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God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Take you son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.
uman sacrifice. Child sacrifice. It terrifies and disgusts us. We find it utterly abhorrent. And yet, it fascinates us and captivates our imaginations. It is the stuff of horror and yet it draws us in. It holds power over us, pulling us back again and again to the altar of sacrifice.
This helps explain why this story remains important to all three of the Abrahamic faiths, we can’t help but to keep coming back to it. It also explains the effort that all three traditions put into finding redemptive meaning in this story, for just as it holds us in its thrall, it also terrifies us. The Islamic tradition points to this story and finds in it proof of Abraham’s faith in his complete submission to God’s will. The Christian tradition points to this story and finds in it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ crucifixion in the willingness of Isaac to be sacrificed. And the Jewish tradition points to this story and finds in it divine providence, that God will always provide.
These are rich and profound interpretations, all of them, and they still don’t fully quench our horror at this story. So, those who study religions and those who study scripture tell us that this is a story whose purpose, at least in part, was to distinguish Yahweh, God of the Israelites, from other deities and other religions. Human sacrifice, child sacrifice, is nothing new. Humans have practiced it from time to time throughout our history, and even further back into the depths of time that we cannot remember. The evidence shows that human sacrifice was at least occasionally practiced among Israel’s neighbors. The Israelites would have known of it. They would have spoken of it in hushed tones and in stories that would cause the hearer to shudder in disbelief.
Therefore, this story would have distinguished the Israelites as a people who did not practice human sacrifice. It would have explained to those who heard it why they did not do the same things their neighbors did, because God staid the hand of Abraham. Because God provided another sacrifice. Because God always provided.
Still, this does not ease the discomfort we feel with the story. The truth is that there is no amount of scholarly discourse that can reassure us. There is no amount of theological exposition that can shield us from the unspoken question that shakes us to the core. What if God is a monster?
What if God delights in our suffering? What if God is a tyrant and commands death? What if this is the God that we worship, a God who can be appeased only through the sacrifice of our fellow sisters and brothers; through the sacrifice of our own children? We can even imagine that the author senses this very possibility and tries to ward off this terrible question by asserting that all of this was only a test. By asserting to the reader that God couldn’t actually want this atrocity.
Did God want Isaac to be sacrificed, or was this “merely” a horrific test? I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t find either possibility especially appealing. What I do know is this: God changed.
Whether intended as an actual sacrifice or a test of Abraham’s obedience, God senses the fundamental wrong-ness of the command. God senses that this act would be a violation of creation itself. So God changes. God commands Abraham to put down the knife, God commands Abraham to spare Isaac’s life.
This is what it means to worship a living God, for to live is to grow and change. We worship a dynamic God who grows with creation. We worship a God who is forever becoming, as creation itself is becoming the vision that God has in store for it.
God changes. The trouble is, we do not change. We do not change because death does not change, and we believe that death is the ultimate power. We do not change because death does not change, and we are a people of death.
We are appalled that Abraham would try to sacrifice Isaac, and yet it does not stop us from trying ourselves. Since before humanity emerged from the foggy depths of history, we have been willing, eagerly willing, to sacrifice one another and to sacrifice our children to whatever god demanded it. It was true back then and it is true today.
We may not offer Isaac on an altar to Yahweh anymore, but we do offer our children up on other altars. We offer them up on the altar of capitalism, turning our gaze from the children forced to labor so that our goods might be cheap, and from the children raised in poverty because we refuse to pay a living wage. We offer them up on the altar of war, trading their blood for words of valor and honor. We offer them up on the altar of national security, preferring that they die in the violence of conflict rather that grant them entry as refugees. And we offer them up on the altar of racism, reassuring ourselves every time the next black boy is killed, that he must have done something to deserve it. That his death is justified. That it is an acceptable sacrifice to an insatiable god.
Why do we do it? Are we monsters? I don’t know, maybe. Are we broken? Most definitely yes. Most of all, I think we do this because we cannot imagine anything different. We cannot imagine anything more powerful than death because death is immense and unchanging, death is eternal. So we turn to it as the solution to our problems, as a solution to our brokenness. And we sacrifice to it to keep death at bay and far from thought.
Death is what we know. Death is what we expect. In its face we are hopeless for we cannot imagine anything more powerful than death. And we keep turning to death because we cannot imagine anything different.
We cannot imagine anything different, and God calls to us. “Lay down your knife and do not worship those other gods,” God speaks to us, “put down your knife, for I am not like those other gods.”
For where we expect despair, God offers us joy. Where we expect judgement, God offers grace. Where we expect hopelessness, God offers hope. And where we expect death, God offers us the unimaginable; God offers new life. For that which is living is greater than that which is dead. And that which is changing, and growing, and becoming is greater than that which is unchanging. And that which is unimaginable is greater than that which can be conjured by our broken and limited imaginations.
God calls to us, “Lay down your knives and turn away from the altars of death, which you have prepared. Turn away and follow me into the way of new creation and on the pathways that lead to new life.”
And Abraham reached out and lifted Isaac up. And Abraham loosed the bonds that bound the boy. The two of them walked away together toward the promised land, on the path that God led them.
Preached by Adam Yates