What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done. (Violence Unveiled, p. 140) – Gil Bailie
In a sermon preached in 1999, Ellen Davis, professor at Duke Divinity School, muses that had she been the final editor of the Bible, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac would not have made the cut.
It’s an awful story, at least if viewed in our own time, with our own sensibilities. Davis suggests that a story like that near the beginning of the Bible may put people off from reading the Bible all together, which may in fact be true.
I have not preached on this story for many years, mostly because we were using the typological track of the lectionary where this story does not appear. Had it appeared I think I would have had no choice because stories that repulse us are as important to pay attention to as those that attract us.
The problem of the story is that God demands the sacrifice of Isaac. There may be times when we would like to get rid of a family member, but the most we might do is tell them so. And in most cases we will regret having said so. When I was a teenager my mother regularly told me that she was looking forward to the day I would move out. When my brother and I had moved out she was lonely and very much wished we lived closer.
Yet in the story it is not Abraham who wishes his son dead, it is God who demands the sacrifice of Isaac. It is one thing to be deeply offended by one another, it is quite another thing to be offended by God who we know to trust as Abraham did.
After hearing the story we wonder whether we want to trust God, a God who gives and who takes away: Who gives a promise, fulfills it, and then threatens to take it all away. We remember that Isaac is not only a child, but he is also the child of promise – we may add that every child is a gift and a child of promise.
There is another layer to this story. It is the layer of human sacrifice, and child sacrifice in particular. Israel’s neighbours practised child sacrifice. We don’t know if that is why Abraham does not seem to bat an eye but simply gets ready and gets on the way. The story tells us nothing of what goes on inside of Abraham and Sarah, except that which is expressed. And yet the story tells us that God does not require child sacrifice or human sacrifice, for God will provide. Hosea six also comes to mind where God says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
The word from Hosea is good to bear in mind in order to avoid understanding Jesus’ death as wanted or desired by God. Last Sunday we prayed “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” (Psalm 116:15) Of course, here precious means costly. The Lord’s faithful ones are precious and their death grieves the Lord.
Jesus’s death was not what God demanded but what God offered to the world. Paradoxically it is in his death and resurrection that God offers life.
Back to the story: The story of the near sacrifice of Isaac pivots between the demand of God and the providing of God, with Abraham’s confession in the form of an answer in verse eight, where Isaac – understanding something about sacrifice – had asked about a lamb for the burnt offering. Abraham had replied, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac not only explains that there is no human sacrifice in the worship of the God of Israel but it expresses the contradiction in the lives of the faithful. In this way the story of the sacrifice is like the story of the righteous and devout man Job, who despite having found favour in the sight of God loses everything. Nevertheless, Job never tires of asserting God’s faithfulness, even in times when he not only is unable to see it but in fact appears to experience God’s abandonment, which is what his friends tell him.
Ellen Davis says that “the 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and it seems asks us to bear – and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish. This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. That is what Abraham does: without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading …”
The Gospel for today continues to explain what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we recall the rest of chapter 10, we will remember words about persecution, about strife, about poverty, and above all about the demands of Jesus. Yes, it is a joyful thing to be a follower of Jesus, but boy can it be hard, it can even lead us to deny ourselves.
What we see in the Gospel is a God who places demands on us, difficult demands, even while we know it is a gift be be counted among his followers.
Walter Brueggemann says that “the call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us (cf Jer 23:23). Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it. Most complacent religion will want a God who provides, not a God who tests. Some in bitterness will want a God who tests but refuse the generous providing. Some in cynical modernity will regard both affirmations as silly, presuming we must answer to none and rely on none, for we are both free and competent. But father Abraham confessed himself not free of the testing and not competent for his own provision.1
Perhaps what we can learn from this story, is that we too are neither free of the testing nor competent for our own provision, so that that we too may learn to trust more and more, not in abstraction but in these days and in our very lives, for we have seen and do know that God will provide.
1Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, Atlanta: John Knox Press,1982, p. 192f