Saturday, July 29, 2017

Perseverance Furthers

Faith and Belief: Perseverance Furthers
Thursday evening, for the fifth consecutive year, it was my privilege to join my fellow musicians in On The Bus to provide the musical support for Senator Patrick Leahy’s Annual Ice Cream Social. We were on the eleventh-floor rooftop of a building on Ninth Street NW with a view of the Capitol Dome in the not too far distance. Only Vermont based products are served: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Top Hat beer! We played for about an hour when the Senator arrived and indicated he was ready to address the crowd of staff, supporters, family and friends.

The very first thing he said was that he had just come from a meeting with his long-time friend and colleague Senator John McCain as they were anticipating a late-night vote on yet another health-care proposal. They reminisced, said the Senator, about the days when it was common in the US Senate for senators to reach across the aisle to get things done on behalf of the American People. He recalled times when the very Conservative Senator Goldwater and the very liberal Senator Humphrey would sit down “and get things done.” He lamented it had been some time since this was business as usual, but that he still had faith that it can happen again.

The next morning on NPR, the WAMU based talk-show 1A, Joshua Johnson was hosting a conversation about CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy – resulting from repeated head trauma and concussions in full-contact sports. Dr. Bennet Omalu, among the first to diagnose this disease that has led to cognitive and degenerative symptoms and even suicide among retired NFL football players, was on the line. He made the comment that “Science and Faith both seek the truth. Science seeks facts, faith seeks meaning out of facts…. Both Science and Faith try to make “visible” that which heretofore remains or seems ‘unseen.’”

I used to consult the ancient Chinese wisdom text, the I Ching. It’s an ancient practice of using yarrow stalks or coins to build a series of solid and broken lines to form a hexagram – six lines one atop the other – a sort of pictogram. Once you have your hexagram you are ready to read the “judgment” or the “advice.” Not infrequently the answer would come back, “Perseverance furthers!”

That is certainly true in the ongoing saga of Jacob who, in the 29th chapter of Genesis is on the run to escape the wrath of his brother Esau whom he swindled out of his birthright, and tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to the older son. His mother Rebekah had suggested that while he was on the lam he might visit some kinfolk to obtain a wife. Visiting his great-uncle Laban, the Trickster is Tricked! He falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. He is told that she will be his if he agrees to work seven years for her father. Deal! The evening of the wedding seven years later, the veiled bride is presented to Jacob, only to discover in the light of dawn the next morning it is Rachel’s older sister, Leah!

Oh, says Laban, I forgot to mention our custom that the older daughter must be married before the younger may be given to marriage. Another seven years, and Rachel will be yours. Jacob agrees. He is no hurry to get back home to face Esau, and after fourteen years labor he has two wives, Leah and Rachel. Over time he acquires two more wives, Zipah (Leah’s servant) and Hilpah (Rachel’s servant), and among the four wives he fathers thirteen sons. Overlooking what such a story might reveal about the Biblical concept of marriage, it appears that perseverance does further. We are meant to recall that the Lord God of Abraham has promised to be with Jacob and that it is his faith and belief that this is true that has given him the patience and perseverance to work fourteen years to finally marry the girl he loves. One might say it took Jacob fourteen years to uncover the Pearl of Great Price Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13. Or, that just a mustard seed’s worth of faith sustained him in his quest to marry.

In reading of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work to find out what drove so many NFL players to display symptoms as broad as difficulty thinking, depression, impulsive behavior, short-term memory loss, difficulty planning, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal behavior, he required equal measures of faith and belief, not to mention perseverance and patience, to come up with his findings which have recently been substantiated in a recent study of 111 brains of former NFL players.  

In attempting to describe the universe we see, Einstein, Edwin Hubble and others have come to believe that fully 95% of the known universe remains unseen as some combination of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Their faith in things like relativity, quantum mechanics, mathematics and measurements of gravitational forces lead them to new discoveries about where we are and where we come from, but leave us far from reconciling so many inconsistencies in the various “explanations” their research suggests.

