Today’s Old Testament reading is surely one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible. As a preacher I share that horror. I see from my sermon notes that the last time I preached on this text was 2002. I do remember, however, that I did plan to preach on it at least once since then, but chickened out at the last minute.
What on earth is this story about? Every now and again we hear about people who think God has instructed them to kill someone. We usually believe those people are unbalanced! But then we come to this story, which Jewish people call the ‘Akedah’, the ‘binding’, and we wonder—what’s going on? Would God really ask us to kill one of our children as a sacrifice to him—and judge the quality of our faith by whether or not we obey him?
So how are we supposed to deal with this passage?
Let’s recap the story so far, because the story’s important. Abraham and his wife Sarah were a childless couple in their mid-seventies. They came from the area of the middle east that is now part of Iraq, and presumably they were worshippers of the gods of their ancestors. But one day the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, spoke to Abraham and commanded him to leave his home and his family of origin, and go to a land God would show him. There God would make of him a great nation, and all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Obviously, if that was going to happen, this old couple would somehow need to have a child, and in later conversations with Abraham, God made that promise explicit.
But as we saw last week, Abraham and Sarah had to wait twenty-five years for that promise to be fulfilled. While they waited, their faith was not always strong. We’re told that on separate occasions, each of them laughed in disbelief. Can a child be born to a man in his nineties? Can wrinkled old Sarah actually bear a child and nurse it? And we remembered last week the story of how, mid-way through the twenty-five year waiting period, Sarah even suggested that Abraham sleep with her slave girl and bear a child by her, so that the child could be counted as Sarah’s and be Abraham’s heir. This was quite acceptable in the culture of the day, but it wasn’t God’s plan. It wasn’t walking by faith in God; it was trusting in human ideas and human ingenuity.
The long wait for the birth of Isaac wasn’t the only way Abraham failed to trust God. On two separate occasions, when he was forced by famine to go into strange countries, he lied about Sarah’s relationship with him, because he was afraid the people of the land would kill him to steal his wife. But this backfired seriously, and in both cases he actually put her safety at risk by his actions. Instead of trusting God to protect him, he trusted in his own plan of action.
Abraham is called a hero of faith in the Old Testament, and it’s true that sometimes his faith was spectacular: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15.6). At other times, he clearly failed the test.
But at the end of the twenty-five year waiting period, Abraham’s faltering faith was spectacularly rewarded. In a truly miraculous event, Sarah bore a child in her nineties and named him Isaac: ‘he laughs’. I think of all the years of waiting, and how many times Abraham and Sarah had struggled to believe it. With every year that went by, the event became even more impossible. But now it had happened, and their faith in God was vindicated.
What had Abraham learned over these twenty-five years? He’d learned that when he tried to take matters into his own hands, he usually messed up. He’d learned that when he tried to figure things out, he didn’t usually get it right, because he couldn’t see the big picture, and God could. He’d learned that nothing was impossible with God.
Most of all, he’d learned that God was spectacularly committed to his promise to Abraham. God was looking forward to that great nation through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. God had told him several times that it was through Isaac that that nation would come into being, not Ishmael or any other child Abraham might bear. During that twenty-five year wait, Abraham sometimes had occasion to doubt God’s commitment to his own promise. But all that changed with the birth of Isaac. After that, Abraham would never doubt God’s purposes and God’s promises again.
And so we come to today’s story. We don’t know how old Isaac was when this tale took place. He was old enough to help his father carry the wood for the fire, and old enough to ask him questions about the absence of a lamb for the sacrifice. The text doesn’t specify his age; some commentators have speculated that he might be a teenager by now, but we can’t know for sure.
God’s command to Abraham dials up the emotional cost with its threefold repetition: “…your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v.2). Let’s remember that at this point in the story Abraham, at his wife’s request, has sent his older son Ishmael away with his mother Hagar, ending any legal obligation to them. So yes—Isaac is his only son, who he loves.
Abraham obeys instantly. We’re never told anything about his emotional state; the author leaves us to puzzle it out for ourselves. He makes all the preparations, takes Isaac and a couple of servants, and makes a three day journey to the land of Moria. Many Jewish commentators believe that the place where the Akedah took place was actually the site on which the Jerusalem temple was built in later years, the place where all the sacrifices of Israel were offered.
There are a couple of little hints about how Abraham was seeing the situation as he made this journey.
On the third day, Abraham saw the place God had shown him. He turned to the servants and said, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (v.5). Not, “Iwill come back to you,” but “wewill come back to you.” Was he deceiving the servants? But why would he feel he needed to do that? As their master, why would he feel like he owed them an explanation? And why would the author of the story include this detail, if he didn’t think it was significant?
There’s also the hint of Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question:
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.
Some have cynically seen this as Abraham lying to pacify his son, but I don’t read it that way. Personally, I find it hard to imagine Abraham doing such a thing. It would require him to mentally add, “and by the way, it’s you!”
