Some of life’s deepest mysteries are examined in Bible stories. Through the centuries, for example, many have tried to make sense out of the narrative recorded in Genesis 22, one of the darkest, most difficult stories that humans have ever told each other.
This account begins with a shout. It’s only one word long. Abraham is at home with his wife, his servants. We don’t know what he’s doing at this moment. It’s probably an ordinary day. When suddenly Abraham hears a voice. The voice says to him one word: “Abraham!”
This is not just a voice. This is the voice of God, the Creator of the Universe calling to one man, to Abraham. Not for the first time, not at all. When Abraham was younger, God appeared to him and told him to leave his home, which Abraham did. And then God told Abraham to go to a strange land, which he did. And then God and Abraham exchanged promises, and made a covenant together, and God told Abraham to send his first son Ishmael away into the desert, which Abraham did. And then God told Abraham that he had a plan to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. This time Abraham argued with God. They went back and forth – Abraham and God.
“Can’t we save those cities, or some people in those cities, or anyone in those cities?”
Later God sent angels to tell of the coming of Isaac. So it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary when God came to where Abraham was and called to him.
And Abraham responded: “Here I am.” It was just the start of another conversation – another in a series. Until the next sentence. With God’s next utterance, this conversation changes shape and becomes like no other conversation in the bible, like no other story in the Bible, like no other story. God says, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Most of us know the back story. When Abraham was a young man in Ur, God came to him and told him that if he left Ur and travelled west, away from his home, far from the places he knew, God would give him children, and from those children would arise a mighty nation. Abraham obeyed and travelled west and settled in a strange land. And he waited for his first child – the child that would spawn this nation. And Abraham waited, and he waited. And his wife Sara waited. Nothing happened. Still they waited. Nothing happened. Until Sara was old, a very old woman, well past child bearing age. And that’s when three angels appeared at Abraham’s tent and said, “Now is the time for Sara to have the baby.”
And Sara said, “Oh come on.” Even laughed out loud at the craziness of that idea. But in fact, the baby was born. Isaac was born.
His arrival was a little awkward. Because there was already a boy in the house – Ishmael – who was Abraham’s son by his servant Hagar. But God had his mysterious priorities. Ishmael was banned from the house. God made it plain that the future of Abraham’s people – the seed of this great nation – lay not in Ishmael, the oldest boy, but inside Isaac. So Isaac, for the purposes of nation-building, was Abraham’s only son, the one whom Abraham loves.
But here – later on this day, God says, “Take Isaac, and go to Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.” By which God means a human sacrifice. The Hebrew word here implies an offering that is totally consumed. So Isaac is to disappear, to be reduced to ashes. This boy who was to be everything will now be nothing.
So what does Abraham do when he hears this command? What does he say? In the story he says nothing. No record of any response from Abraham. Instead the account reads: “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. ” He does not appear to argue. He does not hesitate. He does what he is told. It’s hard to fathom – really. Did he tell Sara his wife? Did she not ask, “Where are you going? Why are you taking Isaac?” He has to know when she hears that Isaac has been killed by her husband – if this is going to happen, if it’s really going to happen – he must know that this will be the single most terrible experience of her life. The writer of Hebrews commented that Abraham reasoned God could raise Isaac from the dead. God could. Maybe Abraham is hoping it won’t happen. We don’t really know. All we know is that he leaves early in the morning, walking side by side with Isaac and the donkey and the servants heading to this place that God had chosen.
Furthermore, the account doesn’t record any conversation between Abraham and Isaac. So much of what happens in this story happens in silence. They walk for one day, two days, three days. On the third day, Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We’ll worship and we will return to you.”
And he puts the wood onto Isaac’s shoulders and his back, and takes out a knife and some hot embers. Now the two of them, the father and the son, they walked on alone. And that’s when Isaac stops, and he asks this question, his heart-rending question, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.”
“Father, the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
And Abraham says, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
And Isaac doesn’t respond. At least there’s no response in the text. And the two of them, they keep walking . . . walking to Isaac’s annihilation. Why no protest, no questions? Why this quiet? There are few silences of the Bible so troubling. But there is another one. It’s a few chapters before this one, and maybe the two silences speak to each other. This other silence occurs in the story of Noah. God sees too much wickedness in the world, and decides to destroy what he has created except for one good and righteous man named Noah and his family, and a collection of animals. Two of every kind that Noah will gather on board a boat – big boat. So Noah builds the Ark. And he brings all the creatures on board. And on they come.
