Today’s first reading at Mass is the binding of Isaac, that is, the story of how Abraham is willing to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac, to God, who then does not demand the sacrifice (Genesis 22: 1-19). It’s a hard reading. The 19th c philosopher Kierkegaard remarked that he was astonished at how easily a sermon could turn the story into something palatable by turning ‘sacrifice one’s son’ into ‘sacrifice the dearest thing that you have,’ thus removing the anxiety and “fear and trembling” that such a story ought to produce.
When I was in a post doc program, I was lucky enough to hear Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, speak on this passage to students in a core class that I was teaching. Wiesel did not shy away from the difficulty of the story, noting features of the story that I had previously overlooked such as: Abraham rises early in the morning, without hesitation, rather than delaying to the latest part of the day; he does not tell Sarah what he has heard or discuss it with her; and after the near sacrifice, no part of the narrative in Genesis shows Abraham and Isaac speak again, suggesting that their relationship does not survive the story as easily as we might suppose.
Wiesel began by noting that Abraham hears the voice of God tell him to go sacrifice his son. He goes, and is willing to listen to that voice. When he is at the top of the mountain, he hears another voice speak. The text does not say “and then God said.” It says, “The Lord’s messenger” or in some translations, “an angel” says “Do not lay your hand on the boy.” Wiesel argued that Abraham’s task was to decide which voice was God. Was the voice that commanded sacrifice and slaughter God’s voice? Or the one that said, Take the ram, and do not harm your boy. Who is your God? Only a man who could discern that the voice of the God would not demand such a sacrifice—and many neighboring pagan religions did practice child sacrifice—was fit to be a father of many nations.
I’m recently back from a few weeks of summer vacation. In the last couple of weeks, we have seen a historic black church burned by a violent racist, and a moving, hopeful eulogy by our president; a SCOTUS ruling on the right to marriage for gay as well as straight people; the same court ruling in a way that is a setback for opponents of the death penalty; and a heatwave in Karachi with deaths that perhaps can be attributed to human induced climate change. We, too, are being asked to discern who our God is and what he asks of us. Who is our God? A god of violence and punishment, or a god of hope and mercy? A god of judgment against human diversity, or who desires inclusion and love? A god who permits the plunder of the earth for any human purpose, or who says, Do not lay your hands on it in this way? Abraham learned that God’s justice is always in harmony with love for the individual person and respect for every human life. What do we still as a nation need to hear so that we may discern well?