Yet, whether we ponder the sayings of Jesus, the life of Jacob, or Relativity and Dark Energy, perseverance furthers our understanding of who we are and why we are here. Whether you are a US Senator or a dedicated neuropathologist, perseverance furthers your attempts to make life better for more people than just yourself.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” wrote the author of a letter we call Hebrews in the New Testament. Senators Leahy and McCain, Dr. Omalu, Einstein, Hubble, Jacob and Jesus have all dedicated their lives to maintain a sense of hope in a world that often provides little evidence that such hope is justified. What the life of faith believes is that the falseness of this world is bounded by an even greater truth – a truth that ultimately depends upon the explorations of faith and science together.

Later in chapter 17 Jesus chides the disciples for having so little faith. And yet, he says, “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.”

As Edith Ann used to say, “And that’s the truth!” 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Who Is The Enemy?

Who Is The Enemy?
Jesus tells a parable in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew that speaks of someone sowing good seed in his field; while everybody was asleep, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” [Matt 13:24-30] Later, he identifies the “enemy” with the devil, and the weeds are “all causes of sin and evil doers.”

In a Bible Study of this passage with colleagues, the question was raised, ‘Who is the enemy today?’ Judging from reading my news feed on Facebook every morning there are plenty of answers being tossed around: it’s the media, it’s the alt-right, it’s the progressive left, it’s the Democrats, it’s the Republicans, it’s abortion providers, it’s anti-abortion activists, it’s Muslims, it’s Christians, it’s Russians, it’s liberals, it’s conservatives …. the accusations are all over the socio-political map.

Then, of course, someone proffered the Walt Kelly answer in Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” This perfectly sums up Kelly’s attitude towards the foibles of mankind and the nature of the human condition. Kelly begins to point us in the right direction. Then someone said, “It is each of us. It’s me.” There was a long pause. The ethics of personal responsibility. We all get mixed up in various causes of sin – sin defined as that which separates us from the love of God. Not least of which as we hurl hate-filled rhetoric against those we identify as “evil one.” And make no mistake, whatever separates us from one another also separates us from God.

I am guessing it’s this very real human behavior that attracts some folks to become atheists. If you choose not to believe in God, which is a choice, then you need not worry about doing something, anything, that might separate you from God’s love.

After the Bible Study was over I got in the car for a long ride home. I listened to an interview on Fresh Air – Terry Gross was interviewing the British folk singer Billy Bragg. Near the end Bragg was talking about his study of the music of Woody Guthrie and the pervasive cynicism in today’s political climate – according to Wikipedia cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives. This occurs most often about people we do not even really know personally! Bragg brought this up in reflecting on what he has learned from Woody Guthrie about writing songs:
I think Woody — he's said as much in his writing, that he never wanted to write a song that made people feel down. When he wrote his political songs it was always about lifting people up and giving them hope and making them feel a better life was possible. He said he hated songs that made people feel like they were born to lose. So what I learned from that — it's something I've been feeling for a while, but I haven't been able to articulate, and that is the biggest enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism. It's actually cynicism. And not the cynicism of right-wing newspapers or news channels — the cynicism that is our greatest enemy is our own cynicism, our own sense that nothing will ever change, that nobody cares about this stuff, that all politicians are the same. If we're gonna make a difference, we have to be able to overcome that. We have to be able to identify our cynicism — we all feel it, of course we all feel it — and we have to be able to curb it and put it to one side and go out every day and think the glass is half-full.

Cynicism is our greatest enemy. And cynicism is about all we get these days from all sides. The enemy, however, is our own cynicism.

I got to thinking: what if we all made the effort to never say things or write things that make other people feel down? What if all that we say and do was aimed to lift people up, give them hope and make them feel better? Stanley Hauerwas has said that Christianity is not primarily about happiness, but about maintaining a true sense of hope in a world that rarely provides much evidence that such hope is justified – admittedly a kind of cynical way of stating it. But this is our job, not just as Christians, but as people, human beings, who want to see the world become a better place. We need to begin with the simple thought every day, suggests Bragg, that the glass is half-full. Then Billy Bragg sang this song – a simple song, but an honest and hope-filled song- Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day:

To the misanthropic misbegotten merchants of gloom
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesy our doom
Let the death knell chime, its the end of time
Let the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline
Don't become demoralized by this chorus of complaint
It's a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint

And tomorrow's gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day
We're gonna to make it that way

