I was unexpectedly at our Wednesday Morning Prayer and Eucharist today because I made a scheduling error on my calendar. Instead of being at a conference, I was sitting in my chair leading prayer. Prior to the service I did my customary prayer and reflection on the day's text. In light of my last post (my homily on Sunday) it was stunning to see Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac, which I included last Sunday in my reflections.
The opening words hit home: God tested Abraham. It made me think of the radio and the alarm siren followed by the words, "this was a test, this was only a test, if this had been an actual emergency you would have been instructed..." I sort of found myself thinking, perhaps that is a good way to look at all of life: it is a test, only a test.
The Hebrew word for test macah occurs 40 times in 34 verses. Genesis 22:1 is the first occurrence of the word in the Bible. It shows up in Exodus next where God tests the people with thirst, the hunger. The fourth usage is negative, it refers to Israel testing God. The negative use of the term occurs frequently, just reading through the list it appeared the most common. The last time it is used in that way is when Ahab "refuses to test the Lord" as he disobeys the prophet Isaiah. Note, that story of Ahab produces the "virgin shall be with child" prophecy which is associated with the Birth of the Messiah in Matthew. The parallels between Jesus and Isaac in Genesis 22 are obvious. The weaving of texts by such connectors is one of the Bible's most amazing features. Which brings up our first point (see the Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh, p45-47); when God sends Abraham to Mount Moriah (lekh-lekha=go to) it is a word which occurs only one other time in the Jewish Bible. You also find it in 12:1 where God initially calls Abraham and tells him to go to the place I tell you. The writer of Genesis is tying together these stories (ancient rabbis are much more attentive to this sort of thing, in part because they know Hebrew!) This means that one story is read with the other in mind: both focus on the promise of progeny. Here is the test, if God said He would raise up a great nation through Issac, how can God now desire to execute the young child? That is the central tension in the Biblical text: God's Promise under threat.
I was stunned to read that there was a Midrash (ancient rabbinic commentary; called Genesis Rabbah 56:3) which equated Isaac carrying the bundle of sticks on his back with Jewish martyrs who carry their crosses on their backs! The Christian typology of Isaac as Jesus with His cross is in keeping with such an ancient Jewish reading of the Bible. In like manner, the ram in the thicket is seen as a foreshadowing of the passover lamb (which we equate with Jesus). Many rabbis thought that Isaac was old enough to make the choice to offer himself, therefore making him the archetype of all the Jewish martyrs (and by extension the greatest archetype, Jesus The Jewish martyr)
We too are being tested. It is easy to forget this, especially in the "whiny West" where we expect things to go our way. Especially in a church which sometimes seems to equate being faithful with God providing (and God providing with everything going smoothly). I see it in myself. I am agitated and frustrated at times when I am being tested. Daily "quizzes" and more comprehensive "exams" are what life is about. God is testing us (to see if we trust Him) for our sakes as well. A test shows you what you know, if you are ready. A test shows if you are prepared. Loving God when 'all is well' means much less than loving Him when He "disappoints." As I shared at a recent funeral of a man who had Alzheimer, the "unanswered prayer" (or answered with a 'no' for those who prefer that angle) is the test. To love God in the midst of mysterious suffering is the test. It is where we show God our faith!
I accompany many who are being sorely tested, it is what a priest does. I also have my own challenges and struggles right now. I am going to try to think about God testing Abraham and God testing me. If it is a test, then my question is "how am I doing?" That is a better question than "why me?"