Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Divine Silence

 A renowned professor called it “the most powerful silence in literary history.” Abraham had just responded to his son Isaac’s question as to what exactly they would be sacrificing once they made it up the mountain. The answer:

“The Lord will provide.”

Nothing more is said until Abraham’s son, his “only son, the one whom [he] loved”, is tied and bound on the altar.

As in a lot of the narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is so much in between the lines – so much we are not told. It is, as my Old Testament professor said, “a story that DEMANDS interpretation.” We cannot be satisfied with the gaps. What did Abraham and Isaac talk about during the three-day trip? The small exchange above can’t be the only topic of discussion that came up. What did Abraham tell Sarah they were doing as they left? Perhaps more importantly, what did he tell her when they got back? What did Isaac say to his father after the angel intervened to save his life? What did Isaac say when his father began tying him up? When Abraham pulled the knife?

We are not given any of these answers. We do know that Isaac and Abraham do not speak again after this incident, and the next chapter sees Sarah die.

What kind of God do we have in this story? “Mysterious” would be putting it nicely. “Sadistic” sounds a bit more accurate at times. Sure, God stops Abraham, but Abraham was willing to kill (the Hebrew word is closer to “slaughter”) his own flesh and blood. What is celebrated here? Abraham’s “obedience”? If anything, I would celebrate the fact that Isaac has any faith whatsoever after being untied. What a phenomenally disturbing scene.

This story brings up so many questions, as do many things today: Why do some people starve, while others throw away food daily? Why is the Holy Land the place where violence makes its home on a regular basis? Where is God in the sickness of domestic violence, rape, and homelessness that infects the world’s richest country?

I don’t know why, as I’m sure Isaac didn’t know why his father’s God would act in the way that God did.

Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe God messed up, and Isaac showed God the way, by continuing to hold on to faith, even when things made no sense, when things seemed God-forsaken.

Maybe we need to forgive God sometimes.

I don’t know.  Maybe Phyllis Trible said it best:

"To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle demons in the night, without a compassionate God to save us. In combat we wonder about the names of the demons. Our own names, however, we all too frightfully recognize. The fight itself is solitary and intense. We struggle mightily, only to be wounded. But yet we hold on, seeking a blessing: the healing of wounds and the restoration of health. If the blessing comes – and we dare not claim assurance – it does not come on our terms. Indeed, as we leave the land of terror, we limp.”


At 10:18 AM , Anonymous benjamin said...

What I find interesting about this story is that is shows that God is beyond morality. What do I mean by this? To sacrifice Isaac would have been the moral thing to do. Yes, the moral thing to do. Morality is defined as the social moores of a certain place and time, the "Rights and wrongs" of a culture. In Abraham's culture, the surrounding tribes did suscribe to human sacrifice in order to propiate the gods. Thus, another person in that age, viewing what Abraham was called to do, would have considered it moral. We can even speculate that Abraham may have considered it normal. He didn't appear to put up too much of a protest (though assuredly he had questions regarding the promised seed and its longevity). Abraham didn't appear to assume this request was a moral outrage, for it fit in with the morality of the time: to please the gods you sacrifice humans from time to time. God is shown here to be beyond human morality. God's prevention of the sacrifice defies human morality and shows us an immoral God- albeit a beautiful and loving immmorality. It's something to think about. (I read some blog or another last year sharing the same idea.)


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