Sunday, June 29, 2008

A reflection on Proper 8: Genesis 22:1-14

Few scripture readings are as disturbing as our reading today from Genesis. Through out the ages people have wrestled with this text. In our modern world we struggle to understand a God who would be so cruel. As Christians we read back into this scripture story and hear it as a precursor to Christ, specifically the idea that just as God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, so God sacrificed his son. This idea, that God chose to sacrifice Christ, is known as “Atonement Theology” and it conveys one example of what God was doing in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Although some are more familiar to us, there are seven or eight “Atonement Theories,” or versions of what we humans think God was doing. They include absurd notions like, “It wasn’t really Christ on the cross, just a body, Christ was someplace else” to things like “God needed this in order to reconcile sinful humanity” or the more contemporary version, “God sent Christ into the world that we might know the fullness of God’s love but we humans killed God’s love, killed Christ…and even still God, through the resurrection, shows us the depth of God’s love.”

Similar to the many versions of Atonement theology people have developed a number of understandings of the Abraham and Isaac story. Rabbis in the Jewish tradition have an ancient process by which they explore the meaning of scripture. They employ a process called “Midrash” to look at the text. The Gospels portray Jesus himself doing this in the parables and other stories he tells.

Doing Midrash is like looking at the text through a lens, each person looking at it would see something different. The person looking at the text focuses on what they consider to be the “rough” spots, the places in the text that seem incongruous, or somehow jump out at them.

Some rough spots in this text, according to the Midrash tradition include: “why a test?” We aren’t told why God was testing Abraham, only that “God tested Abraham.” So the rabbis wonder, what is this about? In midrash, nothing is meaningless, every word might point to something profound. Some suggest that God was testing Abraham because after the birth of Isaac Abraham had a big celebration but forgot to thank God in that celebration. According to this midrash, the Satan, the one who serves on God’s council and caused all kinds of problems for Job, points this out to God and God responds, “Abraham will do anything I ask, even sacrifice his only son.”

Now, of course in midrash, we don’t hear the Satan say this, it’s the rabbis pondering the text and thinking through what might logically have occurred.

Another Midrash has Isaac and his half brother Ishmael arguing about who Abraham loves best. Before long the argument turns to God. Isaac offers to be sacrificed as proof of his love for God, regardless of who Abraham might love best.

And yet another midrash has Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. Isaac is tied up and lying on the wood. Abraham raises his knife, about to stab Isaac when God says, “Abraham.” But Abraham does not hear God and proceeds to kill his son. Later God says, “Abraham did you not hear me when I called to you?” Abraham says, “Why yes I heard a voice but I did not think it was you. You told me to sacrifice my son, why would you then tell me not too? I thought that was the voice of the Tempter trying to distract me from following your desire. How was I to know it was really you calling me?”

This is the midrash I want to focus on today. How do we know it is God calling us? How do we know this especially if God is calling out to us to do something we least expect? That’s a tough one.

Perhaps you remember the words of Paul, that we humans are only able to see in a mirror dimly…so we need time to check out what we discern, check out if it is of God or another. But clearly in the case of this reading, both the original from our text this morning, and in the Midrash, Abraham does not take the time to ponder…he just acts. We hear nothing of him struggling over the request to take his son and sacrifice him. It appears that after God asks this of him, Abraham does not lose sleep, he just goes about preparing for this trip and this sacrifice as if it were any ordinary activity on any ordinary day. And in the real reading, when God tells Abraham to stop, he does. Isaac is not sacrificed because Abraham stops, on a dime, just like that. He doesn’t think about it then. Neither does he think about it in the Midrash - God asks him to stop but he doesn’t even pause to ponder who may be speaking to him. In this reading we are given a version of Abraham as a man who, when it comes to God, doesn’t think, he just does.

But for many of us, this would be impossible. Most of us would struggle, a lot. We would lose sleep and be anxious over one decision or the other. We would wonder if something so difficult could really be of God.

So. How are we to know if what is going on is of God or not? There are a variety of ways. First and foremost we check it out. We talk to other people, lay and clergy, and see what they think. We pray about it. We wait and see if the thought, idea, urge, impulse, continues. We ponder it in the context of the shema, also known as the summary of the law, what it means to love God, love self and love neighbor. We consider the energy we feel behind it. Sometimes the more uncomfortable something makes us the more possible it is that it is God. The “safe feeling easy thing” may not be of God.

But then even that is not necessarily true. Sometimes the very thing God calls us to do does feel just right, easy and simple.

So, in addition to talking to clergy and colleagues, taking it to prayer, waiting awhile, listening carefully to what is going on inside, another thing we can do is bring it a community of people. We can ask their prayers and their thoughts and insight.

And then somehow in the midst of all this praying and listening and discerning, there comes a time when we just know what we are supposed to do.

I guess in the end all we can do is wrestle with the questions: We have Abraham who models one kind of response to God, God calls and he responds. This passage appears to present Abraham as being is so in touch with God that he doesn’t need to do the things we do, he just knows what God wants and does it.

This story reminds us that following God can be arduous and scary and challenging.

As humans we are not usually going to be able to follow God with out pausing to think.
We will most likely be filled with doubt, struggle, and worry, and uncertainty.

We can’t respond like Abraham because we aren’t him. Being faithful to God doesn’t mean we act without thinking. It means we respond. and wrestling with the questions can be a good, faithful response.

(coming soon: pictures of our trip to Mexico and then to the Grand Canyon....this is the last night that daughter and Ryan are so, I'm spending time with them...)


Diane said...

a difficult passage... I like the way you bring midrash in.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I'm learning to really appreciate midrash.

I like the way you tie this to the discernment process and give people a way to tell whether what might seem like an outrageous leading is truly from God. I think that's a helpful angle on this story.

Songbird said...

What a good job of tying the story and midrash to the discernment process in your community, well done.

Brad & Melissa said...

This is really good.

I suppose ideally we would be in touch with God to the same degree as Abraham.

But I've never taken the time to consider the present day application of the story. It always just seemed like one of those old testament stories that come with a heavy dose of reading between the lines.


Mary Beth said...

Thank you for this! All we can do is wrestle with the questions...yes.

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