Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The binding of Isaac, September 2015


Broken ribs and all, I’m here tonight for another adventure in Genesis, tonight ready to tackle the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Russ and Marsha and Steve are here too. We all know the basics, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and at the last minute substitutes a ram. But what do we find in this chilling story?

God says lekh-lha, just like in God’s first command to Abraham to go. But in the command to sacrifice?  The rabbis in their midrash made much over the fact that Hebrew verb form implies a please, seemingly giving Abraham an out. Abraham, who late in life, miraculously has been given a son who will be the father of multitudes, the one who negotiated with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, does not even raise a question to this request that would wipe out his promise.

In the midrash there is this intensification.
Which son?
Your only son.
I have two sons.
The one you love.
I love both my sons.
Even Isaac.

So what does this mean? What is the story’s purpose? Steve believes that this is a story that makes it clear that as opposed to other cultures, YHWH’s people will NOT sacrifice children. I recall another commentator who believes that the test was for Isaac to say NO and he failed.

I’ve always struggled with what kind of God would roll like this. And how this relates to the substitutionary atonement theory that says because we are born into some kind of original sin, God demands blood sacrifice and offers up his own son on our behalf. Nothing about that appeals to me in any way whatsoever.

Wes Howard-Brook maintains that the basic point here is that our children should be brought up to trust completely in God and no one/thing/god else. And then he goes on to note that Abraham never speaks to Sarah or Isaac again. Isogetically suggesting that this family could never be the same after this experience. What would/could Abraham say to Sarah? How did this experience scar Isaac?

I point out that in the Koran, it’s up for debate which son is bound. But tradition has come down on the side of Ismail. And in the Koran, there’s no substitute ram, it’s just over. Not done.

Having analyzed the story from every linguistic, theological, literary and ideological perspective, I want to return to the story itself and allow it to move us on its own terms. A story that inspired Kierkegaard to write Fear and trembling…and Leonard Cohen to write  the Story of Isaac..  We look at his words:
The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, "I've had a vision
And you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady's mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
"just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

And the existential power of Cohen’s telling  grabs us. Steve has it on his IPhone, so we silently listen.

In the context of the Vietnam war, the message was clear. Eagle or vulture? (The US, can’t tell.) The comparison of awe-filled, hard to understand sacred reality and wanton sacrifice of children.  The shimmering quality of these words:

You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word

We have and we continue to sacrifice children. In war. And we barely notice anymore without a draft. It’s all other people’s children. Children who enter the military to escape the ghetto.My son's football friend Jaquan made it back. Others not so lucky.  A separate warrior class that we honor with camouflage sports uniforms  and tributes but don’t think about on a daily basis. Not like when my small mill town sent its young men to Vietnam then finally raised its voice in a collective voice when they help coming back broke if at all. Or the children in poverty without homes or food. Or the mass incarceration children. Or children murdered by police. We continue to sacrifice our children.

Leonard Cohen’s song is timeless and haunting. Steve has found it on his  iPhone. We sit in silence and listen. And deeper than theology, we hear truth.

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