769) An Old Story Still Speaks

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac.  He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only Son.

–Hebrews 11:17

Sacrifice of Isaac, Carraviggio, 1603


By William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pages 80-83, 1984, Abingdon Press (adapted)

     It arose out of a frantic, last minute search for something to do for an inter-generational church school session in a moderately affluent, suburban church we were members of in Durham, North Carolina.  What would appeal to all ages?  Show a movie, I thought.  So I rummaged through the media center and selected a video cassette from “The Genesis Project” series.

     Even though my wife wondered if the subject matter might be inappropriate for the young children, we decided to show the dramatization of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  After the film, my wife would lead the children in a discussion of the story while I would discuss its meaning with the adults.  Patsy still had some misgivings about showing so ancient and strange a tale to the children.

     “It’s only a little Bible story,” I said.  “What harm can there be in that?”

     The group watched silently as the story unfolded.  What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, raw, dusty Mount Moriah, knife under his coat, with his son trudging silently behind him.  Finally the blade is raised, the boy’s eyes flash with horror; and then the voice, and the knife is stopped just in time.

     I stopped the projector, divided the group in half by age, and the learning began– began for me, that is.

     “Boys and girls, who knows what the word sacrifice means?” asked Patsy.  A few hands went up, a definition was attempted here and there.

     “But what does sacrifice mean to you?” she continued.  That’s when the trouble started.

     “My Daddy and Mommy are doctors,” said one third-grader.  “And they help sick people get better.  Every day they do operations to help people.”

     “And how is that a sacrifice?” Patsy asked.  The little girl was not finished.

     “And I go to Day Care Center after school.  Sometimes on Saturdays too.  Mommy and Daddy want to take me home but they are busy helping sick people, so lots of times I stay at the center.  Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, we have pancakes, though.”

     And everyone, from six to eleven, everyone nodded in agreement.  They knew.

     Meanwhile, among the adults, the discussion was getting off to a slow start.  I was talking too much, giving them some historical background on Abraham, and filling them in on child sacrifice among the Canaanites.  They listened in awkward silence.

     “But what does this story mean to us?” I asked.  “That’s the question.  I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that anybody would think that God wanted him to sacrifice his child like this.  Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”

     “God still does,” interrupted an older woman, her hair graying, wearing a flowered dress, hands twitching nervously on her lap.  “He still does.”

     “How?” I asked.

     Quietly, with tears forming in her eyes, she said, “We sent our son to college.  He got an engineering degree.  But he got involved in some fundamentalist church.  He married a girl in the church.  Then they had a baby, our only grandchild.  Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to the Mideast.  And take our baby, too.”  She began to rock to and fro, sobbing.

     The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man.  “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me.  I’ve decided my family and I are looking for another church.”

     “What?” I asked in astonishment.  “Why?”

     “Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I am near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, country club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings.  Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more.  I want to know that God.”

     Someone else was crying now, a young woman whom I had never met, a new member of the congregation.  

     “Gloria want me to tell you,” said the woman sitting next to her with her arm around her, “that her husband left her and the two children last week.  She wants us to pray for her.”

     After the bell had rung and the group had filed out of the room, Patsy and I sat quietly.

     “What on earth was that all about?” I finally asked.

     She knew no more than I.  By then, the wind had died down, and the courageous, trusting Abraham had gone back down the wild mountain.  Trailing along far behind him and Isaac were a group of twentieth-century, well-educated, well-heeled, suburbanites with our middle-of-the-road, reasonable and tame religion.

     This strange old story can still speak into the hearts of people in our vastly different world.  How odd that we should think we can look condescendingly on such a story, we who make our own sacrifices to much lesser gods than Yahweh.  No stranger to God or to the facts of real life, Abraham would at least know that a mad, disordered, barbaric world needs more than a faith that pretends its God can be served without cost.  How puny is our safe, orderly, comfortable religion before the hard facts of life.  

     The sky darkens, the wind howls, and a different young man walks up another hill, this one called Golgotha, driven by a God who demands everything and stops at nothing.  Unlike Abraham, he carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for a fire.  Like Abraham, he is obedient to a wild and restless God who is determined to have his way with us, no matter what the cost.

Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our callings that we may sleep in your peace and wake in your glory.

–John Donne