The Lord will provide
Sermon preached at Enmore, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd. July 2017
Readings: Genesis 22.1–14, Romans 6.12–23; Matthew 10.40–42.
There are some parts of the Bible that I find very difficult and I have to resist the temptation to get out the scissors and quietly remove them: chapter 22 of Genesis is one of those passages. Throughout the centuries Jewish and Christian scholars have wrestled with this text and tried to make sense of it. Christian writers usually refer to the episode as the Sacrifice of Isaac, whereas Rabbinic scholars refer to it as the Binding of Isaac. Is it a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst or is it a story about faith and obedience. Why would God ask Abraham to do something, child sacrifice, which is several times clearly condemned in the Scriptures?
I’m going to submit that this is a story about faith but it will always remain for me a troubling and disturbing text. But first it may be helpful to look at some of the ways this story has been interpreted. In the Jewish tradition it has often been argued that Isaac was a willing victim of the proposed sacrifice and that he was a young adult, not a child, able to make decisions for himself. His offer of his body as a sacrifice was a way of demonstrating his superiority to Ishmael his step brother. However, this view fails because it has no support from the actual text. Another strand of rabbinic exegesis has the binding of Isaac taking place on the site of the future temple in Jerusalem. In 2 Chronicles 3.1, the mountain of the temple is called Mt. Moriah, the mountain where this event took place. Consequently the sacrifice of Isaac becomes the model for all future sacrifice. Subsequent sacrifices are efficacious or valid because they recall the binding. The Christian equivalent to this interpretation is to see the Isaac story prefiguring the crucifixion-God being willing to sacrifice his son in order to redeem the world. This has been popular in some Christian circles but I have trouble with it for reasons I will explain.
So let us look at the actual text and see what we can discern from it. It begins, ‘After these things, God tested Abraham.’ After what things? God’s call to Abraham to leave his father’s house and go to a land he had never seen; God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation and that in him all the families of the world would be blessed; the long years of Sarah’s infertility waiting for the promised son; the birth of Ishmael and finally the birth of Isaac, the boy they called, ‘laughter.’ It has been a long saga but Abraham despite moments of doubt and some serious mistakes has proved himself to be a man of faith, trusting in God’s promises. But then God calls Abraham again. Abraham responds, ‘Here I am’. God demands an awful thing: the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, the child of promise, the child he loves. The narrator tells us the reason for this dreadful action, he tells us that ‘God tested Abraham.’
There are some parallels here with the story of Job. In the Job story, Satan asks the question of God: ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan implies that Job only obeys God because he has rewards-wealth, family, property, and good health. Take these away he suggests and Job will curse you. In the Abraham story God seems to be saying to him, ‘take the gift, the son you hoped for so long, the sign of your faith, the source of your happiness and surrender him.’ Abraham’s response is remarkable. Without hesitation, without questioning or argument, he obeys the word of God and prepares for the three day journey to Mount Moriah. Does he believe that there will be a last minute reprieve? Does he deceive himself? Why does he not argue with God? None of our questions is answered?
On the journey Abraham is addressed by his son. He answers in the same way he answered God, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac asks the obvious question, ‘we have the wood and the fire but where is the lamb for the offering?’ He receives the answer, “God himself will provide the lamb.” Again we ask, was this answer a loving deception of the boy? Was it a blatant lie? Or was it a word of outrageous hope? We have no answer only the pathos of the father and son walking on together towards the place God had assigned for this terrible test.
The final act in this drama takes place on the mountain. The altar is built, the wood is placed on it, Isaac is bound and laid upon the altar, Abraham takes the knife to kill his son. Only then is the voice from heaven heard: “Abraham, Abraham!” Again, he answers, “Here I am”. “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.”
“Now I know” Did God not know before? The story runs counter to later notions that God is omniscient and knows everything. It was a genuine test and Abraham was free to choose. One way to read the story is to argue that God imposed this test on Abraham because God had risked everything on this one man and needed to know without any doubt that he was faithful. Abraham and his descendants were the means by which God had chosen to bless the whole world so God had to discover whether Abraham was willing to give up his most precious possession for the sake of being faithful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place.
Inevitably the narrative raises the question for us: does God test us? I would like to answer no but the witness of Scripture is that God does test; not perhaps in the way described in the Abraham and Isaac story but events that test our faith are inevitable. Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s faith in God is tested when they succumb to the temptation to worship other gods. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts is well, “The testing times for Israel and for all of us who are heirs of Abraham are those times when it is seductively attractive to find an easier, less demanding alternative to God. 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.”
The phrase in the old version of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘lead us not into temptation’ is more accurately translated ‘lead us not into testing or trial.’ That is why the new Prayer Book changed the phrase to ‘save us from the time of trial.’ Trials, testings are allowed by God not because God is perverse but because they are part of life in a fallen world. Writing to the Corinthians Paul writes: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10.13)
So we learn that the God who tests is also the God who provides. The Hebrew word translated ‘provide’ is literally the word for ‘seeing.’ So the statement at the end of our Genesis reading today: “on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” can also be translated, ‘On the mount of the Lord he shall be seen’. Even in our darkest moments the presence of God is real. The idea of God the provider is very evident in the New Testament as well as in the Old. The same church which prays about the testing also prays for the providing. The Lord’s Prayer acknowledges that there is no other source of provision.
As I mentioned before, this story of the father, Abraham, being willing to offer his son as a sacrifice in order to please God has often been seen resonating with the theme of God offering up his Son in order to redeem the lost world. But the comparison may have unhelpful connotations. In the Genesis story, Isaac is an unwilling victim who is helpless in the situation as evidenced by his question, “Where is the lamb for sacrifice?” Unlike, Isaac, Jesus was not the unwilling victim. He chose the path he had to follow and he and his Father were at one in their plan for our salvation. In Paul’s words, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ God did not kill Jesus. God and his Son together became ‘the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world’, putting an end to any future sacrifice. We worship the crucified and resurrected God revealed in Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
But the Abraham story does make a claim on us because it reminds us that all that we have, even our lives and those of the ones we love, belong ultimately to God. The story also assures us that this same God will provide and will be present with us to the end of our days. Amen.