Does it count if…? (Hebrews 11:17-19)

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The ‘binding of Isaac’ is one of the OT’s seminal stories. It strikes swift and deep, cutting into the heart of any parent who has nurtured a child, any person who has harbored a dream. Give it up, God says–and the right response of faith is, we know, Of course.

And yet.

It is no easy matter to see or hope for something, and then for that seen, hoped-for thing to materialize, only to be put in the balance. Harder still if that balance tips the other way, so that what is precious slips out, away from one’s grasp.

Give it up. Of course. But I can’t. Not now, at least–but perhaps I could if….

In Hebrews account of Abraham and Isaac, we read a detail not supplied in Genesis, where this story first appears. The early telling is long and tense, with no ‘omniscient narrator’ (to use a phrase fiction writers and readers know) explaining what is going on inside Abraham’s mind. In Hebrews, though, we read that Abraham complied after reasoning that God would raise Isaac from death.

Maybe the writer of Hebrews is, like preachers since have done, adding a wee bit to the original story. It might also be, though, that he has an inside track–a piece of information that has hitherto been missing from the record. Problem is, what he says seems to contradict the point he’s been trying to make in this extended treatment of faith. After all, if Abraham is banking on God resurrecting Isaac, does it really take faith to go through with the directions God has given him to follow?

I think so. First, there’s nothing that requires faith and reason to be incompatible. That is, just because we’re called upon to be people of faith, we need not unhook our brains. Indeed, there are times–and they tend to happen when we ‘over-spiritualize’–when what is purported to be faith is simply foolishness. To say it in language borrowed from James, faith ought to have an ‘action’ component–and sometimes, the appropriate action is careful reasoning.

Second, it still requires faith to believe that God can–and will–raise a dead person. Abraham had been around long enough to see plenty of people die. He also knew his history: up to that point, resurrection hadn’t exactly been common. So even if he’s calculating, banking on a miracle, it’s a long shot by any measurement.

Maybe the point, then, is that this section of Hebrews is rounding out our understanding of faith. At times, it is a mystical experience: it just feels right in ways we cannot easily explain. At others, though, faith is fueled by reason–and as such is in no way diminished.

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