The Binding of Isaac: Two Interpretations

In 1843, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard published his most famous work, Fear and Trembling.  Virtually anyone who has taken Western Philosophy 101 has heard of, if not read, the book.  I first read it as a college sophomore.  It is a difficult book.

Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard begins with four different depictions of the same story, the very story we read from Genesis this morning, the story we call “The Binding of Isaac.”  Four times, Kierkegaard takes us through Abraham’s excruciating journey to Mt. Moriah.  Four times he imagines Abraham tenderly kissing Sarah goodbye.  Four times he describes Abraham holding the hand of his trusting little boy, guiding Isaac up the mountain.  And four times he depicts a father raising the knife over his son.

Kierkegaard examines the Abraham and Isaac story every which way, trying to make sense of it.  We get that, I think.  Even at a one hundred seventy year distance from Kierkegaard, we recoil at this story and ask the questions: What kind of God would command such a thing?  What kind of father would obey?

The author Tobias Wolff shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”[i]  In it, a pulpit preacher tells the tale of a drawbridge operator who brings his precocious, only, young son to work.  In a distracted moment, the little boy escapes his father and sneaks into the gear room of the drawbridge.  Just then, the warning bell rings.  A tall ship is coming!  If the operator ignores the warning, the ship will crash into the bridge, killing hundreds.  If he opens the drawbridge to save the ship, his tender son, the light of his life, committed to his care, will be crushed in the gears.

Everything in the preacher’s pious tale builds to an expected conclusion.  The drawbridge operator will do the noble thing.  He’ll flip the switch, saving hundreds but killing his son.  But Wolff’s story takes an unexpected turn.  One character who hears the tale of the drawbridge, Frances, interrupts in rebellion.  “No!” she says, “That’s it.  That’s my quota of holiness for the year…How do people think up stuff like this anyway?  It’s an awful story…I don’t care if the Almighty put a gun in my ear.  I’d never do that, not in a million years.”

And we’re with Frances!  My impulse, as the priest who is supposed to offer a definitive interpretation of Scripture, is to lie to you, to offer with feigned confidence a clear understanding of both the God in this passage who asks too much of Abraham and the man in this passage who is actually willing to butcher his son.  But I have no such confident words.  As a Christian I, like you, can scarcely conceive of the God I know asking my children of me.  And as a father, I can say with great confidence that were God to ask, I would fail.  I can fathom no circumstance in which I would take the trusting hand of my son and raise a knife above him.

The author Tobias Wolff tackles shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”

The author Tobias Wolff shares our incredulity in his short story, “The Night in Question.”

The best I can do is walk with you through this story, offering you two different interpretations.  Both can claim authority, but they admittedly conflict.  I believe they nevertheless both are true, and the interpretation to which I cleave in any given moment depends upon whether or not my children are within sight.

The first interpretation, starkly put, is that sometimes fidelity to God and the things of God requires everything of us.  Years before today’s Genesis passage, God awakened Abraham in the night and commanded Abraham to leave his family, his home, and his land in order to fulfill God’s purpose for the world.  We can scarcely conceive of what this meant in the ancient world.  There were no interstate highways, airlines, or high speed trains by which one could return home.  There was no social media—or even mail service—through which to stay in contact.  To leave one’s home in the ancient world was to sacrifice one’s history.  For the sake of God’s purpose, God asked Abraham to give up, in faith, Abraham’s past, and Abraham obeyed. Now, years later, in Genesis 22, with the command to sacrifice Isaac God is asking Abraham to give up, in faith, his future.  Abraham is to trust God, even when Abraham can’t fathom God’s reasons for this request or the way God might eventually make it right.[ii]  God does not carry through with the command.  He stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, but the story is constructed to teach us that there is something necessary to faith about Abraham’s willingness to give up even his own future for the sake of God.  There is something necessary in Abraham’s commitment to God before his commitment to all other things, even those dearest to him.  It is, after all, a commitment God extends to us, by giving up Jesus himself on the cross for love of us.[iii]

It is to this stark reality—a reality we most often choose, in our comfort, to ignore—that Jesus himself points when he says just before today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

The Gospel requires that we stand for grace and for love, and when others in our world—even those dearest to us—stand against grace and love, we must be willing to cut the tethers of those relationships, to sacrifice them.

