The story of Abraham is just one of these. We focus on the faithful listening and obedience as Abram leaves his homeland and travels in stages down to Canaan. We hear the birth of Isaac. We hear the promise and the blessing fulfilled in this son named “Laughter.” We sort of jump quickly over the more difficult times when Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister to save his own hide while they’re traveling. We nervously dodge the time Abraham and Sarah try to work around God and get a son quicker and easier with Hagar, one of Sarah’s handmaids. Many of us don’t even know how Hagar and her son are banished in the desert when jealousy rears its ugly head.
And then there’s this story we just heard - the time Abraham is ASKED BY GOD, in some sort of test, we’re told, to lay upon an altar his son, his only son, the son he loves (God makes sure there’s no question about who is supposed to end up on the pile of wood). Who is this God I ask every time I stumble upon this story? Where is the God I thought I knew? Yeah, this one doesn’t end up in Sunday School lessons very often at all.
In fact, I even thought about skipping it altogether. Mid-week, I couldn’t come up with one good thing to say here and instead had to start my whole sermon preparation with a list of things I hate about this story. Maybe I’ll tone down that language, but I don’t think I mean it. You can just go ahead and imagine what I really mean.
I don’t like the idea of God testing Abraham (or really any of us). I know some people find something comforting about the idea that their more difficult times in life are a part in some way of a divine plan, a trial or a test to make them stronger. For me, it’s not an idea that brings comfort. The idea that God needs to throw this challenge out to Abraham to find out how he will respond gets me a little angry at God who sees people as chess pieces to play with. That’s not the God I thought I knew. I don’t like that aspect of this story.
I don’t like that Abraham is put through the emotional turmoil of being asked to do this, to sacrifice the one son he has left in his life since he already sent his first son away. (I’m not a big fan of THAT either.)
I don’t like that Abraham goes along with the idea. He doesn’t even argue! Earlier in his story, when God is threatening to destroy a whole town, Abraham goes to bat for them, bargaining with God, begging God to save the town if even just a few righteous people are found. But here he’s asked to sacrifice his child with his own hand and he doesn’t even seem to flinch. As a parent, as a human being, I can’t stand that.
And probably more than any of these I don’t like, I can’t stand, I hate that Isaac is put through this whole experience, that he is absolutely terrorized in the name of a “test.” I don’t know where I find the God I thought I knew when I view this story from the perspective of the boy lying on the pile of wood with only inches between life and death.
This is an incredibly difficult story!!!!
And it has the interpretive history to prove it. All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this story or a slightly different version of it. In Islam it is Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, he is asked to sacrifice. All three interpretive communities have an expansive library of scholarly and spiritual opinions of what is going on here. Some say God is testing Abraham just as the text declares. Some say Abraham is off the mark and has misinterpreted a voice or a sign from God. Some tell stories that happen “between the lines” that include Abraham arguing with God over whether he is really meant to offer up his son (and argument I would have appreciated being recorded if it happened). Some even say that Abraham actually failed the test by not protesting against God and lifting his voice in defense of his son! All of these interpretive traditions are trying to get to the bottom of the same question I have - - Where is the God I thought I knew in this story?
Whether it really is a test or Abraham misunderstood a divine voice we’re not going to solve today. In fact, it’s one of those questions on my list to take with when I get that chance to ask face-to-face. It’s one of those pieces of Scripture with which we will have the joy of wrestling for years to come. But either way we still have a story of Abraham, Isaac, and their servants heading off on journey to worship. For three days they travel to the mountain. Three days they travelled just to worship. For three days the tension is mounting for him as he comes closer and closer to the inevitable sacrifice before him.
One of the reasons Abraham may not have pushed back at God about this whole sacrifice is that while the practice sounds foreign and horrific to us, it wasn’t all that foreign to Abraham. (I hold out hope that it was still horrific.) The ancient world was FULL of religious traditions that included the practice of child sacrifice. The cultures and peoples all around Abraham were practicing it. The Bible even has references to child sacrifice when talking about other cultures or comparing the Israelites and their religion to others. In 2 Kings there’s a story about a Moabite king who offers his first born son. The prophet Micah asks, “Shall I give my firstborn for my sin?” The Hebrew laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbid child sacrifice in contrast to the other religions and other gods who not only tolerate it, but ask for it.
So, for Abraham, whose relationship with this particular God is practically brand new, the command to offer his child, a weaker person, really barely human in the eyes of the culture, may not have been too out of the question.
We’d like to think we are above this today and to some extent we are, right? I mean, no one would consider anything even close to this - - offering a child on an altar. Offering some sort of disposable human for our own comfort or belief no matter how misguided. We’d never….
But it wasn’t just 50 years ago. What about the workers and others in the building when the clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh earlier this year. Almost 1,200 people most of them woman who worked and their children in childcare died on the altar of cheap production and the “affordable” clothing we put on our backs. And it isn’t just around the world – We still demand human sacrifice in wars, locking up youth of color for simple possession, having money for prisons, but not schools. It wouldn’t be hard to go on and see that we still choose human sacrifice, and not life.
But destruction isn’t what our God is about. For example, in all of the cultures surrounding Israel creation is a violent act. One god kills another god, and out of that god’s body the universe and the world are created. But our creation story is not like that. In Genesis, destruction doesn’t form the world. Violence doesn’t birth the universe. The peaceful, creative word of God does. God speaks and chaos comes under control. God speaks and there is life, not death. God desires life, not death. Even after the flood that destroys, God almost expresses regret in promising never to destroy the earth by water again.
Child sacrifice was common in the ancient religions. Destruction as the start of life was a common motif, but the stories of Genesis, in creation, in a promise of future peace on earth, and even here in the story of the binding of Isaac stand in defiant contrast to these worldviews.
Abraham and Isaac get to work on the mountain getting the sacrifice ready. Abraham is ready to go to any length to protect his security in the covenant with God. They walk away from their servants with Abraham’s confident parting words “We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham trusts God (whether it really is God or Abraham’s mistake trying to make God fit into a familiar box) even in this horrific request, and sets about gathering wood, even putting it on the back of his son who will soon be lying on top of it. Not too much later, even after Isaac’s questioning about the seemingly missing lamb, Abraham lays his son, his only son, the son whom he loves, on top of the altar and draws his knife.
There’s the God I know in this story. There’s the God in whose arms I can rest. There’s the God who created us and redeems us and sustains our lives. There’s the God we thought we knew. At the end of the story, when the name of the mountain, Mount Moriah, is actually first mentioned, we hear that the name means, "on the mount of The Lord it shall be provided." Hebrew is a tricky language in many ways, or maybe it's a revealing language. Another way to translate this exact phrase is “on the mountain of the Lord he shall be seen.” On this mountain, after the terror of the rest of the story, amidst all the myriad questions we have about this story, still here we can see our God, the God we thought we knew, God who provides for life and desires protection for those who are weak, in the preservation life. Thanks be to God for that.