I’m glad to have Abraham as my spiritual ancestor. I’m really glad I didn’t have him as my Dad.
I’m a Dad, and I get over-emotional at Finding Nemo and The Lion King. I feel the incredible privilege, joy, love and responsibility of fatherhood. So I struggle with these chapters, They start well enough, with Isaac born to fulfil God’s promise to Abraham. But from there on Abraham doesn’t really come across as the kind of father figure I’d want to have or want to be – and all while he’s going along with God’s commands.
Ishmael and Isaac – both let down by their dad?
First of all there’s Ishmael, sent with Hagar off into the wilderness. Abraham does, admittedly, give them food and water to take with them, but I can’t help thinking he should have done more. A lot more. Like refuse, or at the very least get them settled and provided for somewhere first. And yes, he had God’s promise that Ishmael would be the father of a nation, so he trusted that he would be ok – but still, this was his son.
Then a bit later, in chapter 22, God tests Abraham, and I don’t like it. How could he do this, not just to Abraham but to Isaac? And why on earth did Abraham think it was a good idea to go along with it? I know that, as I said a couple of days ago, he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and the Bible to teach him about God as we do, and that there were plenty of cultures around him that would have seen it as normal to sacrifice a child to a god. Yet I still can’t quite fit this into my mental picture of what it means to follow God. Yes, he had the promise, and trusted that God who’d brought him so far wouldn’t let him and Isaac down now. I know, as well, that God didn’t let them down but stopped him. But would Isaac ever be able to look at him the same way again?
Yet this is the man who, just a few chapters ago, argued with God and bargained for the lives of the wicked people of Sodom. Couldn’t he have done at least as much for his sons?
The sons of Europe
It’s not just an ancient story, though. As I read these words I was haunted by a memory from last year’s Proms, when my daughter Immy was singing Britten’s War Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall. It was an incredible performance – one of the most moving concerts I’ve ever attended. In the midst of the piece, Britten sets Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young‘ to link the sending of young men to their deaths and the story of Abraham – but with a different ending, as Abraham refuses to stop. The poem ends,
…lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
So perhaps this story is redeemed by the fact that we still need to hear the voice calling us aside from a path we’re set upon, which is leading to disaster. There’s one other thing which allows me to live with this passage, though. That’s the reality that a couple of thousand years later God did not stop the death of his own son, but let him experience death so that we need not fear it – and let him defeat death so that it could not hold us, or for that matter the millions of slain sons of Europe.