Isaac: A Reflection on Genesis 22

William Loader

Abraham raised his arm. In a moment when he saw nothing and heard nothing and saw everything and heard everything his hand fell, plunging the sharp knife into the flesh of his son. Isaac screamed. Abraham, overwhelmed by a sane madness plunged again and again and again, in frenzied obedience, in blind faith, in passion born of distraction. Driven by a crazed determination but with an efficient coldness, he stood back, called for the torch, lit the fire. In a few moments of timeless horror, the flame took hold; the conflagration enveloped the limp body of his son. The smoke billowed. The sky turned dark and death reigned.

There was silence except for the bleating of a lost and forgotten ram amid the bushes. The party made its trek down the mountain path. The thudding pulse of the patriarch slowed; the grief was not yet born; a nothingness of functionality, the shock efficiency which overtakes people in sudden tragedy began to fade. Exhausted he reached the well, collapsed on its stones where once young Sarah had been his delight. Now all laughing had ceased. The odour of burnt flesh in the air; despair, confusion, feelings emerging from their hiding place, now racing to and fro in Abraham's mind, wrestling with each other, defying each other, tumbling in the chaos of not knowing, not seeing, not hearing.

Bildad's words were reassuring: Abraham, man of faith, obedient to the end; sacrifice, total commitment, friend of God, God's will, divine purpose fulfilled, radical obedience, the Word... But Abraham was not there. Swept into madness by the emerging grief, he could only hear the cries of children, his eyes saw newsreels of little girls screaming with the pain of napalm, bodies blown apart by bombs, black men picked off by gun fire, blood and more blood, violence and more violence, holy wars across the holy land, and beaten battered children, women, gays, and the slow silent torture of those who have less, those who have not received their share, the undramatic poverty of the unreported or the mere statistics.

When he drifted back to consciousness, more reassurance followed. God's plan, God's wisdom, God's foreknowledge, God's election, God's rule, God's will. But Abraham, drunk with grief, staggered into new worlds, climbed new mountains, this time in fury. With his spear he struck the bleating ram, the stones of the altar he hurled down, he cried to the heavens, he clawed the earth with his bare hands: where was mother earth? where the brooding spirit of the deep? where the god of the mountains? And then there was shouting, a crowd with staves, and he a soldier, marching, marching, atop a hill of execution, more flesh on wood, more blood poured out, more sacrifice, and with his lance he struck the heart of God. Dirtied by its blood and water he slumped, the rage quelled for a time, the heart pumping slowly.

Bildad had not waited; it was late. The others had moved on. Sarah had come. She washed him with her tears. For a long time nothing was said, just the eloquence of weeping, a sadness that seemed to fill the well where they were sitting, a grief which wet the earth, a mist of pain which rose from the earth and filled the heavens. And from the heavens it returned, a gentle falling of rain, a weeping of divine grief, at human tragedy, at religious delusion, at pain and violence.

As they sat there, a stranger appeared from the mist, bloodied and pale. He sat down with them and asked, Could they give him a drink. They obliged. He drank from their grief. He told them his history, about the mountain, about the nails, about the spear, about the love, about the compassion. Abraham wept again and Sarah. The rain fell more heavily.

Abraham told the man his story, about what he had believed, how it led him to violence and murder, how Bildad pained him, how his grief was changing him, how he knew the heavens wept and the earth encompassed him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith was now unfaith, his faith become new faith, how his vision of God was not that of Bildad, how he felt that in truth he had lunged the knife into God, how God called not for blind obedience, but compassion, how he should have seen that it was a terrible joke, a divine spoof meant to turn him forever away from the ways of religion, how he had confused the words of Yahweh with the will of Baal.

The stranger listened. It had been a long journey. He was weary, but he understood. Hearts were warm; they were beginning to see as the darkness was falling. Truth and pain and love had filled their conversation and yet they had hardly met. Then across the darkness Abraham looked to the bowed head and asked. Tell me your name. The man said: Isaac and showed them his hands and his side.