Himself the Lamb
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” … (Genesis 22:2 RSV)
“Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” (Genesis 22:10 RSV)
In my mind’s eye, my mental picture, Abraham stands ready, knife raised. He has Isaac by the hair, head pulled back ready to slit open the boy’s throat and spill his blood on the altar for the glory of God. I am sickened. Appalled, sickened.
And the very last thing, the farthest from my mind, what I absolutely do not want to do on this Good Friday reading Genesis 22, which scholars call “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” I do not, will not, I refuse to rationalize God or Abraham for this obscene outrage against the dignity of the human creature, and against humanity itself, the slaughter of an innocent, a child, much less as a blood sacrifice to the glory of God.
Nor will I embrace the waffling stupidity that God never intended to go through with it, what a load of it, a bucket that itself while seeming to “let God off the moral hook,” in fact is a blasphemy that would rob God of integrity, make God untruthful, a trickster, a manipulator, a liar, untrustworthy. I promise you: God was not “tricking” Abraham. This was for real.
And so, if you are appalled that God would demand such a perversion of love, I would say, yes, including with many horrified rabbis over the ages, yes, it’s the last and final straw, the ultimate story in scripture that could make one an atheist, an enemy of God who, generations later in salvation history, orders Joshua as the Israelites go from Canaanite village after town after city in their conquest of the Promised Land, that God orders Joshua to slaughter every living thing, men, women, children and animals, as “cherem,” a blood sacrifice and offering to God. And worse yet, the story at Ai of Achan and his family and cattle (Joshua 7). I AM: Adonai Elohim, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob/Israel, and the God of Moses: If you are horrified at God and that Abraham would go through with it, so am I as a loving father and Theophilus, lover of God. The story at Genesis 22 breaks my heart, pierces my very soul.
Other than Isaac the intended victim, who up until this moment trustingly adores his father, in this Genesis nightmare the only Innocence is waiting in the shadows, in the background, at home behind the scenes: Abraham’s wife, Sarah the boy’s mother whom, the rabbis tell us, after this barbaric offense against human decency and parental love, never spoke to Abraham again.
The pathos-laden story stands on its own. And that the sacrifice was called off at the last moment saves neither Abraham nor God.
But no, wait: there’s more, far, far more, because Genesis 22 is a story that we Christians have to “read backwards,” for it does not, does not begin as you heard, with God’s horrifying command “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a sacrifice to me.” The Genesis 22 story actually begins where it ends, in Jerusalem, at The Place of the Skull. It begins — at the end, as God the Son says, “It is finished.”
Holy Week builds an existential crisis not only for the characters in the story — God the Father, Jesus the Son, and (as in the story of Abraham), mother Mary whom, in accord with prophecy, a sword is to pierce her soul — but a crisis also for us who stand watching helplessly, sickened as the story moves inexorably; we cannot stop it. In the film, in the movie The Passion of the Christ, there is a scene when Jesus, struggling under the weight of his cross, stumbles and falls onto Jerusalem’s rock hard cobblestone street, the weight of the cross nearly crushing him as it comes down. From the crowd, Mary rushes toward him, her mind flashing back to the time he was a little boy, when he fell and she rushed out to scoop him up and comfort him in the safety of mother’s arms. But destiny has come with brutal force and she cannot save him now. As Mary drops to her knees at his side, Jesus murmurs to her, “See, mother, I make all things new.” And in that instant, I know my salvation is assured.
The holy, telling moment in the Genesis 22 story that we call “The Sacrifice of Isaac” — which is not about Abraham and Isaac at all, but about God Himself, is when the little boy asks Abraham,
“Here am I, my son.”
“Behold, the fire, and the wood. But where is the lamb for sacrifice?”
And Abraham, obedient, bewildered, devastated, brokenhearted, Abraham’s unknowingly prophetic response rings down through the ages of ages,
“God will provide Himself
the Lamb for sacrifice, my son.”
“God will Provide Himself the Lamb.” Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elehenu, Adonai Echod, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is none without the others. Inseparable, Indivisible, Incomprehensible, One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. None is the Other, and Each and All are God, and God is the Lamb.
In the opening of his gospel, John the Evangelist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God. What he means by that is illusive, a mystery until the very end of the story, when Jesus is slain on the day the lambs are slaughtered for the Passover. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: behold the Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world: God has provided Himself, the Lamb for sacrifice.
In accord with prophecy, He dies, God Himself dies, dies in horrendous agony, torn and bleeding on the Cross, God the Lamb of God sacrificed for your sins, that where He is, there you may be also. In the great and terrible plan of salvation, taking your place, dying your death, that you might live, God provides Himself, the Lamb for sacrifice.
In a cold moral universe, the Genesis 22 story of Abraham, Isaac and God is beyond the pale, irredeemable. But the story — which blessedly does not end in the boy’s death — the story is not a tragedy, the story is prophecy: God will provide Himself, the Lamb. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
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Good Friday homily in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida, March 25, 2016, the Rev. Tom Weller. Text: “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” using the Revised Standard Version. Genesis 22:8a “Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Artist’s license: preacher’s discretion. The text actually seems to read "God will provide לּ֥וֹ to himself a lamb," "he shall see to it for himself" but the preposition does not show in the ambiguous RSV and does not need to be assumed. Further, that the LXX εαυτώ is dative (not accusative) does not show in the RSV and so does not bother me.
The Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain Francisco De Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei, c. 1635-40 The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world