Palm Sunday – Binding of Isaac

I’m reposting a lesson for this Sunday that I did several years ago. I’m teaching on this tomorrow at Central Moravian. 

Genesis 22 – The Binding of Isaac 

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 9, 2006


Fear and Trembling: This week we are turning our attention to a story that has traditionally been seen as prefiguring or fore-shadowing of the Easter story. Before reading Genesis 22, I want to share with you some thoughts from Soren Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling (p. 63)  . Kierkegaard warned about the tendency of pastors to preach this text too easily, too quickly. “One mounts a winged horse, the same instant one is at Mount Moriah, the same instant one sees the ram; one forgets that Abraham rode only upon an ass, which walks slowly along the road, that he had a journey of three days, that he needed some time to cleave the wood, to bind Isaac, and to sharpen the knife. And yet they extol Abraham. He who is to deliver the discourse can very well sleep till a quarter of an hour before he has to preach, the auditor can well take a nap during the discourse, for all goes smoothly, without the least trouble from any quarter.” Being mindful of Kierkegaard’s admonition, today we will take the slow road to Moriah, and we will find that the path is dreadful. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard, will find that that true faith lies on the other side of despair.

Child Sacrifice: In Genesis 22, God demands that Abraham offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. You have probably heard this story before, maybe even in Sunday School, but it can be a dangerous story if mishandled. All powerful things, including the Bible, can be destructive if used carelessly. I find it harder to preach on this text than I did when I was a younger man. All you have to do is read the newspapers to know what parents are capable of. I know that you have at times cried when you learned of the death of a child that was caused by a parent’s neglect, anger, abuse, or insanity. Now that I am older and know more about the evil of the world, I am wary when I speak on passages like Genesis 22. There are those who hear voices in their heads urging them to imitate Abraham or Jephtha and kill their children. It is not just the insane or the evil who justify their crimes with stories such as this. It is also politicians and zealots who sacrifice young men and women in senseless wars; who ignore the deaths of children when they drop their bombs or blow themselves up. Today, it is too easy to sacrifice children to whatever god we truly worship, whether it be greed or pride or fear. Let us pause to remember all of the children who have been sacrificed blasphemously, and let us proceed with our lesson in fear and trembling. 

Read Genesis 22

Strangeness: Like many great stories, Genesis 22 is both compelling and frightening. It captures our imaginations and speaks to primal fears and desires. Walter Bruggemann describes it as “among the best known and theologically most demanding in the Abraham tradition” (Genesis, 185). He could have gone further and said that it is one of the best known and most demanding stories in the Bible itself, perhaps in Western literature. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin wrestled with this text because it both confirmed and shattered their theological ideas. For Luther, this passage revealed a contradiction in God himself. God willed that which he otherwise forbade and took back that which he had promised. 

If you have been following our lessons in Genesis, you know that Isaac was not just any child. He was the child of the promise. He was the reason Abraham had left all that he knew in Ur and became a wanderer in Canaan. Isaac was the proof that God was faithful to his promises to Abraham. Isaac, the laughing boy, was the future, but God demanded that Abraham kill this child of promise. And Abraham agreed to God’s demand. Which is the most terrifying?

End of Child Sacrifice: Genesis 22 was almost certainly written after the destruction of the Jewish temple, when the people were taken into exile. It is part of the struggle to make sense of the fact that the God of Abraham had let his beloved child, Israel, be abused by the Babylonians. We can read this story in terms of the debate among the priests and prophets of Israel over the meaning of the exile. Would God destroy Israel or provide a way out? In contemplating the smoke rising from Auschwitz, the story of the binding of Isaac as a burnt sacrifice gained new poignancy in the 20th century.

In reading Genesis 22, we need to keep in mind that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac. He intended to, but Isaac survived the ordeal. For over a century, historians of religion have argued that this story marked the transition from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. The ram substitutes for the first-born son. We know other ancient societies sacrificed children to appease the gods, but the Bible consistently forbids this. The God of Abraham rejected human sacrifice for all time, just as the God of Noah placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his covenant with the earth. The God of Israel may have been frightening, but he was always the faithful partner in the covenant. It was the God of Abraham who provided the world a moral law that protects the weak. 

