7/9/17: Go and See, Genesis 22:1;14
Go and See
Third in the series: Family, Failure and Fatih
A Walk With Our Spiritual Ancestors
First Lesson: Psalm 13
Second Lesson: Genesis 22:1-14
Rev. Scott Dickison
There are a few passages in Scripture that upon hearing them, make it difficult to say, “This is the word of the Lord.” And even more, “Thanks be to God.” This is one of those stories.
And we need to just go ahead and say it: this story, as we have here, is horrifying.
There’s simply no away around it. It’s disturbing, as we imagine this scene as it unfolds so dramatically and painfully and most of all, plainly, before us. We’re given so few details, leaving us to fill in gaps with our own imaginations, which indeed generations of readers have. The ancient rabbis imagined how Abraham must have questioned this divine command. Surely he must have bargained for his son’s life at least as hard as he had for the city of Sodom just a few chapters before. So they imagined how this father might have tried to “wiggle out from the divine thumb” as Ellen Davis puts it. Hear how they slow it down:
Take your son, God says.
I have two sons, Abraham replies.
Your only son.
This is the only son of his mother, and this other one is the only son of his mother.
The one you love.
I love them both.
The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that this story, which he understood as the quintessential call to faith, with all it’s complexities and agonizing frustrations, rendered him sleepless as he imagined the scene and all that must ave happened around it: The pain with which Abraham must have received these words from God—how did he sleep that night in between the call and the journey? And what of the drama of their long walk together to the mountain. The tension in their exchange along the way when the young boy Isaac asks where the lamb is for the offering, and Abraham, surely through gritted teeth answers plainly, and in turns out truthfully, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
And what would this experience have done to Isaac? Could he ever look at his father the same way again? Should he? Would he agree with the old Japanese aphorism, that says “three things are to be feared and hated: earthquakes, fires and fathers?—He survived two of the three that days. Is it coincidence that Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again in Scripture? And could Isaac ever look at God the same way? Could this be why, as some have pointed out, Isaac, even as an old man, never speaks of God as being a God of love, only a God of fear?
And what of Sarah—where is the mother in this scene? In fact, this is a good question for so many of the stories in the Bible involving fathers and their sons: where are the mothers! The rabbis wondered if it wasn’t more than a coincidence that immediately after this story we’re told of Sarah’s death. They imagined the scene when Isaac came back down the mountain and his mother asked him, Where have you been my son? When he told her, how his father took him up the mountain and all that happened there, she said to him, Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain?!
Yes, he replied. And Sarah, they said, overwhelmed by it all, had scarcely heard the boy finish speaking the word when she fell to the ground and died.
All these questions hover around the story, and of course, we’ll never know the answers. But they aren’t even the most pressing questions this story raises. Those have to do with God. This story presents us with a vision of God that’s hard for our modern minds to grasp. Is this how the God we know operates? Does God really test us in this way?
This story suggests God does, and truthfully, this is not a foreign concept in the Bible. This idea that God tests us, as people of God, is a well-developed biblical theme, and I’m indebted here to Walter Brueggemann for teasing this out. The idea of God testing the people of God is found throughout the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Deuteronomy and the prophets. But lest we write off this worldview as a pre-Jesus kind of thing, don’t forget testing shows up in the New Testament as well. Think of the Lord’s Prayer we recited together just a few minutes ago, the prayer our brother Jesus taught us, near the end when we pray that God would, lead us not into temptation, which seems to mean, “keep us from getting into situations where our faith will be tested, where we will be forced to choose or resist or decide.” The prayer, as Brueggemann puts it, is that we won't be tested; that we won’t be found out.
We hear in New Testament of other times when the early church was tested—when they were forced to decide how much they would accommodate to a world that was becoming more and more adversarial. How would they respond to the persecution? Later they would be tempted by a world that was becoming more and more welcoming to them, at least on the surface, and harder to live apart from. And they were forced to decide how they were to be different, or if they were really to be different at all—a situation not foreign to us today when for so many the lines between citizenship and discipleship are so fuzzy, and to be a real American is synonymous with being follower of Jesus.
In the world of the Bible, testing makes us decide in whom we’ll finally put our trust. Will it be the God of Israel, the God of Scripture, the God of Christ and the faith we claim? Or will it the less-demanding, comforting, but ultimately bankrupt alternatives to God?
