2 July 2017
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8A (RCL)
Ooof. This passage from Genesis has enjoyed (?) a long and troubled interpretation history. Soren Kierkegaard wrote his work Fear and Trembling as a reflection on this passage. Just one example of the ink spilled over this passage.
Christians tend to call this passage “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” For Jews, the focus is on Abraham’s obedience. That changes the perspective dramatically. I have long thought that somewhere deep behind this passage is a cultural recollection of child sacrifice, maybe even in the form of the redemption of the first-born male. In that case, it would line up with the story of the Passover — the first-born son is redeemed with a lamb.
There might also be elements of a male initiation ritual to the story. Young men are taken out into the wilderness and die to the the world of women and restored to the world of men. Isaac is about the right age for that. In sacrificing cultures, a father would sacrifice with a son entering puberty to claim the child as an heir. Jesus was twelve when his parents took him to Jerusalem for the Passover.
But the passage is much richer than all these things. In Chapter 12 of Genesis, God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and journey to a new land “that I will show you.” In this chapter, God tells Abraham to take the child and journey to a mountain “that I will show you.” The echo is intentional. In Chapter 12, Abraham and Sarah are being asked to cut themselves off from their past. in this chapter, Abraham is being asked to cut himself off from his future, a future promised by God.
And nowhere in this chapter do we see Abraham the bargainer with God. When God first made the promise to Abraham, he asked, “how will I know,” and God undertook to cut a covenant with him. When Sarah did not bear a child, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and Abraham conceived with Hagar. When God promised that Sarah would bear a child, both of them laughed. And as Abraham walked with God toward Sodom and Gomorrah, he bargained with God for the life of the cities.
Somewhere along the way, Abraham learned obedience. This time when God calls, Abraham responds, “Here I am,” the answer of a servant to a master. In this passage, he says that three times. And the only words Abraham ever speaks to Isaac are recorded in this passage. When Isaac says, “Father,” Abraham replies, “Here I am.” After Isaac has pointed out that there is no animal for the sacrifice, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” This very simple statement expresses a bottomless trust in God’s purposes.
If, as I believe, this passage (with the rest of the OT) was redacted into its final form during the Exile, it expresses Israel’s resignation to God’s purposes. God has promised Abraham and his heirs that they would be a blessed nation and a blessing to the world. It would be hard to imagine how in the catastrophe of exile. Yet, like Abraham, Israel resigns itself to trust that God will work God’s purposes out without any help from Israel. God’s promises are equally at stake in this story. God has promised fulfillment through Isaac, and if Isaac is dead, there is no fulfillment. Abraham has given up trying to outsmart God, and bring about God’s promises on his own initiative. God is God.
In this light, it makes sense that the early Christians fastened on this story as a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus. When all hope seems lost, God still is working God’s purposes out. Obedience is what is require of us — obedience to God’s righteousness, rather than us trying to bring about God’s promises on our own initiative. The temptations of Christ in the wilderness make much the same point. If we do things our way, we will never be sure that the results are God’s.
The Gospel reading concludes the instructions to the Twelve as Jesus sent them out to announce the Kingdom. Here again, we don’t get to usher in the Kingdom on our own initiative or to our own specifications. We are to be utterly dependent on the people to whom we announce it. Take no staff, no sandals, no money for your belt. We have to be willing to be received on the credentials of being a little one. The righteousness of the Kingdom is precisely that dependence on God and interdependence on one another fostered by our having nothing. Abraham must cut himself off from his future, the future full of the promises of God, before he can receive the promises.