|"Abraham and Isaac Before the Sacrifice," Jan Victors, 1642|
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
~ Genesis 21:1-3
It’s like running into a high school friend in the grocery store after twenty years have passed. How do we even begin to fill in the gaps? The joys and sorrows and unexpected twists and turns of an entire life… in five minutes next to the artichokes.
Nineteen chapters of Genesis have flown by in the week since we last opened this book in community, and we are trying to catch up next to the metaphorical artichokes. The stories of creation made way for stories of human misbehavior, from the childish—eating a piece of fruit you weren’t supposed to touch—to the deadly—killing your own brother. The world suffered a punishing flood that the Creator very much regretted, and human misbehavior and self-discovery continued. And over the course of those chapters, the story narrowed. What began as the story of the whole cosmos has focused tightly in to become the story of one family, a family in whom God has taken a particular interest.
In chapter 12 God invites Abraham and his wife Sarah to get up and “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” ~Genesis 12:1
This elderly couple is invited into a covenant relationship with God… a relationship based on promises.
God promises to make Abraham and Sarah a “great nation”… to give them children, and children for their children, children forevermore.
God promises to give Abraham and Sarah land, a place of plenty, where they will never know want.
God promises to make Abraham’s name a blessing… promises that all the earth will bless itself in his name.
All Abraham and Sarah have to do is get up and go… and leave the past and family ties behind.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Once again, God tells Abraham to get up and go… and this time, to leave his future behind.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.”
There’s something else that happened in the intervening chapters that I should have mentioned right away. It took Abraham and Sarah a really long time to have their son. Abraham, whose name means, “Father of a multitude,” is 75, and his wife Sarah is 65 when they receive the promise of children. Sarah finally gives birth to their son Isaac twenty-five years later. Isaac, in case you were wondering, means “laughter.”
So in Hebrew our passage actually reads, “God tested Father-of-a-multitude. Take your son… Laughter… to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering…” Which casts a somewhat different light on this story. The names involved seem to me to suggest the distinct possibility that we are being set up for some kind of elaborate (though sadistic) practical joke.
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Now it’s like we’re watching a terrible movie, an awful, cruel parody of taking your children to church. The child Isaac is made to bear the wood—the same wood that will, in a little while, bear him. It’s too much.
At the same time, the story offers glimmers of hope, and perhaps more evidence that Abraham knows there is something else going on. Notice what he says to his attendants: “We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” WE will come back to you. Even in the midst of this, is there some part of Abraham that knows—simply knows, deep inside, that his God will not require him to do this?
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
I read an article a couple of weeks ago, titled: “The Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible.”
“But where is the lamb?”
No matter what the author of the story is trying to signal to us, no matter the possibility of an elaborate practical joke, or even a guaranteed positive outcome, we still have at the heart of this story what one writer has called, “a nightmare place where the Imagination conceives its ultimate ordeal”[i]: the father coerced to kill his child, a child made to bear the transformation of his father into that willing killer.
Does it help to know that perhaps this may well be one of those “just-so” stories we find every so often in the bible, like the story of the Tower of Babel, that tells us how languages came to be? Does it help that this may well be the just-so story of “How God let us know that human sacrifice is bad”?
Does it help to hear Abraham’s words, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son”? Does it sound like Abraham is confident that God will provide? Or is Isaac the lamb?
Does it help to know that, while Christians call this story “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Jews call it “The Akedah,” or “The Binding,” because Abraham binds Isaac with rope in preparation for the sacrifice? Could it also be called “The Binding,” do you suppose, because Abraham himself is bound by this terrible test, in which he is asked to relinquish all claims to the future God has promised?
Does it help to know that the Qu’ran tells the same story, only in Muslim tradition, it is Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, as the child who is almost sacrificed?
Does it help to know that the whole tradition of biblical interpretation, going back two thousand years at least, has struggled with this story, wrestled with it, trying to get a blessing from it? Does it help to know that Abraham, in Jewish tradition, doesn’t simply, silently agree, but questions God, challenges God. Here’s what the rabbis believed about how the conversation really went:
God: Take your son….
Abraham: I have two sons…
God: … your only son…
Abraham: Each son is the only son of his mother…
God: … the one whom you love…
Abraham: A father’s love for his children knows no bounds; I love both my sons…
God: … Isaac.
Does it help to imagine Abraham dodging and weaving, doing everything he can to stave off the inevitable, dreadful command to kill the son named “Laughter”, trying like crazy to say “no”?
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” ~Genesis 22:11-14
Like a great novel or TV show, the story of God’s covenant is told in a way that keeps us engaged. God makes a promise, and then, instantly, the promise is in jeopardy. The promise takes years and years to materialize. And after it does materialize, it is jeopardized all over again.
Let’s not forget: in the end, God does NOT want Abraham to sacrifice his son.
And let’s not forget: in the end, God does not allow the life of one person to be sacrificed on the altar of the religious convictions of another.[ii]
In the end, God is faithful. In the end, God keeps God’s promises. In the end, God is on the side of life… the same life we saw God creating life with such joyful abandon last week, life as seen in bird and butterfly and buffalo, as well as in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac. God is on the side of life, and God is going to be a different kind of God for that reason.
In the end, God is going to be a different kind of God than the world has ever known. God is going to invite people into relationships based on love and not coercion. God is going to use Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, all kinds of unlikely people, to be God’s presence in the world and to share God’s blessings. God is going to be known, not only as Creator, but as re-Creator, the one who brings life out of situations that seem hopeless. And God is going to do all this faithfully, intimately, a God who wants us, not to be bound, but to be free.
The story of this different kind of God is our story as well. God invites us into relationship based on love and not coercion. God uses us—every one of us, whether we feel up to it or not—to be God’s presence and blessing in a world in pain. And God invites us into a partnership in which we, too, can help to create joy where there was sorrow, peace where there was conflict, and freedom from all that binds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.