Stitching Stones

photo by Katherine Brown

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”   Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 

Genesis 28:10-19; lectionary text for Sunday July 19, 2020

I’m struggling to tally time now that we’re in the long green season.  Recurring commitments are fewer.  Variable days sum to patternless weeks with no rhythm of effort and ease that I can identify, lean into, find myself carried upon.  Plans for fall teaching remain preliminary; each institution anticipates a different mix of online and in-person instruction.  I should plan my own courses, however tentative they must needs be, but trying to make firm a small ground in a sea of indeterminacy itself overwhelms.  It is exhausting to be in an in-between space.  I have company worldwide, I know, all of us floundering together in the demands of our own dailiness amid pandemics viral and political.  The waves of our efforts alternately criss-cross and pile up.  Notwithstanding such good and broad company, I am tired.  Where do I rest?

‘A certain place.’  The precise imprecision of the phrase tugs.  It sounds as in-between as I feel now.  It is somewhere.  It might be anywhere.  It is the place to which Jacob has come at that point in time, and because the time is after sunset, it is the place where Jacob lies down.  He sets a stone — a small firm ground in a sea of indeterminacy — and he sets himself to sleep in that ‘certain place.’  Jacob is leaving his country, his kindred, his father’s house not because he has been summoned thence by the LORD but because he has been sent away by that very father, from that very kindred, lest his angry elder twin slay him and his mother who loves him lose both her sons in one day.  Jacob grabbed his brother’s share; his letting go of home is the reaping he’s sown.  Embattled brothers — Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau —  the lectionary texts of these weeks chime too closely with the news, which itself overwhelms.  But there’s no rest in just noticing the pattern of disputed inheritance, grappled-for blessing.  There must be something more.  We’ve a long journey to go, all the way to Haran.  There’s justice to bring; a pandemic to navigate; courses to plan; dinner to get; laundry to do.  I haul the basket downstairs to sort the clothes.  I spy a loose thread, tug to follow it back to its source, and realize that the hem on my dress is unraveling, along with so much else.  I pause sorting, find scissors and the sewing box, cut the machine-stitched thread and thread each end in turn through a needle, so that I can restitch the hem, knot it securely off. 

‘A certain place.’  It is a particular place, location undefined.  Then it turns into ‘this place’ — the place where the LORD is, therefore ‘awesome,’ ‘the house of God … and the gate of heaven.’   In the place, in the night, Jacob lay down with a stone at his head, and Jacob saw the ladder, angel-traversed, and saw and heard the LORD.  To Jacob, God reiterates the promise given Abraham, given Isaac:  land and seed and blessing for all the earth.  To Jacob, the LORD adds a word:  ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’  

Usually I skim God’s speech as repetition of what God had told Jacob’s father and grandfather.  The dream-vision of the stair to heaven is so fantastic as to cast what follows in its shadow.  But Jacob, waking, doesn’t talk of a ladder or of angels.  Jacob, waking, talks of the LORD ‘in this place.’  Jacob, waking, is afraid.  The ladder and the anointed stone are striking brackets, but God’s speech is the center on which the whole turns.  God promises Jacob presence-with and does so distinctly:  ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.’ Read it again:  ‘I will not leave you until ….’  Somehow the ‘until,’ to me, intensifies the promise.  Its implicit contingency — that the abiding will end — adds urgency.   God cleaves to Jacob, a commitment as sharp and clinging as that of marriage, and does so not first for Jacob’s sake but for God’s own fidelity to God’s own purpose.  

Maybe Jacob hefted God’s promise in his hand as a round weight around which his fingers could curl and be comforted.  Maybe Jacob felt God’s promise as a rock in his shoe, a sharp-edged pebble that never settled enough to be ignored but repeatedly shifted in mute insistence on its irritating presence.  Maybe Jacob felt both:  God’s purpose as demand on Jacob; and also God’s purpose as demand for Jacob.  

Jacob wakes and sets up his stone as witness.  Jacob will not stay, but the stone will.  A wordless statement of the encounter.  A small firm ground in the vast and moving sea.  And, having set up the stone, Jacob moves on from there.  That ‘certain place’ was not a large space, after all.  An overnight only.  There are miles to go, flocks to keep, wives to marry, sons to beget.  There will be a day to return, another night — this one spent sleepless.  There will be return and reunion.  Meanwhile, there is this stone of Beth-el, house-of-God.  Meanwhile, there is God’s presence-with.  Persistent for the accomplishment of God’s purpose; insistent on Jacob’s participation in it.  God holding Jacob up; God hauling Jacob on.

The anointed stone does not punctuate the start of Jacob’s story, nor its end.  It is a knot in the thread that keeps the seam from unraveling.  God had a will for the world’s blessing before Jacob was born to be part of it; a will for Jacob’s part before Jacob was grown to carry it; a will to carry Jacob when Jacob will not carry himself.

Is there rest in that for me?  A bit of firmness to hold, be held by?  An overnight, even if vivid dreams inhibit restful sleep?

The machine chimes the end of the load.  I shake the wet wash straight, pull the wrinkles out of cotton dresses, stretch the line from house to tree, and hang the clothes outside to dry in the heat.  I pause and check the restitched hem.  It’s held.  That’s one bit of firmness to add to the text’s reminder that God’s purpose is for blessing and that God’s will is persistent — abiding with me, even in spite of me, insistent for me when I cannot insist for myself.  It’s not rest, exactly, but a knot to my thread as the stone was to Jacob’s, that holds against unravelling.  One cannot go back, but a new seam can be sewn, a new pattern shaped to God’s purpose.  One stone — stitch — at a time.

