The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), Year A.
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.” 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. 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. 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 22:1-14
It is a horrific story; one that has disturbed and troubled for millennia. How could a benevolent God command the sacrifice of a child? “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, …offer him as a burnt offering…” the words must have been like a knife twisting in Abraham’s heart. It is a strange command, seemingly completely out of character of God to ask, and provokes many questions: if God is all-knowing, why does He need to test Abraham? What was God trying to show Abraham? What are we to do with this troubling tale?
Apologists spanning centuries and cultures have tried to answer these questions, yet many of the proposed solutions are unsatisfactory. If nothing else, this story teaches us that there are some things we will never completely understand, and for all our speculation and friendship with God, His ways are still mysterious. The first issue is the description of Isaac as Abraham’s only son. Has God forgotten about Ishmael, whom He just rescued from death in the desert and provided for, along with his mother, a mere chapter ago? There are a few ways of explaining this, that the story of Ishmael and his mother being rescued by God being added to Genesis later, or this tale is God’s response and judgement of Abraham exiling his elder son Ishmael (after all, for all Abraham knows, Ismael and Hagar died in the desert). While these are plausible speculations, they are unprovable. What is most likely given the text itself, is this reference to Isaac as the only son, and the beloved son, is Isaac being the fulfillment of God and Abraham’s covenant. God is effectively asking Abraham to destroy his future and any hope for all of his wanderings, sacrifices, and work with God to have any lasting meaning.
This question of the future brings us to the heart of the problem: why is God doing this? Many are quick to point out that God never intended to let Isaac be killed, that it is an exercise in faith designed to teach Abraham something. While it is true that God clearly never really wanted any harm to come to Isaac or even Abraham, the deception for a sake of a “test” is still troubling. How can a god who would deceive be worthy of worship? Furthermore, the power dynamic between Abraham, a mere man, and an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal deity, makes such a test seem cruel. What does God have to gain? He has all the power, all the knowledge, He knows what Abraham will do, and what this “test” will do to Abraham and his family, yet He still commands the sacrifice. Some have tried to make excuses that God is putting just as much at risk as Abraham; that God has invested so much in Abraham and his family, and that if Abraham were to fail this test by either refusing God or killing Isaac, God would lose just as much. Such reasoning is a pious speculation that completely misunderstands the narrative and the nature of God. God does not stand to lose nearly as much as Abraham, this is not a test for God. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, while God loves all of creation and would be devastated by the loss of Isaac as much if not more than Abraham, God knows the outcome; and what’s more, God is the one giving the command.
Equally troubling is Abraham’s response to this impossible command. Much has been made of Abraham’s supposed “blind obedience” and “passivity” to the command. Sermons and “inspiring” re-tellings of this story have lauded Abraham’s willingness to “submit” to God, reducing Abraham to a one-dimensional vessel of “faith” rather than a whole person. Those who believe Abraham is “passive” and “submissive” clearly haven’t met Abraham or spent any time with him (as well as Isaac for that matter), and are usually using him as a prop for their own agenda of submissiveness. Abraham has been faithful, obedient, and trusting without a doubt, he has taken many risks at the behest of God and has always believed in God’s goodness and faithfulness. Isaac is the incarnation of the faithfulness between God and Abraham, the promised child and hope for the future through a partnership with God. At the same time, while Abraham has always trusted God, Abraham is not a blind follower and mindlessly obedient. He has bargained with God, argued with God on behalf of his principles, and even challenged God to uphold His end of their covenant. This story may be a lesson in faith, though if it is, by having Abraham as its central character, it cannot be advocating a faith founded on blind obedience and submission to “might makes right”.
