A few months ago, I had the opportunity to go and see the movie about Harriet Tubman’s story. I must admit that I knew next to nothing about her, and so the movie was really helpful for me to learn about her work as an abolitionist and political activist, but also, and it was one of the angles of the movie, to learn about her ministry as a woman of God and a prophet. The movie is very moving throughout as you can imagine, describing the horror of racism, the pain of slavery and the dangers on the journey to find freedom. Yet one of the scenes that was the most touching to me was when, after Harriet first escapes to Philadelphia and spends much time saving money preparing to go back to Maryland in spite of all the risks to bring her husband back, she arrives only to find him settled in a new life, with a new wife and a baby, unwilling to take Harriet back, unwilling to leave his home and his life of slavery. There is this scene where we see Harriet crying and praying and you can tell the pain is so great – not only for the loss of her love and of her former family life but also, and mainly, for the loss of her hope and of her trust in God. She was so sure, she says, that God was sending her back, calling her back to Maryland to be reunited to her husband and to save her family and take them with her (her sister will also reject her offering), how could God betray her in such a way? Playing such a cruel trick on her and breaks her heart? Had she lost her connection with God? Was God rejecting her? Was God taking back God’s promise?
And so – when you watch this scene in the movie this is quite heartbreaking (I was quite heartbroken!) and yet, as a spectator, you know better, of course. And if you’ve already heard about the whole story of Harriet Tubman, maybe, in spite of understanding and sharing the pain, you cannot help but smile because you know so much better than that. For one minute you see the scene from God’s perspective, and you understand: How could this simple, frail and young woman know that God had sent her to be the new Moses? Not only to save her own, but to save so many of her own, to save a multitude, to save her largest family, all her brothers and sisters bound in slavery? Prophets, you see, they interpret God’s will to the best of their abilities – They hear what God says and what God wants but how can they have the spectator’s vision, the big picture, knowing the end of the story before the story even unfolds? Indeed, God wanted Harriet Tubman to save her family, she just thought about family in a narrower sense, not only because her knowledge was limited but also because of her great humility. How could she have guessed the depths of God’s will on her life?
I am telling you this story, you see, because I think it sheds a lot of light on the story we have just heard this morning in our readings, the famous story of “Abraham’s sacrifice” aka “The binding of Isaac”. I must confess that I had a terrible time with this story. As you know, I like to do my homework when I prepare a sermon, but after having read ten, twenty, thirty commentaries about the horror of child sacrifices, the cruelty of the Old Testament and the terrible heartbreak God inflicted on Abraham (Not to mention Isaac’s terror!), I didn’t know where to go from there and to make the story acceptable to our modern ears. Bu that’s when I remembered the story of Harriet Tubman: Prophets interpret God’s word to the best of their abilities, they hear God based on what they know, have observed and experienced in the world, and because they are only human and sometimes because they are just very humble, they have great intuition, but they miss the exact point. They’re not wrong, but they’re not right either and they have to wait for a second revelation from God, as the story goes, to understand what the plan is really about.
Has God really asked Abraham to sacrifice his son? Among all the commentaries I read, most preachers agreed that the only way to redeem the story was to believe that Abraham actually “misunderstood”. God never asked something like a child sacrifice because God isn’t sadist or cruel or unfair and God does not take back God’s word and God’s promise. And actually, in the end, we see that the angel of the Lord held back Abraham’s and then the ram showed up to be offered in place of Isaac. And so, I would like to believe that too, that God didn’t ask for the sacrifice but if you read the text, it is still very clear that God did order it, and even if it was just the test and not really bound to happen, it still feels like the cruelest test of all.
How can we understand the story? Well, I think we can understand Abraham’s story as we understand Harriet Tubman’s story: Abraham had to “sacrifice” his son, as Harriet Tubman had to save her “family”. They have good intuitions, but they miss the point because even a prophet cannot grasp the wideness and the unfolding of God’s will and God has to talk to them in a language they can understand.
So what’s going on with Abraham? Well, if you remember from last week, Isaac is growing up, the child has been weaned and Abraham threw a great party. Yet something is going wrong. Tensions rise between Hagar and Sarah. Ishamel, though loved by his father, is not seen as the son of the promise anymore and in the end, he is is sent away (to die?) in the wilderness with his mother. From now on, it is just Abraham, Sarah and Isaac the legit son, and they are waiting for the next thing, probably Isaac’s marriage and the birth of a new generation. And yet, when all should be good and happy, this is when Abraham hears something quite terrifying – that’s when Abraham’s hears that God wants him to sacrifice his son.
And I believe God told Abraham that he had to sacrifice his son, but I also believe that God talked a language Abraham could understand and Abraham heard it to the best of his abilities, living in a culture where offering up your child to the gods in a burnt offering, even if terrible, wasn’t such an unusual thing to do – it was the kind of thing a god could want – to show you who was in charge and had the power and authority about life and death and all the things that were given to you. And it is true, in some ways: that is the ultimate meaning of a sacrifice: to realize that we are not charge and that nothing, and nobody, ever belongs to us. But we don’t need to realize that because we have a cruel insecure God who needs to assert God’s power, we need to realize that because God is the God of the living and the only way to live is to not hold on, capture, or bind what God has given us.
And so, take it or leave it, this is my angle on the story: God did ask the sacrifice, but in the end what God wanted was certainly not blood or death. Quite the opposite. God wanted a sacrifice to bring new life, fruitfulness and the realization of the promise. God needed Abraham to renounce to his son, to let go of him. God saw that something had gone terribly wrong in Abraham’s household: Isaac became the center of attention, both his parents brooding over him like “helicopters parents”, suffocating the sacred child of the promise to whom no one could come close to, not even his half brother who enjoyed playing with him – and was sent to death for doing so (Re-read last week’s lesson!).
Abraham had to renounce to his son and had to let go of him in order for the promise to be fulfilled. Isaac was not given to be Abraham’s but to start his own family. And that was the sacrifice God was asking of Abraham, because there literally would never be any fruitfulness if Isaac’s parents never let anyone near him, if the kept the child (or young man) to themselves. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a stunning book about those three terrible days of Abraham walking in the desert, preparing to put his child to death, but also, mainly, being prepared in his heart to live without him – and ultimately, to me, this is what God wanted. Not because God wanted to display God’s power and ultimate claim on God’s promise, but because there is no fruitfulness without letting go, there is no love without sacrifice because love is about giving and giving away and also, and mostly, there is no love without leaving people be their own person and creating their own destiny.
This passage of the sacrifice of Abraham is interestingly sandwiched between the weaning of Isaac and his wedding. This story is a rite of passage, a coming of age story. Isaac is freed from his father, the binding of Isaac is the story of how God unbound Isaac from the grips of toxic paternity. In the meantime, it also frees Abraham from holding on and ultimately allow the future to take place for his offspring, and fulfill his deepest desire to be the father of nations.
What about us? What is the heart breaking story of our letting go? Or maybe, what is the terrifying story of our unbinding? Are these stories cruel jokes and tricks God played on us or are they the answer to a deeper call, a rich life, a more meaningful spirituality?