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.

Say his name!

photo by Katherine Brown

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. 

Genesis 21:8-21; lectionary text for Sunday June 21, 2020

Sarah’s urgency and Abraham’s inertia and God’s inscrutable assent to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael make this a hard text at any time.  To read it these days as the nation continues to roil with racial reckoning long past due is even harder.  Convicting.  On its face this text seems to unquestioningly endorse the separation of the two brothers — God enjoins the act — yet the narrator’s sympathy is with Hagar and Ishmael.  The text seeks to be read from their point of view.  I have imagined Sarah’s years-long plight of being but Abraham’s ‘barren’ wife, going when and where and because Abraham goes with no voice of her own, mute even as she is offered by her husband to one king and then another, suffering knowing that she is too old for any newness now.  But now I feel the anguish of being sent away out into the wilderness as if I myself am Hagar.

We were just at a feast, celebrating the safe birth and weaning of Isaac, God’s promise-child, Sarah’s long awaited Laughter.  It was a great feast.  And now?  Now I am sent away with my child — our child, Abraham, our child!  The son that you and Sarah together got of me.  The feast may continue for you, for them, but for me and for our son, this 16 year old boy-man, there is but some bread and a skin of water.  How long will that last in the midbar, the desert wilderness in which water is scant?  We were just at a feast rejoicing that nothing is too wonderful for the LORD, that Laughter had been born and heard and named in our midst, and suddenly everything turned.  For what?  Because our son, Ishmael, was ‘joking’? ’playing’? ‘mocking’? ‘Isaac-ing’?*  Because suddenly Sarah is frightened for her son, our son must be driven out?  

There was a moment I might even have laughed with Sarah’s God-brought laughter.  She herself foretold that all would.  Yet already I’ve forgotten whatever mirth there might have been.  Sarah’s own joy is already ended.  She cut it short herself.  Her vision is too small.  She looks at our son, Abraham, yours and mine, and sees him only as an alternate Isaac, a reminder of those barren years before and a competitor for her son’s future inheritance.  What is that inheritance, Abraham?  Is it not that all the earth should be blessed?   In her zeal for her son’s full measure, Sarah has cut off her own joy.  She had laughed and spoken the world to laugh with her.   Now Sarah speaks to cast out half the world — as measured in sons of Abraham.  

Our son.  Ishmael — say his name, Abraham.  Though Sarah does not, you at least should name him, for he is your son too, on whose account you are distressed.  Say his name, Abraham!  Say it aloud! ‘Ishmael’ — ‘God hears’ — Ishmael, our son, yours and mine.  Our son is as truly God-named as is your son with Sarah.  Both of them have names given by the LORD.  Why can you not say his name aloud?  Is it because you are afraid to say aloud the truth that ‘God hears’?  That God heard my cry before our son was born?  That God might hear our cries again?  

Say his name, Abraham.  Ishmael.  God hears.  Say it!

God does hear.  God will hear.  

Will God hear?

I cried out at Abraham.  I demanded our son’s name from his mouth.  

Or did I?  

Was it only in my head that my voice was heard?  Was I, in reality, as silent as Sarah who — having spoken that word of expulsion — spoke no more?  

Ishmael.  God hears.  My lips move.  But do I say it?  Can I any longer trust the name’s claim when the God himself did not speak it to Abraham, did not speak either of our names, but gave us the titles that Sarah had used, that Abraham had used.

We have wandered.  Our water is gone.  I have left him.  Cast out because of him, sent away with him, now I walk away from him.  I will not, cannot watch him die.  I lift my voice.  Does he?  Does he cry?  Does he hear?  

Which ‘he’ even do I mean?

ve-Ishma-el-ohim reads the Hebrew text.  ‘And God heard.’  The name of my son held in that phrase.  The name that Sarah would not say, that Abraham could not say, that the LORD God did not say. Ishmael, God hears, now cries out from the text itself.  As the blood of the murdered Abel cried out from the ground.  As the cutting off of peoples causes stones of the house to protest and plaster of the wall to respond.  As the stones of the city will cry out the presence of the Christ if his followers themselves do not.  The text telling my story returns to me the name of my son.  No more is he ‘the boy,’ ‘the child,’ son of ‘Hagar the Egyptian,’ ‘the slave woman.’  The text becomes the testimony.  Murmurs my son’s name in the larger claim.

ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’  Saying the name moves the story from desperate need to divine response.  God heard.  And God called and renewed and expanded God’s promise and opened my eyes to the life-giving water. ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’   

‘A future with hope’ unfolds.  

‘Make strong your hand in his,’** God tells Hagar. 

The story inserts itself into my own hand, clenched as it is in anguish for persistent division and in aching uncertainty for how to move towards justice.  The text pushes itself in, makes itself strong within my palm.  My fingers ease and curl around its strength.  I am lifted to do the next thing:  to name aloud the claim that within the story God himself does not utter but does fulfill. 

Ishmael.  God hears.

Say the name.  Say all their names.  That act shifts the whole story.  Align myself with the text’s own subtle work of inclusion and reconciliation and wholeness.  God’s promise for each and for all.  That all the families of the earth will be blessed.

* The Hebrew verb in 21:3 is a form of the verb ‘to laugh,’ from which the name ‘Isaac’ comes.  The Hebrew text reads ‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar, whom she bore to Abraham, playing.’  The phrase in the NRSV ‘with her son Isaac’ is in the Greek, not the Hebrew.

** This is the literal Hebrew of God’s command in Gen 21:18, ‘Hold him fast with your hand.’