The test of “Here I am”

It’s that second time that Abraham says, “Here I am” that gets me.

The first time, God calls his name, and he says, “Here I am,” and God says to him:

“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you.”

What this means, I won’t try to tell you. You know as much as I do. Abraham waited his whole life for God to keep the promise he made, and then finally God does it, and Abraham finally receives his beloved, promised son. And then God says, “No, kill him.”

If he had known this is what God wanted, would he have answered so readily? Or would he have said something else besides, “Here I am”?

But apparently it is what God wanted, and Abraham is apparently finished with not trusting God. He already made all his mistakes in Egypt, telling them not once but twice that Sarah was his sister, apparently hoping they would take her but spare him; and then later he tried to force God’s hand by having a son with his servant Hagar. He does these things because the situation has gotten out of control, he’s afraid, and he doesn’t take God at his word; and because he is still learning who God is. But by the time he’s at the foot of the mountain, Abraham has changed. This time, when God calls him, he says, “Here I am,” and God tells him the terrible thing. 

He does it. He climbs the mountain with Isaac, and builds an altar, and gathers wood, and he raises his knife over the flesh of his son. And again, God calls him: “Abraham.”

To which Abraham replies, “Here I am.”

I wonder what he thought God might say this time. 

He himself has already said everything there is for a man to say: Here I am. The one thing he knows is that God is there, and Abraham puts himself there, too. For whatever. Whatever comes next. He doesn’t even ask, “What do you want?” He just says, “Here I am.” I can’t help thinking that being willing to sacrifice his son was the first part of the test, and saying “Here I am” the second time was the second part; and maybe the second part was harder.

This was the reading at Mass this past Sunday. The previous week, we heard about Jesus being tempted in the desert. That was not a test, like Abraham’s unspeakable ordeal was a test. This was a temptation, and I have been thinking about what the difference might be. 

In the desert, “the tempter” tries to get Jesus to do things. He tries to get him to turn bread into rocks, he tries to get him to jump off a high building, and he tries to get Jesus to bow to him. He is trying to get Jesus, who is God, to do things. To go places, to make things happen, to switch things around, in order to get something he presumably wants more, in return.

I cannot understand what could possibly be involved in the kind of struggle Jesus apparently goes through while being presented with these temptations; but in each case, he does not do the thing. He responds by reminding the devil who God is, according to scripture. God is the one who IS, and Jesus is his beloved son. You don’t go to God and tell him to do things. 

I have heard that the reason the devil approached Jesus in the desert is because he wanted to find out who Jesus really was. The devil clearly had his suspicions, but he tries to put Jesus through a series of challenges: He can see that this man is weak and hungry, and he presses that point, feeling out the boundaries of this strange new apparent disguise of the flesh and its limitations. He tries to get intimate with Jesus by making him do things, and in that way, he could find out who he really was.  

The devil is the devil because he has never accepted who God really is: The one who IS. Not someone you can bargain with; not someone who is manipulable by others. The devil tried and failed to change God when he rebelled against him before the world began; and he still fails to understand how IMMUTABLE God is.

Which is kind of understandable. How does an immutable God become man? I don’t have any words for that. 

But this is what makes Jesus’ ordeal a temptation, rather than a test like the one Abraham endured. A test is meant to clarify who is who, and who God is. But the goal of a temptation is to make God seem less God-like. That’s what sin does: It doesn’t really change God, of course, but it makes it harder for us to understand who God is, and harder to recognize him, and harder for us to see ourselves clearly, too. It blurs our perception of where we end and God begins. All sin does this. 

That’s what the devil wants: He wants Jesus, in the first two temptations, to enter into an entanglement, a tit-for-tat, a weird, complicated bargain where it’s not really clear who has the power and who stands to benefit. “I’ll give you this, if you give me that, and the thing you’re doing will actually SHOW how powerful you are, but it has to be the thing I say . . . ” This is not how you behave when you understand who God is. It’s how you behave when you don’t want God to be who he is.

But with the third temptation — and I’ve always thought he seems to be impatient, and frustrated with how little he has learned with his previous attempts — he just says, “Look, just bow down to me.” And of course Jesus will not. He swats away the temptation like the absurd thing it is. I almost wonder if it was the devil being tested, in the desert. Maybe, possibly, he was being given a second chance to see God for God, and to act accordingly? Maybe.

In any case, the first two temptations the devil attempts reminds me of how Abraham acted before he came to Moriah. He wants to be in a relationship with God, most definitely, but he wants to manipulate him. He’ll leave his home and family like God said, but he’ll keep himself safe by lying and throwing his wife under the bus. He’ll get that son God promised, but he’ll do it the tricky way, with poor Hagar. He is, maybe without realizing it, testing who God really is. He still believes that God is someone you can get things out of, and also that, in order to get these things, you have to manipulate him. He tries to make God less God-like, so he can be more in control.

This never ends well. It takes him a while (he is so old by this point!), but eventually he understands. God is God, and God does what he likes. I know people don’t want to hear that, but tell me what else could possibly be true? How does it end when we act otherwise? 

And this is why, the second time God calls Abraham’s name on that horrible mountaintop, Abraham just says, “Here I am.” He is done pretending he can have any kind of control over the situation, or even assuming that anything at all will come next. Maybe he will stand there with his dagger raised over his son’s neck forever, waiting for God to speak. He doesn’t know, or even try to find out. What he says is all he can say: “Here I am.” 

He passes that test. He lets God be God, even though he doesn’t know what that means, much less what it might mean for him and his son. What he knows is that God is there, and Abraham is allowing himself to be there, before God, and that is all. 

I don’t even know who God is, except that after this hard and horrible test that we all read about every year, we keep reading and eventually come to the part where Jesus also speaks from the weakness and limitations of his flesh, and he also says, “Here I am.” The knife is poised over the flesh of the son, and this time it goes in.

So, that’s what Lent is for. It is for learning how to say, “Here I am,” and letting God say what comes next.





Image taken from f. 93v of Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Hispano-Moresque Haggadah’).

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7 thoughts on “The test of “Here I am””

  1. Simcha:. “So, that’s what Lent is for. It is for learning how to say, “Here I am,” and letting God say what comes next.”


    1. (🤔 I wrote something between L/R carats that didn’t show up! Weird. Here’s what I meant that to look like:

      Me: pulled to the deeps for to ponder…

  2. Seems to me that a certain type of “god” wouldn’t even need humans, never mind take any notice of them. I think there’s a pre-biblical version of “the Great Flood” where “the gods’” decision to destroy mankind with a flood was provoked by annoyance at how noisy and bothersome humans were. The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) God was provoked by how morally evil we were. In that tradition the first grand divine covenant was made with Noah where God’s motivation *may* be said have have been “love” — a desire to ‘save’ humanity from both the natural consequences of our iniquities but also the potential of His own wrath.

    In that sense perhaps we have a “trinity” of mysteries regarding the unknowable “nature” of God (if it is not blasphemy to assume a supernatural God has any kind of nature), the nature of humanity (humans are undoubtedly “natural” in the sense they are part of creation, but our nature still seems mysterious to me), and the “nature” of the relationship between God and humanity which is a focus of Christianity where Jesus Christ can be said to be both totally divine and totally human though we may not say the same of any other human…

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