August 01, 2008

The Binding of Isaac: Gen. 22: 1-14

by Debra Dean Murphy
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, / And took the fire with him, and a knife. / And as they sojourned both of them together, / Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father, / Behold the preparations, fire and iron, / But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering? / Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, / And builded parapets and trenches there, / And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son. / When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven, / Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, / Neither do anything to him, thy son. / Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns, / A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

"The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," Wilfred Owen, 1920

The Old Testament often gets short shrift in lectionary preaching, but this week’s story from Genesis 22 will likely be the centerpiece of many sermons this Sunday. It’s a troubling tale, raising disturbing questions about ancient child sacrifice, ritual violence, even sadism—Abraham’s and God’s. Our modern incomprehension of the narrative’s chilling details leads us to all sorts of speculation and psychologizing. Some preachers will succumb to explanations tidy, trite, and predictable; others, wisely, will refuse to pronounce a definitive word on the primal mystery that is the story of the binding of Isaac.

But it is our task—as preachers and as lay readers—to wrestle with the hard texts. The challenge, though, is to do this work without assuming that the world of scripture is, as Rowan Williams has said, “a clear and readily definable territory.” That is, we must always allow the Bible to exert its strangeness over us; to be awkward and unwieldy in our hands. We must resist the urge to domesticate its wildness or smooth out its odd incongruities.

And we’re sometimes surprised to learn that it is in art that a story’s “meaning” most vividly comes alive. In Wilfred Owen’s poem about the sacrifice of Isaac, the story’s transformed ending opens us up to the truth of scripture and the truth about ourselves—that we are easily seduced by the false gods of violence and death.

In allowing the Genesis text to offer a word of judgment to the powers that brought on the Great War, Owen’s re-telling of the story puts the same hard questions to us: Can we stop the slaughter of innocents in our own time, the sacrificing of our own children to war and death?

Can we, will we stop the killing?

(Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008)

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