“Here I am,” he said. It couldn’t have seemed like anything at the time. We do it ten times a day. We come down in the morning, we head out for the day, we look for a colleague. When your spouse calls your name into the backyard. “Hey, honey, where are you?” “Here I am!” you say. Right here. Here I am.
But don’t you think Abraham would have run, fast and far away, if he knew what God was going to ask him to do? Yet Abraham responds, “Here I am.” And he is given his task. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him on the mountain.” Ask anyone who has had their child get sick, rushed them to the emergency room, sat by the bed night after night. We would do anything, wouldn’t we, climb any mountain, to the ends of the earth, to make her okay again. We pray anguished prayers. God do whatever you want to me, anything, make any deal, strike any wicked bargain. Just make her okay. Heal him. He has to live. Yet Abraham goes. We don’t know why. We just know he rose, early in the morning, and began packing for a journey. The donkey is saddled, he gathers the help, the wood, trying it in a bundle on the back. And they begin walking. Our author builds the literary tension in absolutely painful ways, as he walks, for two days, staring at that mountain, knowing what he would have to do there. On the third day, the text says, Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.
This text is about as difficult as it gets. Some in our Christian tradition have viewed this text like others around it in this section, as stories to point to the nobility of the central character. Abraham, the patriarch that started it all, is the noble model of faith who perseveres in the face of the most horrible test we can imagine. He passes with flying colors, and earns his reward. This line of interpretation results in the story being about our faith, about our trust. It is about putting God first in your life, above all else. Above everything.
But this is also a text that has done damage and that elicits in me, and I would guess in you, some frustration. Abraham makes me so mad I want to kick him. How could he be so passive, so…pitiful? Come on, man! IT’S YOUR SON!! How could he simply nod in approval, get up early the next morning, and set out on a journey that he believes will end in the death of his son? Visiting with a woman at my supervised ministry internship in seminary, she showed me the children’s bible she had been given many years before. She also showed me the pages of this story that she, as a young child, had scribbled over and over and through, tearing the pages with the point of her pencil, because she couldn’t bear it, could understand it, couldn’t speak about it. This second image of Abraham results in a story that has kept people from faith, from trusting a God who would require such a deed.
But this story’s power is in its unwillingness to compromise. First, we are forced to give away OUR Abraham. Reading again, we cannot get away with naming Abraham’s act an act of ‘blind faith’. Abraham has not shown himself thus far as one to go silently into the night. He was creative enough to make deals in Egypt, and he bargained with God for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is God’s seventh and final direct encounter with Abraham in this narrative, and with each one God has been leading, shaping, and coaxing him into a closer relationship with the giver of that promise that started it all. Just when we think the Abraham narrative has found its way to a nice conclusion, this “test” comes in, rearranging our ideas about this patriarch is.
They walked those long days, with Abraham’s stomach in knots. He tells the young men to stay behind. We will worship, he says, then we’ll be back. He takes a moment to note that he has no idea what he will say to them when only he returns. In a horrific bit of irony, he hands Isaac the wood on which he would soon lay, holds himself the fire, knife tucked in his belt. And the two of them, the text says walked on together. Isaac picks up on something – ummm…Dad?. “Here I am!” my son, he says in quite a different way, heavy with emotion. Dad, where is the lamb we are to sacrifice? I don’t see one. And Abraham grits his teeth as he answers, speaking more to God than to Isaac. God himself will provide, my son. As they come to the place, there in verse nine, I wonder Abraham’s heart is bursting, as he stacks the wood. I bet he wants to scream words like those of the Psalmist, as Gene read a moment ago. “How long O, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” I bet he felt that way as he slowly laid the pyre, as he saw the confused look on Isaac’s face when he began to bind his son’s hands, when he backs him down onto the wood. As he takes a deep breath, as his hand grasps the handle, wondering where in the world God is as he raises the knife in the air…
Because the implications for God are even worse than for Abraham. The God I know is a God of love, and this God seems to be nothing but demanding and manipulative, swooping in at the last minute to save the day and grab all the glory. My God loves us all no matter what, taking care of us through storms in our lives, working for good in a terrifying world. My God doesn’t stand back and demand things from me that God knows will cause nearly unbearable pain. My God is there with open arms to forgive me when I fail, fall short, or compromise. I can’t blame that woman for tearing through this story in her bible; I want to do it, too. It doesn’t make sense. We struggle with a tension that Walter Brueggemann helps us articulate: “the contradiction between the testing of God and the providing of God; between the sovereign freedom which requires complete obedience and the gracious faithfulness which gives good gifts; between the command and the promise; and between the word of death which takes away and the word of life which gives.” He continues: “The call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us. Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it.”1
I think that we are far more comfortable when we can control the promise. We (and I include myself) tend to want a predictable God, one who will keep us comfortable, who would never call us into uncertainty and ambiguity, and who would certainly never ask us to give up anything that we cherish. Maybe we want only a safe God and a safe world that we can manage. We keep this God at arm’s length, content to sing the songs and pray the prayers, wanting to feel good, wanting comfort. But I wonder, when it really gets down to it, are we really interested in being transformed, in encountering this God who is wild and complex and infinitely free. Yet we are called back into this painful story, time and time again, there, I believe, to ask us if we are willing to trust this God. Not in a blithe, naïve way that shrugs its shoulders when something happens and says, “well, it must be God’s will,” when we don’t have any way of knowing that. But this text calls us to a faith that comes through fire, who reaches out to us when we are exhausted, when the bank account is empty, when your teenage gets in trouble, when you realize you aren’t sure you know the person to whom you have been married for so many years. This faith, this God comes to us in those moments in our lives as everything comes crumbling down. And we work and plan and do our best to control, control, control. Until we can’t. Until we can’t handle it on our own anymore. And we are challenged again, by this story and this story’s God, into a faith that is uneasy and complex, that puts us in uneasy and painful and complicated places, places where we might be tempted to yell and scream or to give up, or both. And those questions might not get resolved and those problems might not be satisfactorily addressed. Not in this life. And we have to decide, in the midst of all the mess, what is left. I think this story bring to us that most difficult challenge. Is this something we want to make our own? Might we, even in those most desperate places, still continue to trust?
I imagine that final night, before that last ascent up the mountain; Abraham against a tree. Isaac is asleep, his head on his father’s chest. Abraham is alone. He is so tired of being angry and frustrated, so tired of just doing what God says so he will remain that cherished one. He had visions of being the leader of a great nation, the greatest nation – the people of God. It had sounded so good at the time. And Isaac… Isaac. The son I have yearned for all my life, and the key to God’s promise. And now my God says he must die. But then, a slow rain begins to fall, and the drops of rain mix with the tears running down his cheeks. And in this moment of utter despair and helplessness he surrenders the promise. God, take this back. I have been trying to make the promise my own all along, and it belongs to you. I have been my trying to control my own future when it is yours.
And the next day, as he is about to do his horrible deed, the angel cries out to him, “Abraham! Abraham!” And with all the relief in the world, as the tears, come again, he gladly answers that final call…“Here I am, Lord….here I am.”
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986), 192.