Preached at Alger First UMC on 7/2/2017
After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”
Abraham answered, “I’m here.”
God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.
On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”
Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”
Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”
Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.
They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.” (Genesis 22:1-14, CEB)
This week, as I was studying the story from Genesis that was just read, I realized that I’m disturbed by this passage.
This story is usually fairly well-known in Christian circles. And we Christians have a history of slapping an overly-simplistic interpretation onto this story so that we can move onto something easier. “Maybe it’s about obedience; maybe it’s about strong faith – great, now let’s move on.” Not many of us really take the time to wrestle with it. I know I hadn’t until this past week when I couldn’t avoid it.
You see, if we truly read this story and dive into this text, I think it can make all of us very uncomfortable. It disturbs us, especially if you’re a parent. Because – if I can put it baldly – in this story, we read about God calling for the sacrifice of a child.
So that makes us want to move on as soon as possible. But we can’t just move on. We do Scripture and ourselves and our faith a disservice if we would only skate on the surface of these stories without digging deep.
But what in the world do we do with this story?
In these pages, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This seems like child sacrifice condoned and encouraged by God.
There are MANY reasons to have a problem with that – it’s just wrong, right? Other passages from the Bible itself condemn it in very strong words:
Jeremiah 7:30-31 – “The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord… They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.”
But…in that passage, offering Abraham’s son Isaac to the fire did cross God’s mind and God did command it.
There were nations and peoples all around Abraham and his family who practiced child sacrifice and God explicitly forbids it in Jeremiah and many other places in Scripture. So what’s going on here?
This story begins with God telling Abraham to offer up Isaac as an offering, a sacrifice. I wonder what Abe thought when God commanded this?
By this time in his life, Abraham has already banished his first-born son for the sake of Isaac. But now he’s supposed to sacrifice Isaac?
Abe and Sarah waited SO LONG for Isaac to be born. All of God’s promises for Abe and Sarah’s future rested on him. But now Abraham is supposed to sacrifice him and all their hopes for the future?
But Abe gets up early in the morning after God commands him to do this brutal thing. He doesn’t wait or delay, he just does the necessary work and sets out quickly with Isaac and two servants. Maybe this shows obedience, maybe this shows strong faith…or maybe there’s a deeper, more troubling issue here.
Earlier on in Abraham’s story, he had the cajones to bargain with God for the sake of the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But now his long-awaited son’s life is on the line, and Abraham does nothing? No bargaining, nothing?
So Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants go on a three-day journey to get to where God wants Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. After three days they see the mountain God wants for the sacrifice. So Abraham and Isaac leave the servants behind and start to climb the mountain. On the way up there, Isaac notices that they have no lamb to sacrifice and asks about it.
I imagine this was the question Abe had been dreading the whole way. He responds that the Lord will provide, but Abe knows what he means to sacrifice and it’s not a lamb.
I wonder if Isaac started to worry about how this trip might end. He probably knows that nations and peoples all around him and his family practice child sacrifice, but his dad’s never done anything like that. But now they’re going up a mountain alone to a sacrifice without an animal. What if…
They get up to the top of the mountain and we just read that Abraham built the altar, tied up Isaac, and pulled out the knife.
What was Isaac thinking when his dad Abraham pulled out the knife? What was he saying? Was he screaming, or was he mute in terror?
What was Abraham thinking? Maybe he hoped that God would’ve stopped him before now. Maybe he realizes that…maybe God will have him go all the way through with this?
But then, right when the knife’s about to plunge down, God’s messenger stops Abe and says “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back you son, your only son, from me.” Then the messenger provides a ram instead of Isaac.
I have a hard time taking that line. We’re talking about the all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing God who creates everything and everyone. Why was this test necessary? Can’t God see into our innermost hearts?
King David wrote in Psalm 139 “Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.” (Psalm 139:1-4, CEB)
But if God truly knows us, then why did God need to test Abraham to make sure he reveres and follows and has faith in God?
So Abraham offers the ram instead of his son.