In our self-indulgent and self-referential culture, this interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is incredibly important.  It begs the questions of us: What are we willing to sacrifice in our lives in order to be faithful to God?  What are we willing to give up in favor of furthering grace in the world?

“In our self-indulgent and self-referential culture, this interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is incredibly important.  It begs the questions of us: What are we willing to sacrifice in our lives in order to be faithful to God?  What are we willing to give up in favor of furthering grace in the world?”

For instance, would we risk our social circles in order to stand up for God’s love?  Would we risk a job?  Would we take up our stakes and move cities to further grace?  Would we give up relationships with family members if those family members stood against love?  Is our fidelity to God first in our lives?

I’m tempted to end there, with those questions.  They are worth a week’s pondering to be sure.  But I’ll only pause, because the rough binding of Isaac, of Abraham’s innocent little boy—the fear and the fever of it—keeps haunting me.  Without denying the truth of the first interpretation of this story, I also desperately need another.

There is an ancient, alternative rabbinic interpretation of the Binding of Isaac that says Abraham fails the test of his faith.[iv]  Abraham’s very zeal to follow God makes him delusional, and with a clouded imagination Abraham misunderstands God’s command.  In this interpretation, it is not Abraham whose horror grows as Abraham travels up the mountain with Isaac, but God’s.  And when God realizes that fevered Abraham is truly about to slay the child of God’s promise, God cries out “Stop!” and stays Abraham’s hand.

The ancient rabbis then say, beautifully, that God created the ram caught in the thicket at the very dawn of creation and left it there through all time, waiting for Abraham to see in the periphery of his vision, waiting to be Isaac’s salvation.  This is another way of saying that God always and forever provides an alternative path to our human tendency to destroy, writ large and writ small, that which is most precious.

Caravaggio's Binding of Isaac.  God always provides the ram.

Caravaggio’s Binding of Isaac. God always provides the ram.

And that interpretation is also incredibly important.  How often do we raise the knife—with words, with actions, with slights, with guns and bombs, with our economic and political choices—and bring it down full force, ending that which is most tender and vulnerable in our world, and in so doing equally marring that which is most tender and vulnerable in our souls.  The zealous decision to raise the knife in our lives is always a failure of our imaginations.[v]  It reveals just how misguided and deluded we can be.

But God always provides the ram.  There is always, just in the periphery of our vision, if we only have the will and the eyes to see, an alternative to our destructiveness.  The knife need never come down, if we will but listen to the voice of love ringing in our ears.  “Stop!” says God to us, “Do not bring down your hand in violence.  Sacrifice the ram of pride instead.”[vi]

If we will listen to that voice, if we will look for the ram, we will lower the knife and walk back down that mountain with the child hand-in-hand.  Our fever will subside.  Our lives and the lives of those dearest to us will be preserved.  And our fidelity to the God of love will be complete.  Amen.

 

[i] Wolff, Tobias, “The Night in Question,” from The Night in Question.

[ii] See Fleming Rutledge, “The Strange World of Abraham,” in The Bible and the New York Times, pp. 98-103.

[iii] The most common Christian interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story is that it prefigures God the Father’s willing sacrifice of Jesus.

[iv] See Isaac Kalimi, “’Go, I beg you, take your beloved son and slay him’: The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,” at http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Doc12/kalimi.pdf.

[v] Franz Kakfa was likely the first person to utter this phrase in reference to war, saying, “War is a monstrous failure of imagination.”

[vi] This allusion comes from World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”

 

 

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Of Mad Men, Burger Chef, and the Church

Don  Draper's life isn't as well put together as he'd have you believe...

Don Draper’s life isn’t as well put together as he’d have you believe.

For six seasons, the AMC series Mad Men has been one of the best shows on television.  Mad Men chronicles the lives of Madison Avenue ad man Don Draper, his family, and his co-workers.  Aesthetically, the show is a joy to watch.  For an hour each Sunday evening, the viewer is transported back to the 1960s.

