The Aqedah (“the Binding”) of Isaac is one of the most difficult and troubling passages in the Hebrew Bible. In it, God appears to demand that a father sacrifice his son, and that father and that son offer up no word of protest. It is the passage’s difficulty that appeals to me. Along with the Book of Job and the Book of Jonah, this story serves as something of a koan, a “riddle” that admits no easy answer. I’ve heard some dismiss the story as a sign, not of anything divine, but rather something demonic, the very thing the Epicurean poet, Lucretius, condemns in his On the Nature of Things, as the very sort of craziness that religious fundamentalism leads to. One can read it as a story of “blind obedience,” as some scholars, including Soren Kierkegaard, do; today, though, we know only too well the terrible results of blind obedience, especially in the days of terror bombings and mass shootings for a “higher cause.” But must that be the story’s point, or could it be something else?
The Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, discusses this story again and again; in difficult times, Jews have turned to this passage and seen, in the rescue of Isaac, a God who would see them through difficult times; Zionists of the 1920s saw themselves as Isaac, willing to die that a Jewish state might live; some Christians see Abraham and Isaac as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; artists have painted and sculpted images from the story from the Renaissance to the present day; philosophers ranging from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Charles Schulz have put their two cents in; musicians from Igor Stravinsky to Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen have set this story to song. I found at least half a dozen sermons done by Unitarian-Universalist ministers on the story, and the story gets extensive treatment in the UUA curriculum, Tapestry of Faith, where participants act out the story and have a chance to ask Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and even God questions. There’s a poem by an Israeli poet which looks at the story from the ram’s perspective – the ram is the one who “saves the day.” And, at the level of the ridiculous, there is even a video game called The Binding of Isaac, in which players try to keep Isaac away from his crazy mother, who’s trying to kill him.
My own history with the story goes back to 1967 when I first heard the story, retold by my sixth-grade teacher, Sr. Paschal (that’s right, her nun name was that of the Paschal, or sacrificial, lamb), a woman for whom the story may have had deep significance. In high school, I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song, a song which has stayed with me all these years.
I am now doing this service, though, to honor a pledge. In the first year of her interim ministry at All Souls Church across the state line, Rev. Lee Devoe instituted a Worship Associate program. At the initial meeting of the Worship Associates, Rev. Devoe tossed out ideas for services she’d like to do to see who wished to help. The others showed no interest in the biblical stuff. When she mentioned the Binding of Isaac, I alone had my hand in the air. Of that first meeting with Lee Devoe, it is that moment I most remember. I was really looking forward to working with her on that service.
Of course, the “troubles” soon arose. A vocal minority was convinced that Rev. Devoe’s challenging interim would destroy the church. Rev. Devoe never mentioned Isaac again, and, in the circumstances, I saw no way to resurrect the idea. When her second year of interim began, the troubles only intensified and her ability to be an effective interim waned. Finally, she was dismissed by a bare majority of a splintered board, and left the area for the Northeast where she had been a successful interim. I didn’t keep up a correspondence. Immediately after her departure, it would have been wrong, and, as time passed, my hopes of striking up an epistolary dialog on Abraham and Isaac passed too. When Rev. Devoe died of cancer a couple of years ago, I knew I had blown my chance of any such dialog, but I still felt a need to honor my pledge and wrestle with the story alone.
In doing my own study, I found that I could not disentangle the story from my own story. At different points in my own life, I’ve been the various figures in this story. Like Isaac, I found myself on the block, a victim to some bully or other, afraid, but unable to effect a way out of my sacrificial state; like Abraham, I’ve been willing to sacrifice others – not physically, but emotionally, to placate an angry god within. I’ve even been the ram, willing to take a hit for the team. Like that Israeli poet, I too see the ram as heroic. In Kansas City, some five to six years ago, I was the servant on the side. During the “troubles,” I had friends on both sides of the dispute, and chose to remain neutral, just as the servants who say nothing when Abraham and Isaac leave together without a lamb, and when Abraham returns alone, without Isaac.
What I have said to this point may seem critical, but I don’t want to leave that impression. Let me state clearly that I believe that sacrifice is sometimes called for. I cannot help but think that the sacrifice of men and women in World War II was necessary, that the loss of life in the Civil War was terrible, and necessary. And when victims of oppression or violence fight their way out of abusive situations, it can also be terrible, but necessary.
