for World Book Day, Reading Experiences That Have Changed Me
"How I Run"

Sunday Thoughts on Abraham and Isaac

(I meant to post this last night; instead I helped Nathan study for a history test, hung up laundry, and then crashed! So, a Sunday thought on a Monday morning.)

Yesterday was my Sunday to teach gospel doctrine. When I started working on my lesson on Friday, I realized that the topic was going to be much more difficult for me than any other one might be (and I struggle quite a bit with many church topics, so that is saying quite a bit), as it was based on my most-detested bible stories: the narrative of Abraham binding his son Isaac and offering him as a sacrifice.

The last time I was in a church class that was about this story, I made a decision: I would not listen to it again. I would not listen to the admiring chorus of voices assenting that while, yes, Abraham must’ve struggled with the idea of offering his only son as a sacrifice because he felt prompted to do so, look at how obedient he was! Look at how strong his faith was! It took me some thought and a few months (or years even) to be able to put this reluctance, frustration, anger, and disgust into words, but here they are, despite seemingly all of Christianity believing otherwise:

I think Abraham made a mistake.

I believe in a God who allows horrible things to happen to humanity, not because he is a bad God but because horrible things must happen and because he values individual choice, even when it leads to humans doing horrible things. I think God grieves over these horrible things and wants us to be better; I believe that if we are Christlike we do whatever we can to not inflict horrible things on others. This is a difficult, painful knowledge, but true to me nevertheless.

But a God who asks a person not just to endure something horrible, but to enact something horrible? I don’t know how to understand that God.

Which leads me back to my belief that Abraham made a mistake.

I was more than a little bit anxious about teaching this class. One of my goals when I teach is to share insights without making the instruction about only my insights; I want my classes to be a space for people to ask questions, to think about topics in different ways, but I don’t necessarily need them to agree with me. I didn’t need anyone to agree with my thoughts about Abraham; I’m perfectly fine with everyone thinking I am wrong. But I also didn’t want to offend people, or cause them to think that I am a faithless person. I want to strike a balance: here is what I have learned about this gospel topic, but that is only my way of thinking about it; what do you think—what do you really think away from what others have told you to think? If I have an agenda in my lessons, it is not to convince anyone that my way of thinking is correct, but to convince them to ask themselves what they think.

Would it be better, I questioned myself as I wrestled with the material, to just go through the motions with this one? Just regurgitate all the old thinking?

I couldn’t do that, though. Partly because I re-read “Pro Femina” on Friday (“if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes/And defect to the typewriter. And if mothers, believe in the luck of our children,/Whom we forbid to devour us, whom we shall not devour,/And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.”)

Mostly because I promised myself, when I accepted the calling to teach the gospel doctrine class, that I would be true to myself and to my truths. I refuse to be Pretend Amy anymore, the one who puts on the gospel as if it were a coat. Instead, I want to explore how the coat is made, where its holes are, how it fits and how it doesn’t fit. Which often requires a bit of naked vulnerability on my part.

The lesson itself went far better than I expected, and afterward several people came to thank me for teaching it the way that I did. One comment especially affected me; an older woman in our congregation said “As you taught I kept thinking one thing: what did Sarah think about all of this?” That was my thought exactly, and honestly: I wish I could just skip most of this horrible story and explore Sarah’s reaction to it—but of course, she’s barely mentioned in the biblical text. I can make suppositions but only discussing Sarah would’ve required too much imagination.

What I didn’t have time to share fully is what I did find in the text (I read a bunch of different commentaries on it as well, so my insight is pieced together not just from my own reading but from what other people shared) and how it has influenced me. No matter how horrible this story is, or any story for that matter, there is something to be learned, and this is the insight that impacted me the hardest.

As Abraham and Isaac walk up the mountain, Isaac carrying the wood for his own execution, father and son talk to each other. We read his actual words. After the sacrifice attempt, we never hear his voice again. We read about Isaac, but don’t receive any of his words. After God intervenes with the ram in the bushes, the text says that Abraham walks back down the mountain—they do not go back down together. Throughout the rest of his life, Isaac is only a placeholder, an object rather than a person. Voiceless and silent. 

