Today’s first reading on Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19) is one of the most difficult passages in scripture for me. How could a god of love call for the death of a son? Soren Kierkegaard offered his own explanation in Fear and Trembling. I have to re-read this, but I’m not sure that I can accept his interpretation.
I prefer to think that Abraham projected on God the contemporary image of what the gods were – personages to be appeased by bloody sacrifices. The Canaanites gods – much as the Aztec gods – demanded human sacrifices lest great evils fall upon the earth.
Perhaps Abraham thought that the Lord God was like the other gods, vengeful, demanding sacrifice. Thus he was ready to butcher his only to appease this god.
But I wonder if he harbored a few doubts. As he and Isaac leave his servants with the donkey, he tells them, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” We will return. And when Isaac asks where is the sacrificial victim, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” The providence of God and not the ideas of Abraham will triumph.
After I meditated briefly on this passage this morning, I also read the Gospel (Matthew 9: 1-8), where men bring a paralytic to Jesus. The Lord tells the man, “Courage! Your sins are forgiven you.”
The scribes were scandalized. Who can forgive sins except God? How can sins be forgiven without a sacrifice in the temple? How can God work through a human and ignore the sins of this paralytic who is obviously a sinner?
They cannot see a God who forgives out of love, a God who does not require bloody sacrifices, a God who wants people to be restored to community with God – “Your sins are forgiven” – and to community with others – “Rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
God does not act as we think he should. As Abraham notes, “God provides,” – or, as an alternative translation puts it, “God sees.”
We do not need to prove ourselves before God. We need to draw near, hear the voice of God, and see the lamb for the sacrifice. That lamb, in the tradition, is a sign of the Lamb of God who does not demand sacrifice but, out of love, hands himself over to be sacrifices.
God will provide.
The image is from Ravenna, the church of San Vitale.
This reflection is influenced by my meager understanding of the work of René Girard.