For March 11, 2012: Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading            Genesis 22:1-14 instead of Exodus 20:1-17

The reading from Genesis last week showed us the covenant through which God promised Abraham and Sarah their long-awaited son. This week Abraham is obliged to choose between the life of that son and obeying the command of the God who gave him.  It is a difficult story.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:18-25

The first letter to the Corinthians addresses a church community in conflict: the groups that Paul calls “the Jews” and “the Greeks” have different ideas about many things, including who and what God must be. Their ideas of God are too small, however—and so are ours.

 

Further thoughts

For this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the Revised Common Lectionary has scheduled Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments. It resonates with today’s psalm on the power and magnificence of God and God’s decrees; it plays fairly well with the epistle to a community that is struggling to reconcile law and grace, and it works with the gospel as Jesus breaks some social conventions for the sake of the honor of God’s house.

Instead, we have Genesis 22:1-18; in English we call it “the Sacrifice of Isaac”, though it might go better under the Hebrew name Akidah, which means ‘binding’. Whatever its name, this reading is much harder to square with the celebratory tone of Psalm 19. How well it comports with the other readings depends on how one interprets it (and them, though to a lesser extent)—and its interpretation has been hotly debated over the centuries.

Commentators who take the Akidah at face value—Abraham giving the ultimate proof of his obedience—generally see it as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus, though the parallel is shaky as regards the consent of the victim, the identity of the wielder of the knife, the availability of a substitute, and even the whole affair as test.

Other commentators balk at the idea of a God who expects a human parent to knife his own offspring; some of these see in the passage a vivid way to forbid child sacrifice, which was widely practiced at the time, and a few suggest that Abraham—who had successfully confronted God to save the inhabitants of Sodom—failed God’s test by obeying when he ought to have resisted. This leaves us, however, with Abraham in a double bind: obey God but kill the son, or save the son but defy God.

A handful of commentators note that the text contains a misstatement and a significant silence. God calls Isaac Abraham’s only son—but Abraham has had another son in Ishmael, albeit a son he has expelled into the wilderness. The silence is that of Sarah: Isaac is indeed her only son, named by God for her laughter, but here she is not only voiceless but invisible. Did Abraham, gauging her probable reaction, keep her in the dark?

Perhaps this is where the Akidah connects with the epistle. Perhaps the signs and wisdom of Paul are demonstrations of power and esoteric secrets, and the call of Christ is to radical openness so that the love and counsel of the community can keep an individual from going off the rails.

Or perhaps Genesis 22:1-18 is simply a brutal, difficult text.

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