“After these things, God tested Abraham. . .”
The twenty second chapter of Genesis has been referred to by one commentator as “a terrifying text.” Indeed, it is perhaps the most terrifying text in Holy Scripture—with the possible exception of the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet this text has captured the close attention and questions of scholars, theologians, historians, rabbis and artists for centuries.
Questions persist: Is this a story of “divine child abuse”? Did Abraham not hear God correctly? Is this what is called “an etiological tale” to explain the origins of the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice” in human civilization? Is it an example of one man’s faithfulness to God? Or is it about Isaac—a faithful victim—not unlike Jesus making his way to the cross? As I wrestled with this very difficult text, I was continually drawn back to the teaching of my Hebrew Scriptures professor, Dr. Ellen Davis (who is now at Duke University). My notes from her class on this chapter, as well as her subsequent writings, have helped me better understand about the theological truths in this passage and how it may connects with our own lives. (N.B. Ellen’s thinking very much informs this sermon.)
It is true that the Caananites—pagans—practiced child sacrifice. It is also clear, from the prophetic writings, that orthodox Israelite faith forbade this pagan practice and lived by higher ethical norms. So yes, this story could symbolically represent either the moment of shifting cultic practice or the difference between cultures. Yet neither Abraham nor God name this issue, nor argue against it. In fact, by the end of the story, God bestows God’s divine blessing in abundance because Abraham has been willing to go to such an extreme to show his faithfulness. Furthermore, God never says—either directly or through an angel—that Abraham has mis-interpreted God’s command. This leads us to the inevitable question: What kind of God is this, anyway?
In the immediate historical context, the drama of this story is heightened by several factors. The passage begins with “After these things, God tested Abraham.” What things? The reader is invited to look back.
Abraham has already had a long journey of faith with God. In other words, this one chapter must not be read in isolation. It is part of a much larger story. At the end of Chapter 11 in Genesis—right after the Tower of Babel story—we are introduced to Abram. In Chapter 12, the Lord says to Abram, “Get you going, away from your land, and away from your birthplace, and away from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you. And I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you and make your name great. And be a blessing!”
God has tried, repeatedly, to connect with human beings, to invite them into relationship with God. Yet these attempts do not work well. Adam and Eve decide they are wiser than the Creator and get thrown out of Paradise. The first son murders his brother in cold blood. Humankind becomes so corrupt and evil, God finally decides that the Great Flood is the only recourse. Then Noah, who was saved, along with his family, exits the ark, plants a vineyard, then has a drinking problem. A group of human beings decide they are so great, they can build a tower that reaches heaven. So God decides to forget humankind in general. “From now on, God will work through one man, one family, one people, in order to reach all people.” God chooses Abram, but of course Abram—later re-named Abraham—fails God too. Not once, but twice, Abraham pretends that Sarah, his wife, is his sister—so he can acquire more wealth. Deceiving lascivious potentates like Pharoah and Abimelech results in larger herds of sheep and cattle, more silver, and land. Abraham buys an Egyptian slave, Hagar, but he allows such mistreatment of Hagar that she runs away into the desert. She returns, but later, Sarah insists that Abraham get rid of her. So Abraham places bread and a skin of water on Hagar’s shoulders. He sends her and his first-born son, Ishamael out into the desert to face inevitable death.
After these things . . .God calls out to Abraham: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get you going to the land of the Moriah. . .” We hear the horrible irony of God’s words. As far as Abraham knows—for he never sees Ishmael again—he now really does have only one son. At the beginning of their relationship, God had used this same phrase: “Get you going.” Then, it was the terrible demand that Abraham leave his land, the land of his birthplace, his father’s land—in other words, everything that was precious—to go to a place he had never seen or known. The call to be a pilgrim on a strange, wild journey. Now God commands Abraham to “get you going” on a horrifying journey to the top of a mountain named Moriah. God has promised this son as one of blessing, to become nations as countless as stars. God has chosen Moriah—what is now known as “the Dome of the Rock”—for sacrifice. God demands the sacrifice of Abraham’s heart. How can Abraham obey this command? Yet he does obey.
