Thursday, June 29, 2017
It Is a Good Story
I've written before about the opera Abraham on Trial, which I went to see when I lived in Cambridge. The music was modern and incorporated electronic synthesizers, which is to say it wasn't like most of the operas I have been to see. I was not captivated by the singing or the staging, but the story was beyond compelling. It chronicled two parallel lives--one in the twentieth century and one from thousands of years ago. The first was a father who murdered his own daughter because he believed that God was telling him to. The second was the patriarch, whom we believe God tested by commanding him to kill his only son. The opera suggested to us that the only meaningful difference between the two wasn't the result of the murderous attempts--one successful, one not--but the lens through which the contemporary believer judges the actions of the parents. We praise the faithfulness of Abraham, and we condemn the lunacy of his contemporary analogue. Why? Because the Bible says so.
On Sunday in the Track 1 OT reading, we continue our way through the Abraham story with Genesis 22:1-14. We have heard the three divine visitors predict Sarah's conception and birth. We have heard of the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Now we hear of God's unthinkable command: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." And, if the entire congregation doesn't pause for a moment or two in an attempt to let the magnitude of this passage sift through our minds and hearts, we cannot do it justice.
What does it mean to believe in a God who would ask someone to murder his own son? Maybe you don't. Maybe you don't think Genesis 22 really happened. Maybe you think it is one way that the people of God tell the story of faithfulness. But what does that say about us--that our spiritual ancestors would depict the faithfulness of our father Abraham through this command to murder? Either way, it isn't good. For thousands of years, who we believe God to be and how we understand God to work and what we understand our relationship with God to be has been shaped by the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. At what point do the people of God say on behalf of Abraham, "No, God. That isn't how this works. If you are the kind of god who would test my faith by asking me to kill my own child, I would rather not know you."?
I am preaching on this passage this Sunday, and, despite the skepticism I express here, the sermon seems to embrace the story of Abraham and Isaac as a pattern for our faithfulness. But I think the true teaching we receive from this story is incredibly nuanced, which makes for a tough sermon. Of course God isn't telling us to murder our own child. God would never say that. But, in a contradictory way, I believe that God did say that to Abraham. The point for us isn't the murderous command but the limitless agony and unconquerable uncertainty that such a command presents and that God himself overcomes. This story is about Abraham's faithfulness. That does not ameliorate the horrible nature of the divine command. In fact, at its fullest, Abraham's faithfulness depends on that unthinkable command. But the questions that it presents us are where the lesson is to be found. Why did God do it? Why did Abraham believe it? How did Abraham follow through with it? Where was God in each moment--in the murderous command, in the journey to the mountain, in the binding of the son, in the wielding of the knife, in the provision of the ram, and in the story of Israel that unfolds specifically and inextricably from the base of the mountain where father and son journey together?
Buckle up. This isn't easy. But faith never is.