The Old Testament reading in the lectionary for last Sunday was the binding of Isaac. This is a very difficult story for me—the passage and its typical use seem to bear uncomfortable tones of violence and abuse. In her book The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth, Madeleine L’Engle speaks about her encounter with difficult passages. She writes, “A story I found especially troublesome was that of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac. How could a God of love demand the sacrifice of the son he had promised to Abraham and Sarah? What kind of cold-blooded testing was that?”
L’Engle goes on to talk about a “completely new” exegesis she encountered for this passage when conducting a writers’ workshop at Holy Cross Monastery in New York. It is really more a minority viewpoint than a completely new one, though it was undoubtedly new to her. She assigned a writing project, and one of her students came up after class to tell L’Engle she wanted to tell this story from the point of view of God, something L’Engle had told the class never to do. L’Engle goes on:
I laughed. Indeed it is not a good idea for the finite human being to try to write from the point of view of the infinite God. But I knew that this young woman was well grounded in Scripture, that she was a fine writer, and I trusted her ability to meet a challenge. “Go for it, Judith. Write from the point of view of God.”
The next day she came in with a dialogue between God and the archangel Raphael, the physician of God. Raphael is very pleased with Abrahams’s response to God’s demand, and begins extolling Abraham’s virtues to God. And God is not enthusiastic. The more Raphael praises Abraham, the less enthusiastic God gets. Finally Raphael says, “But God, you put Abraham to the test and he passed.”
God replies, “He did not pass. He failed. He chose law over love.”
This view of the text is held by a minority of interpreters, and to be honest, it’s one with a great deal more resonance for me than the Sunday-school interpretation of following God’s commands over everything else, including our own senses of morality. Everyone hears God’s voice differently, and certainly one place we hear it is in our consciences, our loves and deep desires, and the ways in which these interact with the words we have in Scripture. If someone today attempted to slaughter their child, claiming their act was a command from God, we would likely assume they were suffering from some severe mental illness—and rightly so.
This story made it into our scriptural canon, though, and it’s part of a great web of stories that make up the foundation of our faith. It was formative in Paul’s understanding of the meaning of righteousness and great faith. I encountered no shortage of commentary on the passage. One of Kierkegaard’s most famous works, Fear and Trembling, is steeped in these verses.
As a story, it is achingly beautiful. It is concise, it is paced well, it is full of clever literary devices. Reading it with a Christian lens, we can find interesting and compelling parallels to another story of a beloved son climbing a hill with wood on his back. And, as Madeleine L’Engle again notes, “One of the wonders of story is that it is alive, not static.” In this case, I read the story of Abraham and Isaac differently now than I did as a child. I am sure I will read it differently still when I myself am a parent. I suspect I read this differently as a woman than I might as a man (I mean, where was Sarah in this whole thing?). This is a story that has stood the test of time, and part of the reason it has done so is, I think, the dynamic nature of story.
Midrash is a form of rabbinic interpretation that attempts to approach difficult passages by filling in the gaps in canonical Scripture. Midrash aggadah is really a sort of storytelling, a hermeneutical narrative exploring ethical ideas through biblical characters and ideas that may not be fully fleshed out in the text. The idea of contemporary midrash is somewhat of a contested one, but we could look at L’Engle’s retold story of Abraham and Isaac as a sort of contemporary midrash, a hermeneutical exploration of a difficult text.
Critic and Professor Emeritus Gerald R. Bruns writes, “Midrash illustrates a basic hermeneutical principle, which is that the understanding of a text can never remain simply a state of intellectual agreement with what is said; it is never simply a mental state or the conceptual grasp of the mental state of another. Understanding shows itself only in action in the world.” Understanding is shown only in action; the purpose of Scripture is its application.
The past couple of weeks, I have been following the events that unfolded as a federal judge struck down the gay marriage ban in Indiana (my current home), and then as a federal appeals court granted a stay a couple days later). A banner from Hoosiers Unite for Marriage on my Facebook feed proclaimed in large letters, “LOVE WINS”—and I thought of that line: “He did not pass. He failed. He chose law over love.” I wonder how often we choose to uphold law over love. For every time that love wins, how many more times do we choose to stubbornly cling to comfortable, familiar laws? The marriage ban in Indiana is just one example—I’m sure you can think of many more.
God’s infinite love and care for God’s people—for all of us—is both an invitation and a challenge. It is an invitation for us to accept God’s love and grace in salvation, and it is a challenge to share that radical love, grace, and welcome with the world. We have the gift of God’s abundant love, a love that fulfills the law and a life that gives us the freedom and challenge to share this love with the world as we are able. It is our challenge as children of God: to choose love as we live in God’s abiding love.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.