Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

2nd July 2017 (Trinity 4)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac, by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1636)

Would you take the life of your own child if you felt that God was calling you to do that? There’s far more to the story of Abraham and Isaac than that.

Genesis 22:1‑14

21:34Abraham lived as an alien in the country of the Philistines for many years, 1after which God tested him. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt‑offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt‑offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then he said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt‑offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ and he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt‑offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt‑offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, 11but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ and he replied, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘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.’ 13Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. He went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt‑offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Version), alt, used with permission.

Chapter 21 verse 34 has been included for context.

In his old age and while living in a foreign land, Abraham was visited by God, who told him that he would become the father of many nations [Gen 17:4] through his wife, Sarah, who was already well past child-bearing age. Now, though Abraham’s faith was strong and his trust in God was immeasurable, he was after all human, and his faith was tested because Sarah was not expected, at least in human terms, to be capable of having a son. We read, a couple of weeks ago, that Abraham had been visited by three messengers from God – perhaps God was one of them – bringing news that Sarah would have a son within a year of that encounter. Thus Isaac, a gift from God for both Abraham and Sarah, was born.

What do we do with a gift? Do we hang onto it, treasure its value to us, and not let other people enjoy the benefits of that gift, or do we relinquish control over the gift so that God can make something more spectacular with it and with us? This was a real challenge for Abraham. He was, by then, well over 100 years old – if he were alive today he’d be in the Guinness Book of Records for the oldest living person – he had just one son by his wife Sarah, and though God had promised to make him father of many nations He asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son.

Abraham must have been thinking all through the journey to where he had to make a sacrifice if he had heard God correctly. Why would God want Abraham to sacrifice the very son He had promised would be the source of a great many nations? There seems no point in such action, unless God were going to give Abraham another son in his ultra old age. No, this was a challenge to see if Abraham would hold on jealously to the gift (of Isaac), or would see it (him) as something for God. Thankfully, this is a theological story. Isaac was wise to the missing element of a sacrifice. His relationship with his father would have been sorely tested for a long time if he hadn’t considered what Abraham verbalised: God will provide for the sacrifice. Even so, when God practised His brinksmanship, and it appeared that He would not provide an offering, Abraham prepared to kill the very son on whom God’s promise depended. Only then did he notice the ram caught in a thicket.

What this extract excludes is that Abraham already had a son. Sarah, wanting to provide a son for Abraham, but not being able to do so, had offered her servant girl, Hagar, to be the fertile ground for Abraham’s seed. Human plans were invoked because it appeared that God was not going to provide the promised son. Where was Abraham’s faith then? After the birth of Isaac, Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast off from the Abraham dynasty. God saved them from starvation and thirst, and promised to make nations from Ishmael’s line as well. In the culture of the day Abraham was seen, after the expulsion, as having only one child, Isaac.

If we see, in this story, a man nearing 100, having a child with his wife (who was in her 90s at the time), taking the child away and being prepared to kill him because God had called him to do so, then we face problems of old bodies not being physically able to do the things which were reported, and a god who is prepared to risk the life of one whom He had sent to be leader of many nations. It is a story to confine to the annals of history, and to make us wonder why Isaac didn’t leave the father who was willing to bind and kill him. However, if we see, in this story, a theological explanation of God testing the faith of His servants, and asking them to make full use of the gifts He has bestowed on them, then we have a challenge for contemporary society. God gives us many gifts – Paul’s listings [Romans 12:4-8, 1 Cor 12:4-11] are just a start – and we have responsibility, in response to our faith, to use those gifts for the benefit of everyone. With God’s generous heart few people, if anyone, will be without a gift which can be used to help someone, and most of us will have multiple gifts which may be called on at different times. What are my gifts? What are yours? Sometimes our gifts are hidden because someone else doesn’t like us having them; sometimes they are hidden because we don’t want people to know about them. What will God think of us if we jealously guard the gifts He has given us, and don’t use them for the purpose for which they were given?

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