Sunday, March 4, 2012
Mountain of Death, Mountain of Life
Today’s reading from Mass of the sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible.
I prefer the long version from Genesis 22.
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
It is so dramatic that it has often been painted. The image of a white-haired Abraham lifting the knife above a bound child as an angel calls for him to stop is searing.
Unfortunately, it is most likely wrong.
When we look at the timeline of this story, it is probable that not only was Abraham old but Isaac was almost certainly a grown man. Even if we just keep within this story, we see that a small child could not possibly carry enough wood to completely burn his body for sacrifice. That would take a lot of wood.
Only a fully grown man could carry that much wood - and that changes everything.
Now it is not an issue of coercion or force. Isaac is a grown man strong enough to carry enough wood to burn his own body. He could have easily overpowered his much older father even if Abraham was carrying a knife. Or simply run away.
The most likely conclusion is that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and sacrificed because Abraham must have told him that this was what God wanted.
And Isaac willingly became the sacrifice for his faith. The foreshadowing of Christ sacrifice, of Christ willingly sacrificing himself and carrying his own cross becomes even more pronounced when we realize that Isaac was also a man and not a boy.
Of course the difference is that God stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram for a sacrifice instead of Isaac. Later, God himself offered his own son as the perfect sacrifice for our sins so that we could have eternal life. God truly provided on that mountain.
But before we jump to the conclusion, let me take you on a side trip…to Mount Moriah.
Mount Moriah – the Mountain of Death and the Mountain of Life.
As you look on the map, North is at the top of the map. The Mount of Olives is on the far right, Mount Zion on the left. Mount Moriah rises as a long ridge at the south end of the City of David and continues on past the present Temple Mount, and reaches its highest point outside the Northern walls of the Old City, at the top of the map. The bedrock rises when going northward from the base of the City of David to highest ground north of the Temple Mount area. (This is obscured on site since the Temple Mount Platform itself is a large flat area surrounded by retaining wall.) The southern end of the Platform is actually built up on tall underground pillars and arches.
To the east of the Temple Mount lies the Kidron Valley, and the Mount of Olives. To the south, the City of David and the Hinnom Valley. To the west, the famed Western Wall (called in earlier times the "Wailing Wall"). To the north of the Temple site was the Roman military Antonia Fortress, and then, further, the high ground outside the city walls, which many believe was the site of Golgotha. The bedrock of Mt. Moriah continues to rise to the north - outcroppings in the Northern wall reveal road cuts that have been made in the bedrock at the North end of the Old City outside the Damascus Gate and along the main road to the east. The crest of Mt. Moriah is just above the present Garden Tomb.
The ridge system where the Temple Mount is now located is believed by many reputable sources to be the site where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-2). While Solomon built the First Temple about 3000 years ago, Abraham's visit to Mt. Moriah was about a thousand years earlier.
In short, Mount Moriah is the gravity well for 3 of our world’s great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Judaism regards the Temple Mount as the place where God chose the Divine Presence to rest. It was from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust to create the first Adam. That is why in some art forms depicting the crucifixion you can see a skull in the ground – representing Adam. You also have the binding of Isaac, and the two Jewish Temples (David and Solomon) and where tradition holds will have the 3d and Final Temple. It is the holiest site for Judaism.
For Muslims, the Temple Mount is also venerated. While the two holiest cities are in Mecca and Medina, the Temple Mount is third because according to Islamic tradition, the Foundation Rock at the base of the Dome of the Rock is the spot from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
Jewish tradition also calls this rock the site for the binding of Isaac.
Finally, Christians regard the site as holy because of Christ crucifixion at Golgotha as well as Christ’s ascension from the Mount of Olives and from which He will return on Judgment Day.
So, what does this all mean and why do we tell this story at Lent?
To me, it means that while we are not Isaac or Christ, we all are on our own journey that will certainly end on our own “mountain” of death. It may not be at Moriah but it will be somewhere. And so we should take this time to think about what our life means and what we should do about it.
Hopefully, by using this time of Lent for prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can grow closer in our relationship to Christ and transform our lives by seeing a renewal of our baptismal promises. By becoming new creatures and transforming ourselves we can transform the Mountain of Death into the Mountain of Life. The way it was meant to be.
That is my hope this Lent – for you and for me.