Text: Genesis 22:1-14
Dennis Bratcher calls the passage of scripture we are going to read shortly “one of the most poignant stories in all of Scripture.” He says it is “generally recognized as one of the best and most deliberately crafted pieces of Hebrew literature.” Called the Akida, from the Hebrew word for binding, it is given a prominent place in Jewish tradition.
Like most other narratives within the book of Genesis, Bratcher says, this story must be placed in the context of the larger narrative of which it is a part. It cannot really have the impact it warrants without seeing it as the last chapter in the long physical and spiritual faith journey of Abraham.
God had come into the dead end of Abraham’s life, some 30 or 35 years before the event in today’s story. Abraham had received a marvelous promise of a future in which God would bless the world through the descendants Abraham (12:1-4). Yet Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, which made the promise impossible from any human perspective (11:30). Accompanying the promise was the call of God to Abraham to leave all the security of the past and strike out for an unknown destination that God would show him.
The intervening years were not without trial and difficulty. Eventually Abraham and Sarah settled in a new land. Then the impossible promise was fulfilled when Isaac was born to Sarah, age 90 and 100-year-old Abraham.
In today’s story we do not know how old Isaac is – perhaps as young as 5 or 6, or as old as 11 or 12 – but things were going quite well for Abraham and Sarah. In addition to their beloved child, they had been become quite wealthy as the world of their day accounted it, a wealth measured by the size of one’s herd and amount of material possessions and number of servants one had.
Then God intrudes into their sense of well being, which brings us to this morning’s scripture. It is found in Genesis 22:1-14.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."
In 2002, when my daughter Kylie was a graduate student at Ohio State, she sent me this story and assured me it is true.
A highly recruited high school football player was visiting schools to try to find the best college for him.. His first stop was at Florida State. When he walked into coach Bobby Bowden’s office, he found him talking on a golden telephone. After several minutes, Bowden said, "Thank you, God" and hung up. This shocked the young man. He asked the coach what was so special about the golden phone. "Well, this phone is a direct line to God. And God tells us whether or not new recruits will be stars at our university." The athlete was duly impressed and wanted to know if he could use the phone to ask God what college he should pick "Sure, you can! But it will cost you $1,250. Calling Heaven ain't cheap, you know," said Bowden. The high school player didn't have that kind of money, so he moved along. Who would want to live in Florida anyway?
Next he visited the University of Michigan.. Upon entering Lloyd Carr's office, the football player found Coach Carr talking intently on a golden telephone. After several minutes, he heard coach Carr say, "Thank you, God" as he hung up the phone. The boy said, "Hey, I've seen those phones before. Can I use yours to call God and ask what college I should pick?" Lloyd said, "Sure, but it's going to cost you $650. Calling Heaven isn't cheap, you know.” Again, not having that kind of money, the young man left.
His last stop was in Columbus, Ohio. Upon arrival at the office of Coach Jim Tressel, he found the coach talking intently on, of all things, a golden telephone. After a few minutes, coach Tressel said, “Thanks, God,” and hung up. The boy just had to use that phone, so he said, "Coach, I really need to use that golden telephone so I can call God and ask him which college I should choose. They told me it was a $1250 call from Florida. and $650 from Michigan. So how much will it cost me to call Heaven from here in Columbus?" The coach smiled at the young man and said, "Oh, son, it won’t cost you anything to call from here. See, it's a local call."
I’m not sure what kind of communication line Abraham had to God. Our passage of scripture says nothing about a golden telephone, but Abraham apparently had a fairly open channel with God. And he hears God tell him to take his beloved son Isaac to a mountain about a 3-days journey north, a distance of perhaps 50 miles, and offer him as a burnt offering in the manner in which animal sacrifices were commonly made in those days.
It is helpful to remember that this is the child for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited forever. In their old age, very old age, Isaac was born. They were long past their child-bearing days. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 at the time. He was something of a miracle child and now God was asking Abraham to sacrifice him?
I don’t know about you, but if I had been given editorial privilege with this part of the Bible, I would have written it a little differently, or left this section out, or attributed it to one of the pagan god’s prevalent in the surrounding societies of Abraham’s day.
It is passages like this that cause some of us embarrassment, cause us to want to write off at least some of the Old Testament portions of the Bible. Yet, if we look closely and listen carefully, we just might find a word from God in this perplexing and difficult story.
In her little book, Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott refers to this story about Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. An agnostic when she went off to college, Lamott talks about this story, of all things, as being instrumental in bringing her to faith.
In one of her college classes the professor had her students reading a variety of authors and works, often out loud in class. One book they tackled was “Fear and Trembling” by the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard. In the book Kierkegaaard retells the story of Abraham, hearing God tell him to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah.
“Now, this was exactly the sort of Old Testament behavior I had trouble with,” writes Lamott. “It made me think that this God was about as kind and stable as Judge Julius Hoffman of Chicago Seven fame. But the way Kierkegaard wrote it, Abraham understood that all he really had in life was God’s unimaginable goodness and love, God’s promise of protection, God’s paradoxical promise that Isaac would provide him with many descendants. He understood that without God’s love and company, this life would be so empty and barbaric that it almost wouldn’t matter whether his son was alive or not. And since this side of the grave you could never know for sure if there was a God, you had to make a leap of faith, if you could, leaping across the abyss of doubt with fear and trembling.
