Hineini!

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 

Genesis 22:1-2; from Genesis 22:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday June 28, 2020

photo by Katherine Brown

I am circling this text.  Going round and round it, searching for a way in.  I’ve been circling this text for days.  That ache along the back my neck must come from keeping my head continually craned and taut in its direction, fixing my gaze on the it.  Did I think it might stretch out and leap upon me if I relaxed my vigilance?  Or did I circle and watch in hopes of seeing the story crack open of itself, reveal to me its meaning. It’s a hard text to hold as a center.

Genesis 22, the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac.  This was the first biblical text I encountered in Hebrew, it being the first full story presented in the textbook used.  We had barely made the acquaintance of the Hebrew alphabet when we were pitchforked into this harrowing tale.  The necessary slowness of our translating increased the tension of the story’s unfolding.  If verse 1 had the charm of first encounter with vocabulary and grammar, verse 2 immediately raised the stakes.  God’s words to Abraham increase in specificity — ‘Take your son, your only, the one whom you love, Isaac’ — son Laughter named at the end of the series of phrases as if the crown of all that had come before — ‘and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a whole offering.’  

Offer up your son as offering.   

Did our breaths catch in our throats as we read?  Was our protest of God’s command or Abraham’s silent compliance?  ‘And Abraham rose early in the morning,’ as dutiful in taking his son Isaac to be offering as he had been in sending his son Ishmael into the wilderness.  Abraham had been distressed on account of Ishmael.  Abraham had argued with God about Sodom, for the sake of God’s own justice.  But for this son, this only, this one whom he loves, for Isaac, Abraham does not speak.

We read on, word by painful word.  Abraham goes with a donkey and two ‘boys’ and his son.  ‘The boy I will go there,’ Abraham says and lays the wood on his son and they walk on togetherIsaac says ‘My father.’   ‘Here I am,’ Abraham answers Isaac as he had answered God, adding now, ‘my son.’   The two of them walk on together.  The camera pulls back until the moving figures are small in the landscape, ascending the hill Abraham had seen.  See the two boys and the donkey somewhere near the bottom of the screen; waiting for they know not what.

Then comes verse 9.  The camera comes in close, and the motion slows to a snail’s pace; each step discretely delineated.  Abraham builds an altar.  Abraham lays the wood in order.  Abraham binds his son Isaac.  Abraham lays his bound son on top of the altar, on top of the wood.  Abraham stretches out his hand and takes the knife to slay his son.  The sinews in his hand stand out taut; his knuckles are white.  The knife is held with definite intention.  The edge of the blade is visible, quivering poised.

The turning world stops.  A voice from heaven calls, and Abraham replies — for the third time, ’Here I am.’  And God says, ‘Now I know ….’  God has learned something God had not known.  The offering of Isaac ends in the sacrifice of the ramAbraham names the place.  

The story is ended but does not feel resolved.  I read and read, circle and study and stare, until my eyes are dry and the ache in my neck has spread down my back.

I want a tidy ending.  I want space in which to breathe, green grass to lie down in and quiet waters to drink, a respite to gather myself for the next phase of the journey.  I know more is coming.  I know it must.  We’re only in the 22nd chapter of the first book of the Bible, after all.  We’ve only just renewed our recognition that ‘All’ hasn’t included ‘Black’ since the first African slaves were brought to these shores, if not before that.  There is so much journey yet to go.

It’s not just that I’m already tired, it’s that I cannot see the way to the end.  I can’t count the steps, don’t know how to pace myself to get there.  (God sends Abraham to ‘the place I will show you’ and doesn’t tell him how far away the place will be.). It’s that the promise is old — ‘I will make of you a great nation’; ’all men are created equal’; ‘in Order to form a more perfect Union’ — but still unrealized, its shape unformed, its edges blurred.   It’s that the transforming power of that original vision — ‘in you all families of the earth shall be blessed’; to ‘establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare’ — has been continually undermined by our own failures of trust, of vision, of steadfast commitment.

