Special agents? Yes, but what’s with Abraham?

Signpost for Sunday 29 June 2014: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42

How many times have you read or heard “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10: 40)? I’ve heard it many times but it struck me this week that once again my twenty-first century ears might not be hearing what first century ears heard. So I looked it up. I discovered that in ancient Jewish custom, whenever a superior commissioned someone to act on his behalf, that person was regarded as if he was the same person as the superior who sent him. It meant, for example, that people thought of a king’s emissary as if he were the actual king.

This is called the concept of shaliah, or the Jewish law of agency and knowing that, it seems to me that Matt10:40 casts some light on the concept of who Jesus is and was. The author of Matthew knew all about shaliah, so did the disciples, so did every Jew around in AD 80-85. All of them are hearing more than Jesus commissioning his disciples, they are regarding Jesus as God because God has commissioned him. For them it’s not all about incarnation.

And then I saw that shaliah has a bearing on the story of Abraham too. Especially (Gen 19:13) when the angels tell Lot they are about to destroy Sodom. Angels who have been commissioned by YHWH so we know very well it is YHWH himself who is going to destroy Sodom. That’s certainly the way Abraham sees it in Gen 19:23 when he begins arguing with YHWH until it is agreed that Sodom won’t be destroyed if YHWH can find just ten righteous people in the city.

Hang on a minute. Is this Abraham the same man as the one in our reading this week? I only ask because when you hear YHWH’s words in Gen 22: 2, wouldn’t you expect Abraham to say something? But he doesn’t pipe up, doesn’t even squeak. I leave you to make of that what you will because all that came to my mind was this poetic version of the story, which I love:

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady’s mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
“just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

For those who don’t recognize it, it’s The Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen




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