I am not a fan of this week’s lectionary assembly of readings. I know why they set these particular passages alongside one another, but I contest the message of Romans placed alongside Genesis. Uncritical obedience to God is not the moral of the story. In our 21c. context it just isn’t helpful—in fact, it could be harmful. And so, here we are, challenged by not one but two passages of scripture. But, before I address my concerns with Paul, let’s walk with Abraham and Isaac for a moment. Because reading their story against the grain will perhaps give us courage to question seemingly straightforward readings of Paul’s letter.
When approaching this sermon I realized I would have to focus on either Abraham or Isaac. And today much of the view is from the perspective of Abraham. But Isaac is still very much present. And, no matter how a preacher interprets this text it is a trauma narrative. It’s a trauma because no one emerges from this story unscathed—not even God.
The journey to Moriah is one of the most psychologized stories of the Hebrew scriptures. Of course it is. Here is Abraham, the patriarch, taking his son “his only son Isaac” to be made a burnt offering—a sacrifice—to Yahweh, the very God who promised Abraham offspring as numerous as the stars. And yet we know that Isaac was not his only son, and that God promised life and a future to Ishmael as well. So why this sudden turnabout? Who is this God who would test Abraham in this way, going against God’s very own promises?
Would it help if I mentioned that this is not the only version of the story?
Sometimes having friends who are Hebrew scholars is better than consulting commentaries. So I asked my friend Mark about this story. He mentioned that the story we’ve inherited in the Hebrew Bible is not the only version known from ancient writings.
There is another version recounted in Jewish Rabbinic literature that follows a slightly different path. The differences hinge on the command from Yahweh, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” My friend shared that the Hebrew phrasing in that passage is quite clunky, as if something is missing. And there’s a midrash that fills in the gaps, so to speak, turning the command itself into a dialogue.
The Holy One (speaks): “Abraham!”
Abraham: “Here I am!”
Yahweh: “Take your son, your only son”
Abraham: “which one is that?”
Yahweh: “your only son”
Abraham: “But one of my sons is the only son of his mother, and the other is the only son of his mother.”
Yahweh: “The son you love”
Abraham: “I love them both”
Yahweh: “The one you love the most”
Abraham: “Is there a limit in the viscera?” (i.e., Is there a measure within which a man gauges the love he bears his sons?)
In this rendition Abraham presses God to say which son. While it doesn’t change the absurdity of the command, it adds a few twists and turns.
When my friend told me about the midrashic version, suddenly I recognized Abraham—here was the man who questioned God about the destruction of Sodom, who pointed out, “far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked. . . Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gn 18.25) In fact, he even haggles with God, first for the lives of fifty righteous people within the city, then forty, thirty, and on down to ten.
Abraham is willing to hold the divine One accountable. Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?
We see a similar dynamic play out in the story of Job. In fact, there are a number of similarities: God allows Job to be tested, Job calls on God to explain Godself. (There are passages written as if they were in a judicial trial setting.) In the end there is divine blessing, but only after losing, for Job, flesh of his flesh, his whole family; and for Abraham, nearly losing his beloved son.
This is why I question the seemingly straightforward message of obedience that comes up in our reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. If Abraham tested God (even as God was testing him), rather than consenting immediately to the command to sacrifice his son, then our understanding of obedience needs to be contoured, and how we understand the interplay of obedience and righteousness must be interrogated.
What if the quality that makes Abraham the father of our faith is not blind obedience, but is a kind of trust that rises up alongside the courage to question the God of the universe? [let me ask that again] What if the quality that makes Abraham the father of our faith is not blind obedience, but is a kind of trust that rises up alongside the courage to question the God of the universe?–especially in cases of the unnecessary taking of life. In other words, what if Abraham’s righteousness–his uprightness–comes in part from the way he holds God accountable? After all, Abraham is described as one who “walks with God”—a phrase that connotes intimacy and a depth of relationship that can only come with some sparring and (more than?) a little conflict.
The Genesis passage sets up the commandment as a test for Abraham at a point in the narrative arc when God and Abraham have already traveled far together. By this time God had made two covenants with the patriarch—a covenant to occupy the land, and a covenant with Isaac and his descendants, as signified by the mark of circumcision. God was the one to invite Abraham into his plan to destroy Sodom. God also “heard” Abraham’s prayers and promised to bless Ishmael (Gn 17.20). By now it’s clear that the patriarch and the Holy One are not simply vassal and Lord—this is not a relationship of strict subservience; just as, later on in the history of salvation, Jesus will call his disciples friends.
Trust, intimacy that comes with sharing one’s thoughts and desires, divine promises spoken and enacted through ritual—all of these elements found in the correspondence between Abraham and God ought to contour the notion of “obedience.”
In last week’s passage in Romans Paul reminds his listeners that they are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus through baptism. The act of baptism is one that mimics Jesus’ death and resurrection and situates baptized persons in an in-between space—a space where we have become kin to Jesus Christ in imitation of his death, and where we anticipate living with the triune God in a yet-to-be realized kinship that is resurrection life. It is the tensive space of the “now” and “not yet” of the reign of God.
The discussion of baptism undergirds today’s reading when Paul says (and here I’m reading from a contemporary translation), “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your bodily members to God as weapons of justice, for sin shall not dominate; for you are not under Law, but rather under grace.” And there, in verse 13, I hear echoes from the mountain in Moriah, of Isaac being returned as if from the dead. Yet while we call it grace that a divine messenger stopped Abraham from following through, a shadow of horror haunts these texts.
And this is where it becomes a little difficult for the preacher to articulate the good news of the gospel.
Because while the intimacy and trust between God and Abraham breathes life into Paul’s letter, demonstrating that obedience is only meaningful when there is testing and probing and trusting all together; Isaac remains bound on the pyre.
Thinking through these two readings—one a terrible text, the other terribly interpreted over the years—a question emerges for me: how might an obedience that leads to ‘uprightness’ (or righteousness) express itself in the face of the binding of Isaac? And not necessarily the Isaac of ancient Hebrew literature, but Isaac as representative of those today who are bound and subjected to death in the name of power, empire, or unholy causes. What might it look like for me to appropriate Abraham’s testy nature when the powers-that-be declare that sacrifices must be made. Because if Abraham can get testy with the God of the universe, surely I can ask a few questions of the god-like forces on this earth. I think of this in the context of our nation celebrating its 247th year of this political experiment called a democratic republic. We are witnessing some grave testing of this political system, including some legislative and judicial decisions that will likely cut lives short–and some of those are made in the name of god.
And so, I wrestle with these texts, and I invite you to wrestle with these texts as well. There is good news here: we are not under sin but are under grace. We live on this side of the cross and resurrection. Through baptism we anticipate the fullness of life with the triune God–the Anointed One, the Father, the Spirit–and all brothers and sisters.
For today, when you hear a call for sacrifices to be made, with Abraham our faith compels us to ask, which child? Who is to be sacrificed? And when we see others bound by systems (in the name of a god), let’s find ways together to pray for mercy, yes, and to stay the hands of those wielding instruments of death.
On this side of the cross and resurrection let us unbind, and be faithful. Amen.