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It’s often that we find ourselves with no good options in life. A paradoxical truth to learn as we age, it makes faith in a Loving God, who can remain ambiguous in hardship, tough. When we feel damned if we do, damned if we don’t we envision God as either unloving, uninvolved or impotent to help. Today’s scripture, one of the most foundational – and most difficult – of the Bible challenges that vision of God.
We jump from the creation story (last week in Genesis 1) to a story well within the life of Abram and Sarai. They have left everything: their land, home, culture and people to set out for the new place that God promised them. They have heard the promise of life – of the gift of children when they remain infertile and barren in their old age, and had their names changed to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11 & 12). They, who were dead, are now alive, with the birth of their son Isaac (whose name ironically means “laughter”). He, not Abram’s step-son Ishmael, is the promised way forward, the potential for life, for Abram [meaning “father”] to truly be Abraham [meaning “father of many”] as God promised when comparing his future descendants to the number of stars in the sky (Genesis 17). This foundational family has discovered that the God in whom they trust is not one who makes bad people good, as much as a God who makes the dead alive.
Here Abraham is commanded by God to take Isaac and offer him in sacrifice. Abe has no good option, no way out For either he obeys God and then sacrifices his own child (his future and life). Or he disobeys God and preserves Isaac. While the story is barbaric to our ears, it probably also was to Abraham’s, even if other neighboring cultures in the ancient world practiced child sacrifice as a way to entreat, appease and win over gods. (We read in Leviticus 20:2-5 of the ancient worship of Molech).
The story has some remarkable literary points. If we read the names literally we read of Laughter and Father of Many going into the desert. We also hear one word repeated three times: “Here I am”. The second (or middle) occurrence of which is strikingly followed by the vision that “God will provide…” Is this story a horrific amalgam of ancient worship and a God who changes his mind? Or could it be that the point of the story is that God is the God of Life, of Promise, of Potential, who provides a way when there is no way, who provides life when there is none?
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation