Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Mary Holmen

Genesis 22:1-14 Psalm 13 Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42

Well, here we go again. I’ve sometimes said there are passages of Scripture that ought not to be proclaimed unless they’re going to be commented on, and here’s another one. Another difficult, challenging, terrifying story from Genesis. Last week we heard the story of how Abraham, at Sarah’s behest, drives his concubine Hagar and her son Ishmael, provisioned with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water, into the wilderness where death from dehydration can occur in mere hours. Today, it is the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Two Sundays, two dreadful stories. What is going on here? Why did the framers of our lectionary think it was important to include these passages – and back to back at that? Why does the church think it’s important for us to read, hear, and ponder these deadly stories? And, to echo Lissa’s question of last week, how on earth can this possibly be good news?

There’s a Yiddish folk tale that asks why God didn’t just send an angel to command Abraham to sacrifice his son. The answer: God knew none of the angels would take on such a task. Instead, the angels told God, “If you want to command death, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

This story, known in Christian tradition as the sacrifice of Isaac, is called in Jewish tradition the Akeda, or binding of Isaac, because he is not actually killed. In both traditions, the story has prompted volumes of commentary and reflection and heated debate as scholars, theologians, pastors, preachers, and ordinary readers try to come to grips with what this story has to say to us. What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about ourselves in relation to God?

The story says, “After these things, God tested Abraham.” After what things? All that has led up to this moment:

  • God’s call to Abraham to go to a land he had never seen
  • God’s promise that Abraham would be the ancestor of a great nation
  • The long years of Sarah’s barrenness, and the doubt whether God’s promises would ever be fulfilled
  • Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt to escape famine, where he passes Sarah off as his sister, and probably where she acquires Hagar as her servant
  • The birth of Ishmael, and Sarah’s jealousy and mistreatment of Hagar that causes her to run away and then return
  • The improbable birth of the boy called “Laughter”, followed by Sarah’s insecurity and decision to drive Hagar away once and for all.

All this time, Abraham has been living as a landless alien, moving about with no permanent home, sometimes in conflict with local rulers and sometimes making covenants and alliances with them to be able to graze his flocks and find water.

And now, God demands a horrible thing. “Abraham!” “Here I am” – the same response he gave when God first called him – attentive as ever to the presence and voice of God. Sacrifice your son. Offer him as a burnt offering – a holocaust – on the mountain I will show you. And Abraham complies. But what must he have thought? What do we think when we hear it? This is the son of promise, the one on whom everything depends. What kind of a test is this? And what kind of God would impose such a test?

The story unfolds as though we were watching a movie in slow motion, one frame at a time. We cannot bear to watch, but we cannot look away. Abraham saddles his donkey. Takes his son and two servants. Takes the firewood and sets out. Did they talk on the way? The story doesn’t say. If they talked, what was their conversation? The story doesn’t say. On the third day, Abraham looks up. Something tells him, “This is the place.” He tells the servants to wait. Takes the wood and lays it on Isaac, while he himself carries the fire and the knife for the sacrifice. Like a refrain, the story says, “And the two of them walked on together.”

The suspense mounts. Isaac addresses Abraham. Notice how often the words father and son are used. Isaac addresses Abraham, “Father!” Abraham again answers, “Here I am, my son” – as attentive to his son as he is to God. Isaac wonders aloud, where is the lamb for the burnt offering? With his heart breaking, Abraham answers that God will provide. “And the two of them walked on together.”

In horror, we watch as the two of them approach the place of sacrifice. What must Abraham have felt? How could he keep on walking with his dread and despair? Or was he numb, just putting one foot in front of the other? The story doesn’t say. At what point did Isaac know? When Abraham fobbed him off with the answer that God would provide? When Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood? When Abraham bound his son and laid him on top of the wood? Or not until Abraham picked up the knife? The story doesn’t say. Did Isaac question his father? Rebel? Protest? Submit? The story doesn’t say.

And then the miracle. An angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” Interesting that this time, the angel is willing to do God’s bidding. The repetition of Abraham’s name lends urgency. Stop!! And for the third time, Abraham replies, “Here I am.” We can imagine the relief Abraham (and Isaac!) must have felt. Reprieved. Thank God. Open your eyes, Abraham. There’s a ram right over there.

Well. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” Thanks be to God – I think? But where to start unpacking all this?

This story is foundational for both Jews and Christians. For Jews, who know all too well about holocausts, it is a story that contains the whole of Jewish destiny. Elie Wiesel, the great post-holocaust writer, says, “To me, the Akeda was an unfathomable mystery given to every generation, to be relived, if not solved.” The mount of sacrifice is identified as Mount Moriah, the seat of God and symbol of God’s presence among the people, the mountain on which the Temple would later be built, and the whole sacrificial apparatus of Israelite worship founded. If you go to Jerusalem today, you can visit the Dome of the Rock – the same summit from which Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven to talk with God.

