Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we pray that we are not put to the test, but may we like Abraham and Isaac, be strong in our faith in the face of adversity, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning we have the bizarre story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The childless Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, have a son, Isaac. At the time of this strange story, we don’t know how old Isaac is, but he is old enough to help around the place.
God decides to test Abraham. Just the first verse of this passage makes this story strange. God has twice made a covenant with Abraham promising him that Abraham’s descendants will be numerous. Abraham has already proved his worthiness. God should know our hearts without testing, but God is going to test Abraham – even though Abraham’s name means “exalted father.”
The Hebrew word we translate “test” is from a Hebrew word that means several things, but the gist of it is to find out what will happen to something under stress, which is what we do when we test something or someone. God seems to want to know what kind of person Abraham truly is. God wants to know whether or not Abraham is an Eddie Haskell. (The “Leave It to Beaver” reference dates me and those of you who get it. If we had a projector, I could put a scene from the TV show demonstrating Eddie Haskell for you.)
God calls Abraham and Abraham answers in obedience – ready and willing to do whatever God wishes. God asks Abraham to take his only son (remember Ishmael was previously cast out) and this not just Abraham’s son, it is the son Abraham loves. Abraham is to take his only, beloved son to Moriah and sacrifice the boy on a mountain that will be pointed out to Abraham. Abraham already obeyed this same kind of command when he left his home to go to Canaan. It is this same kind of language that we see in the New Testament in describing Jesus’ crucifixion.
Abraham is to burn up his only, beloved son. This is child sacrifice. It should be pointed out that child sacrifice among the Canaanites was common. It was part of the culture where Abraham now lives.
So, Abraham gets up early the next morning to begin the journey. When Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, he also got up early that day. And, oh yeah, God told Abraham to do that too. Abraham chops wood for the fire. He then saddles his donkey and along with Isaac and two servants and heads for Moriah. It is believed that Solomon built the temple on that site.
It took three days to get there. Abraham told the young men to wait while he took Isaac with him up a mountain to worship. In those days, worship was comprised of making a sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood, while Abraham brought the hot coals and a knife. Isaac asked his father where the lamb for the sacrifice was. Was Isaac getting nervous? Abraham said that God will provide the lamb.
Does Isaac totally trust his father? Does Abraham really believe what he is saying or is he deliberately lying? Is this supposed to be ironic? In any case, they travel together. They will face what ever comes, together. Except Abraham knows he will travel back down the mountain alone.
When they arrived at the place God showed Abraham, Abraham built an altar. He then placed the wood on the altar. Then he tied up Isaac and placed the boy on the wood. Abraham then took out his knife to begin to prepare his son for the sacrifice. The boy would need to be prepared just as a lamb would be prepared. The horror of the situation reaches its apex.
Just as the knife reached Isaac’s throat, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” Abraham replied, “I’m here – I’m here!” There is urgency to stay Abraham’s hand, which I might add was at the last second. The angel told Abraham not to touch the boy. The test is over. Abraham’s faith is confirmed. The angel acts as God’s messenger to give Abraham his grade and to stop a horrible act.
Why did God doubt Abraham? Looking back earlier in Genesis, Abraham doubted God’s protection in Egypt. Sarah laughed at the prospect of bearing a child in old age. Both of them conspired to have a child with a slave woman. Abraham has not always been the epitome of faith. God wants to know if Abraham is truly capable of being head of a great nation in communion with God.
Abraham sees a ram. We might assume that the ram is provided by God and it certainly was in the broad sense of the order of things. But it could merely always been there and Abraham notices it after Isaac’s sacrifice is averted. The ram replaces Isaac on the altar.
This is another troubling story. This is a heartbreaking story. Now I wonder what Isaac thought of the old man after this experience. I’ll bet he had trouble sleeping. I’ll bet he was always watching his back. I’d be surprised if he ever accepted very many invitations to travel with his father. If Isaac were to die, what would happen to the covenant God promised to Abraham and Sarah? Isaac must live for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Yet God commanded Isaac’s death.
We need to remember that the culture that Abraham and Sarah lived in is an alien culture. They might as well be from a different planet. Gerald Janzen observes that Abraham has sacrificed Isaac by entrusting him utterly to God. “God waits until we have acted before knowing our response. If this has been Abraham’s severest test in God, it has been no less an occasion in which . . . God has trusted the human partner in the covenant.” It is in Abraham that God begins a new relationship with humanity. God also begins a new relationship with humanity when God’s only beloved son is sacrificed for us.
“Yet the main point of Genesis 22:9-14 is not the doctrine of the Atonement. It is portraying an obedient servant worshiping God in faith at great cost, and in the end receiving God’s provision. Abraham did not withhold his son. Similarly Paul wrote that God ‘did not spare [epheisato] his own Son, but gave [delivered] him up for us all’ (Rom. 8:32). A form of the same Greek word is used of Abraham in the Septuagint: ‘You have not spared [epheisō] your beloved son’ (Gen. 22:12).
“This reveals the greatness of Abraham’s faith; he was willing to obey God by sacrificing his son. It also reveals the greatness of Isaac’s faith in submission; he had everything in the world to live for but willingly followed his father’s words, believing that God would provide a lamb.”
Even though this story is not about Jesus, we often can’t help but think of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross when we hear this story. Only Jesus didn’t get a ram stuck in a thicket. But Jesus didn’t stay dead, either.
There were those who personally knew Jesus and thought that who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for was important enough to face a hostile world. Which is really strange because these were the same people; except one, who ran away when Jesus was arrested. For most of these people we don’t know exactly how they died, but there are stories.
Judas Iscariot died, apparently, by his own hand.
Peter was crucified, head downward, during the persecution of Nero.
James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded and was the first apostle after Judas who died.
Andrew, Peter’s brother, was crucified on an “X” shaped cross.
Philip was crucified.
Bartholomew was skinned alive and beheaded.
Matthew was killed by an ax.
Thomas was speared in India.
James, son of Alphaeus, was crucified, stoned, and then finished off with a club.
Jude was crucified.
Simon the Zealot was crucified.
Matthias was stoned and beheaded.
Only John seems to have died of old age.
Obviously, none of them, except maybe Judas and John, intended to die the way they did. But, like Isaac, they were willing to die for God. There were others, after them, who also died for their faith. Many of them we call saints and martyrs and put them on the church calendar. I guess the gist of all of this is that it is really uncomfortable if we ever find ourselves tested by God. It is not so much whether or not we will pass, but what will be the consequences of such a test. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we not be put to the test or the time of trial. Sometimes, God doesn’t grant that request.
Text: Genesis 22:1–14 (NRSV)