How did he go about offering the ram? Did he do it with relief that it’s not his son? Or did he do it quickly and angrily so that they could be done with this business?
What did Isaac think when he saw this? “What Dad did to that ram…He had every intention of doing that to me.”
The aftermath of this story makes it even more difficult
After the ram’s sacrifice, God’s messenger tells Abraham “because you did this and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, I will bless you richly and I will give you countless descendants, as many as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on the seashore. They will conquer their enemies’ cities. All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me.”
We normally think of this as a happily ever after. But is it? God let Abraham come within a hairsbreadth of sacrificing his son. How can he be happy about this, no matter how many descendants he’s promised? How many more of his descendants will God tell him to sacrifice?
And when they get back, the family falls apart
Soon after this story, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies. Then Abe fades out of the picture. His only significant action after this is to send a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac – which we’ll talk about next week. He dies after that.
And Isaac moves away. Abraham lives in Beer-sheba, but Isaac moves south to Beer-lahai-roi.
I wonder if Isaac had PTSD? How could he ever sacrifice an animal ever again without seeing himself on the altar? How could he worship Yahweh ever again after Yahweh called for his sacrifice?
Somehow, Isaac becomes the second of the three pillars of our faith before Jesus – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Because of that, we have a tendency to try to put a nice bow on the whole story, but this is messed up.
Those are hard questions. But we must be able to ask these kinds of questions with Scripture. We believe that our Scriptures are God-breathed, so this book can take our questions. In fact, if we’re not willing to wrestle and question these Scriptures, I think it betrays a lack of trust in this Word. I think it shows our unwillingness to immerse ourselves in the story of the people of God. We must ask these hard questions of Scripture if we want this book to guide our whole lives.
So what do we do with this?
First – with a story like this, I want to be sure to emphatically denounce child abuse and anything related to it. Whatever this passage says, there are many other places in Scripture that denounce it. We have a Safe Sanctuaries policy in place to try to keep that from happening in any of this congregation’s ministries. The perception for many is that church policies like that are because of the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the last couple decades. But, sadly, abuse of children and others is a reality in all Christian denominations. So again, I want to be sure to emphatically denounce child abuse and abuse of anyone.
Second – like I’ve been saying, I don’t have any answers and I can’t find any good landing place here. My goal this morning was to pose all those questions because it’s questions like those that we must wrestle with.
We cannot look away from stories like this in our Bible. We cannot skip over them, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.
But neither can we slap a simplistic interpretation on stories like this to make us feel better. One popular interpretation of this story is Abraham’s blind obedience. That’s a great topic for a lesson on discipleship. But there are so many other places in Scripture that talk about that topic in much less harmful and confusing ways.
We as the church are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To do that, we must be disciples, growing in our faith ourselves. And in order for us to be true disciples, we must dive into our Bibles. We cannot just skate the surface of Scripture.
The stories in this book are our stories. We are in here. So we cannot just think of the quickest and easiest interpretation for all the difficult and painful stories in here so that we can close our Bibles and feel good that we cracked open the Good Book today.
But we all have so many excuses for this. We don’t know enough about the Bible, we aren’t deep thinkers, there are too many long names and confusing places, we don’t know where to start.
The beautiful thing here is there is no required level of knowledge. We simply have to be willing to not turn away from difficult stories; we have to be willing to dive in deep. If a word or phrase or verse or chapter hits you a certain way, stay there for a while. If something disturbs you, rubs you the wrong way, ruffles your feathers, don’t run away. Make yourself stay there, roll up your sleeves, and wrestle with it.
Every week, you have the Daily Scripture Readings in your bulletin. Start there. If you don’t read each one for each day, that’s ok. If something in the reading sticks out to you and you want to stay with it and study it instead of moving onto the next passage, do that. If it sticks out enough that you don’t move on and you stay with that passage, reading it all week, do that.
The United Methodist Church holds that all things necessary for salvation are found in our Scriptures. So I think that warrants deep examination.