"The Sacrifice of Isaac" Carvaggio ca. 1603. Public Domain.
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together. 9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
I’m going to nerd out a bit. I am a huge fan of Zombies. There are classic movies like Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, and the still-running television series The Walking Dead on AMC. Recent entries in the genre have branched out. There are now zombie musicals like Anna and the Apocalypse, two Disney movies about zombies entitled Zombies and Zombies 2, the zombie action blockbuster World War Z, and zombie comedies like Zombieland.
While the genre expands, many zombie stories focus on a small group of survivors and the difficult, even impossible choices they must make to stay alive in an oppressively violent, zombified world. The genre is such a force that colleges across the US even offer classes on zombies where students get college credit for watching zombie movies and reading Zombie literature. These classes are not just for film students. Instead, today's zombie-themed courses can be found in philosophy, psychology, and business departments because underneath all the gore, zombie movies often address big human questions like morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community.
But sometimes the violence and doom of the zombie genre can become too much, at least for me. I’ve had to stop watching the Walking Dead series twice because the show is so effective at taking away every window of hope or element of humanity from each of the main characters. For me, the dread of zombie stories can reach a tipping point, where the few nuggets of love, redemption, or kindness aren’t enough to make it worth my time.
Is it sacrilegious that I think of some stories in our Scriptures like zombie stories? A handful, maybe even more than a handful, of our Biblical stories are downright awful. They depict scenes of violence and torture, seem to promote genocide, and represent God and humans at their absolute worst. I believe that, as people of faith, we should challenge ourselves to find the lesson in these stories, the “Word” in all the words. Sometimes, underneath all the gore and inhumanity, we can see Biblical authors probing big questions and searching for answers that address the same theme mentioned above; morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community. But there are times when the story is so difficult, offending and problematic, that like a zombie movie that’s become too much, I have to put it down.
Take today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible – called the “Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22. This lesson comes up in our Sunday reading schedule once every three years. Sometimes when a difficult passage comes up, we opt to go with an alternative, but this one is unique. This story is like a zombie movie that reached the tipping point of awful, but we are still forced to watch. And it’s because this story is central to the development and practice of our faith and other world religions as well. Abraham is a foundational figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which some call the “Abrahamic Faiths.” This specific story is foundational in all three traditions. The story of the Aqedah or “Binding” is chanted during the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The story was central to early Christian theological formation as thinkers developed ways to understand the crucifixion of Jesus and the story of the resurrection. In the Islamic calendar, the “Feast of Sacrifice” is one of the most important holy days for Muslims. It falls after the Hajj and celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son.
But make no mistake, this story is awful. Here’s the context. In Genesis 12 God spoke to Abraham when he was known as Abram, saying,
Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and curse those you curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And Abraham followed God’s invitation. He packed everything, and he and his entire household, including his spouse Sarah, other relatives, and servants, wandered out of the safety of their ancestral lands and their tribe and into a dangerous world. For several chapters in the book of Genesis, we follow Abraham and his group of wanderers around on their adventures. He rescues his nephew from bandits, pretends his wife is his sister and almost marries her away, eludes death, is blessed by a mysterious priest, and tries to intercede with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And then his son Isaac is born, a miraculous birth foretold by God. Our story picks up from here.
One night, God speaks to Abraham in a dream or vision and offers him a test:
‘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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
Human sacrifice occurred in the Ancient Near East when this story was written down, although scholars argue to what degree it happened. There is archaeological and written evidence that children would sometimes be sacrificed to a local deity when a tribe or people faced extreme hardship like famine, war, or plague to appease an angry god. In other situations, a prominent citizen would sacrifice one of their children as a sign of resolute faithfulness to a deity with the idea that there was nothing of greater importance to give up. Abraham was called out of a Chaldean culture that practiced both versions of child sacrifice and interacted with tribes and cultures that did the same.
In our story, God speaks directly to Abraham, and, interestingly, this is the first time in our scriptures where someone is described loving another person. Abraham loves his son Isaac. Likely we are to read that Isaac is the most important thing in Abraham’s life. And yet, the next day, Abraham packs everything up and heads out with Isaac to Moriah. Three days later, Isaac is lying bound on an altar, and Abraham has the knife in hand when an angel of the Lord stops the sacrifice and points out an alternative – a ram stuck in a nearby thicket. Isaac is replaced on the altar by the ram, which is sacrificed in the son’s place.
Traditionally, we might reflect on a handful of themes that fit within our Christian faith. Perhaps we could talk about the reality that there are trials in our lives. We all face difficult choices and long for God to provide when our backs are against the wall. We might remember that the Lord’s Prayer petitions God that we not be led into temptations and trials.
We might also reflect on how obedience or faithfulness to God can be costly. When Jesus talked about discipleship, he often highlighted the costs. In the gospels, Jesus talks about giving up the world, wealth, comfort, and your good name to follow him. In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus talks about the family divisions that can arise from being a follower of Jesus. Today, we donate money to houses of worship, volunteer our time, and make difficult lifestyle decisions because of our faith. When we adhere to the social teachings of Jesus, and his call for justice, inclusion, and reconciliation, we are asked to go well beyond our comfort zones and take stands against injustice in ways that can alienate our families and friends.
Finally, we might reflect on the ways that God provides. This, I think, is one of the central themes of this passage, regardless of its issues. Some writers have argued that this passage is less about Abraham’s faithfulness to God than it is about God meeting Abraham’s hope of provision. Abraham expresses hope that this awful situation will be remedied by God, providing an alternative sacrifice, and God does not let down in the end. Likely, we might gain strength from the reminder that God provides for us, even when the situation looks bleak.
Pulling on this thread a little more, we might consider how we forgo God’s provision and sacrifice our young. One of the leading poets of the First World War, Wilfred Owen retells this story in ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” but ends the story differently:
When lo! And angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not do so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Today when we make disastrous economic and environmental choices, we do much the same. What burdens will our children and grandchildren bear because of our continued use of fossil fuel, groundwater depletion, and deforestation? Because of our choices around development, health systems, income inequality, and education, how will our children find affordable housing, a stable job, pay for college, or make choices about their health? A passage like this might spur us on to think of future generations when we make social choices.
Despite these gracious avenues, however, we might still be stuck with this story. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, something that feels out of character with the God we proclaim. Abraham does not question God throughout the trial. God doesn’t even show up at the end but sends a messenger instead. And reading on, it seems that this event broke every relationship around Abraham. He and God never speak again. In the same manner, Abraham never speaks with Isaac or his wife, Sarah, again. The zombies – the awful backdrop of a trickster God, children sacrifice, and blind devotion become too much.
When scriptures do more harm than good, we should consider moving on. Sometimes the lessons simply cost too much to be helpful. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll ever prepare a reflection on this passage again, despite its importance.
What do you say? Can you find a message of faith in this story, or have you moved on?
Regardless, may God bless you today with enough faith to withstand challenging lessons like these and the courage to challenge our faith when it doesn’t work.