Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unbinding Abraham

The story our ancestors offer us from Hebrew scripture is called the Akeda, the binding and unbinding of Isaac. At the same time, though, it is also the story of the binding and unbinding of Abraham his father.

As he trudges up the slope of Mount Moriah with his son, “your only son, the son whom you love”, he believes with all his heart that what is necessary – what must happen – is that he tie his son up, cut his throat, and burn his body. Repugnant as this clearly must be to him, he cannot avoid it. It is inevitable. God demands it, and saying “No” to what God demands is not possible.

There are in this story two names for God. The first, “God” is a translation of the Hebrew “Elohim”. The second, “the LORD”, is how “Yahweh” is rendered in English translations. The God who binds Abraham to this sacrifice is Elohim; the God who unbinds him from it is Yahweh.

Stick with me here for a minute.  Elohim (God) is also used to speak of the gods of other peoples –  for example Ashtoret the Elohim of the Sidonians, Kemosh the Elohim of Moab, and Milkom the Elohim of the children of Amon in 1 Kings 11. Which makes me wonder – Could the shift from Elohim to Yahweh be the editor’s deliberate choice, creating a text that clearly distinguishes Yahweh from the Gods (Elohim) of other peoples? Especially if this text was brought together during the Babylonian captivity, among a people whose stories of their Elohim are so similar to those of Israel, might the editor be making the distinction between the Elohim who binds and Yahweh who unbinds, between a God of bondage and a Lord of freedom?

We live, I believe, in a world with an overdeveloped sense of inevitability at every social level – from our own inward life to what Herbert O’Driscoll calls “the maelstrom of the nations”. (Intriguingly, in the same hymn he refers to “the Lord of our tomorrows and the God of earth’s todays”.) We yield too easily to the belief that nothing can be done – about our own bad habits of heart and mind and body, about poverty and hunger in our communities, about the plight of the Canada’s First Peoples, about catastrophic climate change.  We rationalize our own continuing complicity as citizens and consumers in arrangements that fail the poor and exploit the weak. We trudge up Moriah, knowing on some level that what we are about is not good, yet convinced that it is unavoidable, that we have no choice, that the Elohim of the market or of our own comfort demand it.

In “You’ve Never Seen Everything”, Bruce Cockburn sings this chorus:

Bad pressure coming down,
Tears - what we really traffic in;
Ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around.

Somewhere on that mountain the bad pressure yields to "the light falling all around". Elohim gives way to Yahweh, and Abraham discovers a freedom he had never imagined possible, a Lord who unbinds him from what he was unable to refuse, who sets him free to embrace what he could scarcely imagine. I wonder if we can believe that Yahweh is eager to unbind us as well.

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