Dread: On one level I am content to view this story as an ancient memory of the time when animal sacrifice replaced human sacrifice. But that doesn’t do justice to the story itself. It is one of the most artfully crafted stories ever written. It is a story that invites us to explore the complexities and difficulties of life and morality. Kierkegaard captures the strangeness and difficulty of this text succinctly: “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac, but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread.” (41) Rather than give a simple catechism answer to this tale as a story of faithful obedience, let’s enter into this dreadful story. 

It begins with the simple statement that God tested Abraham. The Hebrew word for tested is translated elsewhere as tempted. God tempted Abraham. Does God test Abraham’s faith or does he tempt Abraham into doing something abominable? Or is it both? This gives an interesting perspective on the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray to God that he not lead us into temptation, we should think of Abraham. We pray that we never be put through the ordeal that Abraham faced; the ordeal of having to choose between our obedience to God and our obedience to God’s moral law; between our love for God and our love for our children.

The testing begins with God’s call, just as God called upon Abraham to leave Ur. Abraham responds “Here I am.” Abraham does not hide from the deity who has called him by name. His reply is a prophetic response; a placing of oneself at the hands of God to be used by God. “Here I am!” I am ready, willing, and able. Abraham does not yet dread the demands of God, but then he heard the words, “Take your son, whom you love.” 

Beloved Son: The translator Stephen Mitchell argues that the Hebrew here should not be translated “your only son,” as in most English versions. Isaac is not his only son, but he is the beloved son, the son of the promise. This emphasis on Isaac as the beloved is more than a way to heighten the drama of the story. We who hear this tale need to be assured at the beginning that Abraham loves Isaac. Love means that we protect our children; that we do everything in our power to bring them to adulthood; that we nurture them and care for them. Abraham loved Isaac. He wanted him to grow up, get married, and have children. He not want him to die.

The whole meaning of Abraham’s life was bound up with Isaac. Isaac was the proof that God kept his promises. Isaac was the child of the promise, the hope for the future, the living embodiment of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. Genesis does not tell us if Abraham loved Sarah or Hagar or anyone else, but it does say that he loved Isaac. This fact separates this story from all of those horrifying tales of child abuse and murder. Abraham loved Isaac as much as he loved himself – as much as he loved God. 

Many Muslim scholars believe that the beloved child in this story was Ishmael, the first born, which would make sense. It was ancient practice to offer the first-born as a sacrifice to God. We see this in the Exodus story when the Angel kills the first-born sons of the Egyptians but accepts the sacrifice of a lamb in exchange for the Israelite sons. In Genesis, though, Abraham has already given Ishmael up at the request of Sarah. So it will be Sarah’s son who is to be sacrificed. Isaac, the one she doted on, is to be slaughtered and burned as a offering to God. Abraham left while it was dark, perhaps so Sarah would not see him take the boy away from her. But perhaps she did know and spent the night in anguish. Perhaps this was her penance for sending Ishmael away, but this is not Sarah’s story. It is Isaac and Abrahams: father and son.

The Dreadful Journey: We do not know how old Isaac was, but he seems to be about the age of puberty. Some see this journey to Moriah as part of an ancient puberty ritual. We no longer know for sure. All we are told is that Abraham listened to God’s command. Without complaint, he prepared for the journey. What was he thinking as he saddled the donkey and cut the wood for the fire that would consume his son, his future, his faith, and his life? Three days they walked to the sacred mountain. Three days of dread and silence. Three days without laughter; without tears; without prayer. Three days of anguish. 

Finally they see the sacred mountain. They leave the servants behind so that no one will see the heinous crime. Isaac has to carry the wood for his own offering because the father carried the knife and the fire. Abraham carried death and destruction as they walked. Finally, Isaac speaks. He will not be like the lamb led to slaughter who does not open his mouth, but he does ask the question of innocence: “Father?” Father – a reminder to Abraham of his responsibilities and his joys. How many of us have asked that same one word question? Father?