In this silent, awful journey towards the mountain, we see Isaac, who must be old enough and strong enough to carry a load of wood, bearing the instrument of his own death. And note that for whatever reason, Isaac does not resist, run or physically struggle.
If the story of the Binding of Isaac is “regarded as the signal biblical instance of human obedience and unquestioning faith,” as Ellen Davis puts it, we are left to wonder what happened next. The end of this story tells us simply that Abraham returned to his servants and they went to Beer-sheba, where Abraham stayed. But in the next chapter, we read that Sarah died in Hebron. One wonders what this incident did to a family.
The great artist, Rembrandt, interpreted this story at least twice in his life. As a young painter, “Rembrandt painted a big, flashy canvas that shows a murder in progress: Isaac is sprawled across a rock, chest bare. Abraham is caught just at the point of plunging in the knife; there appears at his side a curly-headed young man, with an urgent look and just a hint of wings. . .But it is a completely different reading of the story that Rembrandt drew later, when he himself had lost children, and was father to an only son. Now Isaac kneels beside the seated Abraham, who is cradling his head, covering the boy’s eyes with one hand. . .This time the angel stands behind Abraham with wings outspread. If Rembrandt earlier painted a barely divine messenger boy, now he draws a strong, sheltering figure, who cradles Abraham as he cradles his son. This is the moment of release from God’s demand. But it comes too late for Abraham to feel relief. He seems not even to see the angel, nor does he look at the boy. He has the unfocused stare, the ravaged expression of someone who has survived something unspeakable. Rembrandt shows us just what it costs Abraham to be fully responsive to God and fully responsive to his son. It costs, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘not less than everything.’”
But there is more to this story. One also may ask what is in this horrifying demand for God. What did God need from Abraham that would cause God to demand such an act of faithfulness? Dr. Davis argues that God has staked everything on this one man, Abraham. And Abraham has already disappointed God. So God—and not the omniscient, omnipotent God we generally think about—needs to know something of the greatest importance—something that God does not know. When stakes are highest, will this man be true to the covenant relationship with God?
Anyone who loves someone knows that loving deeply requires deep vulnerable love. While we do not often think of God being vulnerable, perhaps God is vulnerable. Perhaps God needs us to do our part in being faithful when the chips are down, in order to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. God needed to know if God could depend on Abraham. And in the New Testament, we see this again. The Son, upon whose shoulders rested the instrument of his own death, stands in front of Simon Peter after the resurrection. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter, who was to be the rock on which Jesus built his Church, had denied his Lord not once, but three times. Could God depend on Peter? So Jesus, incarnate Son of God, asks Peter to affirm his faith not once, but three times. Jesus had loved, had been totally vulnerable, had opened his heart, and had been faithful, even to the point of death on a cross. These two images: one son of Abraham and centuries later, another son of Abraham. Sparing nothing, giving everything. All for the sake of love.
This truth claims you and me as well. “All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place.” I do not think that God will demand of us what God demanded of Abraham, or what Jesus gave for us—because it was been given at Calvary. Yet the least we can do is to offer God our whole selves to a life of faith and thanksgiving.
With such sacrifices, we will pray that God is well pleased. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
“And Abraham stretched forth his hand,” Woodcut printed on Sekishu white, 2001 by Peggy Parker. http://www.margaretadamsparker.com.
Pictures of Rembrandt’s “Abraham and Isaac” (1634 painting) and “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” (1655 drawing) accessed through Google images.
 Dan Clendenin, “A Terrifying Text: Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah,” from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays /20140623JJ.shtml. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.
 Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.
 Dr. Ellen F. Davis, “’Take Your Son’: The Binding of Isaac” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), 54. N.B. “Get you going” is Ellen’s translation.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ellen Davis’ translation of this passage in Getting Involved with God, 50.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 57-58.
 John 21:15.
 Idem, Kathryn Schifferdecker.