A disclaimer to start off with today. If you were a member at Central on June 26, 2011 and happened to be at church that particular day and have a way better than average memory, you may remember hearing parts of this sermon. It feels funny to even say that, but I had a member in my first congregation who knew everyone’s birthday, knew the number of every hymn in the book, and if I ever tried to get away with recycling a sermon he would ask me if I had preached it before.
Actually, in 35 years of preaching I have preached on Genesis 22 many times. It is a story which has been deeply troubling to me. You will not hear anything from any of the other previous sermons, because only in the last one did I feel like I began to understand it better. The placement here at the beginning of the Narrative Lectionary as a foundational story has also helped, as has the placement of it into a unit entitled: “God Provides Blessings.” Phyllis Tribble features this story in her book “Texts of Terror,” and that’s much more where I would have put it in earlier days. How could God ask such a thing of a couple who have waited so long for a child? How could Abraham even consider doing this?
What really made the difference in how I look at it is teaching the Kerygma Bible Study, Discovering the Bible. It emphasized focusing on the question, “What is the question which is being answered by this story?” And for me the question being answered by this story is, “Why do the people of Israel not practice child sacrifice when so many of our neighbors have?” And given that we believe much of the compiling and editing of the Old Testament took place during the Babylonian exile, this may provide another important clue. It seems likely that the Babylonians were practicing human sacrifice during this time, so the Israelites could have been drawn to a belief that this was why they had been defeated. So why don’t we start practicing human sacrifice? Maybe there is something to it. This could be another reason for the prominence of this story, stating from the beginning God has made clear that he does not desire child sacrifice. I don’t think that’s the way most people read it, though, and the three Abrahamic faiths all have very different takes on it, which matters a lot.
Gerhard von Rad, in his commentary on Genesis, titles his section about this story “The Great Temptation.” (The Old Testament Library, p. 232) “Temptation” is the same word which is also translated “testing” in the Bible. Other major places in which that word occurs includes the story of Job, where God gives Satan permission to “test” Job to see if his faith will hold up under fire. One of those trials is the death of all of his children. Another major place the word appears is in the temptations or testings of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Satan is involved in his temptation as well, offering food, glory, and power to Jesus if he will turn to the dark side.
So when today’s story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham,” it immediately makes me think of those other stories and wonder, “Okay, what is God’s role here and what is Satan’s? Is God the one who makes this demand of Abraham, or is this Satan’s activity within the cracks where God allows the temptation to occur? And why would this course of action have tempted Abraham anyway?
The last question is an easy one to answer. It is one of the oldest reasons in the book. Everybody else was doing it. There is clear evidence that the Canaanite people among whom Abraham and Sarah lived practiced human sacrifice, offering up their firstborn to please the gods who would then presumably provide many more children and blessings for this act of faithfulness. I’m not sure at what age they sacrificed children, but I can imagine Abraham hearing regularly at the well, “When you gonna sacrifice that boy of yours, Abraham? Your God expects it, and you can be sure bad things will happen if you don’t.” My guess is that there was a big ritual associated with these Canaanite sacrifices, and I’m sure Abraham would have been invited to attend. I expect something about it would have impressed Abraham deeply over time, the willingness of these people to give up that which was most dear to them in the faith that it was what their god called them to do. And I’m sure he asked himself if he would have the courage to do it.
I can imagine Abraham hearing all these voices and praying about it and struggling to discern the voice of God in the midst of the voices of his neighbors and the voice of Satan. Finally, after another sleepless night perhaps, Abraham made up his mind. Before daylight he got up, made preparations, got Isaac and the two servants, and left. I expect he hoped not to wake Sarah up so he wouldn’t have to answer any questions. He journeyed for three days, perhaps hoping God would talk him out of doing this on the way.
No message came from God, though, and when they finally arrived at Mt. Moriah the action slowed to a crawl. Abraham built an altar, then he brought wood and laid it out in a neat and orderly fashion for the fire. Isaac asks the poignant question, “Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, I imagine very loudly to make sure God heard the test that Abraham now had for him: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” A double entendre for sure. God had provided this miracle child at the age of 100. Was that the lamb, or would there be another? No lamb appeared. Abraham took rope and tied up his son and laid him on top of the wood. Out of time and surely filled with despair, Abraham raised the knife over his head, a scene which Rembrandt captured in such a way that it will make your heart stop. Only then did Abraham hear the bleating of the ram, and in it the confirmation that God did not desire the practice of sacrificing the first born from his people.
