The sacrifice of Isaac, part 1

Headline: an elderly man, who somehow managed to have a son in his old age, thought he heard God telling him to offer the boy as a religious sacrifice.  The man wasn’t known to be a nut-case, though in retrospect, some shady dealings were uncovered in his past.  Fortunately, he didn’t actually slaughter the boy, though it seemed he fully intended to do so.  The only thing that kept him from plunging a knife into his son was another last-second message from God.

If you heard that story today, what would you think?  Personally, I’d be hard pressed to believe that it was God’s voice the man was hearing, as opposed to his own personal demons.

But then what do we do with the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19, one of the most troubling passages in all of the Old Testament?  I’ve even preached on this text, and it still troubles me.

God had called Abraham (then Abram) to leave his home and settle in the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed (Gen 12), apparently without question.  The Lord then promised to give the land to his descendants (vs. 7).  But what descendants?  Abraham was already 75 years old and childless when he left Haran.  But God promised that Abraham would have more offspring than he could count (15:5), and “Abram believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to [Abram] as righteousness” (vs. 6, NIV).  The faithfulness of Abraham is a refrain that is repeated again and again in Scripture.

It was a good long time, however, before the promise was fulfilled: 25 years, to be exact.  Twenty-five years.  How patient would you have been?  Abraham and his wife Sarah tired of waiting, and engineered a plan to get the promise by their own means: Sarah gave Abraham her maid, Hagar, and from that union Ishmael was born.

But Ishmael was not the son of the promise.  Even when God later specifically stated that Sarah would yet bear a child in her old age, Abraham laughed at the absurdity of it all.  He even had the brass to ask God to consider Ishmael instead (Gen 17:18).  God ignored him, and about a year later, Isaac was born (21:1-7).

If this were a movie, you’d want the story to end here.  But it doesn’t.  In the very next chapter, God calls to Abraham and gives him these terrible instructions: “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” (Gen 22:2, NIV).

There is tenderness in the way God says it.  And yet to a distraught father, it might feel like God was rubbing salt in the wound: “Sacrifice your son.  Your only son.  The one you love.  Isaac.”  But Abraham obeys, rising early in the morning and beginning the long journey to Moriah.

Isaac carries the wood needed for the burnt offering, but has noticed the obvious: there’s no lamb for the sacrifice.  He asks his father, who can only reply cryptically that God will provide.  We read no further conversation between the two.

When they reach the place God has chosen, Abraham dutifully builds the altar, binds Isaac, and lays him on it.  He takes the knife, ready to slay his son, which seems unthinkable–yet less unthinkable, perhaps, than setting fire to the wood first.  Thankfully, an angel intervenes and Isaac is spared.  God provides a ram for the offering instead, which Abraham gladly substitutes for his beloved son.

A happy ending, of sorts.  The God who tests is the God who provides.  Abraham responds to the test with extraordinary faith, and God remains faithful to his covenant promise.

And yet…

Many have stumbled over this story, wondering what kind of God could ask such a thing of Abraham in the first place.  Can a satisfactory answer be given?  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written: “The expositor must take care not to explain, for it will not be explained.  But without explanation, the text leads us to face the reality that God is God” (Genesis, pp. 188-189).

Point taken: the purposes of an almighty God will remain, to some extent, inscrutable.  But we must seek what understanding we can, for even a recognition of the limits of human understanding is no justification for mis-understanding.

Let’s start with this: the God of the Old Testament neither condones nor demands child sacrifice, though this was a common Canaanite practice.  The Israelites were specifically warned later not to adopt this practice (Deut 18:9-10; 12:29-31).  Clearly, they did not obey (e.g., 2 Kings 17:17-18, 21:2-6; Ps 106:37-38), provoking God’s anger, and drawing the just condemnation of the prophets (Jer 7:30-31; Ezek 16:20-21).  True, all of these events postdate Abraham; but unless we’re willing to argue that somehow God changed his mind on the matter, child sacrifice was always detestable to him.

Isaac, moreover, was not a small child if we was able to carry his own funeral pyre (Gen 22:6).  Some rabbis have even taught that Isaac was in his twenties.  Does that make the idea of sacrifice less repulsive?  Perhaps not.  But at least we shouldn’t think of this as the near slaughter of someone powerless.  It’s possible that Isaac could have resisted, but submitted (in faith?) to his father’s intentions instead.

That, of course, doesn’t begin to answer all possible objections to the story, and more must be said.  The next two posts will examine (a) how the larger context of the story might influence the way we read it, and (b) the question of whether one root of our objection is an unwillingness to look too closely at the nature of faith itself.