Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1966
We’ve been reading the story of Abraham these past few weeks, and today we hear the most dramatic episode in his story. Indeed, this may be one of the most dramatic stories in all of scripture. It confronts us with a horrific dilemma and its implications concerning God’s nature and the nature of the relationship between human beings and God, the nature of faith, are deeply unsettling.
“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.
But that doesn’t make this story any more palatable. For many Christians, the notion that God might demand or require the sacrifice of God’s son is deeply troubling. Indeed, during this past Lent, a group of us explored alternative understandings of the atonement that de-emphasize sacrifice and blood.
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.
You can see the echoes of that interpretation in Chagall’s depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac that’s reproduced on our service bulletin. Isaac seems to be almost as big as Abraham and remarkably, Chagall didn’t show him bound to the altar. He’s naked, lying in a prone position, seemingly accepting of his fate.
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 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.
We see that love expressed, the relationship defined in another repeated phrase. At the beginning of the story, God calls Abraham, and Abraham replies, “Here I am.” Later on, Isaac calls to Abraham, “Father,” and Abraham replies, “Here I am, my son.” As we have seen before, Abraham responds to God’s call. Abraham hears God. Now, we see him responding to his son, hearing his son. And they walk on together.
We are hearing stories these days of families torn apart by violence, of families torn apart by changing regulations concerning refugees and immigrants. We know of families, of parents who face gut-wrenching decisions concerning medical care for their children. How many of us are facing dilemmas of one sort or another—demands that seem to heavy to bear. How many of us are facing decisions we dread to make, and wondering whether God will provide?
This story is about the love of a father and son. It is also a story about faith. Just as we can’t imagine God asking us to sacrifice a child, , we may struggle with the notion that God may demand our total loyalty, our whole being.
This story presents us with that very possibility, that when we say “Here I am, God,” God may take us seriously. Abraham heard God’s call, following God into an uncertain future, into a foreign country. Abraham responded when God called him, and considered sacrificing his son to a God who demanded everything of him.
But he wasn’t alone. The two of them, father and son, walked on together. They faced the horrible abyss together. So, too, we. When God calls us, when God seems to demand the unthinkable, the impossible of us, we are not alone. We walk on together, as God’s people, united in faith, in love, strengthening, supporting, each other.