But equally important to this story is the claim that the God who tests is also the God who provides. The God who tested Abraham with the call to sacrifice what was most valuable to him is the same God who ultimately provided an alternative in the ram in the thicket. And as Brueggemann puts it, In a world best by humanism, scientism, and naturalism, the claim that God alone provides is as scandalous as the claim that he tests. Do we believe God is the one who provides for us, or is it our own hard work, the laws of nature, or something else? Do we believe that God is truly working to provide for us? That God has a purpose in out life that God is subtly, quietly urging us toward? Does God have something, deep in God’s own heart, deep in God’s imagination, for us? Do we truly believe this? In the end this may be it. It may be that the real test is whether or not we will see the way God provides.
Some have pointed out that this command to sacrifice his son is the last words God says to Abraham. Later in the story, it isn’t God, but an angel of the Lord who tells Abraham not to kill the boy. The first words of God to Abraham, back in chapter 12 of Genesis, is the command to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And now here, some 10 chapters later, the call comes again, “…go to the land of Moriah…[to] one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Two commands to go and see what God will show him.
And the image of sight keeps appearing in this story. Abraham sees the mountain in the distance. Isaac sees that there is no lamb, and of course most importantly, in the moment of crisis, Abraham sees the ram caught in the thicket by his horns. There’s a line of interpretation of this story that focuses on this ram. How did it just appear—or had it been there all along and Abraham only saw it when he did? In the Mishnah, this ancient collection of sayings and proverbs within Judaism, there is one collection called the Pirkei Avot, the “Sayings of the Ancestors,” that quotes a list of miraculous things that God created on the last day of creation—these are things that can’t be explained by reason or science, but are nonetheless here. And I’m told that on this list of miraculous things is “the ram for Abraham our father.”
The ancient rabbis saw this ram as a mystery of creation—how it appeared, or how Abraham saw it when he was most in need. And I don’t know that the rabbis would claim that the ram itself was as old as creation, walking the earth for those eons before that moment on Moriah. But I do think they would say that woven into creation is the promise that God will provide, that rams will appear when we need them, if we would but lift up our eyes.
The word “provide” itself gestures toward this. It literally means “to see.” So to say that God provides is to say that God sees. God sees something that we do not. God sees a way forward, God sees an alternative, God sees the safe refuge just around the bend, God sees the light at the end of the diagnosis, God sees how there’s always a little more robe just when we’re sure we’re at the end of it. To say that God provides is to say that God sees—that God sees what we do not, or at least that we do not yet. And this is perhaps what faith is: trusting that God sees something we do not.
And the hope that travels closely with this trust, is that in God’s time, we, too, will see. We will see what God sees, we will see how God provides, how God offers an alternative to the dead ends we see around us. And it’s because of this hope that the church has traditionally read the 22nd chapter of Genesis on Good Friday, as a kind of precursor to the event of that holy weekend. A foreshadowing of how God will be the one to offer up a son. How God would once again test and provide.
When we began this series looking at some of our spiritual ancestors we noted that these stories weren’t necessarily handed down as examples for how we should live—these are flawed people, just as we are flawed. More often we receive these stories to tell us something about how God works through our flaws to carry out divine purpose on the world. But every now and again in these characters that we claim as family, we see glimpses of the kind of faith we would hope for ourselves. That Abraham saw the ram—the ram that perhaps had been there since the beginning of time, perhaps not, but certainly the ram that God had intended for him to see—that Abraham saw this provision of God, this gift, this alternative choice previously unseen, this new path that was opened up before him in the exact moment when he needed it—isn’t this what we would ask in our own lives? Our lives as individuals: that when the darkness closes in, when the grief and the loss seems so overwhelming, when we wonder what purpose or meaning there is in the present moment, that God would bless us with new light.
Isn’t this what we would ask for our life together here as a church, that we would discern together new ways forward, be open to fresh insight and understand—to trust that one of the ways God provides is through the wisdom and experiences of the people God has put around us; that it’s through the eyes of others that we see things anew.
And finally, isn’t this what we would wish for our wider circles of community? That in this present moment, when so many deadness are before us, God would provide a new ways forward. That God would lift our eyes so that we might see something new—see an alternative. Isn’t this what it means to live as a person of faith—not just in this present moment, but since we are in the present moment—isn’t this what it means? To be a people who trust that God sees what we do not. A people who trust that rams, in all their many forms, do appear. To trust that this provision has been woven into the very fabric of creation, in ways we don’t fully understand, but trusting that perhaps one day we will.
 As found in Ellen Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 55
 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.
 For the life of me, I can’t remember where this was pointed out to me!
 Just one of several Midrash the death of Sarah, catalogued here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/sarah-and-the-akedah/
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1982) 190-191. Brueggeamann remains essential to my reading of this, and so many of the most challenging texts in the Hebrew Bible.