June 26, 2005
ABRAHAMS TEST: TOTALLY COMMITTED
INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS MOST VALUABLE?
If I were to ask you, "What is the most valuable thing you possess?", how would you respond? Of everything you have, what is it that you value the most? It may not be the most expensive thing you own, but what do your cherish more than anything else? A priceless family heirloom? Your 1972 Chevy Nova with mag wheels, dual exhaust and a 307 engine under the hood? Your baseball card collection? Your house? Your high school geometry notes? Your Nintendo Game Cube? Your photo albums? Your computer? Whatever it is, how would you feel if someone asked you to give it up or give it away? What would your response be? Youd probably say, "Not on your life. This is too important to me. I can't live without it. I wouldnt trade it for the world."
It is precisely this situation in which Abraham finds himself in Genesis 22. Only in Abrahams case the stakes are even higher. What Abraham is asked to give up is not some inanimate object. It is not his most prized possession. It is his most cherished child. According to this story, God tests Abraham by asking him to give up the most important thing in his life: his son Isaac, the miracle boy! Actually, to be more precise, God doesnt simply ask Abraham to give up Isaac, God asks Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. In short, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. And from what we can tell, Abraham seems fully intent on carrying out this request.
DIFFICULTIES OF THIS TEXT
For many readers, this is a terribly troubling passage. Before we even get past the second verse we are faced with a nasty moral dilemma. God is portrayed as ordering human sacrifice! What are we supposed to do with that? Did we get it wrong here at Grantham this morning? Should we have been sacrificing our children up on the alter rather than merely dedicating them? Isnt there some old saying, "A church that slays together stays together?" Something tells me that wouldnt go over very well with the church board, not to mention the parents of the affected children!
Genesis 22 is a troubling passage, one that has bothered people for many years. Some of the difficulties of this text are brilliantly captured in Anne Tylers novel titled, Saint Maybe. At one point in the novel, a teenage girl named Agatha is objecting to her uncles insistence that she attend church. Her argument is based, in part, upon passages of Scripture which annoy her. She mentions the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the flood recorded in Genesis that reportedly annihilates almost every human being, and this story in Genesis 22. About this she says,
Or Abraham and Isaac. That one really ticks me off. God asks Abraham to kill his own son. And Abraham says, "Okay." Can you believe it? And then at the very last minute God says, "Only testing. Ha?ha." Boy, Id like to know what Isaac thought. All the rest of his life, any time his father so much as looked in his direction Isaac would think1
At this point Agatha is cut off by her uncle who interrupts her tirade in an attempt to shut down her criticism. Still, Agatha has said enough to capture something of the dilemma we face when reading this text.
Agathas sentiments are not those of fictional characters alone. They reflect what many readers feel when encountering this story and others like it. Numerous scholars have reflected on the shadow side of this text. Old Testament scholar James Crenshaw refers to this divine command as "a monstrous test" and believes "one labors in vain . . . to find the slightest hint of divine compassion in the dreadful story recorded in Gen 22:1?19."2 Put even more bluntly, David Gunn and Danna Fewell write,
We are not told what God wanted or expected to find in Abrahams performance. Most readings assume that what Abraham did met with Gods approval. Abraham, on account of his radical obedience, becomes an exemplary character. Such a reading, on the other hand, leaves the character of God in a rather sticky situation. At the very best one might assert that God is simply unfathomable; at the worst, God is deranged and sadistic.3
This is not the way we are used to hearing people talk about God or our beloved Bible stories. Still, Terence Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota warns us against the dangers of glossing over the problematic dimensions of Genesis 22 and passages like it. According to Fretheim,
To continue to exalt such texts as the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and not to recognize that . . . it can be read as a case of divine child abuse, is to contribute to an atmosphere that in subtle, but insidious ways justifies the abuse of children. . . . Lives are at stake.4
Whether or not you fully agree with these sentiments, they do raise an important point. This text is difficult and potentially dangerous. It needs to be handled with care.
