The famous literary critic, Erich Auerbach, pointed out that most ancient literature follows rules: dramas were about kings and higher class people. Comedies were about lower class people. Everything happens in the present, there is no mystery, no tension, there is no background. The glaring exception to these rules for ancient literature being the Bible:
Take for example this story from the lives of Abraham and Isaac, when God instructed Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice:
“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. “(Genesis 22)
The story is one of tension, not saying what is really on their minds. There is no on-the-nose dialog here. And it is one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Bible. One that upsets me and upsets theologians, such that they come up with interpretations that distance themselves and their faith from the story.
But traditionally the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac is a foreshadowing of the nativity story of the Father, Mary and the baby Jesus. Isaac was promised to Sarah and Abraham. Isaac is born of a miracle in Sarah and Abraham’s old age. Isaac carries the wood up the mountain, (which Jewish, Christian and Moslem people now revere as the site of the temple in Jerusalem). And Abraham declares that God will provide the sacrificial lamb. These are parallels to the life of Jesus: born of a virgin, born of promise, Jesus carries the cross, and is sacrificed in the same location as Isaac. Abraham receives a reprieve from God at the last moment, paralleling the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
But more than these parallels the story says to me: God was lonely, and wanted someone to share his pain: the pain of a father sacrificing his own son for relationship.
In my work I meet people who say, “I don’t want to have children because this world is too painful.” Imagine sending your child to be born into a stable, or perhaps even a garage. Without health insurance, without college, without a good career, in an unstable economy, an unstable political situation. Without citizen’s rights. So that child could camp among us and be one of us, and take upon Himself our guilt and shame, and we could approach God in purity and innocence.
This is a story about poor people, but it is not a comedy. This is a rich drama with loads of background. This is a story that takes away my doubt and replaces it with the ring of truth.