The Tree of Life /9
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni
The bitter climb of Abraham and Isaac, our tests
’After he had laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac on the altar, upon the wood, Abraham braced his arms, rolled up his garments, and leaned his knees upon Isaac with all his strength. And God, sitting upon His throne, high and exalted, saw how the hearts of the two were the same, and tears were rolling down from the eyes of Abraham upon Isaac, and from Isaac down upon the wood, so that it was submerged in tears.’ (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. I; English translation by Henrietta Szold).
Every son and daughter hides in themselves the mystery of gratuitousness. It is true for Isaac, too, albeit in a unique and extraordinary way: »your wife Sarah will bear you a son« (17:19). Abraham ‘laughed and said to himself, “Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”’ 17:17). He could not believe a promise that would go against the laws of nature (which the very same Voice had given to the world and to life). Sarah, too, laughs near the great trees of Mamre: “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?« (18:12). And Elohim will also be laughing when he utters the name of the son: Isaac (17:19), Jishaq, meaning “(God) is laughing”.
Abraham and Sarah knew that Isaac was only and entirely the gift of that first Voice. They realise all the rest through their life’s experiences. It is only us, readers and re-readers of these texts that know about the ‘test’ of Mount Moria, the angel and the ram. Not them: Abraham, Isaac, the servants, Sarah did not know what would happen to them one step further from the one just taken. If we do not take the actual humanity of these far-away narratives and their heroes, we inevitably end up thinking that they are but nice, educational fairy tales or stories with a moral message, and so we empty them of all their anthropological, social and spiritual power. Taking them seriously, however, means that we follow Abraham and share in his experiences as he lives through them, ‘unknowingly’, just like him, offering our son as he did and gaining him back as he did. False consolations and ideologies can only be defeated through an ‘incarnated’ reading of the Bible. This means that we faithfully follow a voice towards a promised land without knowing if and when we may reach it; we finally are given a son, but then realise that we will have to leave him to his fate in the desert; we are given another son and then we have to lose him, too; we go with Cain to the fields and are then killed by our brother; we carry a cross towards Golgotha, we are crucified and left breathless for the resurrection.
‘»Abraham, Abraham. « »Here I am«, he replied. Then God said, »Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.« ‘ (22:1-2) Genesis reports no words of Abraham. We only read that he set out for the place God indicated ‘early the next morning’ (22:3), just like he set out ‘early the next morning’ (21:14), when he sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. And just like when he received that first call at Ur of the Chaldeans back in time, Abraham responds by setting out on a journey, following a voice. Abraham set out on a journey towards Mount Moria with the same faith-trust he had when he left for the promised land. He who sets out on a journey at the daybreaks and in the nights of life is faithful to the voice and to himself. The faith-faithfulness-trust is found in believing that the voice that promised you happiness could be the same voice that is asking your son from you that it has given to you.
Abraham, already old, sets out again because he recognises that first voice in those words. And if we want a son to be given to us again, if we want to continue a story of salvation we have to relive this narrative by doing everything as and with Abraham. At least once in a lifetime.
The entrepreneur called Giulio is re-experiencing this saving journey of Abraham, who, having believed in the company he inherited from his parents gets a request of a bribe to be paid in order to continue the business relationship with his most important client just when his enterprise is starting to bring some fruits and happier days seem to be arriving. Giulio does not accept it and on his return home from that indecent meeting he only knows that he was listening to that voice within saying: ‘It is better to close down the business than to become corrupt and unjust.’ He does not know anything else: it is already a lot to know, it is enough for continuing the ascent of life well – but he does not know anything more than this. He does not know about the angels that will arrive, nor does he know that it is ‘only’ a test he is going through.
It is the silent climb of Abraham that the bar tender Giovanna goes through, who is taking off from a downtown bar that she has liberated from slot machines driven by her love for the poor and the children of her town, even if she was losing two thousand Euros per month; and now that through much effort the bar is beginning to work well again, someone appears to ask for protection money. Giovanna says no, because a voice tells her: ‘It is better to have a burnt shop than lose your soul.’ She can hear and she knows only these few words inside her, and she only wants to see this kind of moral accountability.
Anna, a young mother is also a friend of Abraham. She regained the gift of health after a long and exhausting cure, but during a check-up visit a new outbreak of the illness is discovered: she doesn’t get angry with life but embraces it in a docile and tenacious way and returns home without knowing what is going to happen to her atop the mountain she is about to climb. In these authentic adventures of the soul and spirit the angel arrives – if it arrives – only when everything has been done without knowing that it would arrive. Angels don’t tend to announce their arrival.
Abraham’s story tells us that impossible and incredible things may – but don’t have to – happen if one knows how to get to the last words uttered in our lives. After that, and only after that may one realise, every now and then, at least once in a lifetime, that what had seemed to be the last word was really the last-but-one. But before having uttered it we could not know this because it was a word given to us. The ethical and spiritual value of the one who walks with and like Abraham is in the arrival to the mountain with the son, fire wood and fire, in the preparing of the altar and then preparing oneself to ‘die’ with that son on the same altar.
But Abraham is company and ally to all those as well to whom the angel never arrives: even if the child could not be saved, the enterprise failed, the bar was burnt, the illness won. Abraham loves us and accompanies us with his strong and obedient faith as we walk that part of the road taking us from Sarah’s tent to the instant before hearing the voice of the angel stopping us from striking down. The angel’s voice does not add anything valuable to Abraham’s faith, even if it reveals much of the logic and nature of Elohim. If Abraham had known about the angel before, his experience would have been a ‘fiction’, the son given back to him would not have been a prize of his faith but a poor incentive to make him set out quicker early in the morning.
He who has had the gift of ‘dying’ and ‘rising from the dead’ in their life at least once has learnt that resurrection only arrives if we know how to die before. While we are living through our winters we do not know if and when the springs arrive. We are like the peoples of the Antiquity that after each sunset were unsure if the sun was to rise again at the end of the night. Even after a thousand resurrections, ours and others’, when another mountain is showing up with another climb that makes us move again ‘unknowingly’ just like it happened for the first time, knowing only that we have to keep going. Not even God – at least the God of the Bible – could possibly know if Abraham were to get to the end of the climb and prepare the altar: he only realised it, was amazed and perhaps even moved by it only when Abraham was already grabbing the knife. And this wonder is what makes every moment of life irrepetible and unique, this is what gives an immense value to time, history, our freedom and responsibility.
It was not Abraham’s logic that we used for the construction of Europe, the West, modernity and capitalism. The domain of technology, economic utilitarianism, cost-benefit calculations are the children of Ulysses, the Greek and then the modern ones. Not of Abraham. If, however, the world does not die, if the good businesses and families continue to flourish it is because Abraham lives on in many, and perhaps his echo survives in all of us. We would feel more loved by life and less alone on the Moria Mounts of our existence is we were more conscious of being the children of Abraham every time we remain faithful – at all costs – to a voice, a promise, a pact, our conscience, the better part in us. Let us tell each other the story of Mount Moria, Elohim, Isaac, Sarah, the altar, the angel and the ram. But above all, let us never stop telling each other about Abraham.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on April 20, 2014
Translated by Eszter Kató