For many biblical scholars, this is a story about the shift from human to animal sacrifice. Human sacrifice was practiced in the surrounding cultures, often at times of great peril such as famine or war. When things are at their worst and regular sacrifices don’t seem to have appeased the gods, you sacrifice the most precious thing you can – a child. And we know that child sacrifice existed in Israel because the prophets condemned it, and they wouldn’t have spoken out against it if it wasn’t going on.

For Christians, the story contains clear parallels to the story of Jesus, so much so that it is one of the options for reading at the Easter Vigil, and sometimes for Good Friday. God offers his only Son, whom he loves, as a sacrifice for the world. Jesus, like Isaac, carries the wood to the place of execution. Unlike Isaac, Jesus is actually killed. And in both traditions, life and hope emerge out of death or near-death. The story of Jesus is the foundational story of our faith, the story of the life, death and resurrection of the beloved son of Abraham, son of David, and Son of God.

All well and good. But troubling questions remain.

Why doesn’t Abraham object, resist? This is, after all, the man who stood up to God over the fate of Sodom and bargained God down to ten righteous people to try and save the city from destruction. This is the man who was not above taking matters into his own hands when it seemed that the promises would never be fulfilled. So why does he comply without a word when God demands this terrible thing? Some of the rabbis suggest that God supplies a ram because he is disappointed with Abraham’s response, or lack of it, and intervenes at the last minute to avert a catastrophe. So how does Abraham become for both Jews and Christians the hero, the father of faith? If this was a test, did he pass or fail? His unquestioning obedience may be a dangerous model in a world of extremism and violence carried out in the name of God.

One line of thinking suggests that the story is a reminder that everything we have, even our own lives and the lives of those most dear to us, belong in the end to God, who gives them to us in the first place. This certainly has implications for our practice of stewardship, and by stewardship, I mean our response of gratitude for all that God has given us and the use of our gifts for the wellbeing of others and the whole creation. The story of the Akeda reminds us that God will provide, God does provide, and God is present.

Another line of thinking picks up on the notion of forbidding child sacrifice. In our world, now as then, the well-being of children continues to be sacrificed. Children are threatened by poverty, hunger, poor education, abuse, human trafficking, and homelessness both here and around the globe. War, child labour, disease, and natural disasters related to global warming add to the risks so many children face. Children are sometimes also sacrificed to blind ambition and the accumulation of more and more wealth. Economic circumstances and income by themselves are no predictor of neglect or nurture. The well-being of children in our world today is a test of our faith, our understanding of who God is and what God expects of us.

And what about God? Is God capricious and arbitrary, demanding a sacrifice that God knows is a test but Abraham does not? It’s great that God provides a ram as a substitute sacrifice, but God is responsible for this situation in the first place. A clue may lie in the name that Abraham gives the mountain: “the Lord will provide”. I’m not a Hebrew scholar, so I take the commentators at face value. There is a play on words going on here in the Hebrew text. The word translated as “provide” literally means “seeing”. God will provide the lamb – God will see the ram when Abraham, blinded by despair, cannot. “On the mount of the Lord it will be provided” – on the mount of the Lord he shall be seen. Both in Hebrew and English, there is also a sense of foresight. “Pro-vision” – thinking ahead, thinking for, thinking on behalf of and in favour of someone.

Last week, Lissa unpacked for us the meaning of Ishmael’s name: “Yishma-el” – God hears. This is who God is. God hears; God sees. God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael. God sees the plight of Isaac. And God acts to save. God sees on behalf of and in favour of anyone who is bound, oppressed and vulnerable, who faces impossible choices with no certainty of getting it right.

And does that not describe all of us in some ways and at some times? Perhaps this story gives us a place and a way to grieve the tragedies of our lives and of our world, the terrible situations in which the children of God sometimes find themselves and the horrible choices we sometimes have to make. Perhaps the words of today’s Psalm resonate for us: “How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day? Look upon me, O Lord my God...” Look at me, God. See me. See me and act on my behalf. Help me.

I am struck by a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself (that is, Jesus) likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect...Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:14-18). In the end, the Binding of Isaac is still a very difficult story, and perhaps it’s right that our questions remain unresolved. But our questioning faith and our mourning for the tragedies and disappointments that all too often pierce our lives happen within the underlying belief in a God who does not want suffering for God’s children, a God who will provide, a God who is present. It’s true that it can be very hard to see God’s presence and provision in desperate and tragic situations. This story calls us to look up, as Abraham looked up, and see life breaking into death, deliverance breaking into trauma. True faith is not blind obedience, as has often been the message preached from this story, but the ability to see God’s provision in ordinary things and especially when everything seems to be futile.

The Psalmist concludes, “I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help. I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; I will praise the name of the Lord Most High.” Thanks be to God, indeed. Amen.