A Sermon on the Binding of Isaac


The beginning of chapter 22 in The Book of Genesis is called by Jews the Akedah. We call it the Binding of Isaac. For a hundred years it has also been known as the Sacrifice of Isaac. But this isn’t right because Isaac was not sacrificed. The story is the subject of interest and study by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars. The Binding of Isaac is also of great interest to modern secular scholars.

There is a famous book by the literary critic Erich Auerbach called Mimesis. It is subtitled The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. In Mimesis Auerbach compares the Binding of Isaac story to Homer’s description of Odysseus’s scar in the epic poem The Odyssey.

The scar on the leg of Odysseus is disclosed pretty far into the story. How Odysseus got the scar is laid out in an intricate series of flashback narratives. Auerbach’s thesis was that Homer was writing entertaining fiction, but in the Bible the author of the Binding of Isaac was writing what he believed to be absolutely true about God.

The author of the Binding of Isaac set down an important story in the history of Israel. The Binding was a very well known story. It had to be included in the Book of Genesis. There was no way to avoid it. But how to tell the story?

The author believes that Abraham was a real person. He believes that God told Abraham to kill his son. The author believes that there is one God, and that one God is the God of the Hebrew people. How do you tell the story?

The story is told in 14 verses. 14 verses. This is totally different from the leisurely, fully developed, and completely explained soap opera of Homer’s epic tale.

14 verses. It’s a terrible story. Is the author just trying to get through it as fast as possible? What’s going on here? If you’re a Jew or a Christian how are you going to defend it?

You read this story and there is so much missing. Where did it happen? Where is God? He just shows up and starts talking to Abraham. Where is Abraham? What time of day is it? How old is Isaac? Is Isaac 5 yrs. old? 9 yrs. old? 11 yrs. old? We are told none of it.

OK. I’m not going to drag it out any longer. I’ve struggled with this story for a long time. The story obviously concerns child-sacrifice. But the main issue is about God. Is God actually putting Abraham through a horrible loyalty test? That’s the way it is presented. That was the way the original story was told.

There is a verse that makes me believe that Abraham is “in” on the whole thing. Abraham already has a history with God. Abraham knows God. This verse makes me believe that Abraham knows it is all an exercise. Abraham somehow knows this trip with his son Isaac is designed to teach everybody a lesson.

It’s at verse 5. “Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”” Abraham says, “we will come back to you.” Abraham knows it will be alright! Abraham trusts God and knows in his heart nothing will happen to Isaac.

Then, what is the point of the story? if it is not really a loyalty test, what is the story about? There is only one point that makes any real sense, and it starts with the fact that child sacrifice was common back then. Bad forces or gods were repelled, and good forces attracted, by offering something valuable. “If you mighty-power-thingus will forgive me for what I have done, I will offer you my child.”

Now, we know the ethical direction in which the Bible goes. We can read to the end and look backward. In the Book of Exodus, God gives the Ten Commandments to the Hebrew People. The Ten Commandments create a society in which people can trust each other to worship God, tell the truth, and not to hurt each other by theft or violence. That’s where the story is going.

There definitely was child sacrifice carried out in Bible times and it was not uncommon. If people do this on a regular basis, how does God get rid of child sacrifice? We have here a world in which it would not be strange for someone to believe that he or she should kill their own child.

Well, maybe it would be better if people sacrificed animals instead of children. And maybe it would help if God rewarded someone for substituting an animal for a child.

And that is what we basically have in this story: God says to Abraham, “ Go up there and kill your son.” Abraham says, “OK, this ain’t going to happen but I will do what I am told.” Later Abraham is told by an angel not to kill Isaac. And low and behold there is a ram ready for sacrifice instead. Suddenly, there is a ram there ready to kill and throw on the fire.

To show you that I have this right, I should mention the verses right after the section we read today. Abraham is told that he will be blessed with many children and descendants.

Genesis 22: 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies,
18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Abraham is rewarded for not killing his son Isaac. This is an obvious lesson to everybody. Listen to the voice that tells you not to sacrifice your children!

In this case, the voice that Abraham obeyed was the voice that said not to harm Isaac. This is the voice that prevails in the ethical development of the People of God. It is the voice that guides us to follow the Ten Commandments.

Toward the very end of the Bible God himself allows his only son Jesus to be sacrificed by evil forces. God allows this to happen to show us that God wants us to know he suffers with us, and that we should find another way.

The main lesson from the Binding of Isaac is . . .

Innocent people should be protected, and evil opposed.

Let us pray.

Bestow upon us, O Lord God, an understanding that knows thee, wisdom in finding thee, a way of life that is pleasing to thee, perseverance that faithfully waits for thee, and confidence that we shall embrace thee at the last. Amen
A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)


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