To the pessimistic populists to harbor no doubt
That every day we make our way, “to hell in a hand cart”
And the snarky set, who's snapping to get
Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet
Oh, don't become disheartened baby, don't be fooled
Take it from someone who knows the glass is half full

And tomorrow's gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow's gonna be a better day
We're gonna make it that way

The alternative is to be the weeds that choke out the all the goodness in this world – and there is much more goodness than not. It’s not even just about civility, it is about being willing to give up our cynicism and hate speech, and that is what it is, and be those people who know that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth; become those people who sow and cultivate hopefulness. As Ringo Starr once put it, “You know it don’t come easy!” It begins with addressing the cynicism in ourselves. The blame game, the clever memes, the “gottcha” attitude is all just a distraction – and a harmful one at that. We can be the whole wheat of hope that lifts people up. No more tearing others down. Tomorrow’s going to be a better day!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sustaining Promise and Hope

Sustaining Promise and Hope in Present Circumstances
As we work our way through the Abraham saga, a story of promise and hope for a new future, we begin to note how odd and daring the narrative and the utterances of Yahweh seem. Abraham and Sarah are promised a new homeland, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and that these descendants shall be a blessing to all of humankind. Yet, from the beginning circumstances appear to suggest otherwise. Not the least of which Sarah remains barren until Yahweh intervenes with the news that she shall bear a son. At age 90!

She and Abraham laugh themselves silly, but a year later a child is born and given the name Isaac, “laughter,” or “he who laughs.” Although it is up to him to carry on to the fulfillment of the promises made, “He Who Laughs” becomes the one who sees the knife gripped in his father’s hand about to sacrifice him to the same Lord of the Promises, until, lo and behold, an angel say, “OK, that’s far enough! There is a ram nearby. Sacrifice that instead and let the boy live.”

Yet, for this all to go forward the boy needs a wife and child. Abraham arranges for Rebekah to be that wife. All looks well until she too remains barren for twenty years. [Genesis 25:19-34] One would think Yahweh, he who utters promises, might make it all easier. Nevertheless, Isaac appeals for help, and Rebekah conceives – not one, but two children ‘struggle’ within her we are told. The Hebrew is more like they are crushing one another, a sign of future struggles. Now Rebekah cries to the Lord in despair, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

The Lord replies with what can only be described as an oracle: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger. Sure enough, first comes the strong and hairy one, Esau who becomes a great hunter, followed by Jacob, literally “the heel-grabber,” apparently trying to pull Esau back so as to emerge ahead of him. “Heel-grabber” really means more like “trickster,” “scoundrel,” or “rascal.” This is not a compliment. He, we are told, attends the flocks and lives in tents. Yet, as the younger, how odd it seems that he will be the one to further the promises made. There is trouble in the tenthold. Isaac “loves” Esau, while Rebekah “loves” the Trickster.

Indeed, he tricks his brother Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. This appears to be OK with the Lord, thus upturning the rights of primogeniture. This also means he will be the spiritual and ancestral head of the family. Just to make sure, Rebekah conspires to trick the now old and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob disguised as Esau. The last is now first. Soon, however, Esau wants to kill his brother and retain his birthright. Rebekah urges Jacob to leave.

While on the lam, Yahweh renews the promises to Jacob. He who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing! Yet this is no accident, no “fluke” of history. It is the unfolding intention of God who, Jacob’s unsavory character notwithstanding, promises to accompany the fugitive in order to ensure his safety and well-being. The solitary Jacob is solitary no more: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” [Gen 28:15] Yahweh’s eternal presence is secured.

Jacob is renamed Israel by the Lord, meaning “he who has struggled with God.” Things do not go any more smoothly for Jacob as Israel. Esau remains out to get him. His relative Laban tricks him to marrying not one but two of his daughters, Leah and Rachel! Jacob never gives up his trickery, but remains loyal to Yahweh and demands the same loyalty of all his family which is, as the original promise suggests, quite numerous eventually becoming twelve tribes headed up by his twelve sons.

Yet, throughout this odd and daring narrative, among circumstances that seem deadly and insurmountable, Israel is to remember that Yahweh is with them, the promises remain in force, and that Israel is not to surrender the life of its destiny to present circumstance.

