Commentary on Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
My husband has been very intentional about walking our daughter to school over the last few years.
When we’re in a hurry and he uses the car instead, he feels as if he’s missed out on an important part of the day — the experience of a journey that proceeds step-by-step rather than block-by-block. Chatting with Meheret, greeting friends and neighbors along the way, enjoying the antics of our dog, and noting the changes in weather and seasons are all benefits of slowing down in our fast-paced life.
But slowing down is really hard to do! Whether we’re driving, eating, working, or spending time at home, it’s difficult to do the things that make up daily life more slowly and with intention. As busy people with too little time and too much to do, we tend to focus on reaching the goal, the end point, or the destination rather than the journey itself. Our drive to reach the finish line or get to the end point extends to the way that we read and think about biblical texts as well. This is particularly true of well-worn texts with which we are familiar and already “know” the ending.
The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 (called “The Akedah” or “The Binding” in Jewish tradition) is no exception. In fact, the framing of the story in which God demands the sacrifice of Abraham and Sarah’s son is so troubling and the climax so dramatic that it’s hard not to race to the conclusion. But what are we missing when we focus so exclusively on destination, both in our lives as well as our sacred stories? What happens to the colors, the flavors, the smells, the textures, and the details that are woven together to create the fabric of life and Scripture?
Throughout the history of Christianity, there seems to have been an awareness of this problem of “rushing” through text to reach the end. In order to open ourselves to how the wholeness of Scripture in all of its rich detail speaks to us, we have developed a repertoire of “reading” practices that aid us in slowing down the text. We have recited it, chanted it, set it to music, acted it out, painted scenes from it, used it in prayer, and studied it, to name just a few. Lectio Divina, for example, is an ancient approach to scripture that involves attentively reading/listening, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Each part of the process invites the participant to experience both the word and the presence of God more fully.
The Jewish tradition uses many of the same types of approaches to text (in fact, Judaism is a source of many of the Christian practices), as well as developed others that are not necessarily familiar to Christians. Midrash (from the Hebrew darash, “to seek out”) refers to both a method of reading biblical text as well as to the corpus of literature that has emerged from this activity. In rabbinic thought, the Torah was viewed as a reflection of the Divine, and as such, was infinite in meaning. As a result, the Torah for the ancient rabbis and their communities was always filled with possibility despite its apparent familiarity. Every reading, every encounter with the Torah was an opportunity to understand God’s being and work in new ways.
How does Midrash work? No detail was insignificant for the rabbis; every feature pointed to something deeper. From the shapes of the Hebrew letters themselves and the sounds of the words, to the motivations of the characters and the theological implications of the narratives, the rabbis saw openings to ask questions. Genesis 22:1-2, for example, was filled with potential:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He 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.”
With these opening verses, the rabbis set to work on one of the most powerful passages in the Torah. They asked questions, in terms of details and context:
After which things? To what previous event(s) is God referring?
Why did he say “Abraham” once in this verse but twice later on (in verse 11)?
What does the phrase, “Here I am,” signify? It parallels the use in verse 7 when Isaac says “Father!” and Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son.” In addition, how does Abraham’s statement, “Here I am,” in both cases connect to identical statements by figures such as Moses and Samuel?
Why does God use three different ways to refer to Isaac — “your son,” “your only son,” and “[the one] whom you love?” How does this parallel what happens in verse 12? Was he trying to differentiate Isaac from Ishmael?
Why go to Moriah? Where was Moriah?
Why offer him as a burnt-offering?
Which mountain? How will God show him?
At a broader level, they wondered (as have others throughout history):
Why did God test Abraham? Was it for God’s benefit or for Abraham’s?
Why would God demand a child sacrifice in the first place?
Why didn’t Abraham say anything or protest? After all, he had negotiated with God in the past over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
What was Abraham thinking and feeling as he journeyed three days with his son? Did he have doubts? Did he want to turn back?
Where was Sarah? Why wasn’t she involved? Did Abraham tell her what he was going to do? Would she have permitted Abraham to leave?
How old was Isaac? What was he thinking? When did he realize what his father was planning to do to him?
Why did God ultimately stop the sacrifice?
Springboard to preaching
Midrash, then as now, provides an amazing springboard for preaching. Each of these questions, especially those that deal with broader issues and character motivation, can serve as vehicles to telling this story. What if the story was told from Sarah’s perspective (after they’d returned and told her what happened)? What about if Isaac was telling this story? How might Abraham have recorded his thoughts at the end of each day of the long journey toward Moriah?
Sometimes the questions are difficult and suggest no easy answers. But the rabbis did not shy away from difficult questions because they knew their God was immense, a God for whom questions indicated commitment and a desire to be in relationship. With Midrash, no answer, no interpretation, is final. They are all parts of the infinite whole that is the Torah. Slowing down the text, walking with Abraham and Isaac step-by-step to Moriah, allows us to experience their despair, their doubt, and ultimately, their hope.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of promise,
You stayed the hand of Abraham and fulfilled the promise you made to him, that he would father a great nation. Keep your promises to us, that we become inheritors of eternal life. Amen.
The God of Abraham praise ELW 831
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth ELW 340
Listen to the lambs, William Dawson