Bible stories : 06 Abraham and Isaac, part 2.

Part 2 : Let’s go for a walk, son.

I’ve made mistakes in every part of my life, including fatherhood. Perhaps I’ll list some significant and especially humorous or significant ones in the appendix. But it’s fair to say that most parents make mistakes in raising their children. But not all mistakes are equal. And if a mistake is not acknowledged a mistake, is it a mistake?

Remember, Abraham already sent his wife and son out in the desert. He may have done so reluctantly, and he may have received assurance from God that they’d survive, but make no mistake: he abandoned them. His marriage covenant, his very flesh and blood...he abandoned. For all intents and purposes, he sent them out to die. Why? Was it “God’s will?” Doesn’t seem that way.

What it seems is that Abraham was having some marital issues and found the most efficient way to resolve this conflict would be by choosing sides. In this case, choosing one side over the other. One wife (the first and greatest) over the other (the second and lesser). He must have weighed the options countless times. He must have considered other alternatives. But in the end, he took the side of his first wife, Sarah, and abandoned his second wife, Hagar, and his son Ishmael, in order to make peace.

That is brutal.

Imagine that you’re Hagar. Imagine that you’re Ishmael. Can you imagine the degree of anguish, of betrayal you would feel?

And Sarah? The mother behind this demand: they’ve gotta go.

So away they go. They’re gone. And we continue with the story of Abraham and his remaining wife.

Life is good. Tough, but good. No more arguing wives or bickering sons. Nothing to do but keep on going and...wait for God’s next test. And this one’s a doozer.

After breakfast,
God says.
Take Isaac on a walk.

Okay,
Says Abraham.
I was going to do that anyway. I like walking.

I know.
Says God.

I know you know.
Says Abraham.

It brings me joy that you like to walk in nature,
God says.
But this walk is going to be a little different.

Do you want me to pick some flowers?

No.
God said.

Do you want me to gather wood?

No.
God said.

Do you...want me to plant fruit trees?

No.
God said.

Then what do you want?

I want,
God said.
For you to kill your son.

No.
Abraham said.

Now, what was Abraham’s first response? Maybe you’re upset that I would put these words in people’s mouths. Especially in the mouth of the patriarch of three of the world’s biggest religions. But he’s a dad. The Old Testament is filled with flawed heroes who did great things. Is it a stretch to imagine that his immediate reaction to being ordered to commit filicide would be...No?

No.

I have to believe his first reaction was No. How could it not be? In order to frame the story in the larger context of Abraham’s destiny, I have to be able to forgive him, somehow, for the actions he took next. And in order to forgive him, I have to be able to believe that he loved his son more than anything else in the world besides love for his God, and that being asked to commit filicide - murdering his own child as a sacrifice - would be the most horrific and difficult decision he could ever be asked to make, trumping even that of exiling his other son and wife.

No.
Abraham says.

I need you to.
God says.
A sacrifice. Take him to that one hill, and build an altar. And then sacrifice him. Your son.

No.
Abraham says.
I cannot do that. I will not.

I need you to.
God says.
I need you to trust me. You will be the father of multitudes, of nations. I need you to trust me. Go.

I can’t.
Abraham finally says.
But I will.

When you grow up hearing this story, you figure out early that it ends happy. And that’s what the story focuses on: Abraham’s trust in God and the fact that everything ends up fine.

But Abraham doesn’t know this. No one knows this. Especially not Isaac, who’s trudging along with his dad on a beautiful early morning nature walk. Just me and dad. And the servants carrying our stuff.

For three days they walk and talk, gathering sticks and firewood for the sacrifice, enjoying their property, et cetera. Finally, they come to the place. The hill. Abraham dismisses the servants.

Uhh, Dad?
Isaac says.
Where’s the lamb?

We’re not,
Abraham says, refusing to look at his son,
Sacrificing a lamb.

What are we sacrificing then?
Isaac asks.

God will provide.
Abraham says, and says nothing more.

They arrive at the top. Together they build an altar from stones lying around.

And then, and then...this part is almost unbearable to even write:

Abraham grabs his son,
binds him securely,
then lifts him onto the altar.

I remember my mom telling a story years ago about a father she knew who had a young son. When this young son was fairly young, the father placed him on top of a dresser, or counter top, or some elevated surface, and told him to jump.

Dad waited beneath him with outstretched arms. The boy jumped. Dad dropped his arms to his sides and let his son crash to the ground. My mom spoke of the grin this dad wore in telling this story; of the ingenious life lesson he was helping instill in his son that you can’t trust anyone. What a horrible lesson to teach. And based on that one anecdote: what a rotten dad. What a prick.

When trust is lost, it’s not simply replaced.

When you build a bond with someone, and then you betray that bond in a single blinding moment, you don’t get to get it back simply by apologizing, or committing some magnificent act of generosity to get it back. When you lose someone’s trust, it’s gone, and you might, might get it back, over time. But it’s not going to be easy. Betrayal is hard to walk back from.

When you lift your son up onto an altar, bound, and inform him you’re sacrificing him because that’s the request your God has made of you, that is a betrayal. Abraham may have found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place - do I betray God or do I betray my son? - but make no mistake: it was a massive betrayal.

He lifts his son up onto the altar. Is he looking at him? Is he avoiding eye contact? Is he attempting any kind of explanation? Is Isaac fighting? Is he accepting?

Just imagine the terror Isaac must be facing as his father ties him, lifts him up, raises the knife, and -

A voice from above speaks.

Stop!

You can bet Abraham stops. No downward stroke.

The voice speaks:

God knows you worship him completely
because you are willing to give up your only son.

Abraham rips the ropes off Isaac. Sobbing, he embraces him; they hold each other.

A movement in the nearby thicket of thorns. A ram, stuck. Abraham gently helps extricate it, then sacrifices it on the altar.

He and Isaac head home. He reaches for his son’s hand; Isaac pushes it away.

A long, long walk home, all of it in silence.

Things will never be the same after this.

Additional notes

Technically Abraham means “father of a multitude.”

Ishmael goes on to become spiritual forefather and ancestor of Islam. So we have these two brothers who went onto onto become the bloodlines for two different major religions: Isaac and Judaism, Ishmael and Islam.