SCRIPTURE – Gen. 22:1-19
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
This Is Just A Test…Or Is It?
June 26, 2011
I took a class in seminary on Genesis from Dr. Gerry Janzen, a brilliant, funny, slightly eccentric Anglican professor. The class was on Genesis 12-50, a topic on which Prof. Janzen had written a commentary. So I was expecting some piercing insights from him when we got to Genesis 22, arguably one of the most difficult and disturbing chapters in the whole Bible. As the class wrapped up our wide-ranging discussion of the topic, Janzen echoed a line from his book that captures for me how we should approach a text like this. He said, “Commentators reach a point where they must stop and simply leave the text and ‘go yonder and worship’.” In other words, there comes a place where understanding must end and faith begins.
This text invites such a response, simply because there is so much here we don’t understand. The author uses an economy of words that is as frustrating as it is sparse. There’s so much more we want to know about this story and so little we are actually told. One commentator ventured to say this story is “fraught with background” and requires some decisions on the part of its interpreters – people like you and me. So before we abandon any hope of understanding and simply worship at the feet of the perplexing, contradictory God of Genesis 22, what can we know about this story?
The background is a good place to start, because to understand what happens in Genesis 22, you have to understand the relationship between God and Abraham that starts back in chapter 12. That’s when God called to Abraham and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land I will show you.” If Abraham does so, God promises to bless him with land and offspring. So Abraham goes, uprooting his family and his possessions to follow God’s lead, finally settling in the land of Canaan. All along the journey Abraham’s relationship with God grew stronger, to the point where Abraham felt comfortable arguing with God over God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the meantime, Abraham and Sarah were patiently waiting for God to fulfill the promise to grant them offspring to carry on this blessing God had bestowed upon them. Sarah grew impatient and talked Abraham into have a child with her slave girl Hagar, a son who was called Ishmael. But that was not God’s plan, so God visits Abraham and Sarah and promises they will have a son of their own, even though they were both already well-advanced in years. For a trip around the neighborhood Sarah could take Isaac in his stroller and Abraham in his walker. Abraham and Sarah were probably the only family who needed hearing aids to hear their newborn baby’s cry.
So in chapter 21, Isaac is born, the fulfillment of God’s promise, the golden child. With Isaac around, Sarah saw no need for Ishmael, so she has Hagar and Ishmael sent away to ensure that Isaac will always be front and center. So when we wrap up chapter 21, all is nice and calm and peaceful. Isaac is born, Ishmael is gone, the blessing is intact and everything is comfortable. In fact, in the next-to-last verse of that chapter, Abraham calls Yahweh “the Enduring God,” which to me implies permanence, stability and security. Finally, after years of waiting and wondering and hand-wringing, all was as it should be.
That feeling of comfort is usually a good sign that God’s about to do something in your life. So once again, like in chapter 12, God calls Abraham to go from his country to a land God is going to show him. Based on what God has already asked him to do, you’d think by now when God called his name Abraham might have learned to act like he didn’t hear him. “Abraham.” “Um, he’s not home right now.” But instead, Abraham simply responds, “Here I am.” Another way that can be translated is simply, “Ready.” No matter what God was calling Abraham to do, he was ready.
I wonder if he would have responded that way had he known what God was going to ask of him. You notice in the narrative the readers are told right away this is a test for Abraham, lest we think God has moved into the grisly realm of human sacrifice. But Abraham doesn’t know that. He only knows God is calling, so he’s answering. “Ready.” And off he goes on this three-day journey to Mt. Moriah, which is plenty of time to think about what God has called him to do, to turn around and back out. And yet, he goes.
Really? There’s a whole lot of stuff missing here for me that I need to know before I’m going to be OK with this story. If Abraham was so willing to debate God over the destruction of sin-filled Sodom and Gomorrah, why no word of protest here? And if Sarah went to such lengths to remove Ishmael from the picture, where’s her voice of dissent with these plans? And what about the Little Blessing himself, Isaac? Don’t you think he’d wonder what was up, especially as he was being lashed to the altar? All we get from him is one question, “Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds simply, faithfully, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Abraham is obviously not conflicted with the same theological questions as me.