The circumstances of our present time are also freighted with many promises: promises of greatness, promises of economic progress, promises of security – the list is nearly endless among those in the political class. Yet, against all these sorts of promises we are urged to embrace self-sufficiency while continuing to acquire, accumulate and consume all that we possibly can. We are also urged to fear the stranger and believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We are to depend on ourselves and what we can manage to consume, defending what we have at all costs. As Walter Brueggemann observes in his seminal work, Old Testament Theology: Our insistence on visible circumstance seemingly banishes promise from our world. When promise is banished and circumstance governs, we are most likely left with nothing but fear and despair, whether the fear of “the other,” or the despair of the self-sufficient or of the dis-empowered. And fear and despair, says Brueggemann, are no basis for a viable social community.

He goes on to ask if perhaps these odd and daring texts might offer an antidote to our ready embrace of despair? This story of Jacob/Israel and Esau, and the rest of the Abrahamic saga, strikes us as remote from our present circumstance. Yet, they have always struck Israel as remote!

In the end, it will be our consideration of these and other promissory statements in the Bible that can sustain the very notions of promise and hope wherever we find ourselves, just as they did for our spiritual ancestors of our faith. Indeed, it is Jesus who urges us to careful and faithful reading of God’s Word in his Parable of the Sower in Matthew chapter 13. We are to be the fertile ground upon which God’s promises take root, are nourished, treasured and maintained against all present circumstances to the contrary. These stories are meant to sustain us as they have Israel in its various exiles and periods of occupation and oppression.

 “In the end,” writes Brueggemann,” our consideration of these promissory statements is as it always was for Israel: a massive assurance grounded in the flimsy evidence of the witnesses” – people like Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah and Jesus. [p.173] We return to these stories because they have held and sustained the promises of Yahweh that make for viable social community. We are not in this on our own. We are those people who know that the God of these utterances and promises is with us no matter what circumstances we face. These stories remind us that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. For as he says to Jacob he says to us all, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go!”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rebekah - Her Story/Our Story

Rebekah – Her Story/Our Story
“What a degenerate age do we live in, in which appear all the instances of pride, luxury, and laziness, the reverse of Rebekah’s character, whose daughters are few!”
So wrote Matthew Henry, a Seventeenth Century Nonconformist minister and writer, about the woman who dominates the 24th chapter of Genesis who becomes Isaac’s wife and upon whom rests the future of God’s promise to humankind. Henry calls attention to her humble, courteous, industrious and charitable disposition. She remains to this day the epitome of how the God of the Bible wants us to welcome and care for strangers, following in the tradition established by her soon to be father-in-law, Abraham. Sadly, Henry’s conclusion is just as apt today as it was when he first wrote his Bible Commentary. But we get ahead of the story.

Genesis 24 is considered by some as a self-contained novella, a woman’s story in the middle of the Abrahamic saga of Israel’s patriarchy. It is surprising that from this moment on, Isaac nearly disappears from the story arc and Rebekah takes over: First, passing the test set by Abraham’s servant to become the chosen wife for his son; Secondly, choreographing the deception that results in the younger of her twin sons, Jacob, to receive his father’s blessing and thus be the one to carry on the hope for God’s promises and blessings for all humankind. Indeed, it is Jacob who wrestles with the God of Abraham and Rebekah and is renamed Israel.

Rebekah is far more dynamic and proactive than Isaac, for whom there is no independent episode from here on. The verbs used for her are action verbs. The verb “to go” is used seven times in this courtship narrative, a number used for emphasis in Hebrew literature, indicating her active nature. She runs, she draws water, she pours water, she rides a camel, and she veils her face. Furthermore, the text’s high regard for women lets her choose to go! And recognizes her great value in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. “Because of the centrality of Rebekah, in contrast to Isaac, the ancestral sequence might more accurately be called Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob. Indeed, when Rebekah’s favored son, Jacob, is sent to Mesopotamia to secure a spouse, he identifies himself to his future bride (and cousin) Rachel not as the son of Isaac, but rather as “Rebekah’s son” (Gen 29:12); his paternal ancestry is eclipsed by Rebekah’s lineage,” writes Carol Meyers on the Jewish Women’s Archive.

