This is a disorienting story, to say the least.
That’s exactly what it’s meant to be, of course. You aren’t supposed to hear it as just a recitation of events: then God talked to Abraham, and then Abraham and Isaac went to Mt Moriah, and then Abraham built an altar, and then he bound his son like an animal facing slaughter… no.
What’s asked here of Abraham is frightening, and I firmly believe that anyone who is trying to downplay the grotesque nature of the story is selling something.
Here’s how it begins: and it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. That alone raises several questions. What kind of test is this? Did Abraham pass?
But before we get to that, we need to take a step back. And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. These things? Which things?
Let’s go back to the beginning of Abraham’s story. He’s the imperfect patriarch God chooses- not because Abraham is particularly holy, but because he’s willing to be listen and to try to be faithful.
God chooses Abraham, and together they set off on a journey toward the land that God is promising to give to this new patriarch and all of his descendents. But, pretty much as soon as they get to Canaan, there’s a huge famine. Abraham gets to the land that he’s been promised, and then almost immediately has to pack up and head for Egypt to avoid starvation.
So much for the land of milk and honey.
When they get to Egypt Abraham gets worried because his wife, Sarah, is a total babe. He concocts a lie about how Sarah is really his sister, which gets her taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. When the Pharaoh finds out about the deception, somehow this results in Abraham getting his wife back and also lots of Egyptian loot.
God keeps promising Abraham a son, but he was 75 when God first called him, and he and Sarah aren’t getting any younger. Having a child seems increasingly improbable, so Sarah advises Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar.
Abraham has a son this way – a son named Ishmael – but God comes back to clarify that Sarah’s son will be the son of the promise. Abraham’s first response is to fall down on his face, laughing at the absurdity of this 100-year-old man and his 90-year-old wife having a baby.
When he realizes that God is serious, he puts in a plea for Ishmael. God goes along with it, promising that Ishmael will also become a great nation. A year or so later, Isaac is born.
Throughout this story, Abraham has been wheeling and dealing as best he can. He may have followed this strange God out into the wilderness, but he’s still looking out for himself. He commands warriors, makes alliances, and bargains his way out of trouble.
He even, truth be told, bargains with God. God says that he’s on his way to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, if they’re actually as wicked as rumor has it. Abraham counters with the possibility of righteous people in the city, asking God to agree to save the city if fifty righteous people can be found.
When God agrees to spare the city on behalf fifty righteous people can be found, then Abraham starts to haggle downward. Forty-five. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. If ten righteous people can be found, God promises to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.
Now maybe God knew all along that there weren’t ten righteous people in the cesspool of Sodom, but remember that Abraham doesn’t have any objection to arguing with God to get what he wants.
So. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, after which Abraham again passes Sarah off as just his sister and somehow gets richer in the aftermath. Isaac, the son of the long-awaited promise is finally born… and he’s hardly weaned before Sarah wants her servant Hagar and the boy Ishmael gone.
Abraham is broken-hearted, because Ishmael is his son, but he gave them some food and water and shooed them off into the wilderness anyhow. Ishmael came back to help bury his father, once Abraham died, but Abraham never saw him again.
And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. After these things:
after Abraham’s faithful response to God’s call,
after he twice lied about Sarah rather than face a risk,
after he slept with a slave to get his promised son,
after he bravely negotiated for the lives of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah,
after the surprise of Isaac began to fulfill God’s promises,
after Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness to fend for themselves:
after these things, God tested Abraham.
And He said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am!” And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.”
What sort of test is this, Friends?
I mean, some tests are pass/fail, while others are tested on a curve. Some tests are diagnostic in nature, like a medical test, while others test for proficiency or even character traits. You might test your yeast before starting a loaf of bread, which is very different from a year end exam.
Take your son, whom you love, and slaughter him on a mountain for God’s glory. Which kind of test is that? And, moreover, who would require such a test of a parent?
Did Abraham pass the test?
This ambiguity might make you uncomfortable, and it should, just as child sacrifice should make you uncomfortable. The ambiguity, however, is written into the text itself. Check your copy, if you don’t believe me.
Look at verse 5, when Abraham and Isaac are preparing to go up on Mt Moriah. Abraham says, let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.
Let us worship and return to you. Abraham seems to be assuming that they will be returning in the plural, that Isaac will be coming back down the mountain with him. It’s like Abraham is in on the joke. It’s like he knows that there’s no way that Isaac will really die on this mountain.
But then look ahead to verse 19, when the action is over: Abraham returned to his lads, and they rose and went together to Beer-sheba.
Abraham returned, as if Isaac died on the mountain. Not Abraham and Isaac, together. Just Abraham, coming back down to journey home.
The ambiguity is part of the story.
So consider with me, for a minute, the possibility that Abraham did not pass the test- that in fact, the God he’s been following on this trek would never even pretend to ask for a child’s life.
It wouldn’t have been a wild mistake for Abraham to make, to think that God would say such a thing. Think about the logic behind the sacrificial system, and it starts to make a horrifying kind of sense.