Some try to retreat to literary analysis to ease the discomfort of this story. It is “just a story” after all. It certainly could be a perfect recounting of historical events, through God all things are possible, though if it is, we have no way of knowing. Yet even if it is a story, or an allegory for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel as the ancient Rabbis speculated, or a prefiguring of Christ’s sacrifice and triumph over death as centuries of Christians have believed, because we believe that God speaks through stories, especially stories in Scripture, we cannot dismiss or quietly hide away the troubling aspects of this story. As the faithful and gospel-bearers, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our neighbors, and God to seek and speak the Truth, especially in the places where it is the hardest to discern.
This is where the real difficult work begins, discerning the Truth in the text with nothing but the text, our reason, our faith, and our relationship with God. We walk a fine line where we must read between the lines to understand the Truth, while always being in danger of speculating too much and reading in what isn’t there. A common mistake is to lose oneself in the drama and speculate about the psychology of everyone involved. This stems from the writing of the narrative, it is quite dramatic and well-constructed, and the observation that this incident is the last time Abraham speaks to God directly, the last time Abraham and Isaac speak to one another, and in the following chapter, Sarah dies. Much speculation has occurred about the psychology of all involved: was the whole incident so traumatizing that Abraham’s relationship with his family was ruined? Why did God stop speaking to Abraham, was it because their relationship had been so strengthened by the experience that no more words needed to pass between them? Or was Abraham angry with God, or God with Abraham, but neither would admit it? While these speculations are interesting, they are a dangerous and ultimately unsatisfying pursuit. Understanding our own feelings, motivations, and psychology is an enigma enough, trying to understand the psychology of someone we only meet in stories, let alone the psychology of God, can only be unsubstantiated speculation.
What then, are we to do with this story? What is the Good News? What is the revelation, and what are we to do in light of this revelation? The first thing is much of the work we have already done: to know what this story is not. It is not a bedtime story to teach us that if we keep simple obedience and unquestioning loyalty, everything will work out on its own. It is not a story of God’s gentleness and comfort. God is good and trustworthy, Abraham never doubts it, God never intended harm to come to Isaac or to break His covenant, God provided the ram; yet God is also mysterious and demands much from us.
This story is a test for us much like it is a test for Abraham. God calling us to seek the Truth in the tale demands we put everything on the line: our assumptions about ourselves, God, our relationship with God, and what it means for our future. All of these are put upon the altar and we are expected to be ready, torch and knife in hand, to sacrifice them. Yet we are ready to sacrifice them in the unfailing belief that God will provide.
The Truth in this story cannot be contained in a singular intelligible lesson. It has confounded, challenged, and will continue to test all who hear it until the end of time. It is a horrible and offensive story by design to make us think outside of what makes us comfortable. There are too many Truths to comprehend fully, but there is at least one that is inescapable: God will provide. It is the one theme that runs through the whole story: Abraham telling the servants that he and the Isaac will return after worshipping God, Abraham answering Isaac’s question where the sacrificial lamb is, the angel and the ram appearing just in time, and Abraham naming the mountain where it all took place “God will provide”.
The Truth that God will provide leads to its own mystery and wonder. If God had nothing to gain from testing Abraham, knowing that Abraham would trust that He will provide, and Abraham risked everything, yet knew that God would provide, what was the point of the experience? It will remain a mystery, though a reasonable speculation is that some Truths, even known in the core of our being, must be experienced for us to fully comprehend them.
In our current climate as we are faced with uncertainty about what the future will hold, uncertainty about our actions, our understanding, and knowing that the judging eye of history is upon us, we feel trapped with no good options. In fear and uncertainty, we become narrow-minded, certain and uncertain of our actions. How often are we so short-sighted that we are willing to sacrifice our whole future for the sake of the now? Rarely do we know everything we need to know before we can make a decision, but we are still must choose. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote when reflecting on Abraham’s test, “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.” (Fear and Trembling). What are we to do if there are no good options, or we cannot discern what we must do? We act, all the while knowing that God will provide. This is the essence of faith, believing that the God will provide: either an option we cannot yet see, or the Grace to forgive us if we choose poorly. It is in times like these, times of great fear and trembling, that we must hear the angel calling us to look up and see that God will provide.