1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He 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.” 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.” 6Abraham 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.7Isaac 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?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9When 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He 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.” 13And 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. 14So 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.”
Answer: It means exposure to or imminence of death, loss, or injury : danger
What is jeopardy?
Last week we talked about the family feud between Hagar and Sarah regarding the sons the both bore to Abraham. This week the promises that God made to Abraham seem to be in jeopardy as God calls Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
Usually, because of things like sacrifice, patriarchal family structure and polygamous marriages we think of the Old Testament world as very different and far away. But as I was naming this week’s sermon, it occurred to me that I could probably use a game show title to illustrate many of the stories in the book of Genesis—Family Feud for Sarah and Hagar, Jeopardy for the Binding of Isaac, Let’s Make a Deal for Jacob and Esau, The Newlywed Game for Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Games shows tell us something about our human nature. So does the Old Testament.
The way of life of the people in Genesis may have been very different, but the human components of the story are still part of us today. We still fight with our families. We still seek after God. We still worry about marriage and children. We still long to be loved, included and participate something bigger than ourselves.
AND we are still competitive, self-centered and wanting to get rich. Yes, the Old Testament and today’s game shows have a lot in common.
Our story today is a tough one. God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. To stab him and then burn him up on an alter--another word for that kind of sacrifice is holocaust--an offering that goes up in smoke (read more about this). There is no question that his is a horrific request. There is something about this story that doesn’t seem to quite fit with our vision of God. It really doesn’t fit with what the Bible tells us about Abraham either.
Many of us have read or heard this story so many times we don’t even see the violence and horror in it. We know how it ends so it doesn’t keep us at the edge of our seats wondering what will happen? What will Abraham do? What kind of God would demand it?
On the one hand, this story is awful. We live in a world where children have been abused by religious authorities and we have been appalled and outraged. When we read in the news about how children are raped or killed we shake our heads in disgust. Rightly so.
On the other hand, we see killing all the time in our movies and video games. We read about murder in mystery novels. Intentional killings are deeply embedded in our story culture. They make us sit up and pay attention. Nothing ups the drama like death. It gives the plot line a jolt that keeps us on the edge of our seats and it gives the characters a depth that makes them worth reading about.
It our stories today, the lines are usually clearly drawn. Good guys do good things and bad guys to bad things. In the story of God, Abraham and Isaac though, it seems like the good guys might be doing something bad and that makes us uncomfortable.
The good guys are using their power and authority to traumatize a child. We know that it is a test and that everything turns out OK. But Abraham doesn’t know it’s a test and Isaac must have been freaking out when his father tied him up, put him on the wood, and took out a knife.
Something like this should provoke us to think long and hard about who we are, who God is and what God wants from us.
This Bible story is told in a matter of fact way, it is free of emotion on the page. It’s almost like the characters are robots. They do things but they aren’t feeling things as far as we can tell. The narrator doesn't clue us in as to what is on Abraham's mind.
Abraham, who is crafty, outspoken and willing to contradict God on other issues, is silently obedient. The lack of emotional language on the page allows our own emotions to shine through. It’s like a mirror for the things we feel. And the kind of God we long for.
How do you feel about this story? What would you think if you read in the newspaper that someone went to the top of the mountain at Seven Springs and built an alter on which to sacrifice a child? Issues involving children provoke strong emotional reactions in us.
When I think about the image of Isaac being bound for sacrifice, it reminds me of times when my own children have been "bound" and how horrible it was.
In one instance, I was rushing around getting ready to go celebrate Abby's first birthday at my aunt's house. I plopped Abby on the bed so that I could pick up some toys. Next thing I know she's on the floor howling with a bloody chin. The cut was deep. So I called Matt and we met at the emergency room for stitches. As a toddler, she had no idea what was going on. She squirmed and screamed and couldn’t keep her hands away from the doctor who was trying to put in the stitches. Finally the nurse decided it was time that she be immobilized, in a strait jacket thing. This made her even more hysterical.
