When I was in college, my family and I attended a reception where a Jewish Studies professor gave a lecture. At the time I found the talk interesting but it quickly faded from memory. Some years later, I remember my dad asking me about that lecture and reminding me what it had been about.
The subject was the Akedah -- The Binding of Isaac. Abraham is called by God to climb a mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac walks with his father to the top of the mountain, where Abraham binds him to an altar and is ready to kill him when an angel appears telling him he does not need to perform the sacrifice. Abraham discovers a ram in the bushes nearby, sacrifices a ram, and returns home with his son.
This is a gripping, perplexing story. Dr. Jon Levenson, my graduate school Hebrew Bible professor, argued that Isaac is a grown man when this occurs, and that he accompanies Abraham to the top of the mountain -- walks with him spiritually as well as literally -- and is therefore not a victim but willing participant in doing as God commanded. Other interpretations say that God was testing Abraham and never intended for him to go through with the sacrifice. What kind of God would do this is hard to comprehend.
The talk that day, as my father remembered it, focused on the chilling image of a father agreeing to kill his child. The central question this professor asked was, if God tells you to do something, how do you know it's really God?
This was a question dad found very interesting, and which I've been puzzling over lately. Even if you are a believer and know that God exists, how can you be sure it's God talking to you, especially if you are being told to do something painful or difficult? It could be insanity. It could be the devil. It could actually be God. Even healing experiences, moments of powerful insight, connectedness and love -- how do you know they are from God and not just some useful psychological reaction or other self-delusion?
Thinking about the Akedah today, I'm struck by how powerfully it works a metaphor for the everyday gift of life. Let's say there is a God, and that God is all-powerful. When a person is hurt or dies, God has chosen for that to happen. And when a person is saved from the brink of devastation, that is also God's doing. The truth is, whether or not you believe in God as an active agent who runs the show, we don't get to decide when we will die.
Now imagine Abraham not as a father who gives in to the insane idea that he should kill his son, but as a man who has come to terms with this reality. The idea of killing your own child could be imagined as killing the idea that you are able to keep your child alive. In other words, Abraham in the story is submitting to the reality that he is not in control of his or his child's destiny.
"Ok, it's Isaac's time to die," he thinks. "It's not up to me to decide." And then at the top of the mountain, blessing of blessings, Isaac's destiny is revealed: life!