Picture yourself in ancient Mesopotamia. You need food and water to survive, which means that you need sunshine and rain in proper proportions. Floods wash away your hopes, and droughts dry them up.
All of this is out of your control, so what do you do? You try to get these forces on your side. When you have a successful harvest, your offer some of it in gratitude. If there’s a flood or a drought, then you must not have offered enough. Better offer more, just to be on the safe side.
If things keep going well, then you need to show your gratitude- which means another sacrifice. But how could you know if you’ve offered enough? Better offer more, just to be on the safe side.
There’s an anxiety built into the system, one that starts to consume people. It leads you to consider offering increasingly precious things to the gods- maybe some birds, maybe a cow, maybe a bunch of cows. More. More. More.
Until you reach a point of thinking: maybe I could offer my own beloved child. Maybe that would be enough.
That’s the logic of the sacrificial system, and that horrifying conclusion is in the background of a lot of Old Testament writings, including this one. The people that surrounded Abraham might well have offered up their own children on a mountain for the good of the tribe.
But Abraham’s God is different, and somehow, Abraham is supposed to know this.
And in some sense, he does. When it’s Sodom and Gomorrah facing divine fire, Abraham finds his courage and bravely argues with God, pushing toward life and mercy. How would he have done that, if he didn’t know that this God was different?
Maybe the fact that he just abandoned his son Ishmael in the wilderness has something to do with his acquiescence to this violent demand. But if Abraham was ever faithful to this life-giving God, it was when he sought mercy for the degenerate folks in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Abraham of this story seems to lack that courage. When it’s his own son, the cat seems to have his tongue.
And sure, God said now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, and some other things that seem congratulatory, but after this neither God nor Sarah nor Isaac ever speak to Abraham again.
In the next chapter, Sarah dies. There’s a long story about purchasing her tomb, but nothing about the grief that would have filled her heart to know that her husband would have slaughtered their long-awaited son.
Isaac mourns his mother’s death, but the only thing said about his response to his father’s death is that he and Ishmael – the rejected son – buried Abraham together. Perhaps that’s why the story doesn’t say that Isaac came down from the mountain. Perhaps a part of him remained there, frozen in the knowledge that his father would sacrifice his life to curry favor with a God.
Abraham, in the end, never understood this God he was following. He did his best to be be faithful, but when his son’s life was asked of him, he failed the test.
That’s one way of understanding it, anyhow. But suppose, on the other hand, that Abraham passed the test.
Start, again, with the background knowledge that sacrificing children to the gods was just part of the culture.
Start, again, with these two elderly people with no hope of having a child, having a son and naming him Isaac.
Imagine the horror that dogs them, as they celebrate this child’s milestones. Can we keep him? Or will he be demanded of us?
They send Abraham’s son, Ishmael, out into the wilderness. And then, the voice comes with the dreaded request: Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering.
What do you do when there are no good choices? Abraham could save his only son left and ignore his God, or he could obey his God and lose his only son.
Abraham weeps, perhaps, but he sharpens his knife and gathers the wood and heads out. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
And what of the promise? Well, would you be thinking about that promise, when contemplating killing your child? But God has provided Isaac, and God can provide again.
Abraham builds the altar, binds his child and lays him on it. Picture the fear shining in Isaac’s eyes. Picture the grief shining in Abraham’s eyes.
And then, at the very last moment, the word of the Lord comes again and Abraham can see the ram caught in the thicket. Abraham came to the mountain prepared to provide his son as a sacrifice, only to learn that the God he has been following is the Provider God.
Abraham has been faithful, but does he understand now that it’s God’s faithfulness that matters? Does he understand now that this God will never ask him to sacrifice life?
Abraham lives in a world where people are expected to provide sacrifices to capricious gods, and he acted accordingly- but when God spoke again and the ram was caught in the thicket, Abraham changed course. He didn’t drive the knife home, into his son. Abraham stopped and paid attention.
God provided the sacrifice, and the boy Isaac was olly olly oxen free. And in that moment, seeing that ram, Abraham too was olly olly oxen free.
Abraham passed the test. One can only hope that he now understands that no child should be sacrificed, that it was just as evil to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness as it was to raise the knife against Isaac.
Nevertheless, Abraham heard God’s voice and knew it was God’s voice and showed that he was willing to obey no matter how little sense the command made. Abraham showed himself to be devoted to God above all else.
And, in return, Abraham thought he was providing a sacrifice and nstead saw the grace of God’s provision. He found a God who was willing to provide in even the bleakest of circumstances- which is to say that he found a God worth trusting.
Did Abraham pass the test, or did he fail?
Or perhaps, more productively: how are we being so tested?
We live in a world in which children are still being sacrificed, and to gods much less glorious than the God of Israel. We think that we would draw the line at human sacrifice, but we live in a world in which people are sacrificed for our security.
And we live in a world, too, where people will sacrifice their faith on the altar of the reasonable before sacrificing their comfort on the altar of faith.
What are the sacrifices that we are called to offer? And when are we called to faithfully oppose a sacrifice as outside the will of God?