Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 26, 2011

2011.06.26 “The Test” – Genesis 22: 1 – 14

Central United Methodist Church

“The Test”

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 22: 1 – 14

June 26th, 2011

After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, “Abraham!”

“Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.”

He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.” Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him. On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.

Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?”

“Yes, my son.”

“We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Abraham said, “Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.

They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.

Just then an angel of God called to him out of Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

   “Yes, I’m listening.”

“Don’t lay a hand on that boy! Don’t touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”

Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Abraham named that place God-Yireh (God-Sees-to-It). That’s where we get the saying, “On the mountain of God, he sees to it.” – Genesis 22: 1 – 14, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

 

       One of the saddest of many sad stories to come out of the May 22nd Joplin, Missouri, tornado was the story of 18 year old Will Norton, and his father Mark. They were driving home from Will’s high school graduation in their Hummer H3, when they were engulfed in the 200 mph winds of the tornado.  As the car flipped, Mark held on to Will until he could no longer. Will’s seat belt broke, and Will was sucked out the sunroof, out of his father’s grasp.  Five days later, Will’s body was found in a nearby pond. His father Mark spent several days in the hospital recovering from injuries, including a head injury. Undoubtedly, Mark will be haunted by the horror of that night for the rest of his life, when, despite all his fatherly strength and love, he could not save his son.

        Such stories get to us, because we love our children and would do anything – exhaust all of our strength and effort – to do everything we can to protect them and save them, including – if need be – the sacrifice of our own lives.

        In light of this, we are horrified to hear today the opposite of Will Norton’s story, the story of a father prepared to sacrifice his son, in what he believed was obedience to God.  It is the story of Abraham and Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.

What kind of a father would do this? What kind of a God would ask this?  These are only two of the daunting questions that confront us in this story, a core story in all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Let’s examine some of the issues it raises for us modern day Christians.

If this were our first meeting with Abraham, it would be chilling indeed. Here’s what’s gone before: Abraham and his wife Sarah were asked by God to leave their family and country, for a new country God will show them. In return, God promises them a son, and through that son a dynasty, through whom God will bless the earth. Decades pass, and though the promise is continually renewed, no child is born. Finally, when Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90, the child of promise, Isaac, is born, whose very name means “Laughter.”

Then come these ominous words: “After all this, God tested Abraham.” We learn this, but Abraham doesn’t. What he hears is this: “Abraham!” says God. “Hineni” in Hebrew, says Abraham: “Here am I.” And God said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.” It must have been one of the worst, most sickening moments, in Abraham’s life.  I’d be surprised if he didn’t literally throw up.

Questions arise. Up to this point he has been Abraham the bargainer, willing to enter into negotiations with relations, allies, princes, and even God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Here, when his son is at stake, why does he remain silent?

Where was Sarah? Attachment to Isaac was never Abraham’s problem; it was Sarah’s.  But the authors of the story – men, of course – have hidden her voice.  How might this story be different if God had challenged Sarah to sacrifice her dear son Isaac?  Might she have said what Job’s wife said: “Curse God and die!”

And what exactly was the test here, and who was being tested? Did God not know what Abraham would do, and if so, why the horrific test? Or was God the one being tested? Was God like the other bloodthirsty gods of the land, who did require child sacrifice? And what if Abraham failed, not being obedient, or passed, killing Isaac? Then where would God’s child of blessing be? What if Abraham says to God, “Shut up!” or later, along the journey, throws down the wood and says, “Forget it, let’s go home.”  Is God being vulnerable – at risk – here?

But Abraham sucks it up and the plot progresses. Getting up early, he takes Isaac, wood for the burnt offering, flint to light the fire, and a knife.  Suspense builds.

Even so, the story is full of ambiguity. How old is Isaac?  It’s a different story is Isaac is an 8 year old, or an 18 year old. Likewise, is Abraham a robust older man, or frail and elderly?

Along the way, Isaac says to Abraham, “Father?” Abraham says, “Hineni, beni” (“Here am I, my son”) “We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?” Is Isaac being a sarcastic teenager, saying to a forgetful old man: “HELLO? The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb? Did YOU forget the lamb?” Or is Isaac suddenly afraid?  “Wait, where is the lamb?” “Holy smokes, he’s going to kill me!”

In either case, Abraham responds, “Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” Did he believe that, or was he just saying it to calm Isaac down?

Then it gets chilling. They arrive at the place God directed him. Abraham builts an altar. He stacks up the wood. He ties up Isaac and lays him on the wood. He takes up the knife to kill his son.

Just then – when we can stand it no longer – an angel calls out, in what we must assume was a voice that could not be ignored, “Abraham, Abraham!” And for the third time in the story, Abraham says, “Hineni!”  “Here am I.”

“Do not lay a hand on that boy! Do not touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”

Now Abraham knows, if he did not before, that God is not like those other gods. Other religions might insist that parents sacrifice their children to god, but not God. God does not, never did, never will.  (Parents, reach over and give your children a hug!)  Though through questionable means, God has found a man he can trust, who will indeed become the “Father of Nations.” 

Out of this dramatic, controversial, pivotal story would come three different interpretations in the three Abrahamic traditions.

In Judaism, this is the story of God who provides. When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham takes the ram and sacrifices it as a burnt offering instead of his son. And he names that place Yahweh-Yireh “God-Sees-to-It,” or “God Provides.”

Persecuted Jews of later generations, including the Holocaust generation, would often wonder why God intervened for Isaac, but not their children. Jewish communities suffering persecution often saw themselves re-enacting the drama of Abraham and Isaac, but without the redemptive ending. Why, they asked?  Why was God silent?  Perhaps they recited Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me; how long will you hide your face?”

Early Jewish Christians saw Jesus as a faithful son who carried the wood for his death on his back to his own execution, and said, “This is the story of Isaac.” In the light of this story they said, “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son.” Using the stories they knew, it was a way of understanding what they could not understand.

        Islam celebrates Abraham, who submits unreservedly to God. That’s what the word Islam means “to give up, to submit (to God).” A Muslim is therefore one who submits to God. For Muslims, Abraham was the first great prophet, before Jesus and Mohammed.

For us, as modern Christians sitting here today, what does it mean?

I believe it still means God desires of us a radical obedience, that we – like Abraham or Jesus – can barely understand. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)  And what he meant when he also said, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. But not my will, but yours be done.”

But the reality is, the context in which we must practice our obedience to God is in tension with other allegiances.  We have duties to the state, who rightfully forbids us to harm, abuse, or endanger our children. We have duties, ordained by God, to love and care for our children, whom God has given us. And we have duties in regard to scientific truth and human rights, equally revealed by God, which sometimes caution us that those voices we hear telling us to do terrible things, as indeed people do terrible things in the name of God, just might not be from God after all, but the product of disease or derangement.

        Personally, I am thankful for a progressive view of God’s self revelation, which takes us away from all forms of blood sacrifice. I believe all truth is God’s truth, whether that revealed in ancient times by history and mythology and story, or in modern times by science and new understandings of human rights, also forms of divine revelation. The God I believe in is not the jealous, demanding deity of the Old Testament, requiring blood sacrifice, but the forgiving Father in Jesus’ parable, who runs down the road to embrace his erring child with open arms, the God who sets a feast to welcome all God’s children.

It’s the same reason I do not believe in a God who creates people to live for a short time, and then tortures them in hell for eternity for finite decisions.  It’s why I do not believe in slavery or the subjugation of women, endorsed in the Bible. It’s why I do not believe in a God who blames and punishes people for being gay, when it was never up to them at all. Yes, people used to believe this then; but in the light of the revelation of God’s radical love in Christ, and new understandings, we do not believe it now. I have not personally always believed that way; but I believe that way now.  It’s called progressive revelation.  Is there anyone here who has not grown in their experience and understanding of God over the years?

        Having said all this, if we think we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are no longer sacrificing our children to God, at least, we should go on to ask whether there is anything else we are sacrificing them for? Are we sacrificing our children for our careers? For money? For the life we always wanted, but never had, which we attempt to live through them?  How about the gods of nationalism and capitalism and war? Out of this story, this is a question that lingers: for what are we sacrificing our children in our time? 

 

          In her book, Challenging Prophetic Literature, Julia O’Brien writes about Lyn, a student of hers, who at some point in her sermon preparation on Genesis 22 “gave up trying to make this text into something beautiful and uplifting and simply wept. She wept not only just for the characters in the story but also for herself and for her culture.  In this sermon,” O’Brien writes, her student “gave her congregation permission that the text had not given Abraham: to weep for the tragic situations of their own lives, for the horrible choices they feel they have no choice but to make.”  (Juliana Claassens, Working Preacher, June 26, 2011)

        Perhaps, this is where we wind up. To weep for fathers and mothers around the world, like Abraham and Sarah, for the horrible choices they feel they have to make in the name of religion or politics or war or simply in the day to day struggle to keep their sons and daughters fed, healthy, and safe.  Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t; just ask Mark Norton.

I wish I could tell you that after this, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac lived happily ever after. The sad truth is, I think this experience was traumatic to Abraham also. Abraham leaves without Isaac, and after this, according to the text, they never speak again. Even worse? God never appears nor speaks to Abraham again. May God grant us forgiveness for the horrible things we do, especially those we do in the name of God. Amen.

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Responses

  1. it is very long story…
    but it is a very nice!


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