Week after week I do my best to bring you an authentic interpretation of the text. There can be no dispute that my understanding of scripture is influenced by my cultural background, my educational training, and my experience in life. My desire is to be true to the Word, but I come to the text with all of life’s experience placing a filter upon my eyes and heart.
With this in mind allow me to say there is nothing easy about the story of Abraham going to the mountain to sacrifice his son. If we don’t pay attention to the details, Genesis 22 appears to be a great example of one man’s faith and his ability to follow the instructions of God. But we have to pay attention to the details, for it is in the details that we wrestle with the mindset of Abraham, the complexities of God, and finally the demands this text places on one who dares to claim to believe in the Almighty.
The story unfolds on many different levels. I remember hearing the sacrifice of Isaac as a child. It was presented as the ultimate expression of faith. Abraham was tested by God. The scenario was simple. Who do you love more, God or your only child? When I first encountered this story, the love of a child had no real meaning. I was nine years old, it was Sunday morning and Yahweh was the guy. I was constantly reminded that God was King, God was in charge, God knew things I would never understand and all I had to do to stay in the God’s good graces was to do whatever the Lord demanded. In order to do this, I was told to love God and love my neighbor. There was nothing terrible complicated about that. Of course I loved God. I went to church every Sunday. I prayed at every meal and before I went to bed. I saw the sun rise, the seasons change and knew all of this happened because of God’s plan for creation. As for my neighbor, he was my best friend. We played together, went to school together, spent weekends together and attended Church together. Of course I loved my neighbor. If God tested me, I would always be up to the task. I would remember Abraham as the example of what it meant to trust God.
But children grow up and the demands of being faithful become increasingly more complex. Let me conduct a little test. If God suddenly appeared before us this morning and asked that we sacrifice our first born to prove our faith, what would we do?
How many of you would comply with God’s wishes and begin plans to sacrifice your first born?
How many of you would deny the request made by God?
Now we have officially entered into the complexities of this text. From my vantage point, as a father and a grandfather, I don’t know how on earth Abraham could have placed his son on that alter, lifted up a knife and planned to plunge the weapon into Isaac’s heart. That may be faith, but it seems to be faith blinded by everything God claims to be. I understand that Christianity holds sacrificial obedience as practically sacred, but Abraham did not place himself on the altar, and Abraham did not insist on taking the place of the child. In fact I cannot find it in my heart to identify Abraham’s actions as anything other than cowardly. Do we really want to worship a God who would ask us to sacrifice our youth as a test of loyalty? That is a very loaded question which has many complicated implications.
Why would Abraham do what he did? Let me give you a couple of explanations that you may or may not find helpful.
The most attractive but I believe the least helpful is to remember that we are talking about a very primitive culture where sacrifices were not uncommon. To the original readers of the text the death of a child was common. In this culture children were not considered to be human until they reached their 12th birthday. Half the children born died in their first year of life. Children then were not held in as high esteem as children today. But let us not forget this was no ordinary child. Isaac was a child of promise, the heir of a great nation. The entire story of Abraham revolved around the birth of Isaac and what the parents went through in order that this birth might occur. Also, while the sacrifice of children was prevalent in other cultures, that was not so among the Hebrews. Each Hebrew child was considered precious because each child was understood to be the bearers of destiny. From the bulrushes of Egypt to the insanity of Herod, every precaution was taken to spare children from death.
A second explanation would be that Abraham knew and trusted that God would spare the child. Do you think Abraham’s hunch was enough to convince Sarah? The couple is called on to prove themselves to God once again. They know in their hearts God would not take this promised child. But they dared not call Yahweh’s bluff. Abraham tells the mother not to worry. They will go along with the game. Certainly at the last moment God, rejoicing over Abraham’s faith, would present a substitute for the boy. The father and son go off into the mountains, leaving Sarah at home. God does provide. Isaac and his faithful father returned home to the loving arms of the anxious but relieved mother. That sounds plausible except for one very important detail. Abraham and Isaac returned to an empty home. While they were in the mountains, Sarah died. The Midrash tells us that she was overcome by a broken heart.
If I read the text correctly, a heavy hearted Abraham went to the mountains feeling certain he would return without Isaac. It would be hard for me to come up with any other explanation for his actions. The critical question concerning Abraham was, why did he believe killing Isaac would fulfill the wishes of God? What does this say about Abraham? Equally important, what does this say about God?
I might be on very shaky theological ground here, but I find that the command and the promise of God are in contradiction with each other. The promise of God is that Isaac would be the beginning of a great nation. But the command of God was for Abraham to kill the promise, ending the birth of Israel. Certainly the argument could be made that Yahweh is a jealous God demanding complete loyalty. Certainly one could suggest in the eyes of Abraham and Sarah the child had become more important than God, therefore the test. But I refuse to believe this argument. I believe the command of God and the promise of God are never in contradiction. If we follow God’s supreme directive to love one another, even the consideration of taking the life of an innocent human is wrong.
I would like to suggest Abraham was not exhibiting faith but rather was having a senior moment. If you are under 60 you have no idea what I am talking about. Trust me, when you are over 60 you had better start putting your car keys in the same spot every night because if you don’t you may find yourself walking to work. When you are over 60 church directories with pictures are really important because it is amazing how quickly familiar names seem to vacate your mind. When you are over 60 all of your security codes become the same four numbers, and just to be on the safe side you write them down and insert them in your wallet.
Abraham had a senior moment. He forgot that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and steadfast in love. Abraham forgot that God celebrates life. Abraham forgot that God abhors death especially the death of a child. When God suggested that the life of an innocent child was to be used for a sacrifice, the great father of the Hebrew people had a brain freeze. No questions were asked, no dialogue took place. Abraham just loaded up the donkey, fetched Isaac and headed for the hills. If this was faith then it was blind faith. God gave us free will. When we use that gift we are expected to do so with our eyes wide open. Abraham failed the test when he refused to question God’s ungodly command.
In an equally familiar story you might remember that God informed Abraham that the city of Sodom would be destroyed because of its wickedness. Lot, the nephew of Abraham resided in the city. Abraham goes to great lengths to argue with God over the destruction of a city of sinners. Do you remember the discussion? Abraham bargains with God if 100 righteous folks can be found in Sodom the city would be spared. Then Abraham reduces the number to 50. Finally he had God agree on a final number. If 10 righteous folks could be found, the fire storm would be called off. So why did this man who argued for the lives of some pretty unsavory characters fail to offer any resistance at the demand that his innocent son be sacrificed? Why did he give in so easily? Why did Abraham fail to observe the Torah? Why did he not say to God, “If I kill my son, I mutilate the very image of God? If I kill my son, I break your sacred commandments. If I kill my son, I renounce all that is sacred; I renounce life.”
Why did Abraham lose his voice? Why could he not find the will to fight for his son? How could he have been so overcome by the moment? How could he have forgotten that the basic principal of this God called Yahweh was life over death? Perhaps choosing the mores of culture have always been easier than selecting the radical demands of this God who celebrates life.
I suspect each of us, in a weak and regrettable moment, sacrificed our children for the god of fortune, the god of fame, or the god of pleasure. That is what a lesser god demands.
BUT NOT THE GOD OF ABRAHAM.
The God of Abraham always chooses life.
To that God be the glory! Amen.