So what am I saying about Abraham’s state of mind? Did he know that from the start that the test was a fake? If so, how was it a real test? These are very difficult questions to answer, and none of us can claim any certainty on the subject. But for what it’s worth, I’ll give my opinion.
The real lesson Abraham has been learning for over thirty years has been how to live by faith, by trust in God. Sometimes he’s been good at it, sometimes not so good. I would suggest that, at this late stage in his life, God is still testing his faith.
Here’s how it works. The birth of Isaac has convinced him that God is absolutely committed to his promise of a great nation who will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And God has specifically told him that Isaac will be the ancestor of that nation. Not Ishmael or any other son of his, but Isaac. And Abraham has learned that God’s word is utterly reliable. If God makes a promise, you can depend on it.
But now comes this shocking command: “Go and behave like a pagan, Abraham! Offer Isaac to me as a burnt offering, just like the worshippers of pagan gods do!” We should note that at this point in the story God hasn’t specifically forbidden child sacrifice. Later on in the Old Testament he does forbid it, several times, and recoils from it in horror. But Abraham doesn’t know this, it’s still an open question to him.
So here’s Abraham’s dilemma. He knows Isaac will be the ancestor of the great nation, because God has told him that, many times. But now, God is telling him to kill Isaac. How can that be? Is God not committed to his own promise after all? That’s unthinkable to Abraham. If there’s one thing he’s sure about, it’s God’s commitment to his promise.
In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews joins up the dots for us:
‘By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’ (Hebrews 11.17-19)
Of course, the writer to the Hebrews didn’t have access to Abraham’s mind and heart, any more than we do. He could only read the story as we read it, meditate on it, and draw his own conclusions. He comes to the conclusion that Abraham didn’t think for a moment that he was about to lose Isaac; God had told him many times that he was completely committed to Isaac. But Abraham didbelieve he needed to trust God and do what God said. Somehow, God was going to work this out so that Isaac would come out of it alive. Abraham didn’t know for sure how that would happen—although he made a guess when he said to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.” But he did know he needed to do as he was told, and let God work things out for good for everyone concerned—as God had always done, in Abraham’s experience.
This is the way I understand the story. It’s still an uncomfortable story for me, and I know without a shadow of doubt that I would have failed this test. But then, I also know without a shadow of doubt that God would never ask me to take this test. That’s because since the time of Abraham he’s made it crystal clear that he doesn’t ask parents to offer their children in sacrifice to him. If a bug in my head tells me to do something God has clearly forbidden, it’s not God that’s wrong, it’s me!
So what’s in this story for us today, if the central drama no longer applies to us?
You sometimes hear about people who try to relive their own lives vicariously through their children. In other words, even if their own lives have been full of disappointment and frustration, they feel they can experience all the success and enjoyment they missed out on, through their children’s success and enjoyment. This is often unhealthy for those children, because their parents see the children’s future as belonging to them, not to the children themselves.
At the time of Abraham the Old Testament people had little sense of a future life after death. To them it was literally true that children wereyour future. For many years, from his point of view, Abraham had been without a future. Finally in his old age he had been given a future, and now he was being asked to trust God enough to let go of it, and embrace uncertainty, with nothing to go on but God and his promise.
In fact, Abraham had been called to sacrifice both his past andhis future. Many years before, at the age of seventy five, he had been called by God to leave his home in Haran and go to a country God would show him—the land of Canaan. In other words, he had cut off all ties with his past—ties with his own culture, his sense of identity, his ancestral family and so on. Now God was asking him to be willing to do the same with his future as well. At the end of the day, he was asked to entrust everything to God. The most important truth about him would not be that he grew up in the prosperous cities of Ur and Haran, or that he was the son of Terah, or even that he was going to be the ancestor of a great nation. Rather, the most important truth about him would be that he was God’s friend. God was asking him to be content with that, and nothing else.
This passage is challenging us. Where do we find our identity and significance? Is it in our Canadian citizenship, our family of origin, our circle of friends? Paul talks about how all of this is worthless to him when compared to the gain of knowing Christ. He mentions his Jewish heritage, his circumcision, his membership in the tribe of Benjamin, his faith as a Pharisee and so on. He says, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).
To me, this is the most important lesson of this passage. Despite all our difficulties and struggles with some aspects of it, here we have the story of a man of faith who was content to leave his past behind, to cut himself off from all tangible hope of a future if that was God’s will, and simply trust all he had to God. All the rest was stripped away from him. All he had left was the fact that he was God’s friend. But that was enough. He knew that, being God’s friend, God would not abandon him. God would not abandon his promises to him. And so in faith, he put his future in the hands of God, and waited to see how God would work it out.
I’m convinced that this is the way of peace. And while I don’t pray that any of us would ever have to go through so terrifying a test as Abraham, I do pray that we would learn the lesson he learned: the ability to put our trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God, even when outward circumstances seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. For God to teach us that lesson would surely be an incredible blessing. Are we ready to ask him to do that?