“So Abraham walked to the mountaintop with his son. Isaac asked his father where they were going, and Abraham answered that they were going to the mountain to sacrifice a lamb, and Isaac, who was small but nobody’s fool, said, Well, then, uh–where’s that rascally lamb? Abraham answered that God would provide the lamb. They walked together up the mountain, Abraham grievous but trusting in his God. When they arrived, Abraham got his knife but finally an angel called to him from Heaven and told him that he had successfully shown his devotion to God. And the Lord had indeed provided a lamb, which was trapped in a thicket nearby.
Lamott continues, “In the interior silence that followed my understanding of this scene, I held my breath for as long as I could, sitting there under the flourescent lights–and then I crossed over. I don’t know how else to put it or how and why I actively made, if not exactly a leap of faith, a lurch of faith. For me,” she says, “it was a little more like making your way across a rickety ladder that spanned a crevasse. I left class believing–accepting– that there was a God. I did not understand how this could have happened. It made no sense. It made no sense that what brought me to this conviction was the story of a God who would ask his beloved Abraham to sacrifice the child he loved more than life itself. It made no sense that Abraham could head for the mountain in Moriah still believing in God’s goodness. It made no sense that even as he walked his son to the sacrificial altar, he still believed God’s promise that Isaac would give him many descendants. It made no sense that he was willing to do the one thing in the world he could not do, just because God told him to. God told him to obey and to believe that he was a loving God and could be trusted. So Abraham did obey.
I wonder if the powerful truth of this story is not to be found in the dialog between Abraham and Isaac. After a 3-day journey, they have come close to their destination. They leave behind the servants and the donkey, taking the coals for the fire and the firewood and the knife. Together, just the two of them, they head further up the mountain to their destination. And Isaac asks the question: “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” That question must have inflicted more pain in the heart of Abraham than the knife he was carrying in his hand ever could. In the midst of the heart wrenching agony, the overwhelming uncertainty of the situation, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide, my son.”
He had learned the lesson of which John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in his poem, The Eternal Goodness:
I see the wrong that round me lies, I feel the guilt within;
I hear, with groan and travail-cries, The world confess its sin.
Yet, in the maddening maze of things, And tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings I know that God is good!
For the people of Israel Abraham was their great patriarch. The genealogists among them traced their physical lineage to him. More than a physical descendent, he was an outstanding example of faith for them. He was the one whom God had called to pick up stakes and leave the familiar land that he had called home for many years and move to a new land, which God had promised. He was the one who, even though childless, was promised a child through whom a great nation would come into being and the world be blest.
And now at this most critical time, when the foundations were shaking and the walls were falling in, Abraham’s faith is again tested. Sometimes things are tested to see if they are any good, to see if they will do what they are supposed to do, to see if they will fail. Sometimes people are tested, not to see if they will fail, but to make them stronger. Abraham had been tested many times over his long life. Some of the tests he passed with flying colors. Others he passed, but not with an exceedingly high score. Still others he failed.
But one of the important things about Abraham was that he learned and grew through all of his times of testing. And when he came to this final most difficult test, one that called into question God’s wisdom and goodness, he passed with flying colors. As Ann Lamott put it, “Abraham understood that all he really had in life was God’s unimaginable goodness and love, God’s promise of protection, God’s paradoxical promise that Isaac would provide him with many descendants...”
“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Isaac asks. Abraham doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how God will provide. But over the years, through times of trial and difficulty, he has come to believe that God will provide. He has no other ground on which to stand, than the promise of God. 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all of your care on God, because God cares for you,” or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you..” Abraham had learned that.
In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes the following dependence on God:
...the saying, We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full--there's nowhere for Him to put it.” Or as a friend of mine said, “We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it's there for emergencies but he hopes he'll never have to use it.”
Victor Buono wrote a short essay entitled, Trust You'll Treat Her Well. It is about his little daughter’s going off to school for the first time. Following is an excerpt from it:
I bequeath to you today one little girl ... in a crispy dress ... with two blue eyes ... and a happy laugh that ripples all day long ... and a flash of light blonde hair that bounces in the sunlight when she runs. I trust you'll treat her well.
She's slipping out of the backyard of my heart this morning ... and skipping off down the street to her first day of school. And never again will she be completely mine. Prim and proud she'll wave her young and independent hand this morning and say "Good Bye"... and walk with little lady steps to the schoolhouse....
“Where is the lamb?” Isaac asked. “God will provide,” Abraham replied, and they continued on their way up the mountain.
As you and I continue our way up the mountain with its sometimes difficult and treacherous places, a way that will at times be fraught with danger and uncertainty, may we find security in the knowledge that we are God’s beloved children, that God will provide, and in the end, as Julian of Norwich, one of the great mystics of the Mediaeval Church put it, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”