He 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.... He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
This is the lesson you have to preach on, if you have to preach. Once in a while we must act on the preacher's prerogative to talk about something other than the gospel of the day, and this is one of those times. You'll get a whack at Mark 8 in a few weeks. If the lector stands up and reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, and you let it pass in silence, people will hear it and think that we worship a God who either 1) demands that a father to kill his son or 2) is willing to subject both father and son to the agony of believing that to be the case. Don't let them leave the building thinking that.
None of us move easily beyond the terrible pain of Abraham's choice. When does young Isaac begin to suspect the truth about the impending sacrifice? Does he already have an inkling when he says, "Father, the fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" We are given no dialogue to accompanying the scene of Abraham binding his son, gathering him into his arms and placing him onto the pyre. What did they say to each other? Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was transfixed by the awful moment, and imagined a half-dozen different directions the struggle might have taken.
But our fascination with the potential tragedy of the relationship, the compulsion we feel to put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists, should not blind us to the fact that there are strands of the story beyond the obvious traumatic one. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, we are also seeing a society revise its vision of God.
We know that many ancient cultures, including many surrounding the Hebrews, practiced human sacrifice. The cult of Moloch, who demanded the sacrificial burning of the firstborn, was widespread. Scripture contains several injunctions against doing this, which can only mean that some of the Israelites were practicing it or were sorely tempted in its direction.
Abraham thinks God wants him to slay Isaac. Other people do this thing, he thinks, and they understand it to be a sacred duty to the god. Maybe it's true. Maybe God wants my son's life. Maybe he wants me to show my devotion in this terrible way. Maybe bad things will happen if I refuse. Who can say?
But God stays his hand, forcing a revision of his interpretation of the divine will. Do not harm him, he says. I am not Moloch after all.
In no way does this deliverance mark the end of violence in the story of the chosen people and their God. There will be plenty of bloodshed in the books that follow Genesis: four thousand Egyptians will perish in a matter of minutes, and the women of Israel will dance their joy on the riverbank -- to them, it is an unalloyed good. The armies of Israel will fight their way through the Holy Land, killing everyone who gets in their way, and they will understand this to be in response to God's clear command.
But there has been a beginning of something that will continue, something softer than we expect, we who know violence so well. Later on, Isaiah will be less interested in killing people and more interested in the comfort God offers those who have suffered. Hosea will think that God is like a loving husband. Ezekiel will think that God beings life out of death, and can soften the hearts of all of us until they are unrecognizable as the flinty things they are now.
And -- once, for all -- Jesus will know exactly where the lamb for the sacrifice is.