Sermon: On the Binding of Isaac

[Sermon preached on Sunday, July 2, 2017 at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Genesis 22:9

One of the jobs of the preacher is name the obvious, to give voice to the uncomfortable, rather larger elephant in the room. As such, allow me to say what I feel to be true: our story from Genesis strikes our post-modern, Western, Christian ears as grotesque. Even the possibility of human sacrifice, regardless of whether it actually happens or not, appears to be a remnant of a less-evolved, less-enlightened, hyper-religious worldview, and aren’t we so glad we don’t live in that world anymore?

It is also the job of the preacher to name the truth, to excavate beneath the ancient ruins of our faith, to find wonderful words of life for living here and now, in a world suffocating under a cloud of half-truths and fake news. As such, allow me to say what I feel to be true: that our story is anything but a grotesque remnant of days gone by. It is a story of deep yearning, a desire to hew “a stone of hope from a mountain of despair”, to quote the words of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This story – the so-called “Binding of Isaac” – gives us a glimpse into the lives of people trying to make sense of the mess around them.

To fully appreciate this narrative as beautifully complex, we must step outside of our post-modern, Western, Christian worldview into the worldview of an oppressed, exiled, dejected people who were taken from the homeland, who witnessed the desecration of their sacred traditions and holy spaces by conquering armies, who saw their homes destroyed and families scattered into an unknown land. They are the Jewish exiles enduring Babylonian captivity.

To be sure, stories of the so-called “Patriarchs” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom we have yet to meet this summer) had been passed down orally from generation to generation since time immemorial, but, as with all oral traditions, there was a fluidity in their telling. You know what I’m talking about, right? Many of us have family stories that we tell over and over, adding a bit of this and that each time, stories that remember loved ones as “larger than life.” Whether the story is true or not is unimportant. What is more important is our remembering because the way we remember helps us to know something of ourselves, something of our own deep desires.

When the Jewish people faced the humiliation and utter devastation of Babylonian exile, they looked to the stories of their faith to help them to know something of themselves, to articulate their deepest grief and desires. In fact, these stories meant so much to them that they decided to write them down so that generations of Jewish children yet unborn would know who they were. The community elders knew that chaos and calamity can breed amnesia, that we can be seduced into disremembering who we are when we are faced with the horror of the human condition. Sacred stories can be the antidote to that amnesia, a tether that moors us in the shifting tides of an increasingly uncertain life.

One of those stories is the “Binding of Isaac,” the story where the father of the Jewish people, Abraham, offers the son of the Promise, Isaac, on an altar as a sacrifice to God. Before we go further, we have to remember the promise from earlier in Genesis where God tells Abraham “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[1] Now, by the time Abraham receives this divine promise, he’s seventy-five years old, and, to state the obvious again, the likelihood that a seventy-five year old man could travel hundreds of miles, and produce and raise a child with his not-all-that-much-younger wife, is less-than-likely. To any ordinary person, this command might’ve seemed like a pipe-dream.

But Abraham is the stuff of legend. He goes boldly into the unknown again and again, embracing uncertainty and ambiguity. Sure, he makes some mistakes along the way, but the subtext of his life is that he is a man of great faith.

The command from God that we heard today in Genesis must be heard from that background, from the space of a community who needed to remember that their greatest ancestor, Abraham, was a man of great faith who followed God into the unknown, who trusted God even when the situation around him seemed the bleakest.

But there is another person who begs to be remembered – Isaac. Can you imagine the scene? The road up the mountain is dusty and a bit overgrown. No one has traveled this way in a long time. The sun is timidly climbing the morning sky, occasionally obscured by ominous clouds that threaten rain, but produce none. Isaac has sacrificed with his father before. He knows what is required. Wood? Check. Fire? Check. Lamb? Where’s the lamb?

“Daddy, where the lamb?”

He knows something is off, kids can pick up on these things no matter how much we adults attempt to obscure it. He wants to believe his gut is wrong. He wants his father to assure him that the churning in his stomach is unwarranted. But his father, wearing a face of stone to hide a heart in tatters, can only muster up this curt response, “God will provide.”

It’s not much consolation, so they keep walking up the overgrown, dusty trail into the unknown with nothing but wood, fire, and hope.

When they reach the top of the mountain, Abraham stops, builds an altar, carefully laying out the wood planks, and then he takes his son, his beloved son, and he binds him carefully with rope and lays him on the altar. Isaac’s is confronted by his deepest fear, but he says nothing because, in that moment, Abraham’s faith has become Isaac’s faith. His fear melts into duty as he willingly submits to the will of God even at the cost of his own life.

To our post-modern, Western, Christian ears, this story sounds grotesque, but to Jewish families living in Babylonian exile, this story is one of hope. They watched the utter destruction of their lives. They watched their brave husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons dutifully die in battle defending their small kingdom from the onslaught of the Babylonian army. They watched them die as heroes of their people. They watched them die as martyrs Kiddush Hashem (to sanctify the name of God). Isaac was all of their husbands, and brothers, and fathers, and sons who died defending their loved ones even though they lost the battle in the end. And even though he did not die, Isaac serves as one of the first Jewish martyrs, the person from whom all Jewish martyrs throughout history would take their hope and meaning. In calling Isaac to that altar, God was sanctifying every sacrificial death.

It might not make a whole of sense to us, but place yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost everything, who simply has to believe that the death of loved ones has to serve a higher purpose than simple, human cruelty, who has to believe that God would make something beautiful out of their pain.

We’ve been searching for hope in the midst of despair since, well, forever. Our stories might have different protagonists and antagonists, or take place in various times and places, or differ on the details. We might call the glorious dead ancestors, or martyrs, or heroes, or patriots, or pastors, or Civil Rights leaders, or innocent. They might have holidays and monuments to commemorate them, or streets that bear their names, or they might only have makeshift memorials on obscure sidewalks and hashtags on social media. Whoever they are, we have struggled to find meaning in their deaths and to ascribe higher value to their sacrifice because, at the point of death, those of us left behind need strength to keep living and fighting for justice, or freedom, or liberty, or peace…

…or hope.

Maybe that strength is found in faith, not unlike that of Abraham and Isaac, that the blessed promise of God – a promise composed around the soothing lullaby of God’s peace – sings quietly beneath the chaos and anxiety of the moment.

To state the obvious: that might just be the news the world needs to hear the most right now.


[1] Genesis 12:1

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