By Rev. Heather J. Blais--
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the most beautiful, terrifying, and complicated texts within our holy scriptures. It is known as the akedah, or the binding of Isaac. In the story we witness our God asking the unimaginable of Abraham. God instructs Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the same son that Sarah and Abraham had longed and waited for until their old age.
This particular year I find it difficult to hear a text about human sacrifice and not connect the dots to George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY; Eric Garner in New York City; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, and Emmett Till in Money, MS.
As our church engages in the work of taking off our lens of white privilege, I thought it might be helpful to consider this text in three different ways, starting off with some common interpretation within our own tradition.
The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.” ‘These things’ include: Abraham sacrificing his family and native culture to follow God to a distant land; God’s promise that Abraham would be the parent of a great nation; fathering two sons, Ishmael and Isaac; and the painful decision to cast Ishmael out into the wilderness. Abraham has already sacrificed so much, and now God is asking him to make yet another sacrifice:
Even stranger than God’s request is Abraham’s lack of response. He doesn’t show any internal struggle with the command. This is in stark contrast with Genesis 21, where Abraham is distressed at the idea of driving his eldest son Ishmael into the wilderness. Instead, this time we witness how faithful Abraham is to God.
When Abraham, Isaac, and two male servants arrive at the base of the mountain, Abraham instructs his servants: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” This promise of return tells us that Abraham believed God would work out an alternative sacrifice, as does his assurance to Isaac that God would provide an answer when they head up the mountain without a lamb to sacrifice.
Abraham builds an altar; laying down the wood, and binding his son Isaac to the altar, apparently without any resistance. Just as Abraham reaches for his knife, an angel calls out: “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.” In that moment, Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns, and offered it in lieu of his son.
Now, there’s a lot to take in with this passage, but let’s consider a couple of things. First—God does not command Abraham to murder his son, he commands him to present him on the altar as a burnt offering. Child sacrifice might be horrific to us, but it was a normative practice in many of the cultures that surrounded Israel.
It’s important to remember that up until Abraham encountered God—most cultures believed in many different gods. Humans, often children, were sacrificed to appease those gods, who were easily upset. The relationship born out of the covenant between God and Abraham is one of the first instances of monotheism—the belief in one God. Let alone a loving, caring God. Many scholars understand the purpose of this passage as a shift away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This story is making a bold statement to its original audience. It is a story of a God who doesn’t require child sacrifice in a world that did.
The second aspect of this passage is that Abraham shared an intimate, trusting relationship with God. One reason we don’t see a distressed Abraham is because he trusts that God will act to save Isaac. Somehow, even though it hardly makes any sense to those of us looking on, Abraham understood that it was always God's intention to save Isaac. Otherwise he never would have been able to bind his son to the altar. It was a lesson in trust.
There are two other interpretations that I think we need to sit with, however uncomfortable they may make us. Both interpretations are taken from sermons given by rabbis on Rosh Hashanah.
In 2016, Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein offered insight by reminding us of longstanding Jewish interpretations of this text.
First, many believe Isaac is not a child, but rather a strong young man.
Second, the section where the angel calls out, staying Abraham’s hand, and offering a ram, is a later addition to the original text. This means many believe Abraham actually did cause harm or even that Abraham killed Isaac. This particular interpretation is aided by v.19, which is left out of the revised common lectionary, where Abraham returns to his servants alone. Maybe Isaac was killed, maybe he went blind, maybe he went to a far away land to study--explanations for his absence at the base of the mountain have run the gauntlet. What we do know is that the Isaac who appears in the rest of the biblical narrative, rarely speaks again. He lives a life with PTSD.
Third, and most important, there is a long standing history of grappling with this text, by asking questions like:
“How are we putting our children, like Isaac, on the altar?” and “Who are the Isaac’s of each generation?” Becker-Klein suggests that today it is our black and brown siblings, “who are the Isaacs on the altar”.
This leaves us with a host of questions to consider:
In 2015, Rabbi Tamara Cohen suggested something radically different after becoming a mother and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. The book describes the very particular kind of protective love all black parents must suffer and endure while fearfully raising their children in a country who will not think twice about their children’s deaths. This book changed Rabbi Cohen’s understanding of her privilege, and she invites us into a different understanding of the binding of Isaac as a result.
She wrote, “For me this year the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is [so] terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him[,] that he almost kills him himself. This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.”
We have the privilege to hear the story of the binding of Isaac as caregivers, who for the most part, have not needed to fear our society might kill our children. While each of us has experienced harrowing life events, this story reminds us of an entire set of societal problems we can choose whether to worry about or not. Yet as a people of faith, there is no choice. We are called to strive for justice and peace; we are called to the work of recognizing our privilege and addressing society’s deep rooted racism every way we can, including allowing different interpretations of scripture to potentially rattle us.
Which interpretation of this story troubles you the most? Why?
I invite each of us to take this discomfort into our prayer and into our actions this week. Amen.
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