What's Love Got to Do with It - Joseph Wood

I want to linger a moment more on “The Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-14), both because of that story’s centrality and how this week’s Old Testament lesson reflects it. At the very beginning of Genesis 22, God specifies just how Abraham is to be tested by making abundantly clear who the proposed victim of the sacrifice is: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go…” (Gen 22:2) I spoke a little bit about this odd-looking repetition during my sermon last week, but there’s a rather essential detail I treated only fleetingly when I was preaching—the description “whom you love” is the first mention of love in the Bible. Certainly, love lingers, implicit, throughout the previous chapters of Genesis, but Abraham’s love for Isaac is the first definite example we’re offered as readers of what the Biblical authors recognize love to be. (Given Hebrew grammatical ambiguity, the verse could even be understood to say something along the lines of “your son, Isaac, the only one whom you love.”) The word here is a form of אַהֵב, ahab, and it quickly expands outward from this initial relationship to encompass a whole network of connects. It can refer to love that is familial, friendly, romantic, national, ethical, devote—and even, in some instances, one’s appetite for something. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for the Septuagint, this multivalent love became ἀγαπάω, agape, which you’ve heard me talk about before. No one is entirely sure where the word agape came from or quite what it means, but it quickly becomes archetypal, becomes the go-to word when trying to grasp what the Biblical definition of love might be. In fact, it’s the word most often translated as love in the New Testament.

The second time love appears in the Bible is at the end of this week’s lesson, closing out the quest to find Isaac a wife: “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Gen 24:67) Though passive throughout most of the narrative, Isaac suddenly claims his agency, bringing Rebecca into his family and thus healing it once more. It’s a moment of beautiful simplicity. The patriarch who is most know for enduring the righteous side of love deftly overthrows any neat understandings. (The exact same words are used in the Hebrew and Greek too.) Love isn’t just about being tested, isn’t just about what faith might cost us. It’s also about redemption, about those moments, big and small, where a little bit of communion bleeds in and we’re able to sense the Divine life at work around us. Sometimes love is about mountaintop moments and seemingly impossible choices, but sometimes it’s about gently welcoming the beloved home and mutual wholeness. Our tradition invites us to claim both instances and innumerable others besides, because to do otherwise would diminish God or ourselves, beginning the descent towards idolatry. Love is complex. Faith is complex. We are complex. And that complexity is part of what makes each of them holy. So, may the loves in your life be full, complicated, and holy—and may laughter* be ever at their center.

*The meaning of Isaac's name is “he will laugh.”