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Sunday Worship 2 July | Abraham is tested

Updated: Jan 18

Genesis 22:1-14 | NIV
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”


You may have realised that this week, Muslim communities around the world have been celebrating Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. The sacrifice in question is the one we have just heard about, or at least one very like it, as in Islamic tradition it is said that it was the elder son Ishmael that Abraham was told to sacrifice, before Isaac was even born. That would make sense of him being described as the only son, although the Hebrew word used there can also be translated as unique or precious, and could be intended to reflect Isaac’s status as the miracle son promised and born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. There is actually some debate over the identity of the son within Islamic scholarship, as the Quran does not name him, but of course Ishmael has special significance for Muslims, as it is through him that they trace the ancestry of the prophet Muhammed. That is a point worth noting, as the idea that Muslims are in the line of Ishmael has sometimes been used to suggest that they are outside of God’s promise, but that ignores the fact that last week we heard that God protected Ishmael and declared that he would be made into a great nation too, which sound very much like being within God’s promise. As I have said before, I believe absolutely in the particularities of the Christian faith, and I think that without the incarnation and the resurrection a great deal is missing, but I do also believe that God loves all that God has made and that includes our siblings of other faiths.


Let’s come now to look more closely at our reading, and it is another troubling story. Scripture is clear that Abraham is being tested here, and it is both inconceivable and unnecessary to suggest that God ever intended that Isaac would actually be killed, but that doesn’t do away with the discomfort of this story entirely, because we are still left asking why God would choose to test Abraham in such a cruel way. I cannot imagine the horror he must have felt if he truly thought that God required him to kill his own son, but here it may help to remember that this was not Abraham’s first encounter with God, and there is some suggestion within the text that he knew all along what God was up to. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he may have been trying to dodge the truth, or he may have been revealing what he expected to happen. There is also a tradition, referred to in the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that Abraham believed that even if Isaac did die, he would be resurrected. God had promised that his descendants would be reckoned through Isaac, and so Abraham trusted that his son would live long enough to make that possible.


That does take some sting out of the tale, and opens us a number of possibilities. Was Abraham testing God as much as God was testing Abraham? This almost feels like a staring contest, each waiting to see who will blink first. Was this a prophetic enactment like Ezekiel building a model of Jerusalem and then attacking it? Perhaps everyone involved was acting out a scene as a kind of lived parable, and what we really need to be asking is what are we meant to learn from it. I think this is an intriguing idea, and one that seems worth pursuing. There is evidence to suggest that child sacrifice was practised in the Ancient Near East, and so perhaps this was God’s way of showing that things were going to be different for Abraham and the nation that would come from him. It seems counterintuitive, but maybe God demands this sacrifice in order to refuse it. Perhaps there are also lessons here about our faithfulness and God’s provision, as God looks for devotion which trusts in providence. There is a mutuality or at least a reciprocity to Abraham offering Isaac and God providing the ram, which grounds the sacrificial system it anticipates in relationship rather than simple duty. There is another direction we can take this idea of prophetic enactment in, but first we will pause to hear a song and have some space for reflection.


The Hebrew in that song translates as “God Almighty, God Almighty, God in the highest, O Lord / God Almighty God Almighty, we will love you, O Lord”. You may have noticed that the first verse picks up on the stories of Isaac and Hagar, which is why it seemed such a fitting choice for the end of our mini series with Abraham and Sarah and their extraordinarily dysfunctional family. The second verse then looks to Jesus, and here I want us to look for a moment at Marc Chagall’s painting The sacrifice of Isaac. Chagall was a Russian Jewish artist working in mid twentieth century Europe. As he watched Nazi hostility towards Jews unfold into wholesale destruction, himself escaping occupied France in 1941, Jesus came to represent for him the quintessential Jewish martyr. Some of you may recall that we looked together at his White Crucifixion a few years ago, a painting which depicts a very obviously Jewish figure on a cross, surrounded by depictions of Jewish persecution. It seems that he was in part seeking to draw attention to the hypocrisy of those who worshipped a crucified Jew while seeking to destroy the Jewish people, offering the challenge that there can be no hope of salvation while we betray Christ’s message of peace and love.


With that bit of background in mind, what is so interesting to me about Chagall’s painting of this morning’s reading is the depiction in the background of Jesus carrying his cross. I could find very little commentary on this detail, so I don’t know if Chagall ever offered any explanation as to why he included it, but it draws our attention to a long recognised parallel between the near sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus. Both carry the wood on which they are to be sacrificed, in both instances the significance of their death is tied to their position as the only son, and both sacrifices come to be understood as signs of blessing to come - although of course in the case of the crucifixion, God is both the father offering the sacrifice and the son being sacrificed, and there is no last minute substitute. We are back again with the idea of prophetic enactment, asking what this story is meant to tell us. Reading the binding of Isaac in the light of the death of Christ, there is perhaps a sense that God does not ask us to do anything without being willing to do likewise.


It is worth remembering that when we reflect on the sacrificial nature of faith. We may be called to sacrifice something as we follow in the way of Christ, but Christ sacrificed everything for us and God never asks without also giving. I don’t have a story as dramatic as Abraham and Isaac’s, but I have reflected a little on how some of these ideas have plate dout in my own life. Mike and I were only recently married when I started seriously discerning whether or not to go forward for ministerial training, and it raised some pretty big questions about what that would mean for having children. My mum stopped working when me and my sister were young, and I had always assumed I would do the same, but I didn’t see how it could be possible to take so many years out for family so early into ministry. My mum very wisely counselled me that she did not believe God would ask me to sacrifice having children for ministry, but I may need to sacrifice what I thought that would look like. From there I was able to trust that if ministry and kids were both right, then somehow they would be right together. I was accepted for ministerial training, and found out I was expecting Eddie the week I started, so they really were right together, and the rest is history. Family and ministry both look very different to how they might have looked if I had only chosen one, and that has meant all sorts of sacrifices, but it’s meant all sorts of gifts too. Perhaps in the often upside down world of faith, it is when we give up the lives we expect that we find the lives we need.

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