This is a terrible story. Child sacrifice is not something that we want to hear about and we don’t expect to hear about in the bible. As a mother, as a human being I just don’t understand why God would ask Abraham to take his son, his only son, the son whom he loves to be sacrificed. And Abraham, how does he even take Isaac with him or look Sarah in the eye as he takes their son, the son they longed for, whom they called Isaac which means laughter because he was God’s gift in their old age. How? Somehow he does. And somehow this terrible story called by Christians “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jewish people “The Binding of Isaac” marks a turning point in the story of God’s people. As narrative, it is superbly told – building the tension with every word.
Why is it in the bible? A little context helps. The world then as now can be a terrifying place where awful things happen. Turn on the news any night of the week and the horrors will flash before your eyes. The terrible thing that was happening in the world where Abraham lived was child sacrifice. It may not have happened everyday but Abraham would have heard about neighbouring peoples who believed their gods needed to be appeased by the sacrifice of a firstborn for land or some other reason. It is possible that God’s request did not sound to Abraham like something out of character for a god to ask of his follower.
It is also possible that Abraham knew that God would not follow through on this request. There are some clues along the way. When Abraham turned away God was waiting. When Abraham and Sarah doubted God’s promise would ever come, God blessed them with Isaac. When there was trouble as he and Sarah wandered in the desert it was God who provided for them.
If you look at the creations stories of the different religions in Abrahams’ day, the story of the God of Abraham is the only one that doesn’t involve violence. Many of the creation stories involve the world coming into being through the destruction of the other god. We heard it last week, the creation story in the bible is peaceful. No one dies to create the world rather God speaks the world into existence and gives the gift of life.
Maybe on the day when God calls for Abraham and he says, “Here I am” Abraham knows something about the nature of God that allows him to go along with God’s horrific request. Abraham sets off with two helpers and when they draw close to the Mount of God, Abraham tells the two helpers to wait for him here and says, “We will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:4) Not I will come back to you. We will come back. Another clue, Abraham gets Isaac to carry the wood and the bible says, “he himself carried the fire and the knife.” (Genesis 22:6) Abraham is being a careful and prudent Father – like somehow this is going to work out. He carries the dangerous stuff the fire and the knife and Isaac the wood.
Another clue, when Isaac asks his Father where the lamb is for the burnt offering, either Abraham is an exceptional liar or he trusts implicitly in God’s goodness. He tells Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” (Genesis 22:8) God will provide. It hasn’t been an easy road for Abraham up to this point but God has always provided. God called Abraham to a life of wandering but he was promised a land, of being the leader of God’s chosen people and offspring – as many as the stars in the night sky or grains of sand in the desert.
It doesn’t make what God asks of Abraham better but somehow if Abraham trusts that God will do the right thing then it makes the story a little more palatable. Abraham then takes his son and sets the altar, and binds his son and has the knife in his hand when a voice calls out, “Abraham, Abraham.” And Abraham says, as he did earlier, “Here I am.” And the angel says, “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.” (Genesis 22:11 – 13) Abraham then sees a ram caught in the thicket, he frees his son Isaac and they worship the God who provides and sacrifice the ram. Abraham then calls the place, “The Lord will provide.” (Genesis 22:14) because here God provided.
In many ways “The Binding of Isaac” is a much better name for this story because the real story is not the sacrifice of Isaac because that didn’t happen. The real story is that when Isaac was bound, God said “no” to sacrifice, “no” to destruction, “no” to death and “yes” to life. Did Abraham know this about God? We will never know. But we do know that again and again God’s loving kindness wove its way through Abraham’s life.
And God has been saying yes to the fullness of life ever since that day. God will provide, not for our wants but for our needs. The other day I was listening to the Weekend Arts Magazine. Chrisy Holmes was interviewing one of these new age gurus of positive thinking. The guy believes that if you think positively about all the things you want it will happen. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking. What I’m troubled by is the false promise of positive thinking. They tell you that if you focus all your energy on increasing the size of your bank account, or imagining your personal success or focusing on losing weight that it will happen. But there are people who for all their positive thinking are hungry and do not have even the basic necessities of life. If the power of positive thinking fails them, what then?
So when I say that God will provide I’m not talking about providing like the false promises of the gurus of positive thinking. God is not like that – we don’t always get what we think we want with God. God provides in for our deepest needs and offers the gift of life, of wholeness which is so much more than a full bank account or the perfect life.
God makes all things new by taking our real human flaws and out of them making good things happens. God makes all things new by providing for what we need before it is on our lips. Nadia Bolz-Webber in her book Pastrix writes, “Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitable fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace – like saying, “Oh, its OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (Pastrix, page. 60.)
The Psalmist says it so well:
So my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
for my body shall also rest in safety.
For you will not surrender me to the Grave,
nor suffer your beloved to see the Abyss.
You will show me the path of life.
In your presence is fullness of joy;
and from your right hand flow delights
for evermore. (Psalm 16)
When the way forward seems confusing or uncertain, we need to trust God’s grace. In the face of seeming impossibilities we need to believe that God will provide. After all, the God who provides the ram in the thicket, is the God who sends us Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate no to death and yes to life. In him all things are made new – including us. And God’s grace frees us to follow in God’s way all the days of our lives. Amen.