A postcard from the edge (Gen 22) – part one

This week, we look at one of the most difficult passages in the bible to comprehend. Not that it’s hard to understand what’s going on – it’s a simple, powerfully-told story that a child could remember. And yet it raises questions for which we struggle to find answers. It brings up emotions we’d rather not feel. It goes beyond the ‘safe’ message that God loves us and acts to save us, instead exploring the outer limits of faith and the scarier side of God. This story that we’re about to read gives us a glimpse – a ‘snapshot’, a ‘postcard’– from the edge of faith. Let’s read it now.

Gen 22:1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 2 Then God said, “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.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

What would it have been like being Abraham? Can you put yourself in his position? If you’re a parent, you’ve probably done so already, and are horrified at the thought. If you’re not, let’s make it a bit more real – after all, we’re so distant from Abraham and Isaac as real people, that they could just be another set of cartoon characters beating each other up as far as our emotions are concerned. So picture a parent you know well taking their young child, at God’s command, tying him up, putting them on an altar, grabbing a knife and being fully prepared to kill them… before God says ‘OK, just testing, let them go…’

If you were Abraham, how would you ever get over that? You’d dream about it every night and wake up in a cold sweat  Could you look at God the same way ever again?

And it’s not just Abraham. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian, never really got over his encounter with this story. He wrote an entire book about the incident, called Fear & Trembling, in which he relates his struggle to comprehend a God who would ask such a thing, and a man who would be prepared to do such a thing.

Here’s one of Kierkegaard’s many re-tellings of the story, as he seeks to understand what it would have been like to be Abraham:

‘Abraham rose up early in the morning… He said nothing to Sarah, nothing to Eleazar. After all, who could have understood him? Hadn’t the test by its very nature exacted an oath of silence from him? And he clave the wood, he bound Isaac, he kindled the fire, he drew the knife…Many a father has felt the loss of his child as the loss of the dearest thing he has in the world, to be bereft of every hope for the future; yet no son was the child of promise in the sense that Isaac was for Abraham. Many a father has lost his child, but then it was God, the unchangeable and inscrutable will of the Almighty, it was his hand that took it. Not so with Abraham. For him a harder trial was reserved; along with the knife, the fate of Isaac was put into Abraham’s own hand. And he stood there, the old man with his only hope!
But he did not doubt, he did not look in anguish to left or right, he did not challenge heaven with his prayers. He knew it was God the Almighty that tried him, he knew it was the hardest sacrifice that could be demanded of him; but he also knew that no sacrifice was too hard when God demanded it – and he drew the knife.
Who gave strength to Abraham’s arm, who kept his right arm raised so that it did not fall helplessly down! Anyone who saw this would be paralysed. Who gave strength to Abraham’s soul, so that his eye did not become too clouded to see either Isaac or the ram! Anyone who saw this would become blind. And yet rare enough though they may be, those who are both paralysed and blind, still more rare is he who can tell the story and give it its due. We know it, all of us – it was only a trial. But Abraham did not.’

Kierkegaard’s lifelong unease with this passage, understandable though it is, came from a failure to approach the story from the right angle. He was an existentialist philosopher, which in simplest terms meant that he tried to understand everything else in the world in terms of his own existence. For him, the starting point of all knowledge was not God, as the bible would claim; nor was it the observable universe, as science would argue; but it was his own being, the only thing he could be truly sure of.

Now I don’t think many of us are existentialist philosophers, but we can fall into that same trap: always trying to understanding the world in terms of me. So our first reaction to this story is to put ourselves in the place of Abraham. How would I feel at being asked to sacrifice my child? And the application for us too easily becomes: would I obey if God asked me to do something like that? And then we get a bit demoralised, when we realise that we probably wouldn’t.

However (our rational self hopefully will counter), we’re always taught that the Bible should be firstly about God and who he is, before it’s about any human reaction to him. Christianity is God-focused, not human-focused. So what do we learn of God from this?

But again, we try to answer this question about God from our point of view. How could God demand such a thing from us – to sacrifice a child?. I know he never intended Abraham to go through with it, but how could he leave it until the last minute to show that it was only a test?

So what we think we learn about God from this story is not particularly comforting: “God can be quite mean when he wants to be.” Or, “Is this what God does when he’s having a bad day?” That sort of thing. So again, like Kierkegaard, we’re left disturbed by this story.

After all, why would God do this? Particularly a God who elsewhere has shown himself to be unbelievably loving and merciful. Surely he has to have a reason that this was necessary. And he does. But it requires us to look at the story both from God’s point of view, and with an eye to it’s pivotal position in history. More tomorrow.

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