There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, thanks to Rachel Held Evans’ post. She also has some follow-up resources that are great. When I was pregnant with my now ten year old son, I was tasked with preaching this text, and it was the most grappling I think I’ve ever done. I read so many commentaries, read the story so much my eyes glazed over, turned and turned in my sleep trying to make sense of it. I still don’t like the story, but I found a way of looking at it that made sense to me. Below is the sermon I preached, with minor edits. I thought it might be helpful for others, too.
I confess that I spent a lot of time wrestling with God over this text. Perhaps this isn’t the best story for a pregnant woman to be preaching on. Perhaps my maternal instincts are too high for me to see anything but pure insanity in this text right now. But I’m not the only one, obviously, who has struggled with this passage. Indeed, many think it is one of the most terrifying stories in all of Scripture. Countless volumes of theology and commentary have been written on this, all of whom try to reasonably explain why God would ask such a thing, why Abraham would concede, and why Isaac seems to willingly go along with it.
Just briefly, let me say that this story is often used as a parallel to Christ’s death on the cross. But despite a number of parallels between the two stories that can be powerfully persuading, the situations are COMPLETELY different. We are told from the very onset that this is a test for Abraham. I doubt any of us would say that God the Father was “testing” Himself to see if He was willing to kill His son out of faith in…Himself. And Jesus was fully aware and fully chose to die for a reason no less powerful than providing all of humanity with the ability to have everlasting life. Isaac was simply traveling unassumingly with his father, unaware of his innocent bystander role in his father’s test from God. So I’m sticking to the text tonight. There’s plenty in there for us to discuss. Jesus spent his whole life studying these Scriptures, so I’m sure he’s fine if we stick to studying them just for one night.
Let me also quickly say this: many people spend their time defending God and going into long lectures about our lack of faith and Abraham’s abundance of it and how we shouldn’t EVER question God, no matter what the circumstance. I don’t feel the need to defend God blindly. God can handle our questions, guys. If we don’t believe that we should’ve given up a long time ago. Questioning is a central, valuable part of our relationship and faith in God. Just two weeks ago we read about how Abraham bargained with God in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and there are countless other stories of people of faith questioning God boldly in the Bible.
Many try to skip quickly to the end of the story, and solely emphasize the fact that God didn’t, after all, require Isaac to be killed. That’s true. But that doesn’t do justice to the incredible amount of tension in this story. And I think it misses the point. I don’t think the point of the story is about what happens once they reach the top, but about what happens as they walk to the top. Abraham is faced with an unbelievable dilemma. He has to sit with the thought of killing his son for three whole days, and then journey up the long path to the top of Mount Moriah with his son at his side. To kill Isaac would be to completely obliterate the future of Abraham’s descendents, descendents whom God has promised to bless and sustain no matter what. What would become of a future without Isaac, emotionally and literally? Abraham is faced with a totally unknown future, one that just three days ago held incredible promise. Does he trust God enough that God can make a way out of no way? Whatever this text is about, I think it’s about us wrestling with those kinds of questions. Let’s not let ourselves off the hook.
After wrestling with this question all week, I still don’t know why it is that God wanted to test Abraham, and why God would choose this as the test. There are, of course, a lot of theories. Some say God wanted to know if Abraham still had faith after his promised son was given. And it’s true that it seems to be human nature to sort of forget God after things start going our way. How do fulfilled promises affect our relationship with God? We’re joyful and filled with the Spirit for a little while, and then we quickly turn all our attention to the promise that was fulfilled and forget about Who fulfilled it. Maybe Abraham needed a little shaking up to remind him exactly Who gave him that son, and Who can take him away.
I think this story would be easier to engage if we take a cue from our Jewish brothers and sisters who see problems in Scripture as not to be ignored but to be delved into, to be questioned, to be wrestled with. One rabbi said, “A textual problem is the grain of sand in the oyster whose irritation creates the pearl.” Jewish Midrash is a central way to argue and dialogue with a text. Midrash is a Hebrew word that means “to examine, to seek out.” Midrash poses questions to the story and then grapples with possible answers. The purpose of the midrash is not to find the “right” answer, but to learn something in the process of questioning.
Some midrash stories suggest Satan came up with the whole idea, similar to the Job story. Satan tells God, “Look at that- your faithful servant Abraham just threw a huge party for his son Isaac, and he didn’t even set aside for You one measly little sacrifice. I bet he loves that son more than he loves you. I bet if you asked him, he wouldn’t lay a hand on his son.” So God seeks to prove Satan wrong.
Another Midrash asks, “Why was Abraham tested on Mount Moriah?” And it answers, “Because he favored his son Isaac over his eldest, Ishmael.”
Whatever the reason, we cannot hide from the fact that God chose to test Abraham, and God chose to do it in this way.
We also can’t deny that Abraham was willing to do such a thing. He was willing to follow God’s command all the way to the top of Mount Moriah, to the point of reaching for his knife. There are some midrash that claim Abraham therefore failed the test, because he didn’t refuse God’s command. This is actually a pretty compelling thing to say, and I think they are onto something there. Because you and I both know (or I sure hope we know) that we don’t worship a God who asks us to sacrifice our children. As a woman carrying her son in her womb right now, I can tell you: I’m not doing it. Every atom of my very pregnant being is focused on one, solitary thing: I keep this baby safe. And that goes for the sweet baby girl that’s now living on the outside, too. My job is to keep them safe from harm, not inflict harm upon them. No amount of textual gymnastics are going to convince me that God thinks that’s a bad thing.