I’ve spent days in this text.  Not just these most recent nor that first encounter in Hebrew but the teaching and preaching done of it since.  Maybe part of my tired is that the questions that seem to spring soonest are the ones that let us off the hook.  Which is worse:  God having asked the sacrifice or Abraham offering it up? God ‘testing’ Abraham with the ask or God needing to test at all? We are prompt to interrogate the text.  Are we ready to ask the same questions of ourselves?  Is this story of traumatic encounter about Abraham and God only or is it also about us?

After all, we still offer up our own.  Worse yet, we offer up those we do not count as ‘ours.’    We draw lines between, create categories of difference, and claim self-preservation as justification for all.  We hoard our own welfare, present and future, as if we can be sufficient to our providing, if only we are diligent enough, vigilant enough.  Abraham, at least, offers his son, his only, the one whom he loves, Isaac.  Abraham offers up the promise he has been moving towards since Genesis 12, the seed and covenant future that God has named due through Isaac.  Abraham responds to nothing less than the direct and inscrutable word of God, who speaks no promise or condition but only command. 

God calls Abraham and Abraham responds, ‘Hineini’ — ‘Here I am!’ — or in a more literal rendering, ‘Behold — me!’  And maybe in that subtle reference to vision the story cracks itself open just a little bit to my sight, revealing not an answer to a puzzle but a promise that is almost enough.  

God calls Abraham’s name, and Abraham answers, ‘See — me.’  On the third day, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the place.  When Isaac asks his father about the offering, Abraham replies ‘God will see for himself the lamb’ — the idiom of provision comes from the statement of God’s vision.  After his hand is stayed, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the ram.  Seeing, vision, appearing is held as well in the name Abraham gives the place:  ‘The LORD sees’ for here ‘the LORD is seen.’ 

Maybe we call this story ‘the binding’ less because that verb occurs once within it than because we feel ourselves bound.  Tangled up in the text and its traditions.  Shackled in the circumstances and structures of the past times that have led to us here in our own, that have constrained our present living and our ability to see ahead, limiting the future by our own gaze.  Yet the motif that recurs in this story is God seeing, God being seen, God seeing to what is necessary to God’s goal.  Can we rename the text and re-place ourselves in it?   Not as those waiting the edge, unaware of what transpires on the mountain, but as those for whom that encounter is central.  

God sees.  Truly this claim is insufficient to assuage my discomfort with the text or with my context.  God’s sight does not tell me where the place will be, or how long it will take to get there.  Yet it is almost enough to aim and sustain me towards the next step.  God sees.  That claim of vision tugs me — protest and all — beyond my own sight.  No longer bound by the past but moving into the future divinely envisioned and powerfully promised.  Justice.  Welfare.  Blessing.  For all.

See.  Me.

All God’s People Prophets

Photo by Katherine Brown*

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 

Numbers 11:24-25; excerpt from 11:24-30; alternate lectionary for Pentecost Sunday, 5.31.20

Sundays I get up and start coffee and check church email early, to learn any changes to the order of worship before we’re all logged on to Zoom.  Last Sunday morning I saw a message that my church and another, about four blocks up Georgia Avenue, planned to line the road on either side for a COVID-appropriately masked and distanced demonstration in support of racial justice.  I read the email and my first reaction was an almost wild frustration:  I already have plans, I don’t have time for this, I have things that I need to do.  My second reaction — nearly coincident with the first save that nanosecond’s difference that requires me to admit the order in which they came — was a deep shame that as a white woman I could choose to avoid dealing with this issue when so many others have no choice in the matter.  That shame came with an accompanying conviction — welling up swiftly, as if in flood, and overwhelming me with its power — that the fact that I can choose to abstain is the very reason why I cannot choose to abstain.   I found a piece of cardboard, and I crayoned on my phrase*, and Sunday evening I joined several hundred standing along both sides of the road, holding up to oncoming traffic the words that had hauled us from our homes and plans and required of us presence, and statement.  The light was clear; the air was mild; the breeze was sweet.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

Numbers 11 had held me already a week by then, as the news turned from a primary focus on the COVID-pandemic to the nation convulsed with a fresh recognition of racism’s horrifically persistent and destructive pervasiveness.  (Periodically we toy with renewing this recognition. When will we move on to true reckoning and transformation?)  I lived that turn through this text.  Reading its telling of 70 elders and the spirit.  Reading news stories of deaths — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd only the most recently famous — of demonstrations and riot police and photo ops.  Reading text, and reading context, and reading each reading each other the while. 