Mad Men’s characters appear suave, brilliant, and in command.  But though the clothing, dialogue, and cinematography of Mad Men are lovely, in truth the lives of Don Draper and the other characters are not.  Their debonair sophistication is only an outward appearance.  Don and the other characters deal with addiction, urban blight, crass materialism, dog-eat-dog ambition, religious cults (yes, religious cults), and more.

For the viewer, one feels a perpetual heartache when watching Mad Men.  The show’s characters are viscerally real, and the anxiety and regret they experience are what we often encounter in the real world outside the television set.

"What if there was a place where you could go..."

“What if there was a place where you could go…”

In the current season of Mad Men, the characters are working on an advertising campaign for the fast food chain Burger Chef.  The advertising execs visit countless burger franchises.  Over onion rings and milkshakes, they wistfully reflect upon the many ways their lives are spinning out of control.  They lament that they have no sense of permanence, no rootedness to anything enduringly valuable.  As they sit in Burger Chef, the ad men realize that often the most authentic community people experience is during the few minutes they sit together over a burger at the corner fast food joint.  In a frenetic and ever-changing world, the burger place is a sanctuary of sorts.

As the advertisers sit in the fluorescent, formica-laden glow of Burger Chef, character Peggy Olson develops the ad campaign’s tag line: “What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family?”

Eucharist

For a Christian viewer, the tag line drips with irony.  In our real world, there is indeed such a place, and it’s not Burger Chef.  In truth, our lives are no better put together than the lives of the characters on Mad Men.  If there is anything sophisticated about us, it is outward appearance only.  But in the church, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Here, our souls are fed in the bread and wine.  Here, sanctuary awaits, granting us peace from the world, redemption from our flaws, and the renewal of our hearts experienced through God’s abundant grace.  This summer, I pray we will frequent Eucharist more than Big Macs at McDonald’s.  In church we’ll rediscover that we are, indeed, rooted to things enduringly valuable: God and one another.

 

Reversing Babel

Imagine the food court at a shopping mall.  It could be the Galleria here in Houston.  People are munching on their Chick-Fil-A and Sbarro pizza.  Hordes of shoppers pass by, averting their gazes from making accidental eye contact with anyone else.  Others sit, drone-like, abiding in the crowded anonymity.  There is plenty of noise, but it is senseless babble.  It would be difficult to find a more disconnected group of people.  In fact, the only thing binding them together is the shared exchange of money for commodities.  Their only relationship is utilitarian.  There is no shared joy, no empathy, no spirit between them.

There is a piano in the corner, on which a fellow is paid to play muzak, bland and milquetoast.  The background music contributes to the general disconnection of the environment.  It could be any music, and it barely registers to the ears of those around.

But then, almost imperceptively at first, the pianist plucks out a few notes of something different.  A lone diner puts down her burrito, stands on her chair, and unexpectedly begins to sing the first line of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.”  She draws irritated stares from those around her.  She must be drunk on new wine or crazy, they think. Those nearest her begin to move away, as if she is the repellent pole of a magnet.  But then a man across the food court picks up her message.  He stands and responds to her with the “Hallelujah Chorus’” second line.

People rubberneck to get a glimpse of this new voice, afraid for a moment in our violent and disconnected culture about what may be happening.  But before they can fully turn around—before they can comprehend—five, ten, twenty more people are on their feet, singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in parts at the top of their lungs, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord; and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever; forever and ever, forever and ever!”

Suddenly, the zombie-like shoppers are awakened.  The Sbarro-eating diners are full of something other than pizza.  They hear with new ears.  Where before faces avoided one another, now they seek each other out, making contact stranger with stranger, sharing smiles, finding resonance with something deep in the soul that had been forgotten.

“King of kings and Lord of lords,” the impromptu choir sings, “and He shall reign forever and ever, forever and ever!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”

As quickly as it began, the flash mob ends.  The singers melt into the crowd, or return to their lunch.  The spectators are stunned, but their daze is the exact opposite of their earlier stupor.  Something has happened to them, something important.  They don’t fully understand it.  With smiles on their faces, they begin to talk to neighbors who were strangers only moments earlier.  One puts a hand on the arm of the other.  Even as they leave the food court and return to their shopping, the conversations continue.  Where before there was only babble, now each understands the language of each, languages that run deeper than words.