Abraham responded to his son just as he responded to the Lord. “Here I am.” But the meaning of these words have changed. Now the words are filled with sorrow, with the silent tears of a shattered heart. No longer words of willing faith. Now they are laden with tragedy and dread. Yes, I am your father, for a little while. You are my precious child. Here I am, my son. 

Provision: Isaac, the lamb trusting his father, asks: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” God will provide, is the answer. Interpreters disagree on the meaning of this. Is Abraham deceiving Isaac until the critical moment? Is this a statement of faith that God will provide a way out of this test? Could it be that Abraham has faith that God will overcome this contradiction in himself and provide a way? Some assert that it was not God testing Abraham in this story; it is Abraham who is testing God. Abraham is telling Isaac that God will surely change his mind. God will be faithful to his promise. God will prove worthy of Abraham’s devotion and sacrifice. God himself will provide the lamb.

This story is remembered differently in Islam. The child was also a prophet who knows that he will be sacrificed. He willingly submits to the will of God and the will of his father. It is the son who willingly carries the wood and offers his throat to the knife. Perhaps. 

There is an ancient Jewish legend that Abraham looked down at the face of his son as he raised the knife. A tear fell from the old man’s eye. A single tear that encompassed all of the misery of Abraham’s shattered life and his impossible choice. The tear fell into Isaac’s eye, blinding the boy. This was why Isaac could not see well later in life. He remained blinded by the grief of his father. We are not told what effect this terrifying episode had on Isaac as a person, but we do learn that Isaac’s name for God was simply Fear. The Fear of Isaac. 

The Ram: And in the moment of crisis, the LORD spoke. He called Abraham’s name twice, and yet again, Abraham responds with those words “Here I am.” Again, the meaning of these words has changed. Does Abraham respond in fear, in resignation, in anger, or in hope? You decide. This is the last time in the Bible that Abraham speaks to the LORD. We do not know if God ever called his name again, but we have no more stories of Abraham saying “here I am.” One senses that Abraham said “Enough.” He made the final sacrifice. He had offered his son, whom he loved to the LORD. Abraham passed the test, or perhaps God passed the test. Enough.

Abraham looked up and saw a ram to sacrifice instead of his son, and he named the place Jehovah Jireh: the LORD will provide or the LORD sees. Remember that the word provide comes from the Latin pro-video, or to look ahead. The LORD saw what Abraham was doing and he provided a way out of the crisis. As with the miracle of Hagar’s well, miracles are often a matter of seeing the solution that has always been there. 

Making Sense of the Story: And here we are on this beautiful Sunday morning preparing to sing to the Hosanna in worship. We have taken the dreadful journey with Abraham and Isaac to Moriah, but what sense do we make of this story? We could talk about our lives today as we ruthlessly sacrifice our children’s happiness to our ambitions, our over-work, and our selfish neglect. But that doesn’t fit this story from Genesis. Abraham was sacrificing his hopes and ambitions along with Isaac. 

We could interpret this story as an example of absolute obedience to the will of God, but is that all it is? We could conclude that this is about the test of faith, but what was the test? That Abraham believed that God would indeed provide a substitute for Isaac? That Abraham would murder his son at God’s command? Or that God would remain faithful to the covenant? 

Perhaps this is a story about idolatry and the need to achieve that perfect state of renunciation and detachment that the mystics speak of. If we speak of detachment, though, we must remember that means sacrificing all the things of this world; it means selflessness, which is different from the selfish way we sacrifice our children. When we face the dreadful journey to Moriah and come to the point of desperation, then we learn to distinguish between the renunciation of faith and the detachment of narcissism. 

What message or messages does this story of human sacrifice from ancient days have for us today? I am not sure, but as we approach Good Friday, we should ponder the mystery of the testing of Abraham as we contemplate the death of Jesus. According to Christian teaching, God demanded of himself what he once asked of Abraham. The tear that blinded the eye of Isaac of Moriah fell from the eye of God. Next week we will gather before dawn to proclaim the good news that death has been overcome.  

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