A Sermon for Covenant
“Do You Jump When God Says
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
June 29, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“A teleological suspension of the ethical.”
That’s how Kierkegaard explained the binding of Isaac.
Resolves it nicely, don’t you think? All better!
(Be sure you write that down: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” You can use it for your daily meditations.)
Kierkegaard was grappling with how God could command something counter to God’s own nature, and how Abraham could even consider following through with it. We know from at least 16 places in Scripture that God was very much against child sacrifice, so how was it, in this one special case, that God could require something so profoundly contradictory to God’s own self?
Never mind that it works out in the end. It is the beginning we find so appalling to our sensibilities and contrary to our theology. How could God ask for such a thing in the first place? Philosophers and theologians have long been debating it, often with wildly varying conclusions:
Kierkegaard offered the perspective that Abraham set his commitment to ethics aside temporarily in pursuit of a deeper faith, while others have argued God could not command something against God’s own ethic, even for a moment. Some perspectives attempt to avoid the sticky issue of God’s command to kill Isaac by focusing on God’s provision in the end.
Over the centuries, attempts to interpret this complex story often take the form of Midrash or imaginative retellings. Additional material is added or alternative endings are offered; each story somewhat different than the last, slanting our perspective in a new direction. Kierkegaard’s work alone includes four different versions. For example, in one account, Abraham refuses to kill Isaac, then asks God’s forgiveness that he even considered it. In another version, Abraham lies to Isaac that the sacrifice was his idea, not God’s, because he doesn’t want Isaac to lose his faith in God. Approaches to this story have been plentiful, though there are few, if any, that can pacify our abhorrence at the God who sets this trauma in motion.
Even if you’re not much interested in philosophical discussion generally, this is a story against which you may easily raise intellectual and moral objections. You know without blinking that if God entered your head and told you to murder a child, to take a gun and shoot someone, or to grab a knife and start stabbing, you’d immediately question your sanity and call a therapist or question the sanity of your deity and find a new god. If God told you to sacrifice your child—not just metaphorically surrender, but literally kill him or her—you would not do it. You absolutely wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t consider it. Wouldn’t entertain it. And not one of us would think you less faithful for refusing.
No matter how you slice it, this story is troubling and problematic, and it is no use sugarcoating its absurdity.
I do find it useful, when stuff is troubling, instead of running away or running to a simplistic answer, sit still and pay close attention. This is a good practice in general, and perhaps instructive here too, so let’s begin by looking intently and making observations:
First, the text wants us to hear the special bond between Abraham and his son. When Isaac’s name keeps appearing in the text, the name does not stand alone, but is accompanied by the qualifying phrase, his son, and the word son appears 12 times in 14 verses. The storyteller doesn’t want us to be flippant about the fact this is Abraham’s son. When Abraham speaks to Isaac, he tenderly calls him “My son,” and likewise, Isaac addresses Abraham, “My father.” In biblical Hebrew the noun father with a possessive ending signals intimate address.
Notice Isaac is allowed to ask questions, and Abraham answers reassuringly. This is no abusive, careless father. This is a loving father. As they head up the mountain, Abraham has Isaac carry the wood, but Abraham himself carries the knife and the fire, the dangerous objects that a boy could injure himself with. Abraham is looking out for Isaac. Despite his seeming silence in the face of God’s command, Abraham was surely experiencing severe inner turmoil.
Jewish scholar Robert Alter points out that butchering words are used here: like bind in v.9 and slaughter in v.10. Even the word for knife is not the typical word for knife, but is more akin to cleaver than knife. It is as if the storyteller wants to set the intimacy between Abraham and Isaac in stark contrast to the pending action. We are not meant to view this story as normal occurrence in the life of faith. We are meant to feel disturbed, troubled, and confused.
Second, Abraham believes, on some level, that Isaac will be saved. He tells the two men journeying with them, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham claims, “We will come back,” and I don’t think he’s merely covering up his intentions here. He is holding on to hope. When Isaac asks, “My father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and once again, I don’t think this is Abraham being sneaky. This is Abraham believing in a different outcome than the one set before him.
Third, it hardly seems feasible that God would have a need to “test” Abraham’s faith by requiring the absurd. This narrative is often viewed as some sort of divine experiment, where God examines the stamina of Abraham’s faith. Many commentators point to God’s line at the end, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” suggesting God put Abraham through all of this, because God did not really know whether Abraham would be faithful. But I’d like to call that point of view into question. Not only does that perspective make God seem obsessively insecure and in need of extreme reassurance, I do not think the story itself necessarily lends itself to such an interpretation. If God truly did not know whether Abraham would give up his son, then nothing short of Isaac’s actual sacrifice would have really made that clear. Abraham could have made it up the mountain, fashioned the altar, prepared the wood, tied up his son, laid his body atop the altar and raised the knife, but there was still time to stop. He could have done all that and still hesitated. I know I would have. No matter how far I got, somewhere along the way, I would have halted in my tracks, threw my hands in the air, and said, “I cannot continue.” Nothing short of a real sacrifice would have proven that Abraham was willing to follow through all the way with God’s crazy command, if that was what God was really after. Personally, I suspect God already knew the content of Abraham’s heart, without all these shenanigans. I’d wager, something else is going on here.
