The first reading on Sunday comes from the book of Genesis, and is one of the most morally troubling of text. How does one judge God to be in this story? And how does Abraham come out of it all?
God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he called. ‘Here I am’ he replied. ‘Take your son,’ God said ‘your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’
When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he said. ‘I am here’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
The angel of the Lord called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this, because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.’
- Does God intend ‘only’ to test Abraham? If so is it a legitimate thing for God to do?
- Can there be any justification for Abraham’s being willing to sacrifice his son? Can ‘just following orders’ be an acceptable response for such an action?
Abraham is no stranger to morally ambiguous behaviour. If you have forgotten this about our ‘father in faith’ do re-read the relevant chapters of Genesis. But note how in those cases his behaviour regularly becomes subject of the narrative. Here, in the (purposed) sacrifice of his son, he is simply, bravely (?), righteously (?), doing what God asks.
The book of Job warns us against judging God. Yet how can we not, if we are to do justice to our humanity?
This passage pushes us to the limits. It stands as testimony to the unspeakable which is so regular an experience in human society: think Sophie’s Choice; think of the countless other situations where people find themselves faced by appalling choices.
Pray for them.
Otherwise we who merely listen and watch can but listen, notice, and be grateful that for us the moment passes…
Carving of Abraham and Isaac, York Minster. Photograph (c) 2007, Allen Morris