In light of that, let me be as clear as possible here. God does not want human sacrifice. God never has and never will. If you ever think you hear a divine voice commanding you to offer your child as a burnt offering, you have not heard the voice of God. On the contrary, the God most fully revealed in the person of Jesus blesses children and uses them as examples of the kind of character one must develop to enter the kingdom of heaven. Children are of enormous worth and importance in Gods economy and must never be neglected or abused. Whatever we take away from this passage, it should not be some message suggesting that kids are disposable.
Obviously, simply saying that does not resolve all the difficulties this passage raises. We are still left with a problematic portrait of God. But working through that issue must be left for another time since I want to focus on other dimensions of the text. Even disturbing passages of Scripture, like Gen 22, can be read in constructive ways and that is what I want to do this morning. So without denying the problems a passage like this raises, I would like to offer a positive reading of this text, one that I think has profound implications for us today. With that as a rather lengthy preamble, lets return now to Genesis 22.
THE SPECIALNESS OF ISAAC
In v. 2, Abraham is asked to give up the most important person in his life, his son Isaac. The specialness of Isaac is emphasized in this verse. Notice that God doesnt simply say, "Take Isaac and go to the land of Moriah." God says, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah." Isaac was not just any old child. He wasnt your ordinary boy. He was truly a miracle.
As youll recall, when Abraham was 99 years old God promised that his 90 year old wife Sarah would give birth to a son even though she was well past the age of childbearing. Moreover, this is Abrahams first child with his wife Sarah. She had previously been unable to have children. Imagine how dearly loved little Isaac must have been.
But Isaac is special for another reason. He is special because he was the child through whom Gods promises to Abraham were to be fulfilled. God had promised that it was through Isaac that Abraham would become a great nation. It was through Isaac that Abraham would have as many descendants as the dust on the earth and the stars in heaven. In a very real sense, Isaac was Abrahams future. All of his most precious hopes and dreams were wrapped up in the life of that boy. If Isaac was slain, how would God keep these promises? How would Abraham become a great nation with many descendants? Asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was much more than simply asking him to give up a special person, it was asking him to sacrifice his deepest longings for the future.
With that in mind, you can imagine how alarmed Abraham must have been when God calls him by name and says to him, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go . . . and offer him . . . as a burnt offering" (Gen. 22:2). Although the text offers no verbal reply from Abraham, one cant help but wonder if Abraham was thinking, "But God, this is my boy, the only child Sarah and I ever had together. I love Isaac. Hes the miracle child, the one you promised me. And besides, all of your promises to me are dependent upon Isaac. If Isaac dies how will I live on?" Yet as much as we might wish, the text yields no clues about Abrahams thoughts on the matter.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BURNT OFFERING
There is, however, one thing the text tells us that is instructive at this point. Notice in v. 2 that Abraham is told to make a particular kind of sacrifice. God asks Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. A burnt offering was one of several different kinds of animal sacrifices described at the beginning of the book of Leviticus. Sometimes, when an animal was sacrificed, some of the meat could be eaten by the priests and/or by the person who brought the sacrificial animal. This was not the case with a burnt offering. The parts of the animal offered for a burnt offering were completely burned on the altar so that nothing but ashes remained. At one level, this may have symbolized the worshipers complete commitment to God. In effect, the worshiper was saying to God, "Just as I give this entire animal to you, so also I give my entire self to you. I am totally yours, totally committed to you."
The animal used for a burnt offering needed to be a domestic animal. It need to be one from your own flock. You didnt sacrifice your neighbor's sheep. You didnt bring in road kill. You brought in one of your own animals. And you brought one that was unblemished. You brought one that had no defects or deformities. You brought in the kind of animal you would have used for breeding. Giving up that quality of an animal was costly. This was especially true in a day and age when a persons wealth wasnt measured by the size of their bank account or stock portfolio but by the size of their flock. To be willing to offer one of the best animals in your flock was, in a very real sense, to give up some of your security for the future.
Perhaps this helps put the story in perspective. God asks Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering because Isaac was his most valuable son, the one in whom his future security rested. In this way, God was asking Abraham, "Abraham, do you love me more than anything else in the world? Do you love me more than Isaac? More than the promises Ive made to you? More than your future? And it would seem that Abraham says, "Yes, Lord. I do."