Fourth, Abraham is known to be a negotiator. Just a few chapters before this, Abraham argues forwardly with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nowhere in that story is there any indication that speaking his mind and making objections is faithlessness on Abraham’s part. Instead it highlights the strength their relationship that Abraham can converse so freely with God, and that God interacts with Abraham’s requests.
Fifth, note the silence of Sarah in this story. Where is the mother, crying out on behalf of her son’s life, her only son, the son she waited ninety years for? Sarah’s silence here is surprising since throughout the rest of the narrative, she has been quite vocal. She’s been known to have no qualms about interfering. So why does her voice disappear in this story?
In the chapter directly following, Sarah dies. One Midrash account imagines Satan coming to Sarah before Abraham and Isaac return and telling her Isaac is dead, then Sarah dies from the shock. I wonder: was it the shock or her silence that killed her? Did the trauma get to her? Or was it the weight of guilt over not speaking up that finally did her in? Even after Isaac returned alive, could she no longer bear to live with herself, the mother who did not intervene?
With all these observations, I have to wonder: What if Abraham had said no? What if Sarah had remembered her voice or been allowed to use it? Would their objections been deemed by God as unfaithful? I think not.
I think Abraham could have refused. I think Sarah could have refused. I think their defiance would have been, not rebellion, but faith—faith in the God they knew who would not ask such a thing. I think saying no would have been a different kind of faith than saying yes, but it would have been faith.
To say that God was testing Abraham’s faith is to belittle the fact that the life of a real human being is at stake. Unflinching obedience is hardly commendable when obedience is murder.
What if God were inviting Abraham and Sarah to resist? Did they really knew who God was? When it seemed God were acting like the bloodthirsty gods of other times and places, would they know to argue back? What if Abraham’s faith that both he and Isaac would return was a faith-filled insolence? What if that little word “we” in “we shall return” was a subtle show of defiance, and exactly the sort of gall God respects?
Or was Abraham confused? In his old age, did he mishear God? Did God say such things, knowing all along Isaac would be safe? Be if so, why? Why would God incite trauma?
In 2 Samuel 24, King David takes a census of the people, and it is the anger of the Lord that incites David to do so. The same story gets retold in 1 Chronicles 21, and in this telling, it is Satan that incites David to take the census. So, which is it: God, or Satan? There is a Midrash version of the binding of Isaac in which God is already convinced of Abraham’s faithfulness, but Satan comes to God and questions him, almost exactly the way Satan approaches God in the book of Job. Satan says, “Thou didst give a son to this old man at the age of a hundred, yet of all the banquet he prepared he did not sacrifice to Thee a single turtle-dove or pigeon!”
So, just who is responsible for Abraham’s hearing of this strange request? God, or some sort of evil-at-work? Abraham’s aging mind or God’s strange and mysterious ways? I think we are allowed to wonder. What if Abraham and Sarah had said no? I think we are allowed to imagine the possibilities. What if Abraham’s faith that God would provide was a way of saying, “No, I cannot believe this of you.”
It is surely a text that begs us to ask questions. Who knows, really, why God would allow anyone to go through such agony, particularly and especially when the agony appears to have been instigated by God himself. I do not understand why.
But I do understand agony to be a normal part of the human experience and confusion as a normal part of the faith experience. This particular case, fortunately, is one-of-a-kind and not the sort of thing we ever have to face, but turmoil itself is in the mix for us. It would be so much easier if God always acted exactly the way one would expect God to behave, if life were predictable and God’s voice ever-clear and provision always immediate. That would be nice. I would prefer not to have to journey all these days in the heat with the things that matter most in jeopardy.
One more thing I observe about Abraham is that he stays fully present to two contradictory things. When God first calls him with the command, Abraham replies, “Here I am.” When his son, Isaac, calls out to him, he replies, “Here I am.” He stays committed to God, even when he does not understand. He stays committed to his son, despite the pending danger.
Abraham is present to God, and what he believes God is requiring of him, and he is present to his son, whom he loves. “Here I am,” he says to both, and he lives with this utter and terrible contradiction. How could anyone possibly do both at the same time: protect their son and move to sacrifice him? It is so absurd we cannot wrap our minds around it. It makes the confusion and turmoil we bear not nearly as dramatic as we think it is. We may be utterly confused about the tension in our lives . . . but at least it isn’t this tense.
Finally, when the angel cries out to stop the sacrifice from happening, Abraham again replies, “Here I am.” I don’t know how to resolve all the perplexities of this text. But I do know that perplexities will continue to pummel us all our lives. I know that we can run and hide, or we can say, “Here I am.” We can journey with our tension until the new way forward presents itself. I know that faith will often seem in contradiction to reality, and I know that we can choose to hold the paradoxes until the fog clears. I know it can stay foggy for a long time: months, years. I know someday we may be heard renaming the very place of our turmoil, “The Lord provides.” Amen.