Proper 8A

June 23, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 10:40-42

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 22:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Jews call this passage the Aqedah, Hebrew for “the binding.” Few stories in all of literature have inspired so much commentary, art, paintings, angst, discussion, and controversy. The central image of the tale–that of the father with knife upraised over his bound son–is burned deep into the consciousness of Jews to this day.  I once heard author Chaim Potok being interviewed by another rabbi on the subject of Jewish identity, and it didn’t take too long before the Aqedah came up in their conversation. Curiously, this central and climactic event in the Abraham cycle of stories is scarcely ever referred to again in the Old Testament or even in the New Testament. Yet this is an event of such searing significance (and no small degree of also searing scandal) that it looms in the background of everything, whether or not it is specifically mentioned.

    But why is this story in Genesis? One obvious answer is that it serves as the climax to what could be called “the education of Abraham.” Ever since his initial call in chapter 12, God has been leading Abraham along. But with grim consistency, Abraham has repeatedly failed the various tests put to him. Twice he passes Sarah off as his sister for fear he’ll be killed if he doesn’t. Several times his patience with God’s promise of a son wears sufficiently thin that he pursues alternative arrangements. He and Sarah both laugh at God’s promises at one time or another even as Abraham permits the mistreatment and ultimate banishment of his other son, Ishmael, and his mother Hagar.

    Still, Abraham has also been growing, maturing, in the course of these many chapters. Seeing as Abraham is quite literally the father of the faith, the harbinger of cosmic blessing, Abraham needs to mature; both he and God (and maybe also we) need to see the power of the covenant at work in his life. And so Genesis 22 opens not by saying (as the NIV translates it), “Some time later . . .” but rather it literally says in Hebrew, “After these things, God tested Abraham.”

    After these things. What things? Well, everything that has transpired since Genesis 12. That opening phrase clues us in immediately that we’re approaching a kind of narrative summit. The mountain Abraham climbs was a literal mountain but also metaphorically stands for our ascent to the pinnacle of this entire saga involving Abraham.

    So how remarkable it is to arrive at this text only to see how far Abraham has indeed come.

    Abraham asks no questions in Genesis 22, even though as we read the text, our hearts fairly scream out a bevy of questions.

    Abraham walks resolutely and without stumbling on his way to Mount Moriah, but as we try to follow him, we find ourselves walking hesitantly, tripping over the multiple theological scandals we encounter.

    The language of Genesis 22 is crisp and unwaveringly direct, yet we cry out for escape hatches, for something to explain this, for a way to get God off the hook for asking of Abraham so dreadful a thing.

    What is striking about Genesis 22 is how wholly unconcerned it appears to be with the kinds of questions we want to raise. The author is not unaware of how difficult this test is for Abraham, but far from trying to nuance God’s command the author has crafted the text so as to sharpen the very difficulties we find nearly unacceptable. The hammering phrase “your son, your only son, whom you love,” makes this story heartbreaking to read.

    Similarly the oft-repeated verbal picture of Abraham and Isaac trotting along “together” in verses 6 and 8 presents a Norman Rockwell-like portrait of father and son. This is Sheriff Taylor and his boy Opie walking together in the opening sequence to the old Andy Griffith Show: a classic portrait of father-son togetherness. But this time the father bears the knowledge that he will return from this outing alone.

    Curiously, the text of Genesis 22 is not principally concerned with the emotional side of Abraham’s losing a son. Instead its focus seems to be that this particular sacrifice would jeopardize the future of the covenant. Isaac was the “laughter” of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, but he was also to be the cosmic laughter of all nations because from him sprang the promise of redemption. If Laughter died, then what would become of the covenant?

    These questions of covenant and salvation loom much larger for the author of Genesis 22 than they typically do for us. But perhaps that is because what lies behind this hard text is the equally difficult notion that salvation is going to be a costly enterprise purchased in blood. The binding and near-death of Laughter–and the foreshadowing phrase that “God himself will provide” for the sacrifice–give early biblical clues that eliminating evil is going to require enormous effort and sacrifice.

    Indeed, as Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis has noted, the Bible takes a great risk putting a story like this one so near the beginning of Scripture. If, naturally enough, you were to begin reading Scripture in Genesis 1, you would go a scant twenty-one chapters before encountering this story, replete with its potentially off-putting portrait of a God who commands so horrid a thing as child sacrifice. So why would the Bible run the risk of offending readers with a story so grim as to tempt them to close this book and never open it again? Perhaps because we need early on to learn something about the nature of God’s faithfulness and the salvation God brings through his grace.

    “After these things” God tests to see where Abraham was at. But not just after “these things” in the life of Abraham but this story also follows the first eleven chapters of Genesis which detail humanity’s steady moving away from God the Creator. God and humanity had become alienated, estranged. But with Abraham the world was to begin again. This had to go just right because on this man’s faithfulness all depended.

