Print Version June 30th, 2005
There’s something very disturbing in that first line of our first reading: ‘It happened that God put Abraham to the test’. Especially when we discover the ‘test’ is: go and slaughter your son. Now although the story has a happy ending—if you discount the bills for Isaac’s lifelong therapy—I’m still left with a niggling doubt—maybe, when it’s my turn for the test, there’ll be no ram in the thicket, no angel voice to still my hand from sacrificing all I love. But then I catch myself in mid-doubt and wonder if I will ever learn.
This story is about learning: Abraham’s and Israel’s. It’s a story with its own layers of history. It celebrates a shrine where children were sacrificed to a hungry God. It celebrates the immense and immensely strange faith of Abraham, Father of Three Religions. It celebrates the tangled and perilous tale of sacred violence. And it celebrates the way we learn the character of the God who has made covenant with us.
The Hebrew people couldn’t resist this story—still can’t—it is the most embellished, the most interpreted, most influential of Hebrew tales. And its history records our history.
How did we learn that God, our God, prefers life to death, offers blessing not curse, desires love not fear? How do we learn? I guess we have learned the hard way: with our hand on the knife in the land of Moriah.
Moriah’s a funny place. You won’t find it on the map. It means the land of seeing. And when the drama is over what is it we see? We see, the text says, that the Lord provides—literally the Lord sees to it.
And that’s not just ‘trust and God will take care of you’—it’s much, much more—wherever we feel the demand for violence sacrifice in our lives—whether we play Abraham and Isaac in our own hearts or act it out on the world stage in hatred, war and famine—wherever we feel the demand for violence, God will see to it—not stop it, not put it right, but bear its force and anger and hatred—to the end. God is the ram in the thicket. God is the man on the cross. Even in our Eucharistic sacrifice God is the bread and God is the wine.
So what have we learned in 5000 years? God is never the one demanding sacrifice; God is always the one paying the price.