Wednesday, February 1, 2012

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went

Today's Daily Office readings start with a story in Genesis 22:1-18 that is definitely a hard read over breakfast: Abraham is told by God to kill his son, Isaac. At the last second, just before he commits the deed, a lamb appears, and Abraham slaughters the lamb, and Isaac is spared.

The story has been interpreted and retold many times through the ages. In Islam the story is that Abraham nearly kills his son Ishmael. It is still the same story.

No one likes the story; it portrays God as homicidal and seems to celebrate Abraham for nearly murdering his son.

The story has resonated through the ages perhaps because it is so repulsive and hard to understand, just as the human condition is so often repulsive and hard to understand. Wilfred Owen, one of the greatest poets of the last century, turned the story into a parable about World War I:
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
By Wilfred Owen 
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen was killed in France in 1918, only a few days before the Armistice. His mother was notified of his death on the same day that peace was declared. Owen himself has become Isaac to those who ever after read his poetry.

Wilfred Owen
Why on earth would this hideous story of Abraham nearly killing his son be in the Bible at all?

The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is often preached by Christians as a moral tale of obedience to God: do exactly as God commands no matter what and God will pull it out in the end. If God doesn't, then you did something wrong (sin) to deserve it.

The story is also heard as foreshadowing Jesus being sacrificed on the Cross, opening up all sorts of troubling theological implications about a God who needs a blood sacrifice of his own son.

Yet there is another way to hear the Abraham-Isaac story, and it might bring us to another way of viewing Jesus and the Cross.

This reading of the story, known as the Akedah, or the “Binding of Isaac,” comes from an interpretation in Judaism. Rather than seeing Abraham as the obedient servant of God, Abraham is seen as the prideful father who should have been questioning God and not acting in blind obedience. An angel saves Abraham from slaughtering his son, and only at the last second.

Forever after, God stops speaking to Abraham. And that may be the message. In this interpretation, Abraham’s sin was his silence.

Abraham's sin was his blindly disconnecting from God without asking the question: “Why should I kill my son?”

The silence of Abraham was out of character; previously, Abraham constantly questioned God, bargained with God, and kept talking no matter what. He did all sorts of dumb things, but always stayed connected to God. This time, Abraham stayed silent, and he nearly murdered his son.

A disappointed God provides an animal for the slaughter, and then God never talks to Abraham again. God’s silence speaks volumes about God’s disappointment with Abraham.

Disconnection from God is the sin.

The test was whether Abraham would question God, and this time he didn't. The test was whether he would engage with God and he flunked.

My friend Ilana DeBare pointed me to a poem on her blog by rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat that captures this interpretation:
The angels say
Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.
God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.
Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.
In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.
The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.
+ + +
Art: "The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Carravagio, Italian, 1571-1610.

No comments: