August 31, 2003

Mount Moriah: The Place of Testing
Genesis 22:1-19

A common theme recurs with considerable regularity across a broad sweep of cultures—men are made, not born. In one culture after another, certain rights of passage exist that enable males to pass from boyhood into manhood. While the precise nature of the ritual varies from culture to culture, the ritual itself is of vital significance. If a male fails to pass the test, he becomes what Joshua Goldstein calls a “negative example…held up scornfully to inspire conformity.”

Such rituals, by the way, exist among cultures that have virtually nothing else