It begins with Abraham calling one of his servants and sending him back to the homeland around Ur to find a wife for his son Isaac. He does not want him marrying one of the idol worshipping Canaanite women. Abraham has the servant swear an oath with his hand on Abraham’s thigh - swearing on the “loins” inside the “thigh” represents reproductive power. In other words, this story is about the fulfillment of God’s promise through the continuance of Abe’s family!

The servant in turn prays to the God of Abraham to show him the right woman, devising a test: the woman who comes to the well and gives him a drink of water AND also waters his camels is to be the chosen one. Rebekah comes, draws water, gives the servant a drink, and without being asked continues to water his camels. He immediately gives her a gold nose-ring and bracelets – thus securing a wife for Isaac, and at the same time insuring her future: should Isaac pre-decease her she can sell the gold ring and bracelets if necessary to care for herself. The sheer beauty of the story and Rebecca, and her extended hospitality makes the reader want her to be the one God provides for Isaac.

This action of extreme hospitality is what sets her apart, and continues the same spirit of hospitality toward strangers first exemplified by her soon to be father-in-law Abraham. Herein lies the lessons for our time – according to the rabbis Rebekah teaches us to adopt this character of boundless lovingkindness, what the Hebrew Bible calls chesed, Rebekah teaches us to challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitment. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful, without calculating whether there are others around who could, or should, do the same.

We live in a time with more displaced persons throughout the world than in any other period of human history. Millions are fleeing warfare, draught, starvation and poverty looking for a place to simply live and start over. Abraham and Rebekah are just the first two of many examples all the way through the Bible to Jesus and St. Paul who call us to remember – we and/or our ancestors were also strangers in a new land. All of us are guests and appointed stewards of God’s creation. To this point in the Biblical narrative, it is this woman, Rebekah, who most embodies the character of God’s commands to welcome and care for the stranger – a command later to be enshrined in the story of the Good Samaritan.

We live in a time when hard lines are being drawn between “natives” and “foreigners,” or “resident aliens.” Stephen Greenblatt in a recent New Yorker (“Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” July 10&17) recalls that William Shakespeare penned some lines in a play about Sir Thomas More, a play that was probably never performed, but is preserved in the British Library. The lines speak to one of our most pressing modern dilemmas. More is confronting an angry mob demanding the expulsion of “strangers,” – “foreigners”:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?       [ Act 2 – Scene 4]

As Greenblatt concludes, “Such language isn’t a substitute for a coherent, secure and humane international refugee policy; for that we need constitutional lawyers and adroit diplomats and wise, decent leaders. Yet these words do what they can to keep before our eyes the sight of “the wretched strangers, /Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, /Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” For a long moment in dramatic time, the distance between natives and strangers collapses; walls wobble and fall…” [p.39]

How much more are we, the sons and daughters of Rebekah, called to spontaneously, like her, extend hospitality to those in need, whoever they are, most especially those we do not know, but with whom we share the same plight – we all thirst, like Abraham’s servant, and all those who come to us are thirsty too. We are all strangers of one sort or another. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful. As Jesus once said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Getting Involved With God...

Getting Involved With God…
Is a book by Ellen F. Davis, one of the most insightful Old Testament scholars, teachers and friends I know when it comes to sorting out the obvious questions in stories like this one in  Genesis chapter 22, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac, perhaps the most terrifying story in the Bible. Abraham is asked to offer “your only son whom you love (2)” as a korban olah, “that which goes up in smoke,” which in English is “holocaust.” The typical translation as “burnt offering” does not do justice to the horror of what is being asked.

Davis wants us to see the Old Testament not primarily as a moral rule book or set of prophecies of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; nor as simply morally and spiritually primitive and fully superseded by the New Testament. Rather, Davis zeroes in on what is truly at stake in this story and those which precede and follow it: God’s desire to enter into a binding relationship, a covenant, with all of humankind. God wants to bless all creation through God’s most precious creatures, man and woman, created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27). That is, our temptation to overly focus on Abraham and Isaac in this story is to overlook the main character of the entire book of Genesis, the “book of beginnings,” which is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.

