Genesis 22:1-14, The Sacrifice of Isaac, is a particularly difficult passage to get my head around. The temptation for me as preacher is be thankful that the lectionary always offers alternative options, and to settle on one of the New Testament texts. Romans certainly offers a lot to ponder.
The image of a father ready to murder his own child to prove obedience to God is somewhat horrific. I am not sure I can reconcile myself to that sort of faith.
How would you respond? If a non-believer came to you with the Bible in their hand wanting to know how the God in this story is the God of Love, that you have been telling them about, a God who, according to our Gospel today, said “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matt 10:40)
When the Bible confronts us with these difficult stories – the killing of children, and leveling of nations - we look for the option of seeing the story in a metaphoric rather than literal light. Genesis can appear softer when seen as an amalgamation of creation stories where the Israelites have sought to comprehend their God, rather than a purely historical account.
However, Gen 22:2 doesn't offer a lot of ambiguity to be creative with, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
Taking the text as we find it. I wonder, what is the worst part of this story?
that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his child, or
that Abraham seems to carry out this instruction without protest.
I find this both angles challenging to contemplate, given the boldness with which Abraham challenged God to save Lot and his family at Sodom (Genesis 18:23-32). Many preachers will pick up on that story to encourage us towards similar boldness in our own relationship with God.
Abraham’s position in today's story is similarly highlighted as an example of unfaltering faith in God. An example of the faith that moves mountains, delivers miracles, and finds bold prayers answered. A faith we should hope to have. Why no boldness here?
Again, I am pondering this with some discomfort. How many of us, those who profess faith in God, could say that we would stand in Abraham's place if God called on us tomorrow? Is this his the faith which inspires the stoic faith of those who deny their children medical care? or refuse to take COVID precautions because God will save them? Perhaps this is why I didn’t ignore this passage this time, because I have lately seen examples of absolute, seemingly unshakable, faith that would imprison children, deny refugees haven, and deny people basic human rights based on the colour of their skin. Do people of faith inspired to such seemingly uncaring positions, perhaps measure their own resolve in comparison to Abraham’s apparently unflinching acceptance of this awful task. Sometimes walking with God is hard!
When we come to difficult or contradictory passages of the Bible, that cannot easily be dealt with as a metaphor, we can instead ‘contextualise’ the story within its own time and setting.
If the primary context is God’s promise to raise the nation of Israel through Abraham, we find limited comfort in this approach as well. Where is the story going to go if Isaac dies?
However, if we take the broader picture of Abraham’s life and journey with God as our context, we can find a little more comfort within this story.
A lot happens in Abraham's life and relationship with God from the day he is first called to leave Haram and take his family into the wilderness (Genesis 12:4), to when he finds himself heading up the mountain with Isaac.
Between these two stories of faithful obedience, the journey in between is not a perfect, unfaltering path of resolute and unwavering faith. Abraham is obedient, faithful and sometimes bold. Yet sometimes he acts in ways which suggest some inconsistency in his reliance on God. Perhaps some doubt. Perhaps he is a model of faith we can all relate to after all?
Exploring that inconsistency we might focus on those two strange episodes where, fearing for his life, he pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister and allows her to be carried off by two different rulers (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18).
Of course the strikingly significant example of that inconsistency, is Abraham's complete disbelief at God's promise that Sarah would bear a child, and that she would become the mother of nations (Gen. 17:17). He laughs! Then, so desperate is he to have an heir, he takes matters into his own hands, sleeping with Hagar to conceive the child Ishmael. Not quite the actions of one who blindly trusts God.
In our translation the narrator starts this story “after these things” (Genesis 22:1). This story is the climax of all of the events leading to this day. When this obedient but not altogether confident faith will be tested.
We, post-Easter believers, know the ultimate climax of the story, and see that it must be a test. Gen 22:1 describes it as a test, and consequently we can see the instruction to ‘offer’ his son as a sacrifice does not imply a dreadful conclusion. Somehow this does not make me more comfortable. Why would our all-loving, all-forgiving, God put the faithful to such as test?
Thankfully, Abraham passes the test and at the last minute, the Lord prevents him from going through with the sacrifice. God never wanted child sacrifice.
The story of Hagar and the conception of Ishmael (Genesis 16), provide an example of Abraham striving in his own way to bring God’s promises to fruition, rather than wait for them to come. This trial invites Abraham to face this conflict between his own way and God’s way. Let go of steering his own destiny and completely surrender to the path that God has set before him. Will he trust that a loving God will only lead us towards a gracious and good outcome? Who would not destroy a city if only 10 righteous people might be found there? (Gen 18:32) Might we re-think Abraham's blind faith, not as one who would have gone through with this awful sacrifice, but as one who trusted that ultimately God would NOT seek it.
The test profoundly changes Abraham’s relationship with God. He has proved a new trust in God. We often say that our children are our life. For the ancient Israelite, life and their concept of ‘eternal life’ was invested in their heirs. Abraham offered his life up to God. Trusting God with all his hopes, his future, and this precious son he loves more than anything.
As Abraham had said to his son, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering". As promised and expected Abraham looks up to see the ram has been provided. A sign that the trial is passed, and that God’s blessings are freely given to those who expect them. There is nothing he/we need to do, other than look up, knowing that God is constantly with us on the long journey between our first calling and our final destination.
Might the challenge of this story be that it calls us to face our own conflict between God's way and our way.
Grasping the awfulness of this story, we also grasp ever more clearly the awfulness and faithfulness of God. Not a cold, harsh God who demands innocent sacrifice, but a feeling, loving God – who makes awful sacrifices on our behalf.
This trial on the mountain proves God’s faithfulness as much as Abraham's. A trial which humanity will put before God, and he will answer over and over again through human history. Of course, the primary lesson from this story is that while Abraham’s son is spared, God would give up his own son to die. As awful as we see and feel Abraham's task, is no less awful when it is God's task as Father sending his Son as a sacrifice into our world.
Because Christ died, our relationship with God is profoundly changed. Whatever brokenness, it was dealt with and abolished through Christ on the cross. Abraham’s test thus invites us to come to our own sense of fear and awe, as well as profound gratitude that our God is a faithful God. Faithful to his covenant promises and the redemption, we have through him.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands our soul, our life, our all.