Through June & July, we are exploring some of the characters and events in the book of Genesis. As we reflect on these stories, we are asking the questions: what does it mean to follow God? How does God fulfil his promises through these flawed people? And what can we learn from them?
Last week, we laughed with Sarah at the birth of Isaac, we lamented the ill-treatment and injustice towards Hagar and Ishmael, and we wondered at the God who hears our cries, sees our plight, and sets us free, and gives us hope. This week, we move on a few years and explore a defining moment in Abraham’s relationship with God and with his son Isaac. (Content alert: this account in Genesis 22 is quite harrowing.)
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
This is a shocking story! God is said to ask Abraham to do something that surely no good father would ever do - to offer his son as a sacrifice! These days it would rightly be described as child abuse! How do you react? And what questions does it raise for you? Here are some of my own:
Why does God ask this? How could God ask this? What sort of God would ask a father to do this to his son?
Could Abraham have been mistaken? Did it really happen like this? Why doesn't Abraham question or push back at Gods command as he does about other matters earlier in Genesis?
Why is Isaac, 12 or 13 years old, so compliant? Is this child abuse?
And what does this story have to do with my Christian faith, at the heart of which is a God who not only loves but who is love and who commands us to love others?
You may have other questions too. They have to be faced and there aren't easy answers. But I want to say at the outset that this story should never be used as a justification for the abuse of children. Sadly over the centuries it may have contributed to a view that children were expendable, pawns in a chess game in which adults had all the power. That is an attitude which has no place in church or society!
And as with all Scripture. it will help to understand that Abraham lived in a very different world with different beliefs and cultural & religious practices. Sacrifice of animals was a normal practice and sacrifice of children was not unknown. It will also help if we read this in the light of the rest of Scripture, both the old testament and new testament.
This is a story that is easier to read with hindsight. But thankfully, even for first time readers, there is a hint in verse 1 that this might not be what it seems: “Some time later God tested Abraham…” Ah so it’s a test! We know about tests in this country … tests at school, medical tests, driving tests! But this is no theory test, it’s not even the practical test which to an extent you can rehearse for! This is the when you’re in the car on your own, facing the unexpected. That’s when you discover if you really can read the road and drive safely!
After finally providing a son to Sarah and Abraham to carry on their family line, this passage has God telling Abraham to sacrifice this long-awaited, much-beloved child. And the command comes across as direct and brutal. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love –Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” To 21st century ears, this seems incomprehensible. But Abraham lived in a very different world.
In the UK, we're familiar with the language of testing. But we're not so familiar with the language of sacrifice. Child sacrifice was a known practice by some of the surrounding peoples, but it was prohibited in the Jewish law and condemned by the Prophets (e.g. Leviticus 20:2-5; Jeremiah 7:31 and 32:35; Micah 6:6-8). However, when the book of Genesis was compiled, it was a widely held Jewish belief that the first born son belonged to God and therefore must be redeemed back from God through some form of ritual sacrifice, substituting an animal for the firstborn to redeem the son. (see Exodus 22:28-29, Exodus 13:11-16, Exodus 34:20 for example).
We are not told what Abraham thought but we are told know what he did. He got ready early the next morning, prepared and set off. I bet he didn’t tell Sarah his plan! There was a journey of three days. I wonder how many times Abraham thought of turning back?
They have all that they need to make a sacrifice, except for an animal. When they get near to their destination, notice what Abraham tells the servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” What sort of faith is this? The New Testament explains: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:19)
I wonder at which point in the journey Isaac has started to have misgivings or to feel that something about this isn’t quite right. Or is he also full of faith and trust in his father Abraham and in the God of Abraham? We do not know. Sacrifice is part of the culture in which he has grown up, so he understands enough to ask his father where the lamb is for the sacrifice. Abraham’s reply might have been trying to dodge the difficult question, though it turns out to be spot on.
There follows an almost slow motion account of Abraham’s preparations. I cannot imagine how fast Isaac’s heart must have been beating as his father ties him up, lies him on top of this makeshift altar and reaches for his knife. But then, at last, God intervenes, an angel calling urgently “Abraham! Abraham! Do not harm the boy”! God does not allow Abraham to harm Isaac.
Instead God has provided, God has seen to it that an animal is available, a ram caught in a thicket. God has provided the sacrifice. Isaac is safe and the ram is sacrificed instead.
Abraham’s names the place “Yahweh jireh”. It is often translated “The Lord will provide”. But it is literally “The Lord sees” and could be understood as “the Lord will see to it”. That's a good phrase to hold onto when you are facing challenges.
Many Christians cannot read Genesis 22 without fast forwarding a couple of thousand years and recalling another father, another only beloved son, another sacrifice. This time its Jesus choosing to walk towards his death carrying the wooden cross on his shoulder, on which his life will be taken. This time there is no last-minute rescue. Christ is sacrificed once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us back to God. But thank God there is resurrection !!
Abraham’s words to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son”, seem to foreshadow God the Father's gift of Jesus to the world. Jesus, God the Son, offering of himself willingly as a sacrifice. As he said to his first disciples: “This is my body broken for you … This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” However horrific God’s command to Abraham, and the impact upon Isaac, this was something God would choose to endure, as the ultimate act of love, to bring about the rescue and restoration of broken humanity and a broken world.
So how does this passage relate to us?
One thing that this story illustrates is that just because God makes promises to people, it does not mean that we will never face times when those promises are tested and even called into question. I wonder how you have been tested over the past few months? During lockdown, some have faced the simple challenge of learning to get along with family members who aren’t normally around. Some have grappled with fear or anxiety in the face of isolation. Key workers have risked illness in order to serve and care for others. Some have faced bereavement. Some have faced loss of income and business.
All these circumstances can test our faith and reveal our true colours. So, here are some more questions to ask ourselves:How secure are we in our relationship with God? Where do we turn for comfort and help in difficult times? Do we pray as a first resort or a last resort? Do we seek the guidance and energy of God’s Spirit or do we simply try to work things out for ourselves? Can we trust that God will “see to it”, that God will provide?
Let's take heart from Abraham & Isaac’s story. Amidst testing, we can trust God to provide what we need. Lets take heart from 1 Corinthians 10:13, which encourages us that “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” And let's take heart from Jesus, who was tested in the wilderness, tested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and tested on the cross. Hebrews 2:18 reminds us that “Because Jesus himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus, who knows testing and suffering as well as victory, is there for us in times of testing.
I finish with words from the prophet Micah “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you O mortal what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)
May we also offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice in which we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Amen.
Questions to think about or discuss:
How do you react to the story in Genesis 22:1-14? What questions does it raise for you?
What are the biggest tests of faith for you?
What helps you to trust in God when the pressure is on?
How has God provided for you during difficult times?
In what ways does the story in Genesis 22:1-14 shed light on your understanding of Jesus' death?