This lack of Isaac’s voice is another thing that makes me think that Abraham made a mistake; he didn’t understand what God wanted him to do. He made faith—or, more precisely, religion—more important than a living, breathing person. I think he acted blindly, receiving a thought that seemed like it came from God and then acting on it. It is not until he lifts up his eyes (or actually sees what he is doing) that he notices the ram—notices God giving him another option.

I know that Isaac carrying the wood is symbolic of Christ carrying His cross. But I also see it in another way: Isaac carrying his father’s burdens. We all bring a whole mess of baggage to our role as parents. I know that I did, and that my history as an adolescent especially affected my relationship with my children when they were adolescents. Haley the most, as she was the oldest, but also Jake. Just by the nature of the parent/child relationship, we share our baggage no matter how hard we might try not to. Isaac carried Abraham’s baggage up the mountain, and I think it is his devotion to God. Am I saying that being devoted to God is wrong? Of course not. But like anything, it can be taken too far. Abraham’s willingness to kill his son, without even arguing with God, can be interpreted in many ways. Some see it as him being so utterly faithful that he would do anything God asked.

I see it as Abraham creating an idol out of faith itself.

Isaac didn’t burn on the pyre. But something was sacrificed on that alter: the father/son relationship the two of them had. In the name of religion he betrayed another sacred relationship.

This realization forced me to ask myself: Have I ever done such a thing? Have I made my relationship with belief more important than my relationship with my children, husband, or other people I love?

And I think the answer is yes.

Not in the extreme way of Abraham. But most of my children have struggled with going to church, and like Abraham I just hauled them up the mountain with me, not giving them a choice. This is true especially of Jacob. I agonized through all of his teenage years, when he hated going to church for a bunch of different reasons, over what the right thing to do is. Keep insisting he go to church? Or let him choose? Letting him choose felt like…like weakness. Like I was giving up. Like God would look at me and say “you didn’t even try.”

Now it feels like I was also blind; I didn’t see all the rams in the thickets. I am certain there were many different solutions we could’ve found. I don’t know how that would’ve influenced his relationship with faith. But I do know that it would have influenced his relationship with me.

I still detest this story. But I’m so grateful I pushed through and taught it anyway, because I understand something of myself a little bit better. I can’t change the past. But I will move forward with a better understanding after this experience; I believe God wants me to be understanding, compassionate, and loving rather than so dedicated to religion that I am blind to everything else. I will question; I will lift up my eyes and search for better solutions.

Comments

Laura

I never thought about this particular Bible story this way -- I always like to hear different interpretations. My daughter is currently 13, 14 in May, and is not a believer. We've taken her to church since she was a babe in arms, she went to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School. She's heard our testimonies of faith. But for now, it is not her truth. She wants to come on Christmas and Easter because it is a part of our family tradition. I had originally told her we would have her come through middle school and then make her own choice, but this year -- eighth grade -- we really haven't been making her come. When we forced her to come, she was angry and resentful and by the time we got to church, so was I. I was always late for choir warm-up and I hated arguing every Sunday. So, I've let it go. I hope, like me, she will come to God in her own way. I didn't join the church until I was 18.

Mel Bell

Oh my gosh, Amy, this is the only discussion of this story that hasn't made me physically ill. I remember the last Sunday School lesson I sat through on this topic. I felt completely incapable of expressing my feelings, even though the class was very small, because I didn't have any positive spin to put on them. It would have been pure anger. While I'm still not sure about the God of the Old Testament and where I stand in my belief, I like the idea of looking at the stories through fresh eyes and allowing new impressions to come. I love that you were brave enough to teach from your own perspective. I got to the point at church where I could either stay silent or, to borrow your words, put the coat on and be Pretend Me. Neither was working for me. I'm also trying to allow my children their own beliefs as they get old enough to understand. It's scary. But I love the idea of putting our relationships above worrying about faith and religion. Thanks for sharing. :)

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