That said, I believe that any sacrifice, especially a sacrifice of another, comes at a cost. The most moving line I recall reading in preparing for this service came from Barbara Cohen’s children’s book, The Binding of Isaac. In that book, Isaac, late in life, recalls that awful day to his grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Jacob. When Isaac gets choked up as he remembers that horrific moment where he nearly died under the knife, one grandson, Joseph, reminds his grandfather that he didn’t die. Isaac, in reply, says, “You’re right. I didn’t die. But something died on that mountain.” It is clear in Cohen’s telling that the “something” Isaac refers to is not the ram. It’s the love between father and son, and perhaps the love between wife and husband. Whatever Abraham’s motivation, the action he almost took must have seemed a betrayal to Isaac and Sarah.
So what meaning might this story have for UUs, and for us here? Well, I would agree with Elie Wiesel, who sees Abraham’s not slaying his son as the central point. It is that which makes him a hero, and which makes him a figure worthy of respect in Judaism. Wiesel suggests that, had Abraham killed Isaac, he might still have been the patriarch of a people, but it would not have been the Jewish people. Wiesel notes that Jews do not die for God, they live for God, and, in this scene, which Wiesel reads as Abraham faking God out – by preparing this act, by taking the action all the way (or almost all the way), he gets a concession from God that God will never make such a demand on his people again, and, when they mess up, as they will, he will be forbearing, and forgiving.
For Wiesel, this reading makes the most sense, for he knows Abraham. Abraham is a man who left his own people for God; he is a man who saw his own responsibility to call God out when God wanted to destroy the city of Sodom. For those who don’t know the story, God was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they were so sinful. Abraham argued with God, winning concessions from God, that he would spare Sodom if only a few good people might be found. A man willing to argue with God to save a city of sinners, Wiesel reasons, surely was not willing to kill an innocent, especially when the death of Isaac runs counter to God’s own promises to Abraham. Abraham doesn’t argue openly with God here, but he would not slay his son. Unitarian-Universalist minister, Ana Levy-Lyons, sees in the story the ever-present possibility of transformation. Sacrificing a first-born son likely was part of many cultures in the Middle East, including those in Canaan; in giving up something beloved, even adored, these cultures demonstrated faith in God, gods, the universe, to provide. And Abraham was ready to do as others had, but, then, something happened, and Abraham found a new way. The story says it was a voice Abraham heard; some scholars suggest it was Isaac’s voice, which Abraham heard as angelic commands, breaking through. Unitarian-Universalist minister, Mary Ganz, attributes this breakthrough to Abraham seeing, really seeing, his son, and then dropping the knife.
And here, I’d like to return to All Souls. One of the first stories I heard about All Souls was about how Westboro Baptist Church (you know, Fred Phelps’ ecclesiastical gang) used to come and protest outside All Souls on a regular basis. It happened so frequently that members of the church would come out, especially on a cold day, with hot coffee for the protestors. I love that story, and, it was probably that story, as much as anything, that made me fall in love with the church. Radical hospitality shown to those spewing bile won me over. For me, it was Abraham arguing with God over Sodom. Abraham didn’t endorse Sodom, but he wasn’t willing to give up on those people, either. Nor did All Souls endorse the hate platform of Westboro Baptist, but instead of getting into a fruitless shouting match, they extended hospitality, and helped to defuse a potentially volatile situation. They looked past the hateful placards and slogans and saw the people beyond. Equally important, they let those people know they had been seen.
With Lee Devoe, I think some at the church forgot that insight. The angry few saw Rev. Devoe as a threat, and felt fine about sacrificing her, and the many fellow members who left their company in the wake of that incident, all to protect the status quo. But some of those who participated in this sacrifice were the same who had acted so marvelously with Westboro. In this instance, Isaac got no reprieve.
In the story of the Binding, what is it that makes Abraham turn his hand? The story makes it clear that it is the voice of an angel who stops him, a voice that has to speak out twice. But I like to think, as Mary Ganz suggests, that it is that Abraham really seeing his son before him that does the trick, enabling a way for the transformative power of love to work its miracle. And I like to think, as Elie Wiesel does, that it is not Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that makes him a hero, but that he does not carry out that awful task.
Even though Abraham stopped, harm was done. Isaac and Abraham never again spoke to each other. Sarah dies in the very next chapter. And Abraham never again hears God’s voice. None of us will be engaged in human sacrifice, but I think we all face this trial in our lives, where a system clouds our beloved from our sight. But we can do the following: pledge to see each other and look out for each other; pledge to let our voice be heard; pledge to listen to each other as we learn and teach; let us unclench our fists of fear and hate and extend an open hand and an open heart to our brothers and sisters. And when we mess up, let us do what Jews do every year in the Days of Awe, recall this story – admit our failings, ask forgiveness, and begin together again in love.
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Lerner, Elizabeth. “Hineini: Called to Be More.” 14 September 2008. Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Springs. Sermon. 01 December 2015. <http://www.uucss.org/worship/worshiplinks/Sermontranscript.php?date=2008-09-14>.
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