“The Sacrifice of Abraham,” Rembrandt, 1635.
Pastor Rich Knight
Central Congregational Church
Jan. 28, 2024
Our passage this morning is the story of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s a fairly well-known story and very challenging and if we’re honest it’s quite offensive to our modern sensibilities. I was pleased to read that even Martin Luther & John Calvin struggled with this text, 500 years ago!
Scholars of ancient Hebrew tell us that this is one of “the most beautifully told and most moving of the stories of Genesis.” Author Elie Wiesel says this: “As a literary composition, this tale is unmatched in scripture . . . every word reverberates into infinity.”
As a preacher I find it one of the hardest passages in the Bible to preach on. This is the 4th time I’ve preached on it. One time in each of the churches I’ve served. So, this is your lucky day!
Let’s take a look: Genesis 22:1-19
After these things 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.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to
Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
Can you see why this is a difficult passage to interpret? It’s “notoriously difficult,” as one commentary put it. Because no one comes off looking good in the story, not even God! (Forgive me, Lord)
- God gives Abraham an inhumane command – kill your son.
- And Abraham obeys the command.
He’s obedient but he comes off a bit spineless. In a human army you’re not to obey an immoral command. Is Abraham heroic for obeying God’s command? Or is he overly-submissive?
- Isaac also seems passive and weak as well. We don’t exactly know how old he is, but if he’s old enough to carry the firewood, he’s old enough to run away!
It is odd to have such negative feelings about a passage. I love the Bible, but I don’t love all passages equally.
Illustration. I may have told you about the story of St. Paul walking into an ancient Greek city long, long ago. Standing outside the gates of the city are a group of women holding signs, “Down with Paul!” “Paul is a Chauvinist!” “Equality Now!” St. Paul looks at them and says, “Oh, I see you got my letter.”
Of course, we’re going to wrestle with parts of the Bible. Remember the Bible is a divine book, but also a very human book. We say that Jesus was Fully Human, Fully Divine. That’s true of the Bible as well.
So, the human parts creep in –
–in some of Paul’s sexist comments,
–in passages that show no understanding of sexual orientation
–and in stories like this one that occurred 4000 years ago and was probably written down in the form that we have 3000 years ago.
The Bible reflects the time periods in which it was written. It speaks to us God’s truths but it’s often flavored by the time period in which it was written. And so, in Abraham’s Day there were religious ceremonies where humans were sacrificed, even children.
In II Kings 3:27 the King of Moab sacrificed his eldest son to try to gain the favor of his God during a time of war. One of the interpretations of the story we’re studying today is that it signifies that this new religion of Abraham would require animal sacrifices and not human sacrifices. So, that makes me feel a little bit better about the passage. In it’s day, it was progress.
One commentary even suggests that Abraham misunderstood God – that God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice his son. “The climax of the story is the revelation that what the voice of God would ultimately say was something completely different from what Abraham . . . had supposed. The ways of God are sometimes hidden and at first not understood.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, p. 643)
That makes me feel better about the passage. That’s a very reasonable interpretation, but if we stop there all we’ve done is defend or justify the story, and we might miss some of the richness of the text.
Elie Wiesel was an author, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and professor at Boston University. His most famous work is Night, but he also wrote a book on some of the great characters in the Bible, called, Messengers of God. Wiesel says this about our text this morning,
“The Sacrifice of Isaac: Here is a story that contains Jewish destiny in its totality, just as the flame is contained in the single spark by which it comes to life. Every major theme, every passion and obsession that make Judaism the adventure that it is, can be traced back to it: man’s anguish when he finds himself face to face with God, his quest for purity and purpose, the conflict of having to choose between dreams of the past and dreams of the future, between absolute faith and absolute justice, between the need to obey God’s will and to rebel against it; between his yearnings for freedom and for sacrifice, his desire to justify hope and despair with words and silence – the same words and the same silence. It is all there.” (p. 69)
The story starts this way –
Ch. 22:1: “After these things God tested Abraham.”
Does God test us? Life certainly tests us, but does God? It’s not the way we usually think about God, but it is a concept found in the Bible.
UCC Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “The testings which come in history and which are from God drive us to find out whether we mean what we say about our faith being grounded solely in the gospel.” (Genesis commentary, p. 190)
Jesus himself was tested during his 40 days of temptation. It was a chance for Jesus to demonstrate that he would be true to his calling.
