Learning to trust in the future God has for us
In Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer’s continuing commentary on Genesis 22:1-19, he reflects on the nature of sacrifice and learning to trust in what God has in store for us.
If there ever was a moment when the celestial choirs must have been silent, a moment when they held their breath, it must have been these moments. And if ever there was a moment when silence sounded like a scream, it must have been these.
The story begins with the seemingly innocent words: “After these things…the Lord tested Abraham”.
In the context of what the Lord has promised Abraham earlier, what the Lord now asks seems to be something almost inconceivable. Listen closely to the words: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…and go and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I shall show you.”
The early rabbis, as always, imagined how the conversation went. God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” God answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.”
What kind of God is this?
It is as if the author wants to lead us into asking the question: What kind of a God is it who addresses a man, not any man, but the man who is his friend, to whom he talks like he talked to no other and commands him: Take your son and offer him as a burnt offering?
Right at the start it is important to point out that there is a fairly general consensus among biblical scholars that the genesis of this story goes back to the early oral tradition and in that context it dealt with the question of child sacrifice. Having lived among other cultures where child sacrifice was indeed practised, the question posed by the early Israelites would have been: Is that really something that God requires from us?
The answer to this question was presented through this dramatic account: maybe our ancestors would have willing, but God does not require it. Also, one has to bear in mind that elsewhere in the bible the sacrifice of children is explicitly prohibited. So clearly there’s more to the story than a moment of madness on God’s side. And therefore it has inspired the greatest literary minds, the songwriters, the visual artists, the philosophers over the centuries. All of them sensing that here we come face to face with the deepest questions about faith and the most profound questions about who God is.
Honoured and revered
In both Judaism and Christianity Abraham is honoured and revered as the first believer, the father of faith. However, notwithstanding his total faith in God and God’s justice, he did not hesitate for a moment to take God to task as he bargained and pleaded with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And God listened and answered him.
So the burning question here is; why did he not intercede for his own son, his only son, the son whom he loved? Why did he just accept God’s command? In Judaism even God is bound to God’s own law and God’s law clearly states: “You shall not kill”
In this context the accusation often levelled at believers in general, but Christians in particular, that faith is nothing but a crutch, appears almost laughable. A crutch? Faith seems more like a furnace, a crucible than a crutch. Abraham’s faith spared him neither anguish nor pain. If challenged him in a way that twenty first century’s sensitivities would regard as brutal, almost barbaric.
The nature of contradiction
The 2001 film, “The Believer” is one of the most haunting films I have ever seen. It is also based on actual events. In 1965 a journalist from the New York Times received the hint that a young man who was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan demonstration and who had previously been a member of a neo-Nazi Party, was in fact a Jew.
The movie is about this contradiction. How can a Jew be a Nazi? How can someone who gives anti-Semitic speeches and plans to bomb synagogues by day study the Torah and put on prayer shawls by night?
There is one line that runs like a golden thread through the whole movie: God’s words to Abraham: Take your son, your only Isaac, whom you love and go to the land Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…
Towards the end of the film, the main protagonist, Danny, explains his hatred for his own people. Why did Abraham not challenge God? Why did he not object to God’s command? Why do the Jews accept suffering? Why do they identify with the weak?
What kind of a father is it that allows this to happen? What kind of a father is it that doesn’t stand up for his son, who is prepared to sacrifice his only son?
There is one key scene which becomes the most poignant commentary on religion in our day. Danny finds himself in a kind of neo-Nazi boot camp where he is trained in the use of firearms. As targets, three life size cut-outs of human figures, clearly Jews – a father, mother and child – have been set up. Danny’s first shot seems to be all over the place. At the bemused question of his instructor “where did you aim?” he gave the chilling answer: “I aimed at the father.”
What does God demand?
Frederick Buechner, in one of his sermons, tells a story that deeply resonates with this: It is about a boy of twelve or thirteen who, in a fit of crazy anger and depression, got hold of a gun and fired it at his father, who died not right away but soon afterward. When the authorities asked the boy why he had done it, he said that it was because he could not stand his father, because his father demanded too much of him, because he was always after him, because he hated his father. And then later on, after he had been placed in a house of detention somewhere, a guard was walking past his room late one night when he heard sounds from inside – and he stopped to listen. The words that he heard the boy sobbing out in the dark were: “I want my father; I want my father!”
Who can bear a God that demands everything… and who can bear to be without this God?
Or perhaps we need to understand first what God demands to understand what God gives.
What God seems to demand from Abraham is not only Isaac, his son, his only son whom he loves, but what God seems to be demanding from Abraham is in fact his future, his life. Isaac was God’s gift to Abraham, the gift of his old age, the gift that secured his future. Killing Isaac was for Abraham much more than murder; it was an act of suicide. He might have lived for another few years but for all practical purposes he would be dead.