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The LORD puts spirit on the elders, and they are caught in its power, carried out of themselves and into a frenzy. That’s what it is to prophesy in the Bible:  to be overcome with the power of the LORD (1 Sam 10:5-13).  The encounter knocks you flat then pulls you standing (Ezek 1:26-2:5).  Even when the work is described in terms of speech rather than ecstasy, it is a word that burns and cannot be contained, a flame that must be shouted aloud (Jer 20:8-9).  To prophesy is to be subject to the power of the spirit, to be the word’s servant rather than its master.  One does not grab the word and hold it aloft.  One is grabbed by the word, held by the hair, lifted up and away (Ezek 8:1-4).

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The seventy elders have been gathered for this encounter because the community in the wilderness is convulsed with a fresh set of complaining, ‘strong craving’ and weeping (Num 11:1-9).  Moses himself is ‘displeased’ and angry with God.  I didn’t conceive or bear or birth this people, Moses argues, ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me’ (Num 11:10-15).  God responds and directs Moses to gather seventy elders who will share the work of leading the people through the wilderness.  This is the backdrop to the elders’ experience of the spirit and their however-brief/however-timeless frenzy of possession. 

This context of a people riven by strife and the need for leaders to ‘bear the burden of the people’ (Num 11:16-18) revises my idea of what is what is at stake in the elders’ experience.  What I had thought mattered so that the community would see that these seventy were God’s appointed leaders, I now realize mattered so that the seventy themselves would have had this direct and destabilizing encounter with the LORD.

The LORD who sees and hears and knows the sufferings of the oppressed, who does not stand far off but comes down to deliver (Exod 3:6-10).  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6-7).  The LORD who is ‘God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deut 10:17-18).  

The elders need to be overwhelmed by that awareness and alignment and commitment so that — initiating prophetic frenzy past — they can lead the people as God wills.  Attuned to the oppressed.  Executing justice for the vulnerable.  Extending love beyond kin, beyond neighbor, until even the ‘stranger’ is fed and clothed and fully folded into the whole.  The elders’ experience of the spirit was necessary not as an end in itself but as a means of giving that glimpse of God’s end for them all.

Last Sunday was a hundred years ago.  Every day since, there has been news of another protest, summons to another rally.  Yesterday (Friday) at 5 p.m. communities of faith lined 16th Street from Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. up until and beyond the district line.  We stood in vigil holding signs near the end of 16th Street, just before 16th curves and joins Georgia Avenue.  Cars and vans and buses passed; many honked or flashed lights in support.  About 5:45, the rain started.  It came down in buckets, soaking through signs and clothes and shoes.  Still we stood, signs held high, heads bowed against the sky’s crashing sobs.  We stood until the lightning and thunder came together, then we fled back to our cars through rainwater rivers running swift down the sides of the streets.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’   The nation continues to convulse.  I pray it is a birth, not another false labor.  I pray that our encounter with the spirit’s compulsion persists even after the frenzy of protests and rallies and vigils is past.  It should pass.  The summons to protest is not an end in itself but a necessary stage along the way.  May this spell of God-sight guide us into and through the spiritual and social and legislative work of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation.  

‘Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29).

*My daughter pointed out that the Bible verses written in ink on my sign would not be legible to passing traffic. I replied that the verses were written there for me; these were the words that required me to get up and go. The sign made for Sunday was soaked through by Friday’s rain. The crayon letters remain on the now-dried and oddly twisted cardboard but the ink was washed away. No matter. The words remain written in this image and remain written in my heart.