Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah;
and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains, which I will tell thee of.
Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son;
and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.
~ Genesis 22: 2 & 6
The rabbis tell two midrash of Sarah’s death. In both versions she learns that her husband Abraham has taken her son to the mountains along with wood and a knife to make a sacrifice to God. Fearing the worst, she runs distraught from camp to camp searching for news. In one version an angel appears to say that Isaac survives; overcome with joy her heart gives out and she dies. In the second version, when Satan appears and lies to her, proclaiming Isaac’s death, she drops dead from grief.
In this collage, which focuses on Isaac, you find Sarah, almost invisible at this point in the story, in the shadow of Isaac’s coat, shrouded in mourning. Her role is over. There’s nothing left for her to do but die. Her marriage and her faith are lost to her. How can she ever forgive God or Abraham?
Isaac carries a branch in his hand to represent the wood he carried, the wood for his own sacrifice. The mountain looms ahead of him with its high altar. The fire is built, the knife is honed, but an angel appears to stop the proceedings. Instead of Isaac, a lamb will be slaughtered to complete the rite.
This story is full of drama and dilemmas. Many interpretations have been offered over the years, from awe at Abraham’s faith, devotion and overwhelming love/fear of God to stark horror at the idea a parent would be willing to sacrifice their child to some abstract cause. But, how can we forget the sons sent off to die in Vietnam or disowned for refusing the honor? In the Iran/Iraq War children were given plastic “keys to heaven” and sent to die. Children are recruited by the thousands in Africa and Central America. An estimated 300,000 children are currently involved in 33 armed conflicts around the world. In El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of little soldiers are girls. Europe is no exception – thousands of child soldiers fought during the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1995. And who can forget Europe’s infamous Children’s Crusade? Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of children routinely murdered around the world since classical times for simply being girls.
Even yet, girls are often considered second best to sons in the patriarchal model we still live under. Primogeniture – inheritance of a Father’s property by the first born – has long been a part of that model. Notice that when the Lord speaks (see opening quote) he calls Isaac Abraham’s only son. What happened to Ishmael? When she was freed/exiled did “ownership” of her son revert to Hagar? Did banishment automatically make Hagar and Ishmael “other” – not one of the “people” and hence not eligible under the laws of inheritance?
And what about poor little Isaac, trussed like a lamb and laid upon his funeral pile by Dad? Not only was he betrayed in the most traumatic way by his trusted father, he returned home to find his mother dead. Perhaps in the end Ishmael did get the better deal. Though their father betrayed both his sons, at least Ishmael didn’t lose his mother.
What did God really want? Isaac’s name means he laughs or perhaps he will laugh. Is God laughing? Is this some elaborate cosmic set up? What if he wanted Abraham to defy him and put his son’s interest first? Of course we’ve already seen the Abraham couldn’t be counted on in a pinch to remain loyal to family. Twice, he pandered his sister/wife Sarah to men richer and more powerful than himself. Perhaps God was hoping against hope Abraham would put Isaac’s interests above his own. As we know, God visits the sins of the father on future generations. Today we see the rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac still going on at the cost of incalculable human suffering, billions of dollars and countless lost hours of creativity, community and collaboration.
This story is rich in odd details, extensive in its scope and cast of characters, yet full of puzzling gaps. It’s a complicated tale that inspires our curiosity with its unanswered questions. Grappling with it has been exhausting – calling up a whole gamut of emotions I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t take much to crack the surface and begin floundering in its depths. But the struggle is rewarding. Jump in and join us at the deep end …