Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
The life of faith is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.
Frankly, in a religious system that requires those who believe to tell others- sacrifice is among the LEAST appealing words. No one sings, “I love to tell the story. It is fierce and gory/ To tell the old, old story/ of Abr’m and his son.” We are squeamish at the songs that are about blood, about sacrifice, about giving up all our things, about the less- than- stellar human rights record of the church and its equally dull historical response to evil.
It is also difficult to realize that even reading Scripture requires sacrifice. There are things that cannot all be true when we read Scripture as a whole. We all generally have a habit of considering certain stories more relevant than others. In so doing, we sacrifice what we don’t want to think about or what seems unimportant to what we prefer or seems more significant to us.
Which brings us to the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. This is a terrible story, a horrific story, and, in general, the number one story cited by atheists as a proof for the rejection of God. What kind of God would do this?
And I’m confronted with a dilemma- do I defend God (is God’s reputation mine to defend)? Do I laud Abraham? Do I give Isaac or Sarah a voice that’s otherwise not recorded in the scripture? And I have a very small amount of time, so I will be sacrificing many things I’d like to say.
This story requires sacrifice from us. We can choose to sacrifice from among many things, but there are three main choices that we will lay upon the altar and prepare to offer up and away from us. We must either sacrifice the idea that this story is a historical fact or we must sacrifice the idea of a God who does not test through trauma or we sacrifice the idea of God’s perfect foreknowledge, that God knows what we will do before we do it.
The first sacrifice that we may make is the idea that all Scripture is a historical fact. The stories of Genesis and early Exodus, in particular, were first written down when the people of Israel were in exile. Some had been told for generations and generations, but others were organized during exile to give strength to the people. A particular story may not have actually occurred, but still contained an important truth that supported the life of the people who are doing the telling.
Israel was likely alone among its neighboring nations in not practicing child sacrifice. Other groups of people may also specifically have had a practice of sacrificing the first fruits of all things- plants, animals, and children. Israel needed story, an explanation, for the way they did things- sparing the firstborn children, refusing to kill their infants. The story of the binding of Isaac reveals a way that could have happened- God set up a situation to make it clear to Abraham that child sacrifice was NOT the things were to be done.
If this story is told during the exile- in Babylon or elsewhere- the people of Israel need to make sense of what’s happening to them and where God is in it. They perceive themselves to be the beloved of God, the firstborn of God’s plan, the vessels of God’s promises. They may be on the sacrificial altar of exile, but God will not let them be destroyed. Provisions will be made. Israel will not perish and the consolation story, the reminder tale, the encouraging word is a story going as far back as Abraham. God tested, but did not allow the beloved and longed- for son of Father-of-Many (which is what Abraham means) to die in the test.
If either of these constructions makes more sense to us than the idea that God would test Abraham in this way. Or that the man who argued on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah wouldn’t speak up for his son. If either of these reasons for the story is more acceptable, we have sacrificed the idea of historical fact (for this specific scripture reading) for a transmission of cultural truth.
Several years ago, I was meeting with some of the parents of children who attend our preschool (the kids do, not the parents). We met because a preschool family- two parents and two little girls- had died in a small plane crash. I met with people to talk about their own grief and to help them know how to discuss this with their children. We had a long talk about where God might be in such a tragedy and what we could know and what we didn’t know. At the end of a good conversation, just before we prayed, one woman said, “I don’t know. I believe God does these things sometimes to test our faith.”
I just looked at her, thinking, “If God feels the need to kill a whole family just to test our faith, then I’m out. I’m done. No more.” What I said was, “Hmm… well, let’s pray.” Maybe we look at this story and we think, “This is not the word of the Lord for me. I can’t believe in a God who tests through trauma. I have come to trust that God may stretch me and push me and even hit me upside the head sometimes. However, a God that kills children, a God that would even suggest it, a God that creates and uses horrible and traumatic situations to bolster faith, which is supposed to be a gift- I can’t believe in that God. I won’t.”
Perhaps we read this story and we have to either sacrifice the idea of a God who wouldn’t test through trauma (meaning God did and God does). Or we trust that God tempers our faith, but the wretched things that happen in life are not a result of God’s desire to see us be more faithful. They are the result of our choice (sometimes), the choices of others (sometimes), and the forces that oppose God. If God tests through trauma, then God wants Syrian civilians to die. God expects great faith to come from 8 and 9 year-old girls who are given in marriage to 40-year-old men in Yemen. God is building enormous trust through the inequality and inhumanity that is our criminal justice system.
If we want to accept that this story is factual and significant to Scripture as a real event, we must accept that God made Abraham righteous, but also tested the limits of that righteousness. That if God will test through trauma one time, God would, could, and does do it again. Is that a sacrifice you’re willing to make, a belief you’re willing to accept? Because holding that to be true will prove to sacrifice a certain peace of mind about God’s will in which we’ve usually found peace.
The last, and hardest, sacrifice we might make with this story is the notion that divine foreknowledge is perfect. Maybe God knows the arc of how things will work out, but does not always know how we will respond. God made a series of very serious covenants with Abraham- promises that involved generations, land, and blessings. God didn’t make these promises to just anyone and maybe it was time be sure the choice was a good one. Before Isaac gets to the age of reproducing, before the generations really get rolling, before Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister again (as he did twice before), God needs to be sure that Abraham is truly faithful, is trusting, and is worthy of the work God intends to do through him. And God tests because God does not know for sure.
How does that sit with you- the idea that God does not know what we will do before we do it? This is the ultimate definition of free will- that we are faced with a myriad of choices and responses to God’s actions (God always moves first). When human actions occur, God responds- using the Spirit to bring about good. If God already knows what we will do, then why would God be involved in the world at all now? God can retreat, sit on God’s lounge chair, and relax until whatever time it is that Jesus will return. If we sacrifice the idea that God has perfect foreknowledge, we are received, instead, into a relationship with an active and responsive God.
I haven’t explained the story of the binding of Isaac. I haven’t said a firm statement about why it’s there or what it means. I can’t. We come to this story and it does require sacrifice of us. We must either embrace it as a story with truth, but not facts. Or we must believe in a God who tests through trauma, among other things. Or we have to let go of the idea that God has predestined and knows every action.
This story requires a sacrifice, but so does all faithful living. We must sacrifice the idea that we can save ourselves, that we are in control, that our goodness brings redemption, that sanctification (becoming more holy) happens through our willpower. We must sacrifice the idea that we can fully know and, in the ashes of that surrender, the peace that passes our understand can and does bloom.
We have welcomed Jax into a life that is mysterious, frustrating, and powerfully hopeful. And it’s full of sacrifices, starting with God’s own willingness to create, to be involved, to walk among us, and to pour out the Spirit in blessing and guidance.
The life of faithfulness is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.