Which God, it turns out, as far as Genesis is concerned, is anything but “omni”: omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Rather, Genesis presents us with a vulnerable God: “The Binding of Isaac shows us a God who is vulnerable, terribly and terrifyingly so, in the context of covenant relationship. … if we properly understand the dynamics of covenant relationship, then we are confronted with a God who is vulnerable. For, as both Testaments maintain, the covenant with God is fundamentally an unbreakable bond of love (hesed). And ordinary experience teaches that love and vulnerability are inextricably linked; we are most vulnerable to emotional pain when the well-being and the faithfulness of those we love are at stake. And as we have seen, the Bible shows that the faithfulness of even the best of God’s covenant partners is always up for grabs. So, it follows that God’s vulnerability in love is an essential element of covenant relationship.” (p. 62)

This story is remembered by all three monotheistic Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Somehow this story ought to be one of many founding narratives that binds our three traditions together with the One God who begins it all.

After several failures to establish a binding covenant relationship in the Garden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel episodes, God decides to work with one man and his wife, Abram and Sarai, later to be called Abraham and Sarah. God promises them a place to live, bountiful descendants to populate God’s creation with those who know and love the Lord, and to become a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth. God wants a relationship based on faith, trust and love. Through them, we are to become his proxies on Earth treating others as he would want them to be treated.

Verse 12 tells us that Abraham passes the test: “Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me.” In her article on Bible Odyssey, Davis points this out as the core religious virtue, “fear of God.” “To fear God is to live in humble recognition of the incalculable difference between God and humans. This is the first time we see anyone (allegedly) practicing that virtue, so the divine statement here leaves the morally alert reader with two questions”:
How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child? The story is often said to be about obedience, but Davis notes what we all know, that blind obedience to a tyrannical demand is no virtue as the modern Holocaust and numerous human tragedies remind us. Verse one points us in the right direction beginning, “After these things….” Abraham has already exercised questionable, unvirtuous behavior in giving his wife over to the harems of two kings out of concern for his own life, demonstrating a lack of trust that God would get him through this journey to the promises and covenant made. God’s plan to bring blessings and good on all the peoples of the Earth depends on this one man. More than obedience is at stake here, but rather mutual trust: the point here is whether or not Abraham is willing to relinquish his son whom he loves, and upon whom rests the blessing, the covenant and happiness of God, Abraham and all the peoples of the Earth. Abraham’s fear of the Lord is a condition of complete vulnerability before God, just as God’s willingness to risk the end of this strategy with Abraham exposes his vulnerability as well. God does not know how God will react to his demand. It’s a test.

How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son Isaac? First, this is a real test. Again, God has no idea how Abraham will respond. Only by demanding everything can he know that he can trust Abraham the rest of the way. Secondly, God demands everything of Abraham to remind him and to remind us, the readers, that God, not Abraham, not us, is in control of this covenant relationship. A relationship that demands balance. In chapter 18 Abraham boldly challenges the Lord’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, and skillfully argues to save the righteous people in those towns. God listens to Abraham and names him a prophet on the power of his intercessory prayer. In the worldview of Genesis, writes Davis, genuine relationship with God demands a balance between boldness and submission.In Gen 18, we see Abraham’s unstinting compassion for humans; in Gen 22, we see his unstinting devotion to God. Psychologically speaking, it may be nearly impossible to hold those two in perfect balance, but theologically speaking, both are necessary for those, both Jews and Christians, who struggle to live in covenantal relationship with God. Thus, with this most important ancestor, the Bible begins to show what it is to serve ‘prophetically’ in covenantal context: negotiating dual commitments to humanity and to God, from moment to moment discerning when to challenge God on behalf of weak and sinful humanity and when to submit in “fear” to the sometimes inscrutable divine demand.” [The Bible Odyssey]

Boldness and Submission. Submission is the root meaning of Islam, a tradition that also preserves this story, but chooses not to identify which son, Isaac or Ishmael his older brother, is led up the mountain. In the text, verse 8, it says, “The two of them walked together.” Father and son. In a sense both of them are victims, and both are survivors. In a greater sense God walks with them as well. All three are vulnerable to the risks involved. All three come through the test bound together in a deeper sense than before. Is it possible that this most terrifying of all stories means to bind us all together, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Jainist and all the peoples of the Earth to finally, with one another, reap the blessings of the promise that begins Abraham’s journey in the first place? This story is meant to demonstrate to one and all what is at stake when we choose to get involved with God. The story ends, “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: 'In the mount where the LORD is seen.' When we honestly and trustfully walk together, the Lord will be seen in us and through us. All of us.