one of those stories from the Hebrew Bible that have no connection with our lives, or even with our God, but doing so would fail to take note of the important way this story has functioned in Christianity—for when one hears of God demanding the sacrifice of a son, when one hears in a story a son referred to as beloved, when one imagines an altar, and blood, and sacrifice, and a son, we are inclined to think of Jesus, God’s only, beloved son, who in the Christian tradition has been seen as sacrificing himself for us. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is very often, perhaps inevitably interpreted in light of the story of Jesus Christ, and the story of Jesus Christ is very often, and perhaps inevitably, interpreted in light of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.
Our attention quite naturally is focused on the horrible dilemma faced by Abraham, and the horrific demand made by Abraham’s God. But we would do well to attend to the other character in the drama, to Isaac himself. The tradition of Jewish interpretation points us in the direction of Isaac. The story is known in Judaism not as the sacrifice of Isaac but as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which suggests his agency in the events. For one thing, we are compelled to wonder how old Isaac is at the time of the story. We know that Abraham is quite old, well over 100 years, and we know also, from the previous chapter, that Isaac is at least a young boy. We can infer from our reading that Isaac is old enough and big enough, to carry a substantial load of wood, and that he is mature and thoughtful enough to wonder why they are going up the mountain to make a sacrifice, but they have no animal which to sacrifice.
Given this, it is not difficult to imagine that Isaac was complicit in the act, in this potential sacrifice, that he knew what was going to happen, and that he agreed to it. Still, considering this possibility does nothing to lessen the text’s terror. We are left contemplating a capricious and demanding God, a God who has promised blessing to Abraham and now demands his son. We are left contemplating a man and his son, so faithful to their God that they consider this horrific act.
So we are left with questions, hard questions about the nature of God and the nature of faith. But of course it is not just this story that forces such questions upon us—it is life itself that confronts us with questions like these, the meaning of suffering, the presence of God in the midst of pain, the possibility of faith in a world that seems cruel and meaningless at times. We might want to answer as Abraham did when his son asked about the lamb, “God will provide.” But even those words ring hollow so often in the midst of tragedy.
Is it even possible to wrestle meaning out of events like the death of a child? We could go further and ask about the tragedy of tornados or tsunamis, or the Holocaust. But I’m sure by now you get my point.
This story challenges us with these questions and leaves us little to grasp for. But it does leave us with something. There is a little sentence that appears twice in the narrative as the drama and tension build. When Abraham tells the slaves to remain behind, loads Isaac with the wood and takes the fire and knife, the text reads “So they walked on together.” And again, after Isaac asks Abraham where the ram is for the sacrifice, and Abraham responds, “God will provide,” the text reads, “So they walked on together.”
There is something about terrible evil or suffering that can rob us of our humanity, strip away all convention and morality, all hope, and faith. In this story, facing unimagined horror, father and son walked on together, united by their love, and by their faith.
In Malick’s film, we see a family torn apart by its grief—father and mother can’t communicate with each other, a grandmother mouths pious platitudes, and decades later, we hear a son apologizing over the phone for harsh words he said to his dad. We know that grief and suffering have such effects, we know that often it seems, we have to bear our burdens alone. But alone-ness is also a consequence of pain, and suffering, and evil. To share our burdens with others, even if it is wood, a knife and fire, to walk on together in the face of tragedy, is to share our common humanity and a sign of hope in a harsh and unforgiving world. It may not be much but to walk with one another as we face our uncertainties, the challenges, and threats, to sit, and pray together, to reach out with a phone call to someone we know is facing surgery, or struggling with unemployment, or even loneliness. Such gestures do more than lighten a burden. They are a reminder that even when things look most bleak, God’s love is present. To share that love is to bring hope to a hopeless situation. It’s the least we can do, and sometimes, it’s all we can do, to walk along together.