Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“After these things, God tested Abraham.” (Gen. 22)
So we have before us today what in Hebrew is known as the “Akedah,” or the “binding” of Isaac. Hands down, it is one of the most difficult texts in the whole Bible, and for centuries readers have struggled to make sense of it.
Why, for instance, does God here decide to put Abraham to the test yet again, when Abraham has proven his faithfulness to God multiple times already? Is it just a game?
And why does God force Abraham into the impossible situation, of choosing either to obey God, or to sacrifice his own son Isaac (the son through whom he has been promised to become the father of a great nation)? Simply put, God places Abraham in an untenable situation, caught between either violating one of the Torah’s most emphatic prohibitions (to do no murder), or its most emphatic prescription (to love God with one’s whole heart, mind and soul).
So no matter what he does, Abraham will have to repent of it: there is no good option. Which is what led the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to posit based on this story that following God’s will implies a suspension of the ethical—but that really leaves us in a kind of existential no-man’s-land doesn’t it? Abraham essentially has to wager that God will forgive him the unforgivable, whatever he decides to do.
So … could Abraham have refused? Perhaps we, and Abraham, get it all wrong. Could it be that the true test was not whether Abraham would be obedient enough to sacrifice Isaac, but that he would be courageous enough to put himself on the line even before God to protect Isaac. After all, Abraham had already successfully bargained with God over the fate of Sodom, so why give in now? Does Abraham in fact fail the test, so that God has to intervene to prevent the harm that he intends?
As you would expect, if you do a search online for the Akedah, all sorts of images pop up, from the high art of Rembrandt and Chagall, to the simplistic cartoons of Sunday school Bible studies. At their core, however, they all share in common the inescapable violence of a father with a knife raised against his bound son. It’s not something for the faint hearted—although the cartoon versions try to paper over the violence with some saccharine lesson like “obey God’s will and everything will turn out ok.”
The problem is, that it doesn’t, not if you pay really close attention to the text.
Why is it, for example, that up until the climactic moment, it’s always God who speaks to Abraham—and then, just as Abraham is about to strike his son, it’s an angel who bids him not to. Does a third party have to intervene to restrain God’s bloodthirst?
And why is it, that throughout the story Abraham uses the plural to refer to Isaac and himself when he tells his companions what is going to happen (“we will go ahead to worship, and then we will return”), but in fact when Abraham does return, he reverts to the singular? Was Isaac not with him? In fact, nowhere does the text actually say that Isaac returns with his father. And more than that, in the following chapters of Genesis, nowhere do father and son again have any face-to-face encounter with one another, as if Isaac has run away from his father terrified and estranged. (Wouldn’t you?)
The midrash commentaries of rabbinical Judaism wrestled repeatedly with these layered complications. One midrash, for example, imagines that it was Satan who put the idea into God’s mind to test Abraham, much like the story of Job. But that begs the question of why is God so easily talked into leading both Abraham and Job into temptation.
And for that matter, how does Abraham really know that it is God’s voice that he hears, and not Satan’s? Isn’t the voice a bit more like that of the serpent in the garden, than the one that called Abraham into covenant and promised a heritage of good to him?
Another midrash imagines a jealous Satan trying to bring down Abraham however he can, finally resorting to the most powerful weapon of all: the truth. Satan goes to tell Sarah that her husband intends to sacrifice their son, and she dies of a broken and betrayed heart. (And it is true that in the Bible, her death immediately follows this episode.)
Yet again, there is another midrash that plays off the first few words that introduce the Akedah: “After these things, God tested Abraham.” After what things? Well, the things we heard about last week, when Abraham treated the slave Hagar and his other son Ishmael so poorly. And so the midrash imagines God’s test as a kind of punishment for Abraham’s favoritism of Isaac over Ishmael (a paternal favoritism that will plague Isaac and his son Jacob as well – like father, like son).
Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish philosopher of the Holocaust (and himself a survivor of it), once remarked that reading the Akedah is like entering into a dark forest, where one loses all sense of direction. “The more I dive into the text,” he said, “the more I find myself lost in it.” It is simply too full of questions that in the end, are unanswerable.
And so, Wiesel suggests that perhaps what the text is about, are the questions themselves. Like the problems Wiesel was never truly able to answer in his own work about where God was during the Holocaust, the Akedah also holds up an image of human life as requiring us to live facing questions that either have no answer, or if they do have answers, we do not know what they are.
We all face questions like that about our life, don’t we? Questions about death and suffering, evil and injustice, unfairness and corruption. Sometimes, the most we can do is to attribute what comes our way to “fate,” those forces that shape the development of our lives in ways that are beyond either our control or understanding.
And in the midst of having to live with unaswerable questions like that, the most painful of all is the question that comes in our darkest hours: “Where is God?” (the very question that lies at the heart of Wiesel’s lifelong attempt to make sense of the genocide of the Jews).
Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who was herself murdered at Auschwitz, took it upon herself while she was interned there to respond to the question, “Where is God?”, through the example of her own life. “Someone,” she said, “has to take responsibility for making the idea of God credible.” In her prison diary, published posthumously as An Interrupted Life, she wrote on July 11, 1942, “If God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God. … I don't fool myself about the real state of affairs, and I've even dropped the pretense that I'm out to help others. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well.”
Sometimes, there isn’t much more that can be said than that, is there? To “keep on, keepin’ on,” whether our questions are answered or not. To make the idea of God credible at least in one place: the space within ourselves. Amen.