July 1, 2021
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 115, bringing a welcome comfort after the always disturbing story of Isaac’s aborted sacrifice.
This story fascinated Rembrandt. Notice the differences between the 1635 and 1655 interpretations. The old man in the 1655 image has darkened eyes, covers his son’s eyes – not his mouth, and embraces the boy in his lap not laid out on an altar. Old age has gentled what Rembrandt found in the story.
But here’s what I think. It was never about a human sacrifice. God was never going to let that happen.
It was about whether Abraham’s trust would allow him to really see God – God who is never a God of death, but always of life.
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 burnt offering in place of his son.
Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh;
hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”
We live in a world full of choices that run the gamut from death-dealing to life-giving. They may be small, personal choices like what we eat, or how we drive. Or they may be more consequential choices such as the political views we foster or the global ideologies we embrace.
Psalm 115 helps us to solve any confusion we might have about our choices. Always make the choices that lead ourselves and others to the land of the living.
Abraham must have been thrown into the dark by what he believed was God’s expectation of him. But it was really Abraham’s own expectation that had to be broken through. He did this by staying with his pain while trusting that God was bigger than it.
Christine Robinson’s interpretation of Psalm 115 fits well here:
O Great Mystery
We must love and praise you without understanding.
You are not a little tin god
with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear
and a mouth that does not speak.
You can not be described or boxed up or tamed
You are beyond our understanding.
Still, we yearn to hear you, know you,
feel your love, and in mystery, we do.
We know awe at the intricate majesty of the heavens,
We cherish the work of caring for each other
and the Earth.
We praise you, Great Mystery
all the days of our lives.
Poetry: Silence – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Abraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.
God was mute with horror.
Abraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.
Sarah would have been wiser
but Abraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.
In stricken silence God watched
as Abraham saddled his ass
and took Isaac on their final hike
to the place God would show him.
The angel had to call him twice.
Abraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.
(It is true that, in Genesis, this is the last recorded exchange between God and Abraham!)
Music: Story of Isaac – Leonard Cohen
The door, it opened slowly My father, he came in I was nine years old And he stood so tall above me Blue eyes, they were shining And his voice was very cold Said, "I've had a vision And you know I'm strong and holy I must do what I've been told" So we started up the mountain I was running, he was walking And his axe was made of gold Well, the trees, they got much smaller The lake, a lady's mirror When we stopped to drink some wine Then he threw the bottle over Broke a minute later And he put his hand on mine Thought I saw an eagle But it might have been a vulture I never could decide Then my father built an altar He looked once behind his shoulder He knew I would not hide You who build these altars now To sacrifice these children You must not do it anymore A scheme is not a vision And you never have been tempted By a demon or a god You, who stand above them now Your hatchets blunt and bloody You were not there before When I lay upon a mountain And my father's hand was trembling With the beauty of the word And if you call me brother now Forgive me if I inquire Just according to whose plan? When it all comes down to dust I will kill you if I must I will help you if I can When it all comes down to dust I will help you if I must I will kill you if I can And mercy on our uniform Man of peace or man of war The peacock spreads his fan