The Binding of Isaac: Three Traditions, with Surprising Agreement

Good morning on this lengthy (and a bit rainy) Fourth of July Weekend. I’ll say a prayer for our national life shortly, at the prayers of the people.

This coming week our Holy Land Pilgrims will set out on our twelve-day journey to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Jericho, the Dead Sea and Judean desert. So Mo. Eliza and I will be away for the next two Sundays with that group; Father Dan Heischman has kindly agreed to cover, and I know he’s looking forward to seeing you again. 

Our schedule of Sunday readings has this funny way of giving us this story from Genesis, of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac, right here at the beginning of the summer. Our Jewish friends read this in the fall during their high holy days. In Islam, it’s the focus of their second holiest day of the year, which (in fact) they celebrated last week.

Perhaps it says something about us Christians that we slip this story in when attendance begins to drop, and even then there’s an alternative reading that we can choose if we want. 

I. Didn’t. Want.

I love this story. In fact, the pilgrims next Saturday will visit the site where it happened. This rock, on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham bound his son Isaac, is now housed within the Dome of “the Rock,” a Muslim shrine built over it in the 7th century. Before that shrine existed, it was the site of the Jewish Temple, the holiest site in ancient Judaism. Going all the way back to the beginning, to Genesis chapter 1, legend says this is where God gathered up a handful of dust, and created the first human being, Adam, from the word “Adamah” meaning dirt, or earth.

I wonder if there’s any place in this world quite as complicated and storied as this place.

 Or any story quite as complicated as this.

It’s said to be some of the best writing in the ancient world. Its genius is in how spare it is, as if to say, Just try to interpret me. The author’s withholding of pretty much every detail you want as a reader (some word from Isaac, some inner thought of Abraham’s, some motive on God’s part -- anything) has led to much wonderful speculation and filling in the gaps.

Let me give you one example, from the famous medieval Jewish scholar, Rashi. He puts words in the mouth of silent Abraham, because Abraham’s silence at God’s command has always been one of the most upsetting parts of this story. But Rashi takes that and even seems to have a little fun giving Abraham a voice.

Here’s what he wrote. God’s words are what’s exactly in the Bible. Abraham’s, Rashi added. (And remember Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, from two different mothers.)

God said [to Abraham], Your son.

Abraham said to Him, “I have two sons.”

God said to him, “Your only one.”

Abraham said, “This one is an only one to his mother and this one is an only one to his mother.”

God said to him, “Whom you love.”

Abraham said to him, “I love both of them.”

God said to him, “Isaac.”

Isn’t that amazing? He must have been having some fun with this. My husband yesterday reminded me that Bob Dylan also did a “midrash” (that is, creative interpretation) of this story--it starts off his song Hwy 61. But I’ll save that for the next time I preach this. 

The story in the Bible is brief, spare. One day God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham, without a word, gathers up two of his servants, some wood, and his son, Isaac, and they begin their journey to Mt. Moriah. As they draw close to the place of sacrifice, he leaves the two servants behind and continues with only his son.

If you follow the Bible story literally, that Sarah was 90 years old when she gave birth to Isaac (and notice I said IF you follow it literally!), then Isaac in this story would have been 37 years old. Most of us picture a much younger man, a boy even. His few words make him seem too young to understand, and it takes him well into the journey to start to wonder What’s going on, to ask Where the lamb for the burnt offering is. 

 Finally Abraham, when they reach their destination, wordlessly binds his son and places him on the makeshift altar, the rock. Then, just as he lifts his knife in the air, an angel calls out to him to stop, a ram appears in a nearby thicket, a substitute sacrifice, and Isaac is spared.


Three faiths share this story. There are so many views within each faith on what it means that if you lay them all out you can actually find points of agreement all over the place, one faith with the next: Muslim with Christian; Christian with Jew; Muslim with Jew; Muslim Christian and Jew. It’s not as easy as saying every faith has a different interpretation. I used to think that, but over the years in digging more deeply into this story I’ve come to see it’s not that simple. 

There’s the version, maybe best known to us Christians and shared with Muslims, that Abraham was a man of faith for being willing to follow a command as difficult (seeming impossible) as this. And yet he stood prepared to do it, if and when called upon. 

There’s the version, shared by Jews and some Christians, that God’s test to Abraham wasn’t to see if he *would* agree to this command, but to see if he would reject it. God wanted Abraham to refuse, to push back. Abraham failed the test. In the Bible story, the two (Abraham and God) never speak again. Neither do Abraham and Isaac. Let that be a lesson to you fathers :)

There’s the version, shared by Jews, Christians, and some Muslims as well, that what this story is really about is an advancement towards a more ethical way of life, God ruling out once for all an ancient practice of child sacrifice. 

Jews and Muslims, with different motives and conclusions, have suggested that the son in the story wasn’t Isaac at all, but actually Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.

I think back to the site on which this rock stands, which some of us will see in just a few days. Picture it: gold dome of Islam, which stands atop the holiest site of ancient Judaism, the Temple, and was also once a site of a Byzantine Church--I left that one out earlier--and these all built up over (as legend says) the singular patch of dirt that God used to make us all.

If it’s not exactly an ecumenical story, promoting unity and fellow feeling among our three faiths, it should be. This is one of the best-written stories in the Bible and all the world, and what makes it so is that it (like the parables of Jesus) refuses to be confined to one reading, to one group of people, one faith even. It can be debated endlessly and one will always find something to disagree about, but also plenty of common ground. We need both of those, agreement and disagreement, to be in healthy relationships with one another. And whoever first set down this story, got that. 

So - if you’re not going on this trip to the Holy Land, please let me put you on the list for the next. I wish everyone in this parish could, at some point, stand there on that Temple Mount near this very spot, and reflect not on the bizarre divisions that most see when there, but on what we all share, in common.