Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Timeless Story of Abraham and Isaac

Readings cited here are Genesis 22:1-14 and Romans 6:12-23

So what do we do with that startling story of Abraham’s abuse of his son Isaac?

Scripture calls Abraham “the father of us all”. When you consider this story, do you want to call him that?

And if we’re prepared to call Abraham abusive for his response to God’s call, how about God’s role in apparently condoning this test of faith?

Some may not agree that Abraham’s behavior is abusive. Anyone caught trying that kind of thing today ought to face criminal charges, sure, but can our values be applied to this ancient culture?

That’s a good question. But here’s another one: Aren’t we responsible for what we do with these powerful stories that are part of our legacy as 21st-century people of faith? To be good stewards of biblical power, don’t we have to apply an evolutionary principle to our use of the Good Book so that it’s used to help human beings become instruments of reconciling love in this world, not hinder the human race by justifying violence against the innocent?

So I’ll wonder aloud again, what do we do with this story?

Let’s consider what two poets have done with it. If you’d like to follow with your eyes as well as your ears, turn to the back panel of your announcements and find first Emily Dickinson’s poem “Abraham to Kill Him”:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told –
Isaac was an urchin –
Abraham was old –

Not a hesitation –
Abraham complied –
Flattered by obeisance –
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac – to his children
Lived to tell the tale –
Moral – with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Now, there is some shocking interpretation. To fearless Emily of Amherst, Abraham’s excessive obedience (“obeisance”) is not to God but to Tyranny. Abraham is not showing faith – he’s suffering from extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. He can’t shake free from a besetting dark destiny to betray his own happiness by putting to death the very child he brought to life. This is as if Abraham could be heard finally admitting, “I knew I should never have thought I could be this happy, love this boy so much, imagine that at my age I could have such satisfaction,” and so slides down the rabbit hole so far that he’s willing by one act of violence to take down everyone in his family in order to punish himself.

That is how tyranny works – mental tyranny – yet the poet says, “Tyranny demurred…” leaving us wondering what altar Abraham will worship at next – will he more truly find God after this harrowing brush with mental tyranny? Is it at this very point that St. Paul’s words would make sense, could Abraham have heard them?

“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under tyranny but under grace.”

While we’re wondering that, Emily is not finished with Abraham. She sees a moral in this tale: “with a mastiff manners may prevail.” Emily’s good at leaving us wondering. Is Abraham the vicious dog that young Isaac’s passive behavior has prevailed over? Or is it over God the mastiff that Abraham’s compliance has prevailed?

If so, that’s not to say that Emily’s theology is showing—just that she’s saying that from where she sits, in that lovely old house in Amherst, Abraham’s God appears to be bloodthirsty. Good reason, still, to hope that after dodging the bullet that flies from that altar, Abraham will find a truer way to worship God.

The second poet I’ve brought with me today is Wilfred Owen, leading poet of the First World War, whose shocking realistic war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare stood in start contrast to the confidently patriotic verse of other poets. Killed at the very end of the war, news of his death reached his Shropshire hometown just as the church bells were pealing in celebration of peace.

This is his “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, ‘My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an 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 so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Thousands of years dissolve as the land of Moriah becomes the Western Front. Owen says that this story is timeless. The terrible temptation it posed in ancient time is posed today, whenever the leaders of this world consider violence as a way to resolve conflict.

For this poet, the ram caught in the thicket is Pride. What an image! Rams have very strong desire to get what they want—there’s a trait bound to get horns caught in all sorts of dilemmas.

Owen says what he knows from the battlefield, that when the princes of this earth refuse to sacrifice their pride, they sacrifice instead their young. In vast numbers they are killed, one by one, as we see at the end of the PBS News Hour, when each of our sons and daughters killed in Iraq is named and shown in sheer silence.

That this happens, says the poet, is the result of our Abrahams refusing to imagine making the very sacrifice that God calls for, the offering, the slaying of their pride.

So Owen doesn’t let us get away with thinking that if we were in Abraham’s sandals we would never have terrified our Isaac by binding him to our own ways, laying on him all the responsibilities we believe duty requires of us. Pride does get in the way of many things: parenting, leadership, and many other choices we have to make.

It is what God provides for sacrifice. In one of the psalms we hear, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As St. Paul develops his argument that the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life, he speaks of being “freed from sin and enslaved to God.” Surely that requires each Abraham—the old man in each of us—to offer the Ram of Pride. It is what God provides for sacrifice.