Genesis 22:1-14 – The 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, June 29, 2014
“After these things God tested Abraham…” (Genesis 22:1)
Isaac’s name, the son of Abraham and Sarah, meant “laughter.”
I’m glad the name didn’t translate into talkative or verbose.
Maybe Isaac was a smiling, giggling child and oft justified his name’s promise. Certainly Isaac’s name came from his mother Sarah, who’d laughed at (not with) the messengers from God when promised she’d soon become pregnant in her, er, “golden years.”
Laugh Isaac might have, but based on the Biblical witness, the kid wasn’t a talker. Between Isaac’s birth to his elderly parents and his twin sons’ births when he was 60 years of age, Isaac spoke once in Genesis’ verses. Of note, the second time this revered patriarch of the Hebrew people opened his mouth had to do with muttering a deceit. In Genesis 26:7, well after his twins Jacob and Esau were born, Isaac lied about his wife Rebekah to people he feared: “She is my sister.”
Maybe he was better off when he kept his mouth shut?
But I’m confident you know the only other time Isaac spoke before that cowardly ruse about his wife. In what is arguably one of the most famous and troubling passages of the Bible, the youth Isaac is taken by his father Abraham into the wilderness to be . . .
God “tested” Abraham’s faith and ordered him to take Isaac to an isolated place. Abraham gathered the supplies necessary for the deed, fulfilling the Holy’s demand to the point of aiming a knife at his child’s trussed body.
Along with God and Abraham, the reader—millennia ago or today—knew what was unfolding. Whether the reader was appalled at God’s “test” of Abraham’s faith or applauded Abraham’s faith in the Holy, Genesis doesn’t leave anyone guessing. God gave the order. Abraham chose to fulfill the order. The reader/listener was privy to all.
Only Isaac remained ignorant.
Which was around the time he uttered his one line between the time he was born and the time his lied about his wife Rebekah.
“Father,” Isaac wondered, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Since honesty seemed a flexible value in Abraham’s family, Isaac’s beloved father answered his beloved son, “God himself will provide a lamb for a burnt offering . . .”
Am I too harsh on Abraham? Did Abraham—then with his knife in his sheath, before he stacked kindling on an “altar” and strapped his son down so that the youth couldn’t escape—joyfully and faithfully (or reluctantly and fearfully) believe God would “provide a lamb?” What was going on in Abraham’s heart?
If we don’t know what gripped Abraham’s fatherly, fearful, faithful heart, we also have no idea what Isaac believed.
Isaac asked no follow-up question. Trust Dad; trust Dad’s God. Trust that somewhere, in the isolated and foreboding wilderness, a lamb would soon be found.
Trust is tricky. A child easily gives it. And yet an adult knows how precarious trust can be. Once broken, it can be hard—perhaps impossible—to rebuild trust.
I reflect on my father when following Abraham and Isaac’s wilderness trek. I think of the many ways Dad demonstrated his love for me . . . and also of the moments I wish he’d voiced the words, “I love you.” But Dad was part of the “silent generation,” a man influenced by a culture of men that deemed showing love was far more important than speaking words.
As I “watched” Abraham guide his son toward that makeshift altar, I recall Dad taking my dog Ginger to the vet, but returning home alone. I’d always wanted a dog. I whined about getting a dog. I pleaded with Mom. I promised Dad I’d do everything necessary to care for a puppy. My parents, though not pet lovers, finally succumbed to their eager nine-year-old son. I don’t think I kept all my promises. I suspect Mom and Dad spent more time caring for Ginger than they wanted.
But! I! Had! A! Dog!
And then one day I didn’t.
Without ever telling me (until later), my parents determined Ginger might be ill. Next, between Dad and a vet, another decision was made. Ginger, wracked with an illnesses a child couldn’t see on the outside but a vet discerned with the tools of the trade, was “put to sleep.”
How could Dad allow that? It was awful! I cried. I questioned. I felt guilty . . . had my inadequate care led to Ginger’s illness?
Dad’s compassionate act in taking the dog to the vet, and never once telling me, probably broke his heart. He may not have wanted a pet in the house, but he wanted to please his kid.
How precious kids are. How precious and precarious trust is. To this day, I wish Dad had told me everything. I wish I’d been part of the decision to end Ginger’s life.
Or do I?
Are we unsettled by Abraham’s actions? Do we admire the patriarch of three faiths and his belief in the Holy? Are we willing to live, and to live out faith, knowing the strength and fragility of trust?
Abraham never lied to his son. True enough, he never explained “everything.” Maybe Isaac was too young and Abraham didn’t think his child could comprehend the Holy “test.” And certainly the only time Isaac spoke, with his bewilderment about the crucial lamb’s absence, he appeared to trust his father’s response.
We don’t know how heavy Abraham’s heart was.
Or how heavy his arm felt when he lifted the knife.
And yet I will guess. Abraham, loving his God, loving his son, was a wreck. And I will guess about my own father . . . with a wounded heart, he did what he hoped was best for me.
*As I wrote this reflection, I also wondered if I was trivializing Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac by comparing that searing, perplexing account to my parent’s decisions about a dog. I think I am; I hope I’m not. For believers (Jew or Christian and even Muslim), this passage evokes strong reactions. How could God ask that of Abraham? Does God really test us? Some might also belittle the scene’s value since all worked out: Abraham believed, Isaac was spared and only a ram lost its life. It was just as God planned . . . right? Of the many ways these verses can be interpreted—though all will be inadequate—the relationship between father and son/parent and child, and how trust is risked or avoided, resonated with me. For me, and maybe only for me, my father’s actions still serve as a lesson that I may not agree with or fully understand . . . but I (eventually) trusted Dad acted with love in his heart. I may not ever fully understand what went on between God, Abraham and Isaac . . . but trust and love (including questioning trust and love) form the essential foundations for the story.
(Painting image from here.)