There’s a beautiful book about this by the Dutch artist Peter Speer. It’s gorgeously illustrated in simple line drawings. And in Speer’s book, Noah is kind and hard-working. He’s familiar with animals. Better than familiar really. He can handle them and comfort them and tend to them. He’s a lover of living things. And then the rain starts. And Noah in “zooy” confusion, rushing from tortoise to baboon to ostrich feeding and caring and managing, he looks out . . . before the hatch is closed. Now is the time to baton down, keep the living cargo dry. And in Peter Speer’s imagination, as the rain puddles around the boat, as the clouds mount up and darken and flash, and the rain starts to fall. Very quietly animals begin to appear out from the forest. They come down from the hillsides, and out of the ground, and down from the sky. And they gather. First it’s a little group, then a larger one by the ark. By the big closed silent Ark. Except they’re not there two by two. No, they’ve come in haphazard combinations. Three armadillos, seven giraffes, a robin, a panda, elephants, some lionesses. These are the animals that are not going to travel on the Ark. That are not going to be protected. That are not going to live. And together they stare up at the closed ark, at the boat that contains the survivors – the lucky ones.
Do you see them? The jaguars staring – and getting wetter. The camel and the mice that – one could argue – have never been wicked. These animals that outnumber the humans on the planet by hundreds of thousands by millions – these innocent creatures accepting, enduring this inexplicable end. The chimpanzee baby nuzzling its mother in the downpour wondering, “How long will it rain, mama?” Just as Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
And there is no answer a parent can give. And the animals stand there as the sea level rises in the endless rain. Now the trout and the squid – are they less guilty? Why do they get to survive? Maybe even thrive in an expanded watery environment. There are no answers to these questions.
And what of Noah? Tending to his creatures. Feeding them. Keeping them warm and dry. What would he have thought just before the ramp was closed, when the last two snails and the pair of lazy worms were scuttled inside? When Noah the righteous man, the good man looked out on all those creatures – sentenced to death by drowning and starvation – what did this good man say? The Bible doesn’t tell us. It just says God closed the ramp. Silence. A deafening silence. Nothing more.
Here is life. Life – we’re told – is precious. Life is dust touched by the breath of God. Life is chemicals that know how to link to each other and bond and split and become a jellyfish, pulsing in the sea, a butterfly flittering in a forest, a fox pup ready to play, and the glance of a boy carrying the wood who asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
To take that boy, that fox, that butterfly. To extinguish that life, that breath, you would think it would pain the Creator. We know this pain. Abraham Lincoln at the war office in Washington – checking telegrams from the front, reading the names of casualties, some known to him, people who had been killed or maimed. A newspaper correspondent saw President Lincoln there, watched him reading the list, as he wrote, “With bowed head and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale, his heart heaving from emotion. the president walked out of the building, and was in such a daze, he almost fell as he stepped into the street. “ This good man knew the weight of hurt. When other people’s children died, he shared the suffering.
This image of Lincoln in anguish is our image of a good human being. A righteous man. That’s what we admire. To have a heart that feels another’s troubles. To cry with others. To join their suffering. Or, in different circumstances, when the occasion is right, to laugh with them. To share their joy. In all to love them. That’s the highest expression of ourselves, isn’t it? There’s nothing more right between two people – between parents and children, between husband and wife, between friends, – nothing is more sublime than to be heard, to be understood, to be loved.
And yet here, in this chapter of the Bible, in this moment between God and Abraham – God who loved Abraham, and Abraham who loved God – this is a love story. Is this the most twisted love story ever told? A loving God wants to test his favorite disciple, the one who loves him the most. And so he says, “That son, the one I promised you would be a nation, that would grow and multiply, the son you and your wife waited for all your lives, the son that was so improbable. When angels told Sara, ‘A boy is on the way.’ She laughed. That son, the one you nurtured, promoted over the other boy Ishmael, the one who will be your future. In spite of all the things I told you, what I promised, what you counted on, what we agreed upon, I want you to kill him. “
Would you do that? And Abraham, Father Abraham, this one who destroyed idols, this one who had obeyed God and left home, this good man who also contested God, bargaining over the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now Abraham hears this command from God, and there’s no record that he argues. He doesn’t refuse. He just saddles up, he takes his son, and walks to Moriah. There is no “Yes, Lord”. He just goes.
