“By then day had broken everywhere, but here it was still night – no, more than night.”
Pliny the Younger
Years ago, while serving as a counselor at youth crusades, we were trained to hand each person making a decision for Christ a pocket version of the Gospel of John. Why? Because our leaders thought it captured the love of God better than any of the other Gospels. The stories of the Samaritan woman at the well, Nicodemus, the blind beggar healed, the feeding of the five thousand, and the raising of Lazarus – as well as what may be the most famous verse in the Bible – were all there. The Gospel of John is drenched with the spirit of “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” and for a new convert it would be essential to take hold of the depth and certainty of that love.
However, since then I have sometimes wondered what might have happened had we instead handed them the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his beloved and only son, Isaac. Would they have stared at us in stunned disbelief or have turned and run out of the room as fast as they could? What kind of heinous God would make such a demand of anyone – especially someone who trusted Him so completely?
The account of Abraham and Isaac is one to which I have returned for many years, and each time I realize more how inscrutable it is. Early on, it was easy enough to chisel off a small piece for Sunday school lessons and illustrations foreshadowing John 3:16. But as I have now come back to the passage for decades, I have realized how overwhelming it is, like trying to uncover a massive stone buried deep in the earth using a child’s plastic spoon. In fact, we have so covered it over with layers of inventive interpretations and ingenious teachings – like those brightly painted side-of-the-road boulders in Kentucky that shout, “Jesus Saves” – that we have almost lost the dark horror of it.
Last week I read “Night” by Elie Wiesel for the first time. As you probably know, it is his terrifying account of being taken as a teenager to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. It is the record of the death of his family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man. Elie Wiesel does not lose his faith but, like Abraham, it is tested.
“How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praise be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”
It is an insult to millions of people sacrificed – then and now – and to God Himself to offer up glib answers for what I have come to believe can only be answered with silence. For that is how Abraham, the same man who negotiates with God over His sweeping away the righteous with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah, responds. He does not object or cry out. He does not plead. He experiences no dark night of the soul. He only obeys.
Maybe this is why I have come to think if I believe (as I do) that this account is more than a compelling myth passed down to make a point or an allegory for dissecting in sermons, then my only response for now is silence. Each of us deals with the test of Abraham in our own way and at different stages of our lives. Each time I come back to it I bring more of my life and have finally put down the spoons and the chisels and simply read and re-read what, in the end, passes understanding.