For the week of November 19, 2005 / 17 Heshvan 5766
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim / Kings 4:1-37
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," [God] said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:12).
Where would be without Abraham today? Without Abraham the world would be a very different place. Millions and millions of people look to him as their father in their faith. A few weeks ago, I mentioned Thomas Cahill's book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. The title alone makes Cahill's viewpoint clear: it was the Jewish people, beginning with Abraham, whom God used to bring about a radical shift in how people understand life. The way most people look at the world stems back to Abraham's God-given perspective.
Comparing Abraham to most other significant figures in history, he didn't do much. And what he did do had such little impact on the people of his day. Most of the key events of his life and especially those things which would later impact world history, were done in relative privacy.
What Abraham did do was respond to God in faith. What made that so significant is that he did so in a time in human history when almost everyone else was deeply confused about life and God. In the midst of that confusion Abraham became like a lighthouse - a beacon of truth to not only his own descendants, but eventually to the whole world.
It is through Abraham that we learn that there really is a personal God - the unseen creator - who desires relationship with his estranged, but beloved human creatures. This God, completely unlike the gods of other cultures, cannot be manipulated through rituals and other gimmicks. He also is not simply a magnified version of human nature, but One who is completely different from ourselves, yet who has made us in his image in order to fulfill his good purposes on Earth.
Abraham's simple, yet world changing, journey with God still challenges us today. More than once Abraham had to trust in God's reality over what most of us would call the impossible. The fact that he would leave family and the familiar for no other reason but the call of God, remains a challenge to both believer and non-believer alike. Everything in us wants security and stability. But Abraham's example reminds us that true living is found in abandonment to God's will.
The brightness of the truth through his experiences continues to confront us. There is probably no greater example of this than when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It seems it is this story that turns off more people to the God of Israel than any other. But I believe the reason for this anger stems from an unwillingness to see what was really happening from Abraham's perspective.
While God's directive was terrible in it own right, it is clear that Abraham knew that it wasn't God's intention. That is why he said to his servant just prior to ascending the chosen mountain:
Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. (Bereshit / Genesis 22:5)
He didn't have to say this to his servant. Also with such little detail about Abraham's internal process over this extraordinary demand from God, why else would it be recorded? Abraham knew that God's promises to him were wrapped up in Isaac. Abraham knew that blessing for the world was dependant on this special, miraculous son of his. Isaac had to survive this ordeal. Exactly how it would work out, he didn't know. But he knew God would take care of it somehow.
It seems that those who get upset over this story react to what they claim is the barbaric demand of God. But I wonder if there is not something else going on here. By demanding Isaac's life, God was demanding from Abraham that which we want to keep: everything. Abraham's own life had become completely wrapped up in this son. No wonder, given all he went through up to this point. But herein lies the legacy of Abraham: God can be trusted. Even in the midst of the utmost confusion, God can be trusted. In the midst of total loss and death, God can be trusted.
Abraham proved - contrary to what everyone else in his day believed - contrary to what most people still believe today - that we don't need to hold on to life to live. All other forms of security - except for God himself - are false. Only in God can we discover the true security and certain future we long for.
Abraham's life still unsettles us, but perhaps it is only because we still haven't learned to trust God as we should.
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