There are moments in our life that are so shocking, so horrific, that we feel we are propelled out of normal time and space and into a world that bears no resemblance to the life we thought we knew. When we enter this alternate reality, we feel confused, alone. We struggle to understand what has happened, what this means.
A couple of years ago, Volkswagen introduced a series of television ads for their cars that focused on their safety features. You may remember them. Four young people are riding down the street in conversation. They’re talking about the everyday things, the inside jokes, the little disagreements, that people who know each other well can share. In mid-sentence, suddenly there is a crash. Another car has smashed into them. Time shifts. Reality shifts. The people in the Volkswagen stand outside the vehicle, shocked. They say an expletive. I doubt they remember the conversation they were so engrossed in during the seconds before the crash. Now they are standing at the side of the road, wondering what happened, how they got to this place, and what to do next.
Those of us who have had serious medical diagnoses know this feeling as well. We are going along in our normal life, doing all the familiar and comfortable things. We feel an odd ache that won’t go away. We go to the doctor’s. She says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but…” and suddenly everything in the room, every word, every sensory perception, slows down, and we are taken out of our lives into some other reality, some strange place where the old rules don’t apply, where time stretches and contracts and the things that were important no longer seem paramount.
When these horrific moments happen, we are taken out of our normal frame of reference. We are shocked into a different kind of perception. We are only able to utter a few words, an expletive, a prayer. We struggle to understand something which, on the face of it, seems incomprehensible.
So it is, too, this story of Abraham and God’s outrageous request.
It’s a horrific story. We cringe at it.
God speaks to Abraham. “I want you to do something.” “Okay, I’m here.” – in the Hebrew, Abraham says: “Hineni.”
As we’ve heard of the journey that is Abraham’s life over the past several weeks, we’ve learned that Abraham has been given many wonderful things from God – sons in his old age, riches from Pharaoh. Although he may have had questions about God’s promises before, and behaved accordingly, he no longer seems to have any doubts. God has delivered. God has heard. But we now hear of one more test, an inconceivable one (here’s that word we’ve used over the past three weeks). Suddenly, our frame of reference – indeed, Abraham’s frame of reference – is shifted. This makes no sense.
God asks Abraham to take the most precious thing God has given him, Isaac, that gift of laughter and life, and says, “Take Isaac to the place I will tell you, over beyond the hills, in the land of Moriah, and offer him there to me as a burnt offering.”
We hear this message and time shifts. This makes no sense. We say, “What kind of God would ask this of Abraham? What kind of father would not scream back to the heavens, and say ‘No! I will not!’”
But Abraham is silent.
Suddenly, the story seems to go into slow-motion, much like the young people in the aftermath of the car crash. Details stick out: the bitter, angry energy with which Abraham chops the wood, the two servant boys, Abraham slowly tying the bundle of wood for the offering on Isaac’s shoulder. And yet whole swaths of the story line that we would expect are missing. What did Abraham tell Sarah about this trip? Does Abraham say anything at all to God in response? What do the father and his son and the two servants say to each other on their three day journey? ; No words are spoken until the third day, when Abraham and Isaac prepare to go up the mountain and Abraham gives directions to the servants who will wait below. Is Abraham wondering what he will say to the servants when he comes back down the mountain without his son? Is he wondering what Sarah will do?
Is there a moment in your life when you are faced with the horror, and words fail you? This is that moment for Abraham. And yet he follows God’s directions, this tenth test of Abraham’s faith to the one true God.
It is the moment, too, for Isaac, as his father ; binds him with rope, as one would an animal for slaughter. It is no mistake that in the Jewish tradition, this story is called The Akedah (עקדה), the binding of Isaac, because in some ways it is the most chilling moment in the story. This young man – some scholars estimate Isaac’s age somewhere between 25 and 37 - sees his father building an altar. He sees the wood for the fire. He sees his father with the knife, more likely something like a cleaver or a butcher’s knife. He sees no sheep. He asks where it is, and Abraham says something surprising:” God will provide.”
And yet, there is no sheep. Is God providing one?
And then his father begins to wrap the rope around his hands and feet, as they would have done to the sacrificial sheep. Is this precious son, this gift from God to Abraham and Sarah, the sheep that God has provided? Isaac can see now what is happening, but he doesn’t say another word. He knows in this moment that he is the sacrificial offering, that his father will lift up that cleaver and slam it down with great force, and Isaac’s nephesh, his spirit, contained in his life blood, will drain out of him. He will die. And Isaac says nothing, even as his father Abraham said nothing when God demanded this sacrifice.
Abraham’s hard, calloused hand raises up, slowly, slowly. The action slows down to a quarter speed again. The cleaver is in his hand, poised above that gift, that son, now a sacrifice. The promise of the future generations, that covenant promise that God made, seems to be a stroke away from destruction. How can there be future generations if the child is killed?
But suddenly, there is a voice.
“Abraham, wait a minute. Stop.” “Okay, I’m here. I hear you.” Hineni.
We’ve been holding our breath, waiting for the cleaver to fall, to cleave the neck, to cleave the covenant…and now it is stopped. We breathe again. Abraham’s hand drops. The angel says, “You’ve passed the test of faithfulness. Don’t hurt your son. God asked for the ultimate sacrifice, of the thing you loved most, and you were willing to give it.”
We breathe again, and Abraham breathes again. As Hagar suddenly looked up and saw the well, so now Abraham looks up and sees ; the ram in the thicket, a sacrifice that we and he can tolerate. The story speeds up – the ram is sacrificed. The angel restates God’s covenant, that promise of future generations as plenteous as the stars in the heaven or the sands on the shore of the ocean. The generations will roll forth through the centuries.
But we are left with confusion and anger. What just happened here? Those same questions we started with: why would God ask this of Abraham? why would Abraham assent to it? they’re still there with the taste of ashes in our mouths. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis has said, “I’m glad I don’t worship the God of Abraham” if this is what that God is like. We’re with her on that one.
Can we get some distance from the horror if we say that it is just Abraham’s bad dream or overactive imagination, as did the medieval rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi? There are some scholars, such as those who wrote the midrash Genesis Rabbah, who think that Abraham knows all along that Isaac won’t die, because God has already promised the future generations. There are some such as Martin Luther, who feel very clearly that the story is as it was: that this was a test, and Abraham’s faith was so great that he did what God asked without question even if it would mean that Isaac would die. Luther is said to have refused to preach on this story, saying that Abraham’s faith was so great that Luther was in awe of it, and could add no more words to the subject. Maybe we can finally understand this story if we turn to the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, writing on faith in his Letter to the Hebrews, draws the parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ, and implies that Abraham would go ahead and sacrifice his son (as God’s own son Jesus was sacrificed for us) because he would know that Isaac would be raised from the dead. We are not alone in struggling with this hard lesson.
But perhaps we can finally come to a difficult peace with this story by imagining the inconceivable moments in our own lives, when it seems that God has asked us to participate in; a journey that we know will end badly. Do we question God at those times? Perhaps. Perhaps time slows down as we see how these things will play out, and we wonder what good can come of them. Can we imagine the possibility of stepping back from argument with God, to say ; “Hineni. Here I am. I trust you. Tell me what to do next.”