I think what makes me so uneasy here is that everyone is playing against type. It’s like seeing Bruce Willis in a romantic comedy or seeing Meg Ryan NOT in a romantic comedy. These aren’t their typical roles. I don’t know if I’m angrier with Abraham for going along with this or with God for asking this in the first place. Is this the God we worship, one who gives us wonderful blessings and fulfills promises only to capriciously snatch them back from us? We’re told that God is our Rock, our Refuge, our Strength, our ever-present help in times of trouble, and then…this? Even though everything is resolved and God does indeed provide the lamb in Isaac’s place, I’m still left with a left with a lot of tension around this story.
And here’s why, I believe. We are actually given two images of God in this story. One image is the God who tests; the other image is the God who provides. I’m just fine with the God who provides. I like that God. God provides some pretty cool stuff, like life and health and family and possessions. Give me that God eight days a week. But the God who tests? I’m not so keen on that one. Life would be a lot easier without those. Most people want a God who provides but not a God who tests. What do we pray each Sunday? Provide for us our daily bread, but lead us not into temptation, which can also be translated “lead us not into a time of testing.”
So let’s examine this testing God a little more closely. First of all, why would God need to test Abraham? Abraham’s name is mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. He’s considered one of the founding fathers of our faith. He’s followed God almost perfectly since back in chapter 12. Surely by now God knows Abraham is to be trusted, right?
You would think so, but the story leads us to believe otherwise. I can’t blame God for being skeptical about this. After all, Abraham is still human. Remember, God created this lush, idyllic paradise called Eden and gave Adam and Eve the run of the place, just as long as they didn’t mess around with one particular tree. How’d they do on that test? Then God told Noah to build an ark and basically started over with a new humanity, only to have them build a tower and try to make a name for themselves. So far in the Bible, humans haven’t done so well with tests. God wants to be sure.
When the Lord calls to Abraham and stop the sacrifice, God says, “Do not lay a hand on that boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God.” Now I know. That says to me that before this moment, God wasn’t sure. Was Abraham worshipping God or the promises of God? Was Isaac, the bearer of the blessing, more important to Abraham than God? Has Abraham’s faith thus far been motivated by personal gain or love for God? The giver is always more important than the gift, and Abraham proves to God that everything and everyone – even Isaac – are secondary to God. God needed to know that before moving forward with Abraham. “Now I know.”
God tests and God provides. Does God still test in this way today? When we go through a difficult time, is that God testing us? I don’t believe so. I believe God had to test Abraham because of the nature of their relationship and the gravity of the blessing being bestowed. But I don’t believe God causes us to lose our jobs or get sick or suffer the loss of loved ones as a way to test our faith. I believe Jesus’ death on the cross nullified the need to test us. And really, doesn’t life test us enough without God’s help? I believe we face tests every day, big and small, and each one is a chance for us to demonstrate our faithfulness in the midst of the challenge.
And we can. Do you know why? Because our God is still a God who provides. That hasn’t changed. Just as God provided the lamb for Abraham’s sacrifice, God has provided us a concrete, tangible expression of love through Jesus Christ to remind us we are never, ever alone. Even when we don’t live up to our promises to God, God lives up to the promises made to us. Remember, God didn’t promise us a life of ease. God didn’t promise us safety and comfort. God didn’t promise us that the circumstances of life we face will always make faith easy. Instead God promises to be with us, to love us, to forgive us, to strengthen us for life’s tests. God has never broken that promise to me.
Notice the irony in our scripture. It tells us God is testing Abraham, but Abraham turns the test around. “God will provide,” he says, not knowing how that’s going to happen. Will God let Isaac die, or will God come through? Abraham is giving God a chance to prove God’s promises are real. When it comes to living a life of faith in the midst of this world, we don’t always get to choose our battles. We don’t even get to choose our destinations. All we get to choose is whether or not we will trust in the promises that God will provide. Will God provide for you as you walk your journey to Mt. Moriah, as you prepare to face life’s test? My prayer is that when we pass the test – and with God’s help, we will pass the test – we will remember all over again that a life of transforming faith is not characterized by doubt-free certainty, but by tenacious trust. And then, when we realize that God has once again provided for us, just as God has always done, may it be our turn to say the great proclamation of faith: “Now, I know. Now, I know.”