What are we to do with our first lesson today? The story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, “exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers.”[1] In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that such “darkness and mystery,” and the thousands of unanswerable questions they bring, are really fundamental to our relationship with God. “[O]f God Himself can no man think,” he writes, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”[2]

The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem known as The Dark Night of the Soul. He wrote in the first verse:

Once in the dark of night,?
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose?
(O coming of delight!)?
And went, as no one knows,
?When all my house lay long in deep repose….[3]

“In this first stanza,” John himself said, the soul relates the way and manner which it followed “to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation.”[4] This “purgative contemplation” has been called a darkening of the will, intellect, and senses,[5] or more simply a “remain[ing] silent, …not thinking of anything.”[6]

I think John of the Cross and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing give us guidance in approaching the bizarre story of Abraham’s near-murder of Isaac and its thousands of unanswerable questions. We must engage the Akedah non-rationally. We must read it and take it in through our love of God because we cannot make sense of it intellectually; if we try, we may end up not loving God because a God who seems to demand human sacrifice is not lovable.

Better folk than I have tried to make sense of this over the many centuries, the millennia since the story made its way into the foundational religious literature of Judaism and Christianity. One of the ways these scholars have tried to make sense of the binding of Isaac is to argue that the Akedah a mash-up, that an editor has taken an early story, mixed it up with some bits from other stories, and added some bits of his own to create a story which emphasizes the obedience and submission of Abraham at the expense of the story’s depiction of God.

Abraham “stands before God and openly acknowledges that God has an ultimate claim on our lives and that God can choose to exercise that claim at any time.”[7] The emphasis is on Abraham’s trust, not on God’s demand. “Abraham does not simply obey; he obeys because he trusts. He could have obeyed because he was ordered to do so; if God commands, he had better respond. But [the text] makes clear that he obeys because he trusts God, that God will be faithful and will act in his best interests.”[8]

Another way faithful people have sought to make sense of the story is by adding to it themselves. In the rabbinic tradition there is the practice of authoring what are called midrashim. This is a genre of rabbinic literature which seeks to flesh out the characters of the Bible. The midrashic authors often sought to provide a sort of back story for the biblical characters. The sages invented these stories to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and fill in the blanks, making the biblical sketches into human figures with whom we can more easily identify. Some of the most famous midrashim have become so imbedded in the tradition that many people do not even realize they aren’t found in the Bible. (The pious legends of Joseph, Mary, and other saints are a similar sort literature.)

The opening words of today’s text, “After these things,” apparently can be understood in the Hebrew as meaning “after these words,” so the midrashic rabbis, wondering what that might mean developed some explanatory scenarios. One midrash on this text suggests that God and Satan had a bet about Abraham much like their wager about Job, i.e., will the righteous man, Abraham, kill his son when asked?[9] Another imagines Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s older son born to Hagar the slave woman, arguing about whose circumcision is “better” – Ishmael’s because was done when he was a teenager and therefore able to refuse, or Isaac’s completed when he was an infant only eight days old. Isaac says he is willing to sacrifice every member of his body to God, and God thus tests Isaac through his order to Abraham.[10] Another midrashic gloss on the story tells us that Isaac at the time of this incident was 37 years old and a willing participant in his near-sacrifice, not an innocent and unsuspecting child.[11] Changing or trying to understand the story through editing, revision, and addition is a venerable tradition.

But the story pretty much stands “as is” in our biblical canon and although it is fun to imagine these back-stories, when we rely on them we fail to rely on and truly grapple with Scripture. We rely, instead, on our own imaginations. The text remains stark and troubling, dark and unfathomable.

The 19th Century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard in looking at this story called Abraham a “knight of faith.” A knight of faith is a person willing, first, to make a “movement of infinite resignation” in which demonstrable love of God predominates over worldly happiness. Becoming a “knight of resignation,” the individual does this in solitude, as Abraham does. Despite the fact that he loves his son, Abraham’s love of God is greater, so he resigns himself to giving up Isaac at God’s command, and he moves to do so without discussing his actions with Sarah or with anyone else. This is what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Seventh-Day Adventist writer Jason Hines describes it this way:

When God asks us to do something that defies social convention or that seems out of the ordinary, if we decide to do it, it seems that we feel the need to justify our decisions to others. It is a human trait – we don’t want to seem crazy for doing whatever thing God just led us to do. However, the knight of faith realizes that the walk of faith is not always a group activity. Therefore there is no need to justify the action.[12]

In John of the Cross’s words, “in order to attain to living the . . . life of love with God” Abraham must “go forth . . . from all things,” including his love of his son, including the ethical norms of his community, and more than that, rationality itself.

