One thing I’ve noticed about reading the lectionary texts as my devotional reading is the way I’m forced to take a deeper look at many passages that I’ve just glossed over in the past. One such passage is Genesis 22:1-14, where Abraham is told by God to sacrfice his son Isaac. I’ve known about the passage and accepted it in a sort of flippant way–never thinking very long on it or about how weird it is. Not this time!
To begin, let me just retell the story in my own words. God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the region of Moriah to a special place that God will reveal. Once there, he’s to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. The next morning, Abraham saddles his donkey, and rides out with his son and 2 servants. He cuts sufficient wood for the offering, he and his entourage head towards Morah. Once he sees a particular mountain, he tells the servants to stay with the donkey. He and Isaac are going to the mountain alone to “worship”. At this point, Isaac starts to seem a little curious. He notices that Abraham has brought fire and wood, but there’s no animal to sacrifce for the offering. Abraham says “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Once they arrived at the place God told Abraham about, Abraham builds an altar and puts the wood on it. Then, he starts to bind his son, and he actually places his son on the altar, on top of the wood. And reaches out to kill his son with the knife.
Just before he succeeds, an angel calls out to him, and commands him not to harm the boy. The angel says “Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” The Abraham sees a ram nearby, and he sacrifices the ram instead of his son.
This passage creates an image of God that makes me nervous. I’m not sure about how to deal with a God who asks a father to sacrifice his son. Although God did sacrifice his only son Jesus for me, and I’m not complaining about that idea or finding it repugnant. Perhaps because I have reasons for why Jesus died. With this story of Abraham and Isaac, we’re not initially given a reason why. We’re just given a command at the beginning of the story.
A command that Abraham just obeys. I’ve found myself asking “who is this Abraham?” Earlier in Genesis, God has promised that Abraham would be made into a great nation and through Abraham all nations would be blessed. And God said that his promise would be delivered through Isaac’s line, not through Abraham’s other son Ishmael. Previously in Genesis, when Abraham encounters realities that conflict with the promise that God has given, he asks questions. He always believes God and trusts God’s response, but he does initially ask God some gritty questions. Not this time. He just gets up and sets out to obey this command. Now that God had finally given the promised son Isaac, does Abraham just have more confidence in God’s ability to deliver? Or is Abraham just in denial about what’s been asked of him?
Which leads to my next question: was Abraham’s response to Isaac’s query a lie or was it a statement of profound faith? Isaac notices that they didn’t bring an animal with them to sacrifice, and he’s wondering what’s going on. And Abraham just tells him that God’s going to provide the lamb.
Which again leads to another question for me: does Abraham think that he will actually have to sacrifice Isaac? Or did God ever intend for Isaac to actually be sacrificed? Was this whole exercise merely a test that Abraham was aware of? Abraham does take the command seriously. He doesn’t delay in obeying; he sets off to obey the very next morning. And he seems to have the intent to follow through–to the point of tying his son up and placing him upon the altar…and holding up the knife to kill him. There’s no indication of hesitation for Abraham.
But again, the promise that God gave Abraham was supposed to be continued with Isaac. Is Abraham just thinking that since God finally gave him a son in his old age, that God will find a way to continue the promise…even though the command that God gaves makes the fulfillment of the promise look like it’s not going to happen.
As for whether or not God really intends for Isaac to be sacrificed, there’s 2 potential options for Abraham. He can obey God’s command or disobey. If he disobeys, Isaac lives. And if Abraham were to obey God to the point of raising his knife against his son, God could intervene and call off the command (And God did). Did Abraham think this would happen? And maybe God never really intended for Isaac to actually be sacrificed? I don’t know. But I’m thinking God at least planned to save Isaac in some fashion. If God hadn’t saved Isaac, God would have been painted a liar. And God does not lie or break promises.
God’s promise to Abraham earlier in Genesis is not a conditional one. God makes an unconditional promise to Abraham that is binding on God’s self, not on Abraham’s part. Abraham cannot do something to break the promise; the promise is about who God is. Abraham does not stand to gain something from obeying God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.
I’m still wondering if this passage shows us an adult Abraham mature in faith? An Abraham who has learned to trust God and his promises–even when reality conflicts with that promise. I think this passage is ultimately about faith. Faith, that even in contradictory circumstances, that God does honor and keep his promises. As much as I’ve heard preaching and stories on the importance of putting God first and not withholding anything from him, and as much as I think those concepts are true, I’m not convinced that this story is about that. I think this story is about Abraham having grown in his faith in the God who keeps his promises, even when life seems to be at odds with God’s promise.