The Binding of Isaac

Memorial Day is a time to ponder sacrifices that are made in the name of that which is most sacred.

Opening Words: Genesis 22:1-19

Meditation in Words

O God of every nation, as our nation prepares for another Memorial Day, open our minds and our hearts to grateful remembrance of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We do not always understand why those sacrifices were made, yet we remember them for who they were, our neighbors and our friends, our ancestors and our family members. Perhaps they died fighting for freedom and justice against cruelty and oppression; perhaps they were sacrificed to the hubris of unconscionable leaders; perhaps we cannot fully comprehend the bitter mysteries of their sacrifices, for we know ours is a world of confusion and uncertainty in which it is not always clear to us what is right and what is wrong. Give us the humility, compassionate God, to accept our unknowingness in the face of the loss of life through the horror and misery that is war.

We hold in remembrance all those whose lives were cut short in warfare, lives that could have been filled with many more years of generosity and joy, lives of combatants on all sides and lives of innocent bystanders. We can never mourn enough the wasteful destruction of life. Yet we also hold in remembrance the knowledge that our world would be a very different place without the sacrifices of those who have taken up arms. We pray that their sacrifices were not in vain. As they died to make a better world, may we live to make a better world, a world in which such sacrifices might someday be no longer needed.

We hold in remembrance our fellow citizens, our neighbors, friends and loved ones who serve or have served. We remember all those who have not come home. Their names are too numerous for us to speak at once, and for that alone we are in grief. But we remember them by name or in spirit. Eternal God, God of every nation, help us to remember.

Sermon: The Binding of Isaac
The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister

In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, we find an episode often referred to by rabbis and Bible scholars as the עקדה Aqedah, the Hebrew word for “binding.” It is the story of Abraham binding his beloved son Isaac to a sacrificial altar at God’s command, only to have his hand stayed at the last moment by God’s intervening angel.

The Bible is not lacking in narratives and utterances that are complex, cryptic and often baffling to our modern sensibilities. The Aqedah is certainly one such passage. Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and clerics have pondered and debated its many layers of meaning over the centuries. Some have interpreted it as a renunciation of human sacrifice by the ancient Hebrews, setting them apart from other Semitic cultures of antiquity. Some Christian theologians have seen it as an archetype of God the Father sacrificing his Son on the cross. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha reverently commemorates Abraham’s submission to God.

There are obvious ways in which the world of ancient Israel is radically different from our own. Democracy, electricity, floating capital, high-speed transportation, the aspiration of gender equality and a global human population in the billions are all things that the authors of this story of Abraham and Isaac probably could not have even imagined, just as we can scarcely imagine life without those things. Yet these ancient stories continue to hold a place in the imaginations of so many human beings worldwide for a reason. They have something in them that resonates with us, else no one would pay them any attention any more. Scripture has been a source of inspiration and comfort to uncounted human souls for centuries upon centuries, but the Aqedah reminds us that its stories endure not because they are simple or because they are easy for us to digest. Like many passages in that anthology of human writings we call the Bible, the Aqedah kindles the imagination precisely because it is so disturbing, so full of maddening mystery.

We religious liberals love to hate this story. Unquestioning obedience to supreme authority is not a trait that we tend to admire in any circumstance; we are all the more inclined toward revulsion when the authority in question is ordering someone to do something unspeakable. If we think about God at all, we much prefer a God who speaks to us of love and justice and peace rather than one who commands someone of singular devotion: “Go and kill your son for me… No, never mind that: I was just testing your fidelity.” We might prefer to just dismiss the immense challenges of this story as someone else’s theological and moral problem, or we might actually engage in rather elaborate literary gymnastics in order to make merely thinking about this story palatable to our sensibilities. I once heard a thoughtful sermon by a Unitarian Universalist minister who took the liberty of rewriting the story, in essence having Abraham say to God, “No, I won’t sacrifice my son, but I’ll show You the depth of my devotion some other way.” We are probably more inclined to look at this story as the remnant of a barbaric past, and to wag our heads as we say to ourselves, Thank goodness we’ve outgrown such a savage religion, the worship of a God who would demand such a horrible sacrifice! And perhaps we congratulate ourselves on how much more morally and spiritually advanced we are, taking courage that the human race, or at least our enlightened niche of it, might actually be moving away from the religious sanction of such brutality.

