Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14
At this point we have probably all heard and rolled our eyes at the old joke that goes like this: The doctor says to the patient, “What seems to be the trouble?” Raising his arm, the patient says, “It hurts when I do this.” The doctor says, “Then don’t do that.”
Even for a dad joke, it is not that great of a joke. The supposed humor comes from the doctor stating the obvious. For the most part, if something hurts or something makes us uncomfortable then we know not to do that. However, most of us have probably not actually been told that by a doctor. In fact, there is a good chance you have been told the exact opposite. This is especially true if you have had to do any kind of physical therapy. In those instances, doctors often push us to do exactly what hurts because that discomfort will eventually lead to us being healthier and stronger. We tend to believe if it hurts don’t do it, but as physical therapy shows sometimes confronting the discomfort is for the better. This is true physically, and perhaps it is also true spiritually.
In some capacity, I have served in ministry for two decades. During that time I have led over 600 youth group lessons, I have delivered over 600 messages, I have sat around a table to lead bible studies or Sunday school hundreds of times. Over all of these instances and during all of these times, I have not covered or talked about this specific story a single time. Until today, I have essentially avoided it for twenty years. When it comes to this particular story of Abraham from scripture, I have basically taken the advice of the joke. Engaging with this story makes me uncomfortable, so I have not. However, I do believe that all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. All scripture includes this morning’s scripture. So this story also lessons to teach.
Typically this story is lifted up as a shining example of obedience to God no matter what. Last week in our gospel reading from Matthew we read Jesus’ words where he said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”, and this morning’s story from Genesis seems to be a perfect illustration of that. I suppose obedience to God above all else, is a possible takeaway from this scripture. In his seminary text book entitled The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures Michael Coogan uses questions to point out why that understanding does not always sit right with people. He wrote: “Although it can be read simply as another affirmation of Abraham’s unwavering obedience to God, this episode has troubled both ancient and modern readers. Why at this stage in Abraham’s life did God need to test him again? He had faithfully obeyed every diving command given to him, and in any case, should not an omniscient deity of known how obedient his servant was?”
While this morning’s scripture can be understood as an incredibly dramatic story of being obedient to God above all else, I do think that perhaps there is a bit more to this story than just that. By trying to put ourselves into the perspective of Abraham and by asking questions of this story I think we can find that the takeaway from this story is more than just obedience. It can be an uncomfortable story, but it does show that even in the discomfort and confusion we find in life, we can still trust that God will provide.
This morning’s scripture can elicit a lot of questions. One of the first ones that comes up for me, is “Why was Abraham so willing to go along with this?” I think we have to remember the full context. God made a covenant to Abraham. Abraham and his wife Sarah had reached an advance age without having any children. In Genesis 15 Abraham expresses this concern to God and we find this exchange in verses 3-5: “Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’ Then the word of the LORD came to him, ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir. He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars- if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ “
Six chapters later Isaac is born in Genesis 21. Both Abraham and Sarah were advanced in age. Isaac’s birth was a miracle from God, and Abraham would have understood that it Isaac’s birth was the beginning of God’s fulfillment of the promise that God had made. Yet, in this morning’s scripture that all comes to a crashing halt and Abraham went along with it without question. We see elsewhere in Genesis that Abraham is willing to question God. For instance, when God informs Abraham about the plan to destroy Sodom, Abraham pleads with God that the city be spared if only ten righteous people can be found. Abraham was willing to question God to potentially spare people he did not even know, so why here is Abraham silent when it comes to sparing his son?
Perhaps one of the reasons, why Abraham does not object is that it did not occur to him that he could. We know from several other instances in the bible that in the other cultures of the ancient Middle East child sacrifice was not uncommon. It is mentioned in the Leviticus, in Kings, and in several of the prophets. Every time the practice is mentioned in the bible it is condemned. However, Abraham’s relationship with God was the beginning of the Israelites relationship as the chosen people, the law had not yet been given, Abraham was faithful to God but he also would have been a product of his time. If the greater culture that Abraham was raised in and was surrounded by had practices where children were sacrificed, then perhaps this is why he did not object. Abraham thought this was just part of the cost of doing business.
