Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 22:1-2,9,10-13,15-18 / Psalm 116 / Romans 8:31-34 / Mark 9:2-10
One could say that all of history, from the Christian perspective, can be summed up in that line by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
For what is the meaning of divine revelation if not communication? God trying to communicate with his creatures, who all basically suffer from ADD to one degree or another. That’s why God – not unlike the novelist Flannery O’Connor - has to shout now and again to get our attention, so impervious do we seem to advice from on high. Lent is meant to be a divine shout: Hey wake up, the divine voice says. I’m over here. Pay attention for a bit. Caught off guard we often don’t hear the message clearly or even correctly. Not only do we have a failure to communicate, but we misinterpret, misread, mis-hear what’s being said and so screw things up, leaving God to look like the heavy. Today’s story from Genesis may be a case in point.
The revered Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, wrote that Genesis 22 is one of the greatest pieces of world literature, filled with concise suspense and high drama, promises made and sacrifices asked. It’s also pivotal in the self-understanding of the three monotheistic religions (though the Koran substitutes Ishmael for Isaac). Yet, from our modern perspective, it is a dark tale no matter how later commentators spin the meaning, including St. Paul himself. Even the title of the episode eludes consensus: the Jews refer to it as the Aqedah (“the Binding of Isaac”) while Christians call it “the Sacrifice of Isaac.” The former suggesting the theme of submission of will; the latter, a proof of faith. In reality, it would best be titled “the Testing of Abraham.”
But what if Abraham just misheard God’s command? It’s possible, isn’t it? Why else would God have to send his angel to stay Abraham’s hand as he lifted the butcher’s knife to slay his favorite son as an oblation to the deity? God gets off the hook if we see it as a mandate to not imitate the practice of human sacrifice which seems to have been prevalent in Canaan at the time – but, alas, not everyone agrees about that. Maybe Abraham wasn’t interpreting his relationship with this new found God by the same terms as he had previously interpreted his relationship with the other gods he no doubt had one time worshipped. New God - new language. Things easily get missed in translation.
One of the great though frustrating things about the Bible is it’s fraught with the possibility for misunderstanding – just think of the myriad interpretations of various texts from creation accounts to prophecies of Armageddon. Even the personal name of God is a mystery still largely unsolved: both its meaning and its proper pronunciation. The Hebrew alphabet, having only consonants, records the personal name of God as YHWH first revealed to Moses in the burning bush. How Moses might have heard the divine name pronounced is lost to history (but, then again, the name “Moses” is itself more than a bit of an anomaly). So sacred was the divine name that Jews (and everyone, actually) are forbidden to utter it and must resort to circumlocutions like “the Lord” (Adonai) or “the Name” (ha-Shem). It’s a bit like the story of the seven-year old boy returning from Sunday school to be asked by his mother what he learned in class that day. We learned God’s name, the boy says. And what would that be? his mom asks. Harold, the boy answers. Harold? the mother questions. Yeah mom, you know, like when we pray we say: Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…
Communication is always problematic, especially when the connection is long distance – a long way from here to heaven. And maybe longer still when discerning the meaning of words read in 2012AD but originating from events that happened in 2000BC.