    In short, this was a unique test for a unique figure in salvation history. It was also an event that foreshadowed the death of the beloved son as the way to seal the covenant. Yet we tend to resist the notion of an evil so deeply entrenched that it requires even God to go to dangerous and shocking lengths of sacrifice to root it out. But Genesis 22 confronts us unstintingly with God’s view of sin and salvation–a point of view that is uncompromising on how dearly salvation will end up costing God.

    If Genesis 22 introduces a scary element early on in the biblical picture of reality, Genesis introduces even earlier the notion of God as the giver and keeper of promises. It started in Eden. The dust from the first sin had not settled yet before God promised to send someone to crush the serpent’s head and bring a better day. Then comes the story of the Flood, which concludes with more promises. Then comes Abraham and the opening of the covenant and that grand promise of being a God to Abraham and to his descendants forever. The Israelites were a people of the promise. They headed for centuries toward the Promised Land. They lived for centuries more with the hope of the messianic promise that God would send his Anointed One, his Messiah, his Christ.

    If you had asked the average Israelite which God he worshiped, you would have heard the reply, “I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That way of referring to God built a cumulative case for covenant faithfulness. God was associated with a string of past persons to whom God had been faithful, and that in turn generated hope that God would continue to be faithful. His proper name is “Yahweh,” which means either “I Am What I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Either way or both ways, it points to consistency, loyalty, a dogged determination to do what needs doing throughout all generations.

    Faithfulness is God’s way with a fallen creation. God did a hard thing in redeeming this world. It killed the beloved Son. “God himself will provide the sacrifice, my son,” Abraham reassured a nervous Isaac. In the end God himself did provide what was needed and in the biblical long run it turned out to be God himself. It is not easy for even God to be true to his own promises in this world. It’s costly!

    Of course, this particular story was no cinch for Abraham either, though the text spends virtually no time pondering Abraham’s emotional state. Abraham scarcely speaks at all. The main thing Abraham says in this story is contained in a single Hebrew word that is repeated in verses 1, 7, and 11: twice God and once Isaac call out Abraham’s name, and his simple response in Hebrew is hinenni, “Here I am.” The crispness of Abraham’s response, demonstrating that he was indeed standing at the ready, shows how far he has come since Genesis 12. He is not reported as being distressed before God intervened to stay his deadly hand nor is Abraham reported to have been mighty relieved once God stopped him. In fact, from the looks of things in verses 12-18, it is God who heaves a sigh of relief, God who is only too glad that this is over and his main man Abraham has passed this grim test.

    As a sign of God’s relief and joy, the covenant receives its last re-affirmation in the lifetime of Abraham. The words about stars in the sky and sand on the seashore will not be repeated again. There are a few incidents that remain before we read of Abraham’s death in Genesis 25, but you get the feeling that everything that remains is gravy, is denoument and the tying off of loose ends. The universe has turned a sharp corner in Abraham and what happened to him on Mount Moriah. We now know some new things about this man but also some new things about God and God’s ways with a wayward world.

    The story in Genesis 22 ends more or less happily. In fact, the tale concludes in verse 19 with a reprise of that Rockwell-like image we received in verses 6 and 8: Abraham and Isaac leave the mountain “together” after all. In a sense it’s a “happy ending,” but not unalloyedly so. Laughter is returned to Abraham and Sarah, but now it’s a hard laughter–a laughter tempered by suffering and sacrifice. It’s a hard laughter because now Abraham knows what God seems to have known all along: namely, the faithful fulfillment of the covenant cannot come painlessly. But it does come. God will provide. God does provide.

    You can count on it.

    Christians do count on it.

    Illustration Idea

    Whenever I watch something like the Olympics, I often think that I’m sure glad my whole life doesn’t typically come down to a single make-or-break performance or that the whole goal of my life across the last decade does not come down to one one-thousandth of a second! But that’s the way of it in something like the Olympic Games, and you sense it most keenly in those events that involve a single athlete alone out on the ice. These people have devoted their lives to one thing, have bent all their energy on achieving a single goal. The vast majority of athletes worldwide never come anywhere close to that gold medal goal, but those who do get ever-closer discover that the pressure to pull off that one, single, perfect performance mounts ever higher the nearer they get to the medals platform.

    It’s finally almost excruciating to watch. Their whole lives come down to these four and half minutes out on the ice. And so when someone slips, falls, is forced to do a double-flip when it was supposed to be a triple, or when the judges give wrong marks (either by accident or by corrupt design), the world of these athletes crumbles before our very eyes as they weep uncontrollably. The sad thing is that for most of the people at that level, such mistakes really are just hiccups, not the norm. Most every one of them is often good enough to get the high marks. But that doesn’t matter: you’ve got your one test: you either pass or you fail and that’s it.

    And so I often think it’s a shame it has to be that way for these talented people and I’m frankly glad my whole life doesn’t hang on so slender a thread of just one big test. Yet in a way, the history of our faith, the things that allow us to call ourselves Christians to this very day, also depend on some singular tests that certain people had to face once upon a time. Genesis 22 is the Bible’s premiere example.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 13

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 6:12-23

    Author: Stan Mast