In the ancient world the vast majority of the deities were distant and often capricious. The relationship that people had with the divine was transactional. When people needed something that they thought was beyond their control such as good weather, a cure for illness, or information about the future then they would petition the deities. While it was possible that these pagan deities might show kindness, often their favor had to be purchased. It had to be earned. The bigger the need, the bigger the sacrifice. Sacrifices do not get any bigger than one’s own child. When the need was great, this is when the cultures of the ancient world sacrificed children. God had provided for Abraham, blessed Abraham, and been more involved in his life than Abraham ever could have thought possible. Perhaps, the reason that Abraham did not question God in this morning’s scripture, is because he thought the bill had finally come due.
Often this morning’s scripture is framed in the context of a test. It tends to be understood as God testing Abraham and it is a test that he can pass or fail. I think for me that is where a lot of the discomfort of reading this story comes from, because as a test it seems almost unnecessarily cruel. It does not really seem to fit with an understanding with a God that can be defined as love. Perhaps that is the point, because perhaps this morning’s scripture has less to do with Abraham’s character and more to do with God’s. I have to wonder if perhaps instead of thinking of it as a test that Abraham could pass or fail this was rather an object lesson. It was an experiential lesson about faith. This was something that would not have worked if God just told Abraham, but it is something that he had to experience for himself. At the beginning of this scripture, God begins acting like any other pagan deity, but at the end God provides. In this story God illustrates to Abraham that God truly is not like the other pagan deities. A relationship with God is not transactional. We do not have to buy or earn God’s favor. We do not owe God for God’s blessing. Through this morning’s scripture Abraham experiences God as different than the deities of the pagan cultures around him. Abraham learns that God is a promise keeper that will always keep the covenant. Abraham learns that even when the way is not clear God provides.
To Abraham’s great credit, this seemed to be a lesson that he learned through the course of the scripture. As Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain, Isaac notices they have everything they need, but a lamb to sacrifice. Abraham replied that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Abraham believed that God would provide, even though he did not know how. Abraham could not logically see the right outcome to this, there would have been no way for it to make sense. All Abraham could do was be faithful while hoping and believing that God will provide. Following God not making a lot of sense is a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible. God asked Noah to make a boat on dry land, which does not make a lot of sense. Yet Noah was faithful and God provided. God asked Moses to part the Red Sea which does not make a lot of sense. Yet Moses was faithful and God provided. God asked Joshua to march around Jericho for days as a way to take the city which does not make a lot of sense. Yet Joshua was faithful and God provided. Jesus told Peter to leave behind everything, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men which does not make a lot of sense. Yet Peter was faithful and God provided. The gospel of John records that God so loved the world that he gave his one and Only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Logically that does not make a lot of sense, but God is faithful and as the ancient church Father Origen pointed out we have this beautiful paradox that “Abraham offered to God his mortal son who did not die, and God gave up his immortal Son who died for all of us.”
I think that is a message that can be so important for us to hold onto when we grow through life. We like it when life flows in a logical and predictable way. We like it when things are black and white. However, life often is much too chaotic to be predictable. We find ourselves dealing a lot less with issues in terms of black and white and a lot more in complex shades of grey. Even when life does not make sense, we can hold to the truth that God provides. This is the kind of faith that Abraham displays in this morning’s scripture, and it is the kind of faith we need when we go through some of the wildest currents that life throws at us. It is the kind of faith that allows us to pray for a good medical test result, believing that God will answer that prayer but also believe that it will be OK even if the test comes back with the result we feared the most because we believe God will provide. This is the kind of faith that enables us to believe that God will protect people from disaster before it comes and that God will bring light into the darkness after the disaster because we believe that God will provide. This kind of may not make a logical sense, but it is the kind of faith that enables to always believe, no matter what, that God provides.
This morning’s scripture forces us to confront the uncomfortable. This morning’s scripture puts the uncertainty, the mess, and the confusion we often find in life right in the middle of our devotional life. This morning’s scripture can test us, but perhaps this morning’s scripture is not about a test. Rather it is an illustration of inescapable truth, even when it does not make sense we can trust that God will provide. We can trust that God will provide because God is a God of love, and not a capricious deity that we have to earn the favor of. May we have the kind of faith that allows us to walk by faith even when we cannot see where we are going. May we have the kind of faith that allows us to have full confidence that in the end God does provide.