homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
|Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac|
When I was in seminary, I had the distinct pleasure of translating the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac from Hebrew into some semblance of English. The first thing I noticed when translating it is the lack of emotional language in the passage. We don’t hear how anybody feels; we only hear what they do.
Emotion may be the single most important commonality of all human life in every place and time. I have learned in recent years that my ability to name and express my emotions in appropriate ways has everything to do with my ability to make good decisions regarding my relationships with others. To look at it from the other direction, our relative inability to feel—especially, the widespread cultural expectation that men should not express emotions in sensitive ways—may be one of the greatest evils we face. How many killings could be avoided if people, especially men, were able to say to themselves, “Hey, I’m angry,” before reacting to that anger? How many divorces could be avoided if couples knew right from the start how to express their emotions respectfully to each other, trusting that those emotions would be received with care and love?
During the summer of seminary when I interned in a retirement community, my mentor said, “Men don’t usually tell you how they’re feeling. You have to listen deeply for the emotion underneath. So let them tell their stories, and whatever you do, don’t hinder those stories. Let them finish. Receive their stories with love and care, and within them, you’ll hear and understand the feelings they have never been taught how to name.”
So we needn’t be surprised to find so little emotion in this story of Abraham and Isaac, and, for that matter, throughout much of the Bible. Perhaps lack of expressed emotion is an unthinking byproduct of the fact that the Bible was probably all written by men—or maybe it’s by design. Maybe by removing the characters’ emotions from the story, we are better able to place ourselves into it. How would you feel if God told you, in no uncertain terms, to kill your child … your only child … whom you love? (I’ve always wondered how Sarah felt, or if Abraham ever told her what had happened, even afterward.) But Abraham doesn’t react with emotion. He just obeys.
The classical understanding of Abraham’s obedience is that his faith in God is so strong, he never has any doubts that this will turn out OK. If Isaac is miraculously spared, it will be OK. If Isaac is killed, somehow, God will make that OK, too. But with all due respect to centuries of tradition that maintains this view, I think its helpfulness in our own culture is a bit limited. What father could possibly do this? What good father wouldn’t rage against God, or just flat-out refuse to honor the commandment? Doesn’t Abraham at least owe his son a strong emotional reaction?
Likewise, rabbis and priests throughout the ages have taught about Isaac’s supreme act of obedience, as evidenced by his apparent lack of reaction to being bound as a potential sacrifice. Either he is a remarkably self-aware youth who doesn’t mind that God wants him dead, or he is a grown man who still doesn’t seem inclined to use his adult strength to fight off his hundred-year-old father. The story doesn’t tell us that Isaac was compliant, or that Abraham somehow overpowered him. It only says that Abraham bound him. What are we to make of this?
No emotion. No emotion anywhere. And yet … when we receive this story with care and love and hear it through to completion, this story is dripping with emotion. God says, “Take now your son … your only son … whom you love … Isaac.” This is the child of promise, the child who demonstrates God’s love for the human race in the divine promise to make from Abraham a people who will be a blessing to the entire world. Isaac is the only thread binding Abraham to all of us today. Isaac is of crucial importance to the fate of the entire world.
After identifying in no uncertain terms the object of the story, God says something very strange to Abraham. Our translation has God telling Abraham to “go,” but that’s a great example of the English language not being built to convey the proper meaning of a Hebrew word. God actually tells Abraham, “Lech lech’a,” which we could render literally as, “Go you,” or “Get you going,” or even, “Go yourself.” It’s a verb tense called ethical dative. We find it in English in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in the phrase, “Knock me at this gate,” and we understand instinctively that Petruchio isn’t asking for a clonk on the head. So, God tells Abraham, “Go you”—“go yourself.” The implication might even be, “As you go to the Mount of Moriah, you will find that you are journeying ever more deeply into the very essence of who you are.”
We also find strong emotion underneath a few recurring words and phrases. When God calls Abraham, Abraham replies, “Hineini”—that is, “Behold: here I am.” When Isaac gets inquisitive on the journey and says, “My father,” Abraham replies, “Hineini, my son.” And when the angel of the Lord calls to Abraham from heaven, Abraham also replies, “Hineini—Behold: here I am.” Abraham’s raw, naked presence stands before God and before Abraham’s beloved son. Abraham is present in all that he is. He has truly gone more and more deeply into his very essence.
You may also have noticed that when Abraham leaves his servants behind and goes on alone with Isaac, he instructs them to wait there, “and we will worship, and we will return to you.” We will return. Does Abraham say this in order to hide God’s command from Isaac for the time being? Or does he say it because he cannot imagine that Isaac will not survive this ordeal somehow? What agony is going on inside him?
There is even emotion in the angel’s response—which, in typical form in the most ancient Hebrew writings, begins to sounds more like God’s voice with every passing word. “Stay your hand and don’t do any harm to him, for now I know that you are one who fears God, and you have not withheld your son … your only son … from me.”
God holds us in life, and God holds us in death. God is one who demands everything of us, because there is no reality in which we might preserve ourselves apart from God. Let’s remember that with these most ancient stories, especially, the appropriate question is not, “Did this event really happen?,” but rather, “What is this story for?” While we may quibble with the premise that God would test Abraham—and Isaac, for that matter!—in such a cruel and manipulative way, I don’t think that’s what this story is for. Closer to its purpose is something about the all-encompassing sovereignty of God, that not only we but also our children and all our hopes and all our future are ever held in God’s loving embrace.
Also closer to its purpose must be something about the fact that Isaac is not killed after all. The tribe next door may sacrifice their children to Molech with frightening regularity. But we, the people of Adonai, we will not be like other peoples. We understand the fear of God not to be an abject fear that the crops will die, but a deep reverence and awe in the face of God’s unrelenting love in all circumstances, good or bad. We know that God wants not only our obedience, but our joy. God wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. And so we obey God in all things—because those who fear God know that they have nothing to fear. When God calls, we say, “Hineini.” And when we do, we trust that we will hear the command, lech lech’a: go yourself. Amen.