What are we supposed to make of this story? What’s it telling us? What kind of God would put his creation, his favorite to a test like this? What kind of man would pass the test? Here’s a God who demands a human sacrifice as proof of devotion and a father who will kill his son for God. Both parties turn devotion into murder.
And the sages say we should admire them.
It’s interesting to see what happens to these good men, to Abraham and Noah, after they do as they are commanded. When Noah rides out the storm and releases his living cargo back into an empty world to start over, what does he do? He plants a vineyard. He presses the grapes into wine, and he drinks. He drinks hard. His children find him half naked in a drunken, silent stupor. And Abraham? After God provides the ram and spares Isaac, Abraham comes down from Moriah, and returns to his servants, and heads home, but evidently not with Isaac. Isaac is somewhere else, not with his father. The silence between a father and his son deepens. Abraham returns alone to Sara. Presumably she hears about what happened, or what almost happened. And the story ends.
God says to Abraham, “Because you have done this , I know you are a God-fearing man because you have not withheld from me your only son . . .” And God goes on to promise Abraham that he will multiply his seed, and through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And to Noah, God creates a rainbow – a sign that promises never to destroy life so completely again. These stories describe remarkable men who put their faith in God over their deepest instincts. And they were rewarded. Noah with a rainbow. Abraham with a nation.
But at what price? What makes these stories so troubling is the silence. No response from Abraham. No response from Noah. After all, they were – as the Bible says – good men. Perhaps their silences seem like blind commitment to the suffering. But because they were good, and caring, and above all human, did they not suffer the suffering of others, like good people do? Abraham for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah for the animals he tended and cared for.
No. Beneath their silences were two blazing human hearts filled with contradictions: “Why my son? Why Isaac? Why slaughter so many innocent creatures in this deluge? Why is this happening? Why is this necessary? I need a reason. I need to know. “ Abraham and Noah surely had those feelings.
But they had something else too. They had a hope. A deep hope that beyond reason, beyond understanding, that somehow there was purpose in these awful deeds, to hope that God is merciful in ways we cannot understand. That we are not meant to know. Or built to know. And their hope just barely contained their doubt.
It must have been an incredible struggle for both of these good men to smother what their hearts felt, to put their hope in a power that was beyond their comprehension. Because the other part of being a good person, of being fully human – beyond our capacity to love and to care – is a passion for answers. A desire to know why. And here lies the key to this story’s power. All of us – not just Noah and Abraham – all of us live in this paradox. To see things that seem wrong – that are wrong – that are cruel, and to wonder: “Is there a higher logic to explain what I see? And if I can’t know that logic, if I can just hope for it, hope there’s an explanation, is that enough?” Can we live with the fact that we may never know? That all we have is hope? Can we face this reality with just hope in God? This is a powerful question.
If love and mercy are good things, then why are they missing so much of the time? Noah can ask, “God, why did you kill those animals, all that innocent life?” Abraham can ask, “Why would you dare command me to murder my son?” And I can ask, “God, why do you allow the deaths of our sons and our daughters? Why do you allow the slaughter of innocents in Kampala?” I hope there’s a reason. I don’t know if there’s a reason. I know enough of life to know that God doesn’t often send angels to stay the hand of the killer as He did with Abraham. Sometimes the killer kills. Often the killer kills.
And yet against this indifference we survive. And we hope. Which brings us to the last player in this narrative. Abraham’s son, the boy who was bound, tied to a rock, while his father stood above him. A dagger in his hand, ready to use that dagger. Isaac saw into his father’s eyes. He saw his father’s resolve. And then Isaac survived. What was Isaac thinking when he went down from Moriah? When he walked into what was left of his long life? Had he heard the voice of God? He must have asked himself, “Why was I tested? Why was I spared? What’s the point? Am I alive because my father passed a test? Would I be dead if he didn’t pass the test? Do I matter? So what do I do? I get up. I grow older. I marry Rebekah. I have children of my own. I make mistakes. I laugh. I savor my love for Jacob and for Esau. I go on. And I hope.”
So like Isaac, like Abraham, we hope. We hope that one day it will make sense. Some days it does make sense. Some days we’re not certain. We’ve seen kindness. We’ve seen cruelty. But one more thing we have seen. Centuries later, God made known this mystery: Christ Jesus, the Hope of Glory. He suffered and died to become our Hope. So we live, and we love, and we labor on proclaiming Christ so that someday all may be presented complete in Him. Until that day, we hope. Though some days our contradictions are just barely contained.