So- let’s think about this idea that Abraham failed the test, because he refused to argue with God. (And don’t we love how arguing with God is so reverently expected? We have lost that.) I appreciate the point, but I’m not sure he completely failed the test. When I first started thinking about this story, I felt this complete dichotomy between this appeasing, unquestioning Abraham we see walking up the mountain, and the Abraham we saw two weeks ago, bargaining with God like he was at an antique auction. Something just doesn’t fit. Granted, Abraham is a complex guy, but I don’t buy that he would just grab a knife and head up the mountain without a second thought.
And then I read what Elie Wiesel, a Jewish author, had to say. It was a “double-edged test,” he said. “God subjected Abraham to it, yet at the same time Abraham forced it on God. As though Abraham said, ‘I defy you, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether you shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son- who is also Your son- is at stake!’”
Wow. Maybe Mount Moriah was a game of duel. God says, “Prove that you trust me to keep my promises, even if the person who embodies that promise is gone.” And Abraham says right back, “Fine. But I dare you to be the kind of God who would kill my son just to make a point. I DARE YOU. And I don’t believe it for one second.”
Abraham knew very well that God was bound by God’s own commandments, and to kill anyone, much less your innocent son, was certainly not in the parameters of God’s commands of righteousness. I can picture Abraham thinking, “If you need me to prove to you that I trust you, that I see you as the provider of all things even when I am faced with a future that seems ruined, that I haven’t forgotten about you after the promise of my son was fulfilled, I will willingly walk up this mountain, knife in hand. But I dare you to be the kind of God that makes me go through with it.”
And of course, God isn’t that kind of God, and God tells Abraham to stay his hand before the knife comes down on Isaac.
When I was seven or eight, I remember being very upset with my parents about something. I don’t remember what, but whatever it was, it was so bad that I took out my little Strawberry Shortcake suitcase and I started packing my bags because I was going to go live at my friend’s house instead. My mom came in, and she asked what I was doing, and I told her I was leaving the family and going out on my own. And she said, “Ok, well, let me help you then. You’ll need a coat. And here’s your pillow. And don’t forget extra socks.” And I was just completely incensed by all of this. How could she want me to leave?! How could she just sit here and HELP ME PACK? What kind of mother wants her child to run away? And when I was done, I walked to the door, and she opened it, and said, “Honey, I love you and I’d hate for you to leave. But you can go if you want.” I didn’t even get to the mailbox before I came back. She still had the door open.
Both of us knew, the entire time, that I was not actually going to run away. It was never really an option. But for whatever reason, I needed to pretend like I was leaving, and my mom went right along with it, even to the point of helping me pack.
I’m not trying to draw a straight line here metaphorically, but I wonder if Mount Moriah were not this same kind of active pretending, where something is at stake, but the players are all aware that the premise of the thing is not ever actually going to happen. I’ll pack my bag, but I’m not running away. Abraham will walk with Isaac up the mountain, but he will never sacrifice him. The thing is, in both instances, love and trust is what gets us out of pretending. I didn’t make it past the mailbox because my mom had just said she loved me, and she was standing at the door waiting for me to come back. I was no fool.
If we look at the Genesis 22 text, we can see this same sort of play-acting. Abraham gets up without any commentary whatsoever and he packs up for this trip. He cuts the wood. And then, here’s where it gets tense, when he can see the top of the mountain, he tells his servants to stay behind, and he puts the wood on Isaac’s back. It’s like he’s staring down God. “We’re almost at the top, here. I’m just going to have my son Isaac go ahead and carry the wood of his own sacrificial altar, then. What do you think of that, God?” And then when Isaac asks him where the lamb is, Abraham says (and I think he’s telling the absolute truth here) “God will provide it.” I don’t think Abraham is hiding Isaac from the awful truth that he’s about to murder him. I think he’s letting Isaac overhear what he is telling God. They make the altar, he even binds Isaac and sets him there. He terrifyingly raises his knife, and then God calls halt. The play acting is over. They’ve both proven their points.
Don’t get me wrong. This is still a terrifying story, any way you look at it. I don’t think I could even pretend to hurt my child, even for dramatic purposes. I still think that’s really messed up. (Can you imagine the walk back down the mountain? What on earth could Isaac say to his dad after that?)
But maybe the reason Abraham could so willingly walk up that mountain is precisely because he has an unshakable faith in the character of God. He knows that God will not, in the end, require such a thing. And because of that, he does not question why it is that God requires him to go through this.
The midrash I read about Abraham failing the test? It said the reason an angel addressed them at the top and not God was because Abraham should have known better than to let it get that far. In other words, Abraham went way past the mailbox. Maybe he failed the test after all. Maybe he sought a duel more than he sought a truce. God was trying to prove a point, but Abraham doubled down on it and made it a spectacle. And maybe he didn’t have to.
If this is a story about trust and faith, then Abraham shows us that we can challenge God’s character and be found right. He was right about God, in the end. But if we want to have faith stronger than Abraham, we’ll refuse to walk up the mountain altogether. Because we know God better than that.