DESCRIBING THE ASCENT
The command to sacrifice Isaac in v. 2 is followed by these words in verse 3: "So 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." Without hesitation Abraham makes the necessary travel arrangements and sets off to do precisely what God had commanded. Abraham and Isaac, along with two other young men, embark on their journey. They travel for three days before coming near the place where the sacrifice is to be made. At this point, Abraham leaves the two young men behind, puts the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac, takes the knife and the fire, and begins the ascent up the mountain with his beloved son.
Sometime during their climb, something clicks inside Isaacs mind. Theres something terribly wrong with this picture. He says, "Dad, there seems to be a little problem here. Weve got the matches and weve got the wood for the burnt offering, but, well, wheres the offering? Wheres the animal were supposed to sacrifice." And Abraham somewhat cryptically replies, "God will provide . . . the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:8). Perhaps Abraham really thought God would supply an animal for the sacrifice. Or perhaps his response is intentionally ambiguous so as not to scare Isaac out of his mind. In any case, Abraham still appears completely committed to do what God had instructed.
Once they arrive at the designated spot, Abraham begins to bind Isaac to the altar in a way that I can assure you is not what they mean when they talk about male bonding! It has always intrigued me that nowhere in the story is there any indication that Isaac puts up a struggle. Presumably, Isaac would have been old enough to do so. After all, he was the one who had carried the wood. He is no mere toddler here. And I dont know about you, but if my dad built a campfire and put me on the grill where the hamburgers and hot dogs usually go, I'd at least have a few things to say to him.
Id say, "Dad, we need to talk, now. I know the air is a little thin up here on the mountain, maybe you ought to sit down and collect yourself.
God told you to do this? Well, are you sure you heard the message right? You are over a hundred years old and your hearing isnt what it used to be. Maybe you ought to check again.
Whats that? Oh, youre sure you heard the message correctly. Well, are you sure that it was God speaking and not somebody else? Youre sure it was God.
Now look dad. If you go through with this there will be no more fathers day cards or birthday presents from me. And besides, just think what Mom will say when you get home!
But let our imaginations go where they will, all that were left with is silence in the text. There is no indication of any kind of struggle and every indication that Abraham was serious and fully intent on carrying out this sacrifice. Abraham stretches out his hand and takes hold of the knife. He is about to kill his son when the angel of the Lord calls to him saying, "Abraham, Abraham." Which literally means, "father of a multitude, father of a multitude." Ironic, isn t it, that at the very moment Abraham is about to destroy his chances of having many descendants, he should be reminded of this promise. God says, dont do anything to boy. And the reason given for this sudden reversal, is crucial for understanding one of the main points of this story. The angel of the Lord says, "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."
Although we knew from v. 1 that God was testing Abraham, these words clarify what kind of test it was. This was not merely a test of obedience. Abraham had already demonstrated his obedience to God over a quarter century earlier when he packed his bags and responded to Gods call to leave the familiar life he knew in Haran and travel to an unknown land. This was a different kind of test. It was a test of Abrahams ultimate allegiance. It was the kind of test that would expose his priorities and reveal what mattered most to him. Who was first in Abrahams life: God or Isaac? Abrahams willingness to let go of Isaac signified that God was more important to him than holding onto the miracle boy at all costs. "Now I know that you fear God," the angel of the Lord says, "since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
WITHHOLDING NOTHING FROM GOD
As we reflect on what this text might say to us today, allow me to offer this suggestion. What God wanted from Abraham is the same thing God wants from each of us. God wants to know that there is nothing in our lives that rivals our allegiance to God. God longs for us to say, "Nothing is more important to me than living in obedience to you. I am unconditionally yours, willing to go where you want me to go, do what you want me to do, live like you want me to live. I dont know exactly what this means for me or how it will all end up, but I know that you are good and have my best interests in mind."
Abraham demonstrated his reverence for God by not withholding Isaac, his most precious son. This same idea of nothing being withheld appears in an unrelated story later in the book of Genesis. In Gen 39, Joseph becomes an overseer in the house of Potiphar who is one of Pharaohs officers. While in Egypt, Joseph rises to such prominence that he is given full access to everything in Potiphar s house except his wife. Otherwise, nothing is off limits for Joseph. Likewise, God wants to have full and unrestricted access to every area of our lives. How we spend our time. How we spend our money. What we think, what we do, what we say. Our hobbies and our habits. God wants us to come to that place where we say, my life is totally open to you. There is nothing that is off limits or rivals my devotion to you.
