Ellen F. Davis: Radical trust
What kind of God would submit Abraham to the “test” of sacrificing his son, Isaac? There are just two possible answers, and both are difficult, the professor of Bible and practical theology says.
July 26, 2011 | Genesis 22
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that provide insight into Christian leadership. Ellen F. Davis preached this sermon on June 26, 2011, at Duke Chapel.
A thought experiment: If they had asked me to edit the Bible (whoever “they” is, perhaps the Holy Spirit or the heavenly Council on Divinely Inspired Works) -- if they had made me the original editor of the Bible, I would have made some substantial changes.
The very first change would have been to get rid of the 22nd chapter of Genesis, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac.
“It’s way too off-putting,” I would have argued.
“Just listen to this: ‘And God said, Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and take him to some as-yet-unspecified place, and offer him there as a burnt offering.’ This is exactly the kind of story that gives the Old Testament a bad name,” I would have said. “It gives God a bad name. If you put this story just 22 chapters into the Bible, who is going to read the rest? Even if the story is true, who would want to believe in a God like this?”
Mine is a common-sense argument, which must have occurred to countless sensible people through the ages. Certainly, the literary and theological geniuses who put together the book of Genesis must have considered this argument and dismissed it.
Raising my sights, I imagine making my argument to the heavenly Council on Divinely Inspired Works, and after they had listened politely, they would tell me that I had completely missed the point. The point of this story is not to make people want to believe in Abraham’s God, who is of course also Jesus’ God and Father.
Rather, this harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. In other words, the Holy Spirit and the heavenly Council would tell me the point is not to draw people in but rather to help people who are already in stay in -- stay in relationship with the one true God, even when their world turns upside down.
This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit.
I remember the words of my young friend, a devout Roman Catholic, just a few hours after his first child had died in birth, strangled by her umbilical cord: “I could say, ‘Why me?’ But why not me? I knew this happens to people, and it never made me doubt God before. So why should I doubt God now? But still, I do not understand.”
The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and, it seems, asks us to bear -- and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish.
This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.
To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. That is what Abraham does. Without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading. To what end, Abraham has no idea.
It is quite common for theologians to hold up Abraham as a model of unquestioning obedience to God, but I think this is misleading, and possibly even damaging to Abraham’s character. After all, obedience is a virtue only if it serves a just cause. Obedience in service of an unjust cause is servile, cowardly, even criminal. That we learned definitively from Nuremberg and, in our own country, from the My Lai massacre. If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous.
But there is another option.
What if Abraham follows God’s command, not out of obedience, but out of faith -- which is to say, what if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised? (For the child Abraham is called to sacrifice is the child through whom God’s promise of blessing is meant to unfold.)
It is trust, not obedience, that binds Abraham to God. This is something I learned from the great 20th-century Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits, who is one of the leading thinkers in Jewish theology after the Holocaust.
In his probing and wrenching book “With God in Hell,” Berkovits asks this question: Why did so many Jews keep their faith in the ghettos and the Nazi death camps? Why did they gather to say prayers and keep Sabbath or circumcise their children as a sign of the covenant, even as the SS literally beat down the door? Why did they keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel instead of cursing the God who seemed to have abandoned the Jews?
As he puzzles over this question, Berkovits turns to this story of Abraham, and what he discovers is the bottomless trust that holds Abraham together with God.