It makes perfect sense to me that the first usage of the story would have been to explain how and why God called his people to be different from the people around them in not practicing human sacrifice. But it has been a long time since that need for the story has existed, and the three Abrahamic traditions have understood this story in quite different ways and have even given the story different names. Let me tell you about it.
In his book, “Talking About Genesis,” Bill Moyers writes, “For Christians, it has been the sacrifice of Isaac, prefiguring another Father’s sacrifice of another son, in whose death-that-was-not-death Christianity was founded. For Jews, it is the ‘Akedah’ or the binding of Isaac, with the son’s response to his ordeal representing the people of Israel’s response to their ordeals. Like the Jews, Isaac did not choose his fate but was chosen; nonetheless, his faith in and obedience to God, like his father Abraham’s remains steadfast. Although the Qur’an never specifies, most Muslim commentaries say that it was actually Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, whom Abraham took to Moriah, and the willingness of both father and son to submit to Allah’s will is seen by Muslims as the highest, most admirable form of faith. The word ‘Muslim’ is derived from the Arabic for “willingness to submit to Allah.”
And so while I tend to focus on the role of Abraham in the story, each of these faiths has primarily focused on the role of the one to be sacrificed rather than on him. Christians have focused on Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who was willing for his life to be sacrificed for the sake of others; Jews have found in Isaac’s being bound and chosen for sacrifice a model to sustain them through the Holocaust and other persecutions they have endured throughout history. Islam has found in Ishmael/Isaac the example of complete submission to God/Allah that will allow them to see giving their lives in sacrifice as the highest calling.
As with so many Bible stories, though, we can get so caught up in the story and the characters and trying to sort out their motivations that we completely miss the most important point. The essential fact in this story is that God provides. Abraham’s life has not been easy, but God has provided throughout. God has provided a land, even if it is largely desert. God has provided safety from enemies. God has provided water and food and hope. When it no longer even seemed possible, God has provided a child, the essential link to a future. And regardless of which voices led Abraham to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice this child, at this most critical of moments God has acted to provide a lamb. God has definitively and dramatically preempted the primary narrative of the day – that gods demand the sacrifice of firstborns.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “To assert that God provides requires a faith as intense as does the conviction that God tests. It affirms that God, only God and none other, is the source of life. Abraham’s statement confesses that the lamb did not appear by accident, by nature, or by good fortune. They mean, rather, that the same God who set the test in sovereignty is the one who resolved the test in graciousness. In a world beset by humanism, scientism, and naturalism, the claim that God alone provides is as scandalous as the claim that he tests.” (Interpretation, Genesis, p. 191)
Karl Barth, probably the preeminent theologian of the 20th century, said that he grounded his whole understanding of the doctrine of providence in this story. The doctrine of providence affirms that God provides in full everything that is needful for his creatures. He finds the key in Abraham’s affirmation, “God will provide,” and in God’s actual providing.
We would, of course, like for our lives not to include the testing and tempting aspects. If we had our choice, we would like for God to always provide for us up front rather than to test us from time to time. Abraham’s life and ours are lived in the midst of this contradiction between God’s testing and God’s providing. Brueggemann concludes, “It is the same God who tempts and provides. The connection is that God is faithful. In the end, our narrative is perhaps not about Abraham being found faithful. It is about God being found faithful.” (p. 194)
So you can see that this short story in 14 verses has had a wide range of very important meanings for people and has raised many questions. It cannot be wrapped up or summarized simply. And it is not a bad thing for us to be reminded that we cannot fully comprehend the ways of God with people. The Christian church frequently likes to portray God being buddy buddy with people, he’s my best friend, he walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own. He did that with Abraham too, but that’s not all he did with Abraham. Most of us in looking at the ups and downs and varied experiences of our lives can see the truthfulness of that. There is much that we do not, will not, and cannot understand about the ways of God. Faith requires trusting that the God who provides will continue to do so.
We are similar to Abraham in that there are many voices for us to listen to, probably a lot more. Voices claiming that this is the way to secure your future, that this is the way to ensure your child’s success, that this phone call can bring you great happiness. Rabbi Norman Cohen writes, “We are all like Abraham; so involved in our outside world – our careers, interests, or principles – that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse, or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it’s too late.”
Last week as we looked at the account of creation, I reminded you to face the chaos of the storm comforted by the belief that the God who created the world made it good and with a purpose and intention which is not overturned by the storms of life. Today I remind you as you face the tests and temptations and potential losses of your life to remember that the Lord provides. Look back regularly and review all the times in your life that this has been abundantly true, that God has faithfully provided. And trust, even when the way is dark, that the same will be true in the future. Be grateful that our trust is not in a God who withholds, who must be appeased, who cannot be counted on. The Lord will provide.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 17, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson