“Some time later God tested Abraham.” This is how the most difficult story in the life of Abraham begins, the call of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. This story is one that fascinates us and infuriates us. Some are drawn to the picture of a faithful God pictured here, while others are turned off by the mere idea that God would ask for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It is a difficult and divisive text to be sure. This will not stop me from moving forward in giving my thoughts, but that I am doing so in humility. I could be wrong and disagreement is more than welcome as long as it is civil.
It is hard to know where to start with this passage, so let us start at the beginning. God tests Abraham by telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. It is at this point that we think we must be reading something wrong. God is calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son? This is messed up.
I agree with the sentiment. It does seem messed up, but in the day of Abraham that kind of sacrifice was not unheard of. I think that this is one barrier we have to understanding this text. We look on the idea of human sacrifice, and particularly child sacrifice, as evil. I believe we are right in doing so, but such a line was not so clear in the days of Abraham.
We have both the gift and curse of hindsight to help us today. However, who knows what practices we do today that will be looked at with disdain thousands of years from now. It should also be noted that we don’t quite know how old Isaac was at this point. He was old enough to carry a significant amount of firewood. This doesn’t change the repulsiveness of human sacrifice, but it may change our image of a helpless little child also.
Some even suggest that this story is evidence of God providing a different way. That God here is rejecting human sacrifice. Walter Brueggemann, disagrees saying, “It is of no value to find in this story an exchange of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice, as it addresses much more difficult issues.” Honestly, I think Brueggemann dismisses the idea a little too quickly. Can this passage not have that message even if it is not the primary message? It is laid clear in Leviticus and Deuteronomy later that child sacrifice is not acceptable, so this passage could serve as an example of God’s rejection of that practice.
With that said, I do agree with Brueggemann that this passage is dealing with much more difficult issues. This leads to the next reason why God’s instructions to Abraham are so messed up. Not only is the idea of human sacrifice evil, but isn’t this the very son that God provided to Abraham in the first place? Even if human sacrifice was accepted in this age, you’d have thought that Abraham would have brought this to God’s attention.
In fact, some consider the silence of Abraham here as an indicator that Abraham, at least partially, failed God’s test. To be honest, I’m of mixed opinion on this. I can certainly see why some would come to that conclusion. A few chapters ago we saw Abraham confronting God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why would he not plead for his own son? Abraham has not had any problem bringing up doubts or difficulties trusting God in the past, why is it different here?
However, I could also see it as Abraham learning to trust God. Abraham had doubted God in the arrival of an heir, but God proved faithful. It certainly seems that Abraham is trusting again in the faithfulness of God. After all when Isaac brings up the fact that there is no animal for the offering, Abraham simply says, “God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”
Of course we don’t completely know what was going on in Abraham’s mind. The thoughts of Abraham here are strangely blocked off from us. All we have is that one statement. Usually we have at least some glimpse into Abraham’s doubts or fears, but here we have little insight.
We can easily imagine what is going through Abraham’s mind though. God, the same God who enabled Abraham and Sarah to have a son, is now calling for the sacrifice of that son. Not only is it hard as a parent, the very notion of sacrificing our sons or daughters is heartbreaking. With Abraham this takes on an even more confusing element. Didn’t God promise to make my descendants into a great nation through Isaac? How can that happen if he is sacrificed? It appears that Abraham’s answer was bound up in faith that God would provide a way.
Brueggemann says that the challenge of this passage is in how we view God. God is both the tester and the provider in this chapter. In many ways I would say that is the case of God throughout the whole of the Abraham story. God’s promises to Abraham could be considered a test, will Abraham have faith in God and God’s promise?
God’s promise goes against what seems naturally possible though. Sarah is barren, how can new life come from that? Abraham does have faith even so, but also struggles in keeping that faith, particularly as the years continues to pass without an heir. Yet in that framework, God also is the provider. God takes the barren womb of Sarah, and makes life out of death. Not only is Sarah barren in the first place, but also significantly older than child bearing age. Yet, God still manages to produce life.
So it is no wonder that Bruggemann writes of Abraham’s faith like so, “Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even in this scenario of death. That is the faith of Abraham.” This is the faith we’re challenged to embrace. Do we believe in a God who can bring life out of death? Do we believe in a God who will test us and yet also provide for us?
If these are the questions we’re left with, it would mean that perhaps Abraham wasn’t the focus in this chapter. As Brueggemann in his final comments on this chapter says, “In the end, our narrative is perhaps not about Abraham being found faithful. It is about God being found faithful.”
I’m not sure all of this makes it easier. While I don’t think this story is something that we are ever going to be called to do, we are still dealing with the same God. A God who wants to see if we’ll trust Him even in the midst of testing and a God that provides even when the testing is of his own device and our faith in him falters.