The Genesis:3 Project
Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Genesis 22:3
I have heard God speak to me.
I was bedside of a stroke victim along with his family. They were about to comply with his advance medical directive to discontinue life support. At my request, before the doctors shut down the ventilator, the adhesive tape that had been placed over his eyes and around the tube were removed so that his face was visible to his children and grandchildren. Most of them were speaking lovingly to the gentleman throughout the difficult moments. Only an adult son was silent, clearly overcome with the circumstances.
As the doctor placed his hand on the knob that would shut down the machine, I understood what I was supposed to do. It was not a thought – I have been in enough fraught circumstances as a rabbi to know when my mind was working to find a response to the situation. I said what I “heard” myself say a split-second before I said it. Speaking to the silent son, I said, “Tell your dad to open his eyes.” The son said, “Dad, open your eyes.”
Dad opened his eyes.
The doctor responded in two affirming ways. The first, obviously, was to withdraw his hand from the ventilator (frankly, as if it had suddenly become extremely hot). The second was to say, “It’s a miracle.”
I am not a mystical kind of guy. I know people who believe that they have regular conversations with God, or that God answers their prayers verbally or that, like Abraham, God called to them and gave them instruction. I never argue, despite my skepticism, especially since my own little miracle.
But I do wonder with some frequency what I would have done if I perceived God’s voice instructing me to do something that was not so life-affirming as extending a stroke victim’s time on earth. Would I rise up early, split the wood, load up the car, wake up the workers, put my son into the front seat and drive off to an unknown destination with the intent of sacrificing him?
My son will be relieved to hear I would not. And I want to add that not only would I not do so to my son, my only son whom I love, but I wouldn’t do it to my daughters or to anyone else’s child either.
This story has been the subject of sermons, commentaries, expository legends, philosophical treatises and fictionalizations for thousands of years. I don’t know that I have anything original to add.
But this verse – like the story of the climb up the designated mountain that “God had told him” – slows the action down to a glacial pace. The three-days’ journey that separates preparation from arrival is dispatched in a few words. The early-morning preparations are described in excruciating detail. Anyone who has packed for a three-day road trip knows that it is not like a run to 7-11 for milk and eggs. There was time to consider the consequence of that instruction.
One of the many ways to consider this story is from the outside. That is to say, it is possible to dismiss the instruction to Abraham as the fantasy of someone (temporarily?) out of his mind. All of the aforementioned struggles with this story accept the notion of God and of God’s capacity to test Abraham with this unconscionable challenge. Indeed, I am at a loss for words that satisfy me when I am asked by my non-theistic friends how I can believe in such a God.
I recognize the choice I make when I attribute benevolence to my little miracle and demur on Father Abraham. But having done that, I try to take away a contemporary lesson.
Voices much closer to earth than the Holy One call on us to sacrifice our children in the name of devotion to a principle. The enemies of compassion ask us to allow our young people to travel to a distant place, geographically or morally, and explode themselves in the name of a cause. Others dress in business suits and attach dehumanizing names like “illegal” or “radical” or “elitist” to those who are worth less than devotion to a distant promise of greatness.
I might have been forgiven if I had not heeded that sudden voice of God. Almost always, after all, doctors know best. The man recovered from his stroke…and had another fatal episode three months later. Nobody regrets those three months. They were an unexpected, life-affirming gift.
But it is a slow process to recruit a true believer who will relinquish compassion and common sense for the promise of being a part of something larger. It is a failure of the recruit not to consider the consequence of a bad choice. Abraham got lucky in the end.
But he got lucky because the voice that sent him on this fool’s errand stopped him from completing it. Others are not so lucky.