by William Willimon
Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 16, 1983, pp. 237-8. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son . . . [Heb. 11:17].
The film that my wife and I decided to show was the dramatization of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Afterwards, my wife would lead the children in a learning activity related to the story, while I would discuss its meanings with the adults. Patsy had some misgivings about showing so ancient and strange a tale to the children.
“It’s only a little Bible story,” I said. “What harm can there be in it?”
The group watched silently as the story unfolded. Abraham was played superbly by the Israeli actor Topol, and the dialogue, in Hebrew with English subtitles, added authenticity to the film. What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, dusty mountain — Moriah — a knife under his coat and his son trudging silently behind him. Finally the bronze blade is raised, the boy’s black eyes flash with horror; then the voice stays the knife, the ram cries from the thicket and it is over.
I stopped the projector, divided the group in half by age, and the learning began — began for me, that is.
“Who knows what the word ‘sacrifice’ means?” my wife asked the children. A few hands went up, a definition was attempted here and there.
“But what does sacrifice mean to you?” she continued. That’s when the trouble started.
“My Daddy and Mommie are doctors at Duke,” said one third grader. “They help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.”
“And how is that a sacrifice?” Patsy asked. But the little girl was not finished.
“And I go to the day care center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommie and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people — so lots of times I stay at the center. Sometimes on Sunday mornings we have pancakes, though.”
And everyone, from six to 11, nodded in understanding. They knew.
“But what does this old story mean to us?” I asked. “I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that God would ask anyone to sacrifice his child like this. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”
“God still does,” interrupted an older woman, hands nervously twitching in her lap. “He still does.”
“How?” I asked.
Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree, and he got involved in a fundamentalist church. He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our baby, too.” She began to sob.
The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church.”
“What?” I asked in astonishment. “Why?”
“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”
Someone else was crying now, a young woman whom I had not yet met, a new member of the congregation.
The woman sitting next to her put her arm around her. “Gloria wanted me to tell you that her husband left her and the two children last week. She wants us to pray for her,” she explained.
“What on earth was all that about?” I finally asked.
She knew no more than I. By then, the wind had died down, the bleatings of the ram could be heard no more, and Father Abraham had descended from the wild mountain, leaving our group of 20th century suburbanites on the flattened plain of middle-of-the-road, reasonable religion.
How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.
The sky darkens, the wind howls and a young man walks up another Moriah, driven by a God who demands everything and who stops at nothing. He carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for a fire, but like Abraham, he is obedient to a wild and restless God who is determined to have his way with us, no matter what the cost.