a relief of the binding of Isaac
The binding of Isaac, minimalist version

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, March 4 is Genesis 22:1-14. I looked at it, and thought something like … “oh, no.” In part because it was late, but mostly because it was hard. Here are my notes on this text, for what they are worth:

First, I didn’t do the translation. Because it was late. I pulled out my Jewish Study Bible and read the commentary. Then I read our book, and then I looked at other people’s commentaries:
Chabad’s translation with Rashi’s commentary;
the Jewish virtual library on the Akedah;
Christian commentaries at Working Preacher and Bible.org.

And I tried to systematize my thoughts on this, that have accumulated over the course of God alone knows how many years. Something like this:

1) It is a text that stays hard, it seems to me. I think it is best to acknowledge that from the very beginning and not try to pretend otherwise. Because sometimes, I think, we try to read it in a way that makes it simpler than it is, or less threatening, or less perplexing, or that gets it to synch up neatly with our existing ideas about ethics and God and the demands of our religion, and all this, it seems to me, will require us to accept rubbish: empty slogans, platitudes, false comparisons, etc. One of the things this text does is pose unanswerable questions to us, and I have come to think that denying the unanswerability of some questions is a mistake.

2) I have noticed that we readers generally seem to identify with Abraham. How Abraham would have felt. What Abraham would have thought. What we would do if we were in Abraham’s shoes. Could we do that? Should we do that? But Abraham is not the only character in the story. Why don’t we identify with Isaac? Why don’t we identify with the servants who are left to wait – possibly in a state of dread, wondering whether they should or shouldn’t be doing something about this, whether they ought to do what they’ve been told to do, follow their orders, or at least check out what’s going on, or …? Why don’t we identify with Sarah, at home, thinking God knows what, knowing God knows what, consulted, or not, …? The point being that, from a human point of view, there are a lot of perspectives it would be possible to take when reading this story.

3) I have noticed that we focus on Abraham’s sacrifice. This makes sense, because the text focuses on Abraham, and focuses our attention on Abraham. But Abraham’s is not the only sacrifice taking place. I think we need to remember that Abraham’s sacrifice cannot be made without Isaac making a sacrifice, and without Sarah making a sacrifice. Abraham’s sacrifice is not simply a private, individual matter between himself and God. The same is true, or would be true, for us.

4) Assuming that Abraham did the right thing in the story is complicated for people in the modern world. I think we need to acknowledge this.

For one thing, we do not live in a world where we accept parents’ absolute rights over their children to the point of life and death. We don’t think parents have the right to kill their children. In this, our world, Abraham would have had to usurp his authority to obey God’s instruction; God’s command would have implied an instruction to Abraham to step outside, beyond, the socially-recognized scope of his authority and infringe the rights of his child.

We also do not live in a world, at least most of us don’t, where we have so much clarity about our instructions from God so much of the time that we would trust our sense that God had told us to kill someone. I think most of us, if we thought we had received an instruction from God to kill someone, would seek psychiatric help as our first response. Moreover, I think most of our family members, friends and fellow citizens would approve of that impulse. Furthermore, the law of the world we live in would permit other people to compel us to get psychiatric help, if we didn’t seek it out on our own, once they learned of our situation – the standard of “a danger to herself or others.” In general, I think most people think that standard ought to be enforced.

And so, it is not a simple matter for us, in our world, in which it is clearly against our self interest to allow that sometimes parents can have a right to kill their children and that if our family members, friends, or neighbors received instructions from God to kill someone they would need to obey those instructions, to assume Abraham did the right thing. Making that assumption is difficult.

And I don’t think we actually want it to be easy. Because if it were easy, we would be living in an even more precarious world than we are living in, and the one we are living in is precarious enough. I want that story to stay a story about someone else’s world, and I am pretty sure I am not alone in this.

5) But assuming Abraham did the right thing, I have to face the fact that I doubt, seriously, whether I would do what Abraham did. I can much more easily imagine myself doing the wrong thing than the right one. That is, I have to face the fact that there are things, people, that matter more to me than God. I have to ask myself, or at least think about asking myself, what I need to, what I am going to, do about that. It is possible that bringing a reader to this awareness is one of the things this text is in the Bible for. At least, I don’t think we can rule that out.