April 4th, 2021
Karin and I went to the Easter Vigil just a few hours ago. We took little Asher with us. For Catholics this is the night of nights. It is the Catholic version of Passover. We went to the liturgy partly because I was assigned to read from the Scriptures to the congregation during the service. I didn’t originally intend to go to the Mass. I went there because the person organizing the liturgy had run out of lectors, and she needed me to help out. She did not have enough people to proclaim the Word of God, so I offered to do my part. I told the woman from our church that I would be tired, and that I might need to leave after I fulfilled my duties. That is exactly what we did. I felt worn out, and Asher was fussy. Karin would have been happy to stay for the entire liturgy (it was the 20th anniversary of her conversion to Catholicism), but it wasn’t going to happen that way.
There are numerous readings from the Bible during the Easter Vigil. For some reason, I often get selected to proclaim the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. That is always a struggle for me.
For those who do not know the story from Genesis, here it is:
1 God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am, ” he replied.
2 Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him his son Isaac and two of his servants as well, and with the wood that he had cut for the holocaust, set out for the place of which God had told him.
4 On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar.
5 Then he said to his servants: “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder. We will worship and then come back to you.”
6 Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the holocaust and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together,
7 Isaac spoke to his father Abraham: “Father!” Isaac said. “Yes, son, ” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?”
8 “Son,” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” Then the two continued going forward.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.
10 Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
11 But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered.
12 “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
13 As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
14 Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh; hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”
15 Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven
16 and said: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son,
17 I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
18 your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessings all this because you obeyed my command.”
Right now, as I write, our grandson, Asher, sleeps near me. He’s only four months old, and he is totally helpless and dependent on me. I would do anything for him.
So, what if God called to me today and told me to murder this little boy?
The story of Isaac and Abraham is problematic for both Jews and Christians. It is also an issue for Muslims, although they substitute Ishmael for Isaac in the tale. Rabbis, priests, and imams have spent centuries explaining away the ugly facts in the narrative. They have tried to say that it is all symbolic, or that Abraham and Isaac both knew that it would all turn out okay. Some say that is just a foreshadowing of the Christ’s death. The party line is that is the story is all about obedience and faith.
Just read what it says.
The fact is, if you stay true to the text, if you are honest, this is a story of God demanding human sacrifice. God makes no promises to Abraham at the beginning. He just says, “Do it.”
This particular narrative shows a God who is profoundly cruel. It may be possible, or prudent, to obey such a deity, but it is extremely difficult to love Him.
God may be willing to sacrifice his Son. God may be willing to sacrifice somebody else’s child. That’s his decision. It’s not mine.
God promises Abraham all good things after Abraham attempts to kill his own child. In Genesis, there is no mention of Isaac returning home with Abraham. Abraham goes alone. Even if Abraham did not kill his boy, he lost him. Forever.
Asher whispers in his sleep. He is at peace.
May he remain so.