The stories of Abraham and his family are, frankly, barbaric. The characters are cruel and uncivilized, and a great many of their actions are, from our point of view, totally reprehensible. For me the sacrifice of Isaac heads the list of horrible tales.
A boy, begotten late in his parents’ lives, and cherished, Isaac holds the place of highest honor in his father’s tribe. Nevertheless, he is made to carry the wood for a burnt offering on his back as he goes up a mountain alone with his father. I imagine him thinking it quite a treat to be allowed to help in this way. Only when the altar is built and the wood is stacked on it does he come to realize that he, himself, is the sacrifice. Does he struggle as he is bound and laid on the wood and his father holds a knife to his throat? Or is he too flabbergasted to put up a fight? Does Abraham tell him anything about what’s happening and why? How does he feel when the ram takes his place, its throat cut, its blood running over the wood that is then lit on fire to burn it up?
The psychologist in me cannot help but be deeply offended. This is the stuff of life-long emotional trauma. Who can you trust when your father and your God have conspired to put you on that altar?
It is Isaac who calls to me across the millennia, though. Wronged by God and his father, he nevertheless took up the mantle of leadership of the tribe, and followed God’s teachings and directives. He was faithful.
I imagine him sitting across from me in my sitting room and casting a baleful eye on my life and the lives of all of us who purport to call ourselves God followers. “Really?” he seems to say.
He is looking at the imbalances he sees all around us. I live in a safe little neighborhood shaded by tall trees while others in this country live in slums and are threatened every day with violence. I can go to the grocery store or the local farmer’s market and get all the food I need while others who live in the same town are only able to eat one, skimpy meal a day. Some sleep in their cars or under the bridges, on the stony bank next to the river, and my only thought for them is whether I should give them money when they panhandle or pull up next to me at the gas station and ask for five dollars worth of gas to put in their tanks. The environment is groaning under the burden of our car emissions and the debris we are throwing away, and I buy food that has been wrapped in single-use plastic and trucked into town from places as far away as China. Isaac is wondering what sacrifice I think I make for my God. How do I justify myself?
In this civilized era of ours, might we be failing to make the really difficult choices that God demands of us? We choose our jobs, our homes, and our financial security over everything else. We do little to restore balance to a beleaguered environment. We make sure we have what we need before we give anything to people around the world and in our own communities who have nothing. We tacitly support all sorts of inequalities and injustices.
Isaac has the right to ask us what sacrifice is being demanded of us and how are we responding? Today, perhaps, it is more barbaric to live as we have been living than it would be to accept God’s call to mercy and compassion.