Some commentators suggest that this command to sacrifice Isaac was meant to strengthen Abraham, to show him the purity of his faith and how far he was actually willing to go in service to God, and to make him an example for others to follow. Being tested and passing the test can truly deepen our faith and purify it.
Elie Wiesel was an expert on ancient Judaism, especially on the Talmud and what’s called “Midrash.” These are the writings of ancient Jewish Rabbis interpreting the Scriptures, many of which were written around the time of Jesus. Wiesel says there is as much writing on this passage as there is on the Creation of the World and on the giving of the Ten Commandments. The ancient rabbis had trouble making sense of this passage as well! And they had many different interpretations of this
Remember last Fall we said that Jews go to scripture to begin a conversation, Christians all too often go to scripture to end a conversation. And we talked about “Clobber Verses.” – “Once I quote this verse this conversation is over, and I win!”
The ancient rabbis didn’t look at it that way at all. They believed there were often multiple ways of interpreting a text or a story. You may have heard the expression, “Wherever you find two Jews you’ll find at least 3 opinions.”
One of the ways they made sense of this passage was to view it through the lens of Job.
You’ll recall that in the book of Job God is bragging to Satan about how righteous and blameless Job is, and Satan says, “Of course, he is. Look at how you’ve blessed him. Take it all away and you’ll see how much he really loves you. I’ll bet it’s not much.” And so God puts Job to the test.
The ancient rabbis envisioned a similar conversation concerning Abraham – “Of course Abraham loves you. Look at how you’ve blessed him. Land. Power. Wealth. Fortune and Fame. And now you’ve given him a son at age100. Take away what is most precious to him and then see how much he loves you.”
And so the theory goes, God complies and decides to test Abraham in the exact same way he tested Job. God says he’ll take away that which is most precious to Abraham, his son Isaac. That’s a horrendous and enormous sacrifice that is requested of Abraham.
In the previous chapters, Abraham had been promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And after 25 years of heartache Isaac is finally born. His name literally means “laughter.”
And all the promises to God – land, descendants, blessed to be a blessing – would then be handed down through Isaac. And now Isaac is to be taken away? It makes no sense! This is a text that reminds us that the actions of God do not always make logical sense to us. God doesn’t seem to feel the burden that we often do to always be so “reasonable” and “logical.” But it’s more than that.
John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer, put it this way: “The command of God and the promise of God are in conflict.” Martin Luther said, “This is a contradiction where God contradicts himself.”
My view is that Abraham was aware of this contradiction, and that’s why he obeyed. I like the theory that not only was Abraham being tested, he was also testing God!
He was testing God to see if God was going to keep God’s promise – of a son, of a huge family, of blessing. He was testing God to see if God really was who God said he was. That’s why he’s certain, “God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.”
He’s saying, “If God is who I think God is, this will work out ok.”
Let me close with these thoughts, taken from the writings of William Barclay:
Christians have an advantage in interpreting this passage. For Christians have long seen the sacrifice of Isaac as a forerunner to the Sacrifice of Christ. For Christians this passage is foreshadowing. It’s prophetic, in terms of what the Messiah would endure.
As Abraham’s faith was tested, so too, was Christ. In the Garden of Gethsemane he asked that the cup be taken from him, but he passed the test when we said, “Nevertheless, not my will be done, but thy will be done.” That was after the Last Supper on Thursday night.
On Good Friday, God did what he spared Abraham from doing – sacrificing his only Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
Abraham and Isaac were led to a hill in the land of Moriah. The Bible says that Jerusalem was built in the land of Moriah. Jesus, too, was taken to a hill in the land of Moriah. He was crucified just outside the Jerusalem city walls, on a hill known as Golgotha.
Just as Isaac carried the firewood which was for his own sacrifice, Jesus carried his own cross upon which he would be sacrificed.
Just as Isaac was as good as dead for the three-day journey with his father, Jesus was dead and rose to new life on the third day.
Abraham reassured Isaac with these faith-filled words: “God will provide a lamb for the offering my son.” And God did provide for us Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
God does indeed provide.
Thanks be to God.
If you found the end of this sermon meaningful I think you’d enjoy Michael Card’s song, “God Will Provide a Lamb.”