For the knight of resignation to become a knight of faith, the ultimate deciding factor is not the ethical norm, but his individual relationship to God. To fulfill the telos – God’s ultimate purpose – Abraham’s faith in God is called upon to set aside not only the normal canons of human ethics, but also the rationality of human intellect. This Kierkegaard calls a “leap of faith” in which one embraces the paradox and the incongruity of the situation. One cannot do this intellectually; as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, God “may well be loved, but not thought. By love may [God] be gotten and [held]; but by thought never.” To mash-up John of the Cross with Kierkegaard, one “attains to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God” … “by virtue of the absurd.”

Anglican scholar Herbert O’Driscoll, in his commentary on the lectionary, noted that he could find little, if any, connection between this seemingly monstrous tale of Abraham nearly killing his child and today’s gospel lesson,[13] and on the surface he is right. But our gospel lesson today is the tale end of Jesus commissioning his apostles, which includes him telling them (remember last week’s lesson):

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,?
and a daughter against her mother,?
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;?
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[14]

Now he tells them that there are others, outside their families but within the community of disciples, who will welcome and reward them. “The integral relationships between the disciples, Jesus, and God replace the disciples’ broken relationships with family and society. . . . [T]he call of discipleship does not fit very happily with ‘traditional family values,’ whether ancient or modern. The vocation of disciples necessarily relativizes all other relations and obligations – whether to party, corporation, or family – in favor of the new family that is the community of [Jesus’ followers].”[15] In other words, the call to discipleship demands a suspension of traditional ethics.

The story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, is not history, it is metaphor. It is not meant to teach us about the characters in the story; it is meant to teach us about ourselves. As metaphor, I suggest to you that it represents the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith and action revealed in Jesus words in last week’s and this week’s gospel lessons. Just as Abraham had to turn away from and reject the ethical norms of his society to follow the command of God, so must the disciple of Christ be prepared to deny the cultural norms of his or her society. Again, as John of the Cross said, “in journeying to God” we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by “the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh,” any more than Abraham was hindered by either cultural ethical norms or human rationality.

As Christians called “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,”[16] we are to be salt, preserving agents actively working for that restoration in the midst of and rejecting a culture many perceive as decadent and decaying. We are to cooperate with Christ’s redeeming power working through us in ways that may contradict cultural norms, may often flow counter to the cultural tide, and frequently seem irrational and absurd.

A commitment to being countercultural isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard. Going against the ebbs and flows of culture can create friction and sometimes provoke a hostile reaction to the good we are trying to create. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us that this should be expected, for “whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.”[17]

The Akedah and the story of Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles both exude darkness and mystery, and both raise thousands of unanswerable questions. What are we to do with them? Not over-think them! We are simply to follow the examples of Abraham, of Jesus, and of the first disciples. These stories call us to reject the ethical norms of our community, to protest and stand against what is wrong, to cry out against injustice, and to call for an end to corruption. They call for us to make Kierkegaard’s leap of faith into alternative ways of seeing our world. They call us to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” to “attain [in John of the Cross’s words] to the sweet and delectable life of love with God.” Amen.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2023, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher during that parish’s rector’s sabbatical.

The lessons were from Proper 8A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and St. Matthew 10:40-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is El Sacrificio de Isaac by Domenichino, 1627-28, on display at Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Herbert O’Driscoll, The Word Among Us: Year A, Volume 3 (Anglican Book Centre, Toronto:1999), p 35

[2] Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Evelyn Underhill, tr. (John M. Watkins, London:1922) , p 31

[3] John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, A.Z. Foreman, translator, at Poems in Found Translation website, undated, accessed 28 June 2023

[4] John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers, tr. (Doubleday Image Books, New York:1959), p 17

[5] Jeannie Ewing, St. John of the Cross & The Dark Night, Catholic Exchange, December 15, 2014, accessed 28 June 2023

[6] Thomas, John Paul, The Mystical Journey to Divine Union, My Catholic Life, April 23, 2018, accessed 28 June 2023

[7] Joel S. Kaminsky, The Akedah in Jewish Tradition, Bible Odyssey, undated, accessed 28 June 2023

[8] Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 1 (Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994) p 499

[9] See Michael A. Signer, Rashi’s Reading of the Akedah, Journal of Textual Reasoning, undated, accessed 30 June 2023

[10] Ibid. See, also, Rachel Barenblat, The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, The Velveteen Rabbi, September 10, 2010, accessed 30 June 2023

[11] See Dovid Rosenfeld, Isaac’s Age at the Binding (Akeidah), Aish, undated, accessed 30 June 2023. See, also, Judaism: Akedah, Jewish Virtual Library, undated, accessed 30 June 2023

[12] Jason Hines, The Knight of Faith, Spectrum Magazine, April 25, 2013, accessed 28 June 2023

[13] O’Driscoll, op. cit.

[14] Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV)

[15] Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42, Working Preacher, June 29, 2014, accessed 28 June 2023

[16] Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 855

[17] Gabe Lyons, What Does Being Countercultural Look Like?, Q Ideas, quoting Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Abingdon Press, Nashville:1989) p 94, accessed 29 June 2023