Its similar to the kind of commitment that is made when two people get married. Its been just over fourteen years now since that warm sunny day when Elisa and I stood at the front of a beautiful church in Connecticut and there, before family and friends, said our marriage vows and were pronounced man and wife. Now what do you think Elisas response would have been if during the drive to our honeymoon site I turned and said to her, "Elisa, now that were married, I will be available to you on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6:00 p.m. ? 8:00 p.m. The rest of the week, however, is mine to do with whatever I please." She would have been outraged! She would have reminded me in no uncertain terms that this is not what marriage is all about. When I married Elisa I made a full life commitment to her. She would have all of me "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health." I was hers. I promised to be her husband not just for a couple hours a day a few times a week, but 24 hours a day every day!
In much the same way, when we choose to follow Jesus, we are called to make a full life commitment in which we promise to withhold nothing from God. As one writer puts it, we sign "over the rights" of our lives to God "for all of the unknown future."5 Obviously, this is not a decision we make just once in our lives and then never need to consider again. Instead, it involves a lifelong process of saying "Yes!" to God and to all that God would have us do and be. Like the chorus that says, "I'm yours Lord, everything I am, everything I've got, Everything I'm not, I'm yours Lord, try me now and see, see if I will be completely yours." And, as with Abraham, sometimes God does try us and tests our willingness to surrender even that which is dearest to us.
This is dramatically illustrated in the story of the rich ruler found in the gospels. In Marks account, in chapter 10, a man comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says, "You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother" (Mark 10:19). And the guy says, "Ive done all these things since I was a kid." Jesus then says to him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mark 10:20). So what does the rich ruler do? Does he go away rejoicing saying, "Thank you Jesus, now I know what must be done to inherit eternal life!"? Not exactly. In v. 22 we read, "When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions." In other words, he withheld his possessions. They were clearly more important to him than following Jesus.
Like this man, it is very tempting for us to give much of our lives to God, to keep the commandments so to speak, but to reserve a corner here or an enclave there from which God is excluded, where we say in effect, "God, you are not welcome here. Keep your hands off this area of my life." What the story of Abraham and Isaac suggests is that God longs for us to come to be people who say, "It s all yours, God. You are more important to me than anything I have or am." The reason for this is not because God is a control freak who wants to micromanage our lives. The reason is simply that we cannot serve two masters. As Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matt 6:24a). Much in the same way as a faithful spouse doesnt want his or her partner getting romantically involved with other people, so too God doesnt want our loyalty divided. God wants us to be totally committed.
The story of Abraham and the near sacrifice of Isaac challenges us to search our own hearts to determine if weve put up some "no trespassing" signs in our lives. It forces us to consider whether there might be some areas we have been withholding from God. Maybe weve grown so attached to our home and property that we are unwilling to hear the voice of God calling us to some other place of service. Or perhaps weve grown accustomed to having evenings or weekends to ourselves that we refuse to serve God at those times. Maybe we spend an inordinate amount of time devoted to some particular hobby or activity that takes priority over investing time in our relationship with God and others. Maybe our desire to earn lots of money occupies far more of our attention than the things of God. In these or numerous other ways, it is very easy for us to make these things more important than our relationship with God. Thats why we need to reassess our attitude from time to time to be sure that nothing competes with our allegiance to God.
Please hear me carefully. I am not suggesting that we should become workaholics who "burn out for Jesus." Regular periods of rest, self?care, and leisure are not only necessary, they are pleasing to God. What I am trying to say is that we need to guard against our tendency to restrict God from certain areas of our lives. And we need to be careful that other interests, commitments, and relationships don t take priority over our primary commitment to follow Jesus and live out the gospel message. It is healthy to periodically examine ourselves and consider whether God really does command our ultimate allegiance or if there are rivals to our devotion to God. As we pray in just a moment, I would invite you to consider the condition of your own heart this morning. Are there areas of your life you are withholding from God? Are there things which compete for your allegiance to God? If so, how might God be prompting you to change?