Thank God Matt was there to stay in the room with her, because I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t stand to see my child like that. It hurt me too much. I wonder what Abby thought when I walked away from her at that moment. I will admit that I could never, ever inflict pain on my child. If that were me on the mountain, I wouldn’t even have gotten Isaac tied up, let alone lift a knife. But I still want to follow God.
Then there was that time we were having Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws. Two-year-old Sarah kept kicking the table from underneath and it was driving my mother-in-law nuts. So she went and got a dishtowel and tied Sarah’s feet together and then to the chair. She got another dishtowel and tied them to the chair. We all know that parenting styles change, to a generation that used safety pins to attach a child’s pajamas to the sheets to keep them in the bed, tying feet together seemed totally reasonable solution to an annoying problem. To me and other parents of my generation something like that seems like abuse. I was appalled and angry.
These modern day bindings bring up all these different emotions in me—helplessness, inadequacy and anger.
When I try to imagine Abraham in this story, I keep coming back to the question: What was he thinking? How could he do this? Why would God demand such a thing? What would I do?
I do not believe that God would ask any one of us to traumatize and kill a child. Ever. I actually don’t believe God will call upon us to traumatize and kill anyone, even an enemy. Jesus is pretty clear on how we should treat other people whether we like them or not.
I read this story of Abraham and Isaac as a teaching story, not a historical one—more like a historical novel with a moral than a newspaper article that reports the blow-by-blow. It’s a story that uses characters that we know, drama, hyperbole and complexity to illustrate its point. To learn from it we need to be able to get beyond the horror of the situation and ask, what does this say about God? What does the story say about me? For some of us, this means thinking of it in symbolic rather than literal terms--maybe in the same way we think of the creation story.
Isaac is Abraham’s most prized possession. He is the embodiment of Abraham’s future not just in terms of heirs, but safety and security as well. Isaac is obligated to care for Abraham in his old age. By sacrificing Isaac, Abraham is giving up the future that God promised him and jeopardizing his own well-being.
Is God calling us to give up the security of our future? What if God calls you to sacrifice your well being by giving your retirement savings, your pension and your social security to the poor? What if God calls you to leave your home and your family—even in your old age? What if God calls you to skip college and go to Asia or Africa or Appalachia to do mission work? Is that a sacrifice you can make in order to follow God?
Following God means we are blessed in many ways, but discipleship is also a process of giving up some control and putting more and more trust in God. When God’s requirements contradict God’s promises the only thing we can do is shrug our shoulders and trust. God promised Abraham many decedents through Isaac and then tells him to kill him. Sometimes God just makes no sense.
Something about this story must be important because when we compare it to last week’s story of Hagar and Ishmael, we see the same thing.
Hagar has a promise from God that her son will Ishmael will be have many sons and build a nation. Hagar watches helplessly as her son, her future, is dying of thirst under a bush and her own death is likely immanent. But, unlike Abraham and Isaac who go about the work mechanically, Hagar and Ishmael are wailing and crying out. The promised future is in jeopardy. God hears. God responds. God provides.
With Isaac the future God promises is again in jeopardy. Abraham’s son is moments away from death when God sees. God responds. God provides.
Does God only provide for those who are
robotically obedient like Abraham?
The Bible is full of stories of God's provision, not as a reward for obedient behavior but as a revelation of God's grace.
- God provides clothing for Adam and Eve after they sinned.
- God provides water for wailing Hagar and Ishmael.
- God provides manna for the Israelites in the wilderness even though they whined and complained the whole time.
- God provides himself for our redemption despite our contrary and sinful nature.
The Bible full of drama and trauma--so are our lives. It's also full of God's participation in our lives. When we are in jeopardy, God sees. God hears and God provides.
God provided for both Hagar and Abraham. God’s provision is for the mothers and the fathers. God’s provision is for those who are crying in pain and heartache and those who are just going through the motions. God’s provision is for those who walk away from the suffering because they can't bear to witness it and for those who can stay and endure it.
Whether you read these stories literarily or historically, the same themes emerge. God hears. God sees. God provides. Over and over again. We respond with a thanksgiving and love that infuses everything that we do and is apparent to all the people we encounter. We turn toward God, seeking to live as Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbor.