Over the past few weeks we have been moving through the Abraham stories of Genesis. We have remembered the story of the three visitors who proclaimed that God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled—that promise made many years before, that Abraham would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. We heard how Sarah laughed at the idea, but then did in fact give birth to a boy, Isaac. We heard last week the difficult story of Abraham and Sarah driving out Hagar and Ishmael, the son Hagar bore to Abraham when Sarah tried to force a fulfillment of that promise herself. We remembered how God came to Hagar, called her by name, and gave her hope.
And then this week is that brutally difficult story from Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac. If this story makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. The late Phyllis Trible called this a “text of terror” and challenged us to sit with the discomfort. Don’t try to explain it away too quickly. Don’t try to make excuses for Abraham, or for God.
In Judaism, this is a story that is so important that it has a special name, it is called the Akeidah (I think that’s the accurate pronunciation), which means the Binding. The Binding of Isaac. It is seen as the moment when Abraham finally cements his covenant with God by showing the depth of his faith. In researching this I read a short essay that said that this story is a kind of mirror. How we interpret it tells us something about who we are and what our relationship with God is.
Some look at this story as evidence that God demands EVERYTHING from us, and we must be willing to give up even that which is most dear. This line of reasoning says that it was more of a sacrifice for Abraham than to Isaac—I am not sure how Isaac would feel about that.
Some interpret this story as an ancient folk tale, in which God is trying to prove to the other gods that Yahweh draws just as much loyalty and faithfulness from his followers as they all do. The idea is that if Abraham succeeds, God will somehow STILL make good on the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. I can just imagine Sarah’s response if Abraham came home and said, ‘Sarah, I know you’re even older now than you were when Isaac was born, but I’ve just sacrificed him to God, so I hope you’re ready to be pregnant again…’
Some Christians look at it as a foreshadowing of God’s willingness to sacrifice his OWN Son, Jesus, on behalf of the nations of the world, and believe that God could have resurrected Isaac in order to fulfill the promise to Abraham.
I think this story is a midrash. A midrash is an explanation of why something is. Some of the midrashim (that’s the plural of midrash) are rather bizarre, especially the ones that try to explain some of the dietary restrictions. Some midrashim are elaborate, pages and pages attempting to make sense of one tiny verse of the Law. Some midrashim are incredibly vague, and only serve to confuse you further. Some midrashim end up becoming stories on their own, and end up having midrash written to explain them! Most midrashim have not made it into the Bible, but I believe a few have, including this one. I believe this story about Abraham and Isaac is a midrash, attempting to explain why the sacrifices of the followers of Yahweh were not like the sacrifices of the followers of Baal or Molech, the gods of the other nations in that region.
Several years ago, a parishioner came to me, very upset about the issue of animal sacrifice in the Biblical record. This person was horrified by the bloodiness of it all—hundreds of animals killed every day, the Temple streaming with blood—the smells and sounds of the activity overwhelming everything else that happened there. And I agree that if the job of priest TODAY required that I spend most of the day slaughtering animals and sacrificing them to God, I would probably have seriously considered being a plumber. The idea of killing anything as part of our worship of God is offensive to us.
But keep in mind that at the time of Abraham, not only was the shedding of blood an expectation of worship, but in most of those nations, it was the shedding of HUMAN blood that was thought to most satisfy their gods. And at least in the case of the followers of Molech, it was thought that the shedding of the blood of your own children was the ultimate sign of obedience. That the Israelites didn’t sacrifice their children was interpreted as questionable faithfulness. It is horrible to us, but in those times, the idea that the Israelites would sacrifice cattle and sheep and fowl but always stopped short of offering their CHILDREN made them suspect to the other nations. So I believe this story is a midrash to explain that our forefather was WILLING to do this, but God made it clear it wasn’t NECESSARY—for him, or for anyone who came after him.
Abraham THINKS he hears God calling on him to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves. He THINKS he hears this because he hears all his neighbors telling him that THEIR god asks them to do this, and questions why HIS God doesn’t. Could it be that HIS God didn’t trust Abraham’s faithfulness, didn’t think Abraham loved his God THAT much? Could it be that Abraham, that pillar of faith, was a sham? Could it be that Abraham holds SOMETHING back?
So Abraham concludes that he has to sacrifice Isaac, to prove to everyone else the strength and depth of his faith. He takes Isaac up on the mountain. It always breaks my heart that Isaac follows him with such trust. It never crosses his mind that his father might be planning to put him on the altar. Abraham promises his son that God will provide the animal.
When all is said and done in this horror story of Abraham binding his son and raising a knife to slay him, God DOES provide the animal. God watched and waited to see if Abraham would really go so far, but God also kept him from doing that which couldn’t be easily undone.
I think perhaps this is less a story about Abraham’s faithfulness to God as it is a story about God’s faithfulness to Abraham.
I said earlier that this story acts as a kind of mirror to us, showing us that the way we interpret this story reflects our understanding of how God acts in the world, our theology. And my interpretation is no exception. For me, this story has several important points. You are welcome to agree or disagree—in fact it delights me when you do, because it means you’re wrestling with the Scriptures yourself!
First, this story teaches us that God will not allow us to remain in the mess. God always provides a way out or a way through. God doesn’t like chaos and mess, and God will find a way to make something good out of it. It seldom means going back to the way things were—as much as we hate to admit it, Our God is NOT the God of the status quo. God knows that things can be better, and is always asking us to cooperate in that work of redemption in this world. But we have to open our eyes, and even as we raise the knife to look for the ram in the thicket. We have to be humble enough to admit perhaps we misunderstood what God was trying to tell us.
And that leads me to the second point, which is that God DOES demand sacrifice, but only sacrifice that participates in that redemption of the world. In the words of the old prayer book, God wants us to “offer and present unto [the Lord] our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto” God. It is much harder to be a living sacrifice, because it is ongoing. It requires that we make the decision EVERY morning to offer our energy and our possessions and our wills to God. I believe that in the story today, Isaac WAS sacrificed on that altar, but not killed. Isaac would spend the rest of his life knowing that it was only by God’s grace that he was walking around, and he would live his life accordingly. God does not want empty sacrifice that leads to death. God wants sacrifice that leads to fuller life for everyone.
Finally, this story tells us that if we offer to God’s service what we DO have, God will provide what we DON’T have, in order to get the job done. God knows that by ourselves we can’t fix things, we can’t make everything perfect. That’s part of the lesson—that we have the humility to admit that we NEED God and God’s help in everything we do. God knows we can’t do it ourselves—God created us that way. God knows that we will often misunderstand what we’re being asked to do, but promises that if we are bringing our best to the situation in faithfulness, God will do amazing things. God is not asking us to achieve the impossible. God is just asking that, when God calls, we SHOW UP.