While tradition tells us that Moses wrote the first 5 books of the bible, scholarship assumes that Moses lived 12,000 years before the beginning of writing in the Middle East. What Biblical scholars think happen is that when Jerusalem was conquered and sent into exile by the Babylonians in 586BCE, the ancient priests and scribes took the stories of the people of Israel from all over, with their distinct stories, with their focus on different characters, with their own worship, with their own understanding of God and placed them side by side and wove them together to create the Torah, Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible.
What that means, is that when the northern kingdom of Israel fell, and the people, the leaders, the priests came south, they brought their stories, their traditions, their worship with them. And they, with the leaders of Judah, had over 100 years to figure out how to honor all the tribes of Israel, all their traditions, all their priorities. Then, when they all ended up in Babylon, they didn’t know how long they would be there. The prophet Isaiah said they would be there for 150 years. They needed to find a way to hold on to their God, traditions, covenant, faith in a foreign land. It ended up being 40 years, but in that time, much of what we understand to be the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture, the Pentateuch, the Torah was written down.
This means, including the story of Abraham and Isaac and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, what our Jewish siblings call the binding of Isaac, was a choice. Which means if we are to take the Bible seriously and as sacred stories, we can’t ignore it, pretend it’s not there, or it doesn’t matter. We have to deal with it. That doesn’t mean we have to accept it without reflection or criticism or curiosity and we don’t have to accept how others have tried to explain or justify it.
We are looking at the very beginning of Isaac’s story today. Next week we’ll just right to the end and we’ll meet his son, Jacob. Like Abraham, Jacob will receive a new name from God because of the relationship they have with each other. Jacob will spend a night wrestling with some divine being and when the sun begins to rise, Jacob will be given the name Israel meaning one who strives or struggles with God or “to see God face to face and live.” And one of the important things that we have lost and we can learn from our Jewish siblings is that they struggle with texts. When a story of the Bible makes them uncomfortable, it’s an invitation to settle into, dive into its depths, find the pearls, imagine what is written in the gaps between the lines and the gaps between the words. This is faithful work. Now, Jacob walked away from his encounter with the divine with a limp, he was changed, it might change us too.
We meet Abraham and Sarah in the 12th Chapter of Genesis. They are wealthy nomads who grow more wealthy over time. Abraham receives an unprompted and unconditional promise from God. God will give Abraham land overflowing with that which brings life, a nation, a people, a legacy, the last of which involve children, of which he has none. In Chapter 15 God turns the promise into a covenant, not just a “till death do we part,” but a “if one of us breaks is, we’ll die.” And not just a covenant with Abraham but with all of Abraham’s descendants, forever. A covenant is a relationship and throughout Abraham’s life, he is in an ongoing relationship and conversation with the Divine. He is visited by 3 divine being and host them for a meal with him. Abraham and God debated the saving or destroying of Sodam. He asked God, if there are just 10 righteous people…
Abraham wasn’t perfect. He lied to kings out of fear, telling them that Sarah was his sister, not his wife, God would come in and save her from some situation Abraham had put her in. He grew older and wondered at God’s promise, thought maybe it would be fulfilled another way, and adopted a son, Eliazar. And, in a series of really upsetting stories, Sarah “gave” Abraham her slave, Hagar to make an heir–which is gross but was a practice. And then the storytellers throw Sarah under the bus, saying she got jealous and made Abraham throw Hagar out into the wilderness, twice.
But God looked out for Hagar and looked out for Abraham and Sarah and they, kind of late in life, at 100 years old, had Isaac, their son of promise. Everything God had covenanted with Abraham was found in this child.
So imagine the shock, the confusion, the anger even when God says, get up and sacrifice your son. There are a few things we should know
1: Although it doesn’t, Isaac wasn’t a child. He was carrying all the wood for a sacrifice. He might have been as old as his late 30’s.
2: Human sacrifice was not uncommon in the ancient world. There is evidence of such practices on every inhabited continent, except Australia. Before the kingdom of Israel, the Sumerian Empire ruled Mesopotamia. They have found mass graves near royal tombs. It’s generally safe to say if it happened a couple of times, it probably happened more.