If these are some of our reactions to this ancient tale, there is a tragic dimension of self-deception in them. If we are intellectually and spiritually honest, we recognize that the deeply unsettling story of the Aqedah stays with us precisely because it is not as far removed from our experience as we would like to think that it is. In fact, our world is and has always been even more frightening than anything in this story. Yes, we are horrified — as well we should be! — by God’s dreadful command; we are appalled at Abraham’s compliance with it, without so much as a murmur of complaint or dissent. But God turns the tables at the fateful moment, and Isaac is spared. In our world, the sacrificial blade swings down, and the sacrifice is offered. We live in a world in which fathers sacrifice their sons all the time — a world in which adults for thousands of years have offered up their children’s lives in uncounted, mind-boggling numbers. That is the essence of war: something deemed holy, something of overriding, transcendent, uncontestable importance demands something of us, something that must be placated with a sacrifice.

It seems odd to me to interpret the Aqedah as a renunciation of human sacrifice when almost no human culture that has ever existed has actually renounced it. Our own society is as good an example as any. The monuments to war dead that we can find in nearly any American city or town certainly speak to our culture of sacrifice. War is not the only vehicle through which sacrifices are made, of course: our for-profit prison system is an instrument of human sacrifice; Sandy Hook made it clear that as a society, we are perfectly willing to sacrifice little children in their classrooms — even while providing the “thoughts and prayers” attendant upon the most ritualistic rites; we as a society are perfectly willing to sacrifice the children of Puerto Rico as the island prepares in the next few weeks for the 2018 hurricane season without having recovered from last year’s. Any one of us as individuals might object — in some cases quite strenuously, I have no doubt — to these sacrifices, but we can’t deny that as a society, those sacrifices are made: we sacrifice our fellow human beings on altars of greed or indifference or even outright malice. If we do object, we had better be prepared to sacrifice our time and our energy and our resources to put an end to such sacrifices. Perhaps we are doing that, but a true and utter renunciation of those sacrificial rites might be the work of years, or even of generations.

The question is not whether or not we make human sacrifices; I am certain we do, as every human society that has ever existed has done. The question is: for what and for whom are these sacrifices made?

Memorial Day it a time to remember a particular kind of sacrifice, made over the course of generations by countless human souls. It appears to have evolved from Decoration Day remembrances during and after the Civil War, though of course the decorating of graves is an almost universal custom. Memorial Day invites us and challenges us to think about the sacrifices of war — or more to the point, of wars, for we as a people have engaged in centuries of armed conflict. Surely we can’t have the same moral framework for each of those conflicts. Was the Spanish-American War as righteous or unrighteous as the Revolution? Was Da Nang of the same ethical fiber as Antietam? Who have our Abrahams been, and who are the Isaacs that have laid themselves down, willingly or unwillingly, upon the sacrificial altar?

There are those who feel that the use of physical force is never morally acceptable, that war can never be regarded as a valid ethical option. I have respect and even great reverence for this perspective, even though I do not personally share it. And if we don’t agree with the decisions and policies of our government, then by all means let’s speak up about it; that is the duty of a free people. But when someone wearing the uniform of our country’s military dies, we do not need to have all the unbearably complex geo-political complexities sorted out in our consciences in order to honestly mourn their deaths. Each death is someone’s father, someone’s son or husband or uncle or neighbor, someone’s wife or niece or godmother or best friend. I know this also: the sacrifices can be worthy of our reverence. In every war there is some dishonor, some blot on a high purpose. From the confiscation of Tories’ property in the Revolution all the way to Abu Grahib, the carnage and anguish of war seems to unleash the worst in the human animal. Yet we also know that this former colony became part of a free country. We know that the chain of slavery was broken. We know that fascist autocrats failed in their bid for world conquest. Sacrifices were made for these things. The preparations were made, and the burnt offering was laid upon the altar of human history. We cannot forget the ideals that are betrayed in war, but neither can we turn away from recognizing the ideals that have been saved.