Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 17, 2017
Today’s text has to be one the hardest passages in all of Scripture. Great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard have tried to understand the passage of the binding of Issac to no avail. Some of have tried putting a meaning to it that makes sense, but any meaning seems feeble because the truth of the matter is:God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son
In this study, we will not as much try to explain the text as much as sit with the text and the uncomfortable feelings it brings. Why would God do this? Why was Abraham willing to do this? Are there limits to being faithful to God?
Today we look at the binding of Issac.
Engaging the Text
God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
God had long promised Abraham that he would be the father of a new nation. He and his wife Sarah didn’t immediately have children. The wait was so long, Sarah told Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar. Ishmael is the result of the paring. But this is not the child God promised. After a time, Issac the true promised child is born. After what seemed like forever, this child is now here.
But God tells Abraham that he is to sacrifice his son “your only son whom you love,” God says to make the point clear. It seems that God was asking Abraham to throw away the future.
But it’s important to notice here that the word “tested” is being used. It will be used later when the Israelites recieve manna in the desert. God wanted total reliance, the and Israelites pretty much fail the test.
Notice that Abraham is quiet in response to God. In earlier times, he was able to question God such as when he establishes that covenant with God (Genesis 17) or when he pleads for the life of his nephew, Lot (Genesis 18). But here, where he is asked to sacrifice his only son, there is silence and acquiescence.
In verse 7, we hear Issac finally speak, seeing everything for the sacrifice except the animal. Abraham responds that God would provide. What does that mean? We know that God did provide, but did Abraham know this? Or was it some kind of deception? Theologian Miguel de la Torre believes that this phrase doesn’t show Abraham’s trust in God as much as it was lying to his son:
As they approach the spot, Isaac notices that the sacrificial lamb is missing, prompting him to ask his father where they will obtain one. Abraham responds by both naming and providing insight into the character of God: ’elohim yir’eh, “God will provide,” for Abraham’s God is a God who provides. The reassurance to the boy that God will provide teaches the reader something new about God, while providing Abraham with a way of prolonging Isaac’s deception until the very last moment.
But trusting that God would not break God’s promise, Abraham could have believed that God would keep God’s word. Theologian Terrance Fretheim writes that Abraham trusting in God could also be seen as a test of God:
Abraham trusts that God will find a way to fulfill the promises. At least by v. 8, his trust has taken the form that God will provide. His public confession of trust to Isaac constitutes a new situation with which God must work. This ups the ante for God. This has now become a test for God; it no longer involves simply Abraham’s trust, it is a matter of God’s providing as well. As Westermann puts it, “He throws the ball back into God’s court.”8 Will Abraham’s trust in God be in vain? Is God free to ignore Abraham’s trust? If God does not provide, that would constitute another kind of test for Abraham, a test at a much deeper level than the one that initiated this journey. If God tests within relationship to determine loyalty, then can God ignore the expression of such loyalty and remain faithful? Given God’s previous commitments (especially in chap. 15), God has bound himself to stay with a trusting Abraham. Now, in swearing by himself, God lays the divine life on the line, putting the very divine self behind the promise.
In verse 12, God stops Abraham from killing his son. “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me,” God says. God then provides a ram as a substitute for Issac. The promise is saved.
So, what was the point of this exercise? In James 2:18-24, James credits Abraham for proving his faith in the work of sacrificing Issac.
If we set aside the fact that Abraham was only a second from killing his son, there is something to be said about what it means to put God first in our lives. Could Abraham put the promise of Issac ahead of trusting in God.
It is one way to find something in the text. Christians have long held that the substitution of the ram for Issac mirrors Christ’s death on the cross.
But we are still left with a story that is unsettling. Was God guilty of child abuse as some scholars believe? What we do know is that in this instance, we learn more about the faithfulness of God. God did provide as Abraham hoped.
But de la Torres wonder why Issac was spared, but not the daughter of Jephthah’sin the book of Judges:
The same God who spares Isaac is silent when another father offers his daughter as a human sacrifice. God provides a ram and saves Abraham’s beloved son, but what about Jephthah’s unnamed daughter (Judg. 11:29–40)? When her father lays the faithful innocent virgin of Gilead on the sacrificial altar to fulfill a foolish vow that he made, there is no angel dispatched to save the young woman. There is no ram to take her place. Where then is the God of life? Is she dispensable because she is not a son? To read the story of Jephthah’s unnamed daughter in the light of Isaac’s salvation leaves us with very uncomfortable questions.
There is a point to be made that God spares a son, but not a daughter, but there are also big differences in the story. Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, whereas Jephtaha made a foolish and costly vow to God. But there are questions as to why God didn’t intervene in the same way.
So, what does this all mean? As was said at the beginning, this is a text that one has to sit with instead of thinking how to apply it to our own lives. We have to ask, what does it mean to be faithful? We learn that Abraham is faithful, but we learn he will go too far in fulfilling his fealty to God. God is faithful to Abraham in providing a ram for sacrifice, but we are left wondering why God would tell Abraham to do this.
That said, put aside the shock of Abraham doing something so horrible and think about this in terms of faith. Religion, our life with God is based on faith. How far are we willing to go follow God? This doesn’t mean we would as far as killing someone, but it could mean taking a bolder step without knowing what is ahead of us. I am reminded of some young people who worked at the campus ministry I was involved in. They would move hundreds of miles to embark on this new journey and they had to raise their own salary. It was a big step of faith for them to take up a new job with no promise of a steady salary.
Abraham was willing to lose it all because of his faith and trust in God. It makes no sense and it seems like sheer madness, but then sometimes following God does look like that even when it doesn’t involve child sacrifice.
As I said before, none of this lessens the shock of the act, but as we look at Scripture we have to ask why something like this was placed in Scripture. And the reason might be what I just talked about.
How would you respond? Do you think there is something to be learned from such a shocking text?
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.