The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
22After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’;* as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’*
Google “Abraham and Isaac” and you will encounter multiple articles written about this epic story. What is this story all about? In my sermon for Sunday morning, March 27, a prelude to the presentation of Britten’s Canticle on “Abraham and Isaac,” I describe the story as mystery. I liken the mystery to the huge red curtain that hangs suspended on the back wall of the sanctuary, a drape that has hung there for decades. One of the men, now grown, who came along at Westmoreland from childhood says, “As a little boy, I used to think that God lived behind that red curtain.” ”Later,” he opines, “as I grew older the curtain came to represent the mystery of God.” I like that picture–a small boy in church, Sunday after Sunday, gazing at the huge red curtain. To a small boy, the drape must have looked even more enormous than it actually is. At the risk of giving away the boy’s secret, “There’s nothing but a plain wall behind the red curtain.”
At the risk of giving away a preacher’s secrets, I can opine that there is nothing behind the mystery of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s just a story of a father from long ago who thought his God wanted him to sacrifice his son. After all, that sort of thing happened all the time in that long ago time. To prove ultimate devotion to this or that deity, fathers slew their children, cut their throats, tossed them into roaring flames, left them on the hillside to die of exposure. Happened all the time. Maybe this story is just as straightforward as that.
Remember, people wrote the story. In fact, people probably told and retold the story for generations before some sage decided to write it down. Was the story about Abraham and Isaac, progenitors of the Jewish race? Or did some sage give the main characters from the campfire saga the names of their revered ancestors? I don’t know. The mystery behind the red curtain of that story persists.
If many of these grand stories from Genesis came into print during the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE, what was the motivation for etching that mysterious story in holy writ? What did the editors of what became the Hebrew Bible hope to gain by telling such an enigmatic, even gruesome story about their Yahweh? I don’t know. But I can speculate. Maybe they wanted to call into question the brutal practice of child sacrifice. Maybe they wanted to show that Yahweh had complete power over the Jewish people. Maybe they wanted to show the utter devotion of their ancestral father to Yahweh. Maybe they wanted to demonstrate their lineage back to these two ancient figures. Maybe they wanted to underscore the presence of angels out there in the air who could intervene in the nick of time in the everyday affairs of people. Maybe all of the above. Maybe none of the above. Maybe the story just remains reminiscent of the persistent mysteries with which we have to deal on a regular basis.
If the intended lesson is to refrain from killing children, we’ve not learned that lesson very well, have we? Boys, hardly old enough to shave, go to war. Over 700,000 of such older children died in our own Civil War. Uncounted millions of those boys died in World War I and then later in World War II. We sacrifice children every day on the streets of America, lambs for the slaughter on the altars of our own materialism, ineffectual control of guns, entrenched poverty, and drugs of a dizzying variety. Talk about mystery!
Does God live behind the red curtain at Westmoreland Church? No. But I do like to believe that God lives among the people who sit in front of that red curtain. I have to believe that those of us who worship God in front of the red curtain can embrace both the mystery of Abraham’s God, the mystery of our own faith, and labor to answer the call of God, even if the call is just as confusing sometimes to us as it must have been to Father Abraham of a long time ago.
We have moved into the season of Lent at the church and in much of the Christian world. I embrace the mystery of the season while welcoming the emotional respite it brings. True, I have not slowed down much during these days. I am too busy, with colleagues at the church, managing the season of Lent to immerse myself too deeply into the mystery of the season. Still, I take advantage of the season.
Easter beckons right around the calendar’s corner. Talk about mystery! Easter takes the prize. For a long time Easter has posed more questions than answers for me. Yet, I welcome the season. Gorgeous flowers in the sanctuary. Sunrise in the Memorial Garden. A festival service at 10:00. The mystery takes on new compulsion at Easter. For all my not knowing, I draw to myself the ever-springing hope the season vouchsafes.
I thank God for parents who, for over sixty years, have made a point to park their children on the pews in front of the red curtain. I bless the hearts of the boys and girls, and, maybe a few adults, who have drawn the mystery of the red curtain, read that, God, to themselves. No, John, God does not live behind the red curtain but mystery abounds. Celebrate the mystery.
I hope to see you in worship this morning. I hope you will come praying for our community of faith as we engage in a congregational meeting after worship. Important issues of taking care of “God’s House and Our House” are before us.
Robert L. Maddox