3: Our Biblical storytellers rarely hesitate to tell us what a character is thinking or feeling. Emotions and intentions are often pouring forth from the ancient text. But not here. Not this time. We are left in suspense, wondering what everything is thinking, why they say what they say, what the plan really was.
What was the test? What was God wondering? What was the desired outcome? What did it mean?
And there’s an “easy” answer that suggests that faith requires you to commit, everything. That faith is costly and involves our time and our talents and our energies and means that we will say no to some things in order to say yes to God.
When God calls to Abraham, both times, at the beginning and at the end, Abraham responds with “Here I am.” In its original language that’s one word: Hineni, but it don’t just mean: I’m here. This is a response like: I’m ready, or yes. It’s rooted in the relationship that they have been building for years. It’s a yes before the question is even asked. My cousin got a new puppy, and Kelly and I were visiting the day after they brought her home. Kelly’s by the pool, I’m by the garage, and as I hold this puppy, and am walking away from my cousin, with her dog, I call out to Kelly, “Grab my purse. Let’s go!” and by the time I made it to Kelly, she was already standing up. We did not steal the puppy, yet. It’s Thelma and Louis, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s all in. That is Hineni–fully committed, rooted in the relationship, in knowing and trusting the other.
And when Isaac is carrying the wood, and they are climbing up the mountain, and he turns to Abraham and says, “father,” Abraham answers, “Hineni.” Abraham’s response to both God and his son is yes, rooted in relationship, in knowing.
Know, if we take the natural extension that faith requires everything, and saying no, and letting go, then we have to deal with God suggesting that we have to, metaphorically sacrifice our kids, and far too many people have been sacrificed because they don’t fit into the first hineni commitment to God. The kids who ask too many questions, think the wrong ways, love the wrong people. And my experience of God, the God I know from the relationship we have been growing into for years, wouldn’t ask for that.
There is a story in the Gospel of John. It comes after the Scribes and the Pharisees bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus and Jesus keeps them from killing her. After some teachings, toward the end of chapter 8:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me… This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does… You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning…
John 8:39-41, 44
Jesus isn’t celebrating for nearly sacrificing Isaac, for thinking he would sacrificing Isaac, Jesus is commenting, is celebrating, is using Abraham as an example because he didn’t. Abraham wasn’t a murderer, didn’t kill his son, wasn’t intending to kill him, not like those who had come before Jesus on that day, thinking and plotting and planning to kill Jesus–if they were really following in the footsteps of their forefather, they would be about life.
So what if that’s it. What if Abraham knew that God would ever want Abraham to do what he was asking? What if the story is about how well Abraham knew God? And what if the story is about how well God knew Abraham? What if the story is about their relationship, their covenant? What if the story is about Abraham playing this out for a while, to demand that God never ask this again, never test someone like this again, never demand that we sacrifice the relationships with the people we love for the God that we love?
And the God that Abraham knew was a God who lead him to a land of milk and honey, of agriculture and grazing, abundant in life and for him and his children, and their children. This is a God who was seeking righteous people, who was willing to change ad compromise because Abraham asked. This is a God who promised new life in his and Sarah’s old days, bring the promise of a legacy and a future. This is a God who cared for all of his children, even if they weren’t the promised ones. This is a God of life, abundance, not death. What if that is the way Abraham heard this test, and his response was to suggest to God that this isn’t who you are and it isn’t what you want, so don’t ask.
Abraham struggled with God. We struggle with this text. Maybe we even struggle with God. I remember very clearly being very convinced that I was not interested, that I was not called to ordained ministry, partly because it seemed like a lot–I wasn’t wrong. We struggle with callings and requests and competing priorities, hineni’s. And that’s ok. We grow in the struggle, we learn new things about ourselves and the world around us. We struggle with the Divine but may it always be rooted in the relationship we have, from what we have learned and know about the Divine. May it begin and end with the God who is love and struggle there. That relationship grows in prayer, in conversation, in study, in looking inside and walking outside, in the words of a friend and the face of a child. Such a relationship might take a moment to form or grow slowly over years. Based in love, filled with abundance, overflowing with life. These are promises of God to Abraham, may they root our relationship with God as well. So when we struggle with a story like this one, or a message or call from God, or a moment or a season of life, may the struggle be rooted in the God who is love, who is revealed in love, whom you meet is love. May you grow in the God of life and love.