For me the worst part is that God gave Abraham three days to contemplate this double death. Can one even begin to imagine the three days it took to walk with Isaac to the mountain? No wonder Martin Luther said, he would have stayed with the donkeys. What did they talk about?
The number three in Hebrew has profound significance: it is the number of judgement, decision, finality. All three are present here. In their most spine-chilling reality.
Silence is deafening
But perhaps the most puzzling thing about Abraham in this story, is his silence. He hardly utters a word. No protest, no questioning. Almost the only thing he says is contained in a single Hebrew word, repeated three times throughout the story. All three times it is simply in response to either God, or Isaac calling his name. And every time he simply says: “hineni” – “here I am.”
‘Hineni’ does not simply mean ‘I’m here’, as a kind of indication of presence, but ‘I am here for you fully, to do whatever you ask of me’. In the title track of his last album before he death, ‘You want it darker’, Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, (with reference to this story), goes much further than Abraham, holding God accountable for what the world has become. He begins the song on the note that many would’ve hoped that Abraham should’ve done: ‘if you are the dealer, I’m out of the game’. The reason for his anger becomes more apparent in the second verse: ‘Vilified, crucified/in the human frame/a million candles burning/for the help that never came’. And then in the refrain, almost like Abraham, the dying Leonard Cohen, in full view of everything, prays ‘Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my Lord.’
One explanation for Abraham’s readiness could be that Abraham did indeed trust God; that he trusted in God’s greater mercy, that he trusted that God could never be untrue to God’s own promises.
The other explanation is something altogether different. It is something that a number of Jewish observers have picked up on. At the end of the story it becomes clear that this test didn’t change Abraham at all. When he says, “the Lord will provide”, it not something that he now understands for the first time. He merely affirms what he has experienced earlier. The story merely confirms that Abraham knew and trusted that God had his well-being at heart.
In fact, the only one that has learned anything from this test is God. The only change of awareness is on God’s side. It becomes most apparent in verse 12 in these words of God: “now I can see that you trust God, since you have not kept your son, your only son from me.”
A double-edged test
On the basis of this, many commentators have suggested this was as much God testing Abraham, as it was Abraham testing God.
This is as much a con- test as it is a test. It is as if Abraham’s silence and his passive compliance betray something of his confidence that God will provide. Almost as if he is saying: let’s see who blinks first. In the words of Elie Wiesel: “(This is) a double-edged test. God subjected Abraham to it, yet at the same time Abraham forced it on God. As though Abraham had said: I defy you, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether You shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son – who is also Your son – is at stake!”
Of course, putting God to the test is very much a biblical idea. In Malachi 3 God is the one who issues this invitation: ‘Bring your offerings to the temple and put me to the test.’
In the Jewish tradition, the Midrash goes even further: God loves to be defeated by God’s children.
The one thing that I would like to avoid at all costs is to suggest that we have somehow solved a riddle here; that this explains everything and that God has therefore been absolved.
In saying that the God who tested Abraham is the same God who also wants to be tested offers no ‘solution’ or ‘explanation’. What it does, is it subverts our neatly packaged ideas of God. It tells us that God is neither the highest ideal of Western liberalism nor is God the one who demands justice on the basis of sacrifice and the spilling of blood.
It also means that Jesus Christ is neither the smiling face of a fuzzy feel-good spirituality and nor is he the tortured face of divine atonement.
The confidence of God’s justice
But it does mean that Jesus Christ is God’s way of drawing us to God’s justice. That in Jesus Christ we receive the reward of the righteous (Matt 10:41), which is the reward of God’s actions, not ours. It means our faith is based on the confidence of God’s justice – not on the confidence of our obedience. It means our faith is based on what God has done for us already; not on what we still have to do for God; not on the proof of our faithfulness but on the proof or God’s faithfulness and providence.
Often our hope and confidence in the church’s future seems to be exclusively built on the things we can do to make that happen. We look at the demographics of the church and because we don’t see a lot of young people, we despair. We look at declining numbers and we lose hope.
The things we cling to, are the things we can see, the things that give us confidence in the future. But all of these things are part of the gifts that we have received. And we begin to trust in them, instead of their Giver.
Hence there are times that we have to sacrifice or forfeit the gifts to remember the Giver.
Sometimes God must take away our future to give us God’s future. Or perhaps even more to the point: it is only when God takes away our future – the one we so carefully design for ourselves – that we learn to trust in God’s future – the one we have received in the death and resurrection of God’s own Son.
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, Lecturer in Homiletics, Liturgy and Theology at United Theological College
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