__________________

Today is Pentecost.  It’s a weird day.  Strange things happen.  It’s a day with which our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are very comfortable, but which we Episcopalians find discomfiting.  I once had an Easter-and-Christmas Episcopalian who attended her granddaughter’s baptism on Pentecost afterwards write me an angry letter, saying, “How dare you make all that noise in church!”

The Tower of Babel: Crowding out the God who had created them in love.

The Tower of Babel: Crowding out the God who had created them in love.

Indeed.  The apostles receive a similar response from some on the first Christian Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit arrives and the noise begins, we are told, some in the crowd sneer and say of the apostles, “They are filled with wine.”  On the one hand, this confirms what I’ve always suspected: The apostles were Episcopalians.  On the other hand, it underscores that Pentecost has been confusing since the very beginning.

In order fully to understand Pentecost, we have to travel much further back in history than the time of Jesus.  We must travel, in fact, to pre-recorded history, to a time just after Noah’s Great Flood, a time (we are told in Genesis) when all the people of the earth spoke the same language.  People were connected, and communicated with one another, but in their affinity for each other they forgot—or willfully ignored—the God who created them in love.  At a place called Babel, they decided to build a tower that would reach to the heavens and block out God, in order to demonstrate their own self-sufficiency.  So God knocked them from their tower and bewitched their tongues.  (This story is where the very word “babble,” meaning incoherent noise, comes from.)  God gave them different languages, so they could no longer understand one another, and God scattered them across the earth.  Thus began the human predicament, still true on every level from nation states, to relations between various cultures and religions, to the food court at the shopping mall.  Because we are detached from the God who made us in love, we are detached from one another.  Because we lack an inherent ability to connect, to understand—which is both a lack of language and a lack of empathy—we take the path of least resistance.  We keep our heads down.  We avert our eyes.  We seek anonymity, even in crowded places.  We pursue what we need for our own ends and get out as quick as we can.  Heck, we do all these things even in the church!

But on that day of the first Christian Pentecost, something different happens.  The tape reverses.  Babel unwinds.  It turns out it was never God’s intention that human beings lack the ability to understand, to empathize with, one another.  It was God’s intention that understanding center on God’s own Spirit of love, the very Spirit those who built the Tower of Babel sought to crowd out.

PentecostAnd so today, on Pentecost, God sends that Spirit to the disciples.  Because Jesus has ascended to heaven without them, the disciples are confused and worried.  They don’t know how they’ll find the strength or the words to carry on, to communicate the Gospel of love to the scattered and babbling world around them.  But when the Holy Spirit enters the room and enters the disciples, they find that they are intimately connected to God, and they can speak in languages other than their own.  Their Gospel words become universal.  And to the crowd—at least to those who honestly desire to hear—the disciples’ message resonates in their ears.  They understand it, and it leads them to seek understanding among one another.  They no longer pass each other by, babbling to themselves.  They engage one another.  They share in God and the wonder of God.  They are changed, on that day and forever.

Liturgical Pentecost observances often focus on different languages: English, Spanish, German, Greek, Mandarin, and so on.  Indeed, our own rendering of Acts this morning did just that.  But in reality, I believe, the biblical text’s focus on languages—on different vocabularies and grammatical structures—is primarily metaphorical.  The message of this account is that, when we truly are infused with the Spirit of God’s love, our separation from God and the separation of the human condition are repaired.  That Spirit flows in us and between us, from one to the other, overcoming differences in language, culture, politics, and religion; lifting our faces to make eye contact; perhaps even bridging the chasms between us in the pews.

“When we truly are infused with the Spirit of God’s love, that Spirit flows in us and between us, overcoming differences in language, culture, politics, and religion.”

Like a crowd of zombie-like shoppers at the mall who are awakened from their stupor by a flash mob’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” the arrival of God’s Spirit opens our ears and our eyes.  It quickens us to see that same Spirit in the smile of the person next to us, to whom we were blind just moments before.

When the Holy Spirit arrives, as Handel wrote, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord; and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever!”

It is a universal message, binding us together that we might walk through this world noisily proclaiming the God of love to all who have ears to hear.

***

Note: At the Cathedral this morning, in place of the offertory anthem, the Parish and Cathedral choirs staged a flash mob of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  It was awesome.