Good Friday Sermon 2013
Dr. Steven Bishop
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most disturbing stories in the Old Testament. Its matter-of-fact, stripped down narration heightens to its disconcerting contents. Few words are spoken in the scene, the focus is on the action. There is no reflection on the consequences or meaning of the action. We don’t know what any of the characters think or feel. There is not even a sign of a psychological or moral dilemma.
What we have is a knowing father who takes an unknowing child to an unknown place to commit an unthinkable act. Even more troubling is that the God who orders this sacrifice is the God who, later through the prophets, will condemn child sacrifice as an abomination so vile its practice brings down nations. Some have tried to recast the story so that it has to do with something other than sacrifice. But this is what it is—the words ‘offering’ and ‘knife’ are identical to the sacrificial language of Leviticus and other portions of the Old Testament. The killing intention is clear.
We are told that this sacrificial command is to be a test for Abraham. But what kind of test? We are not told, but a plausible explanation is that it is a test to prove that Abraham believes the promises God made to him can be fulfilled in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Isaac is the child of promise, the one through whom progeny will grow and land will be settled. Abraham passes the test by demonstrating through his actions that he trusts that the death of the promised child will not interfere with the fulfillment of the promise.
But this does not change the fact that the story is empty of human feeling. Compare our other readings. John’s portrayal of Jesus’ final hours of life moves us because of the dying attention Jesus pays to his mother. A compassionate and devoted person is revealed by John’s description. Even the reflections of Hebrews on Jesus’ sacrifice show pathos and attention to the human cost of suffering. In stark contrast, the narrator of Genesis presents the story with what appears to be a sense of detachment.
Abraham’s lack of reaction is shocking. His speech is sparse and without affect. Contrast his reaction to the news that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. Abraham leaps into a mode of pleading with God to be just. “Would God kill the innocent with the guilty?” he questions. “Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?” He pleads for the innocent and he appeals to God to spare the cities by basing his argument on the injustice of killing the innocent. He doesn’t just ask but he pleads and bargains and keeps pressing that fewer and fewer innocent would need to be found in order to spare the city. But here, in the matter of his own son, he is strangely, uncharacteristically and hauntingly quiet.
When I was in high school my Sunday School teacher once imagined out loud what Abraham’s demeanor must have been like. My teacher was reacting to a made for TV movie that showed Abraham wandering alone in the hills of Judea, screaming out to God and agonizing over the command to kill Isaac. My Sunday School teacher preferred the stoic Abraham, the one the text reveals, going about God’s business. This Abraham refuses to question God’s command. Sacrifice your child Abraham, just as you would a goat or lamb or bull.
Abraham is silent about the sacrifice of his son. He does not reveal it to his servants who travel with them nor to Isaac. The narrator too is silent about the sacrifice of Isaac. We do not know if Abraham contemplated what he was commanded to do. We have no insight into his mind, the very thing a narrator could give us. There are no details to give us a hint about the feeling that such a commandment would inspire: no sights, no sounds, no description of the attire of the travelers on their journey, no description of the villages they passed through or by, nothing about the heat of the day or the coolness of the evening. The monstrous event unfolds while everyone is unaware of its relentless momentum. All we get from Abraham or the narrator is a determined silent march toward death.
A vision of pathos finally emerges at the end of the scene. The knife is in Abraham’s hand ready to cut the throat of his sacrifice when an angel of God intervenes with a message from God. Abraham has demonstrated that his adoration of God knows no limits. Abraham, like the very texture of this text, was determined. He was going to the bitter end to prove himself to God, even if it meant killing Isaac. But Isaac was spared by the timely intervention of a heavenly messenger and all ends rather well.
In spite of its ending we are still left face to face with the brutality of human sacrifice. The story ends well for Abraham and Isaac but it does not end well for countless others who are considered expendable on the altars of sacrifice for reasons as unclear to us as Abraham’s were to Isaac. So often the victims are like Jesus or Isaac: innocent, young, obedient.
On this day, it does not end well for Jesus. Isaac’s sudden and divine escape from the thirsty knife of sacrifice makes it startling that Jesus hangs upon the cross and heaven is silent. There is no one to stay the executioner’s hand. No voice from heaven to stop the savage butchery that is crucifixion. And no angelic messenger to say “you’ve proven how far you are willing to go, your adoration of God is clear.” Abraham said nothing in the face of sacrificing Isaac. God says nothing as Jesus dies upon the cross. Today, when Jesus is dead, we are left, like so many who see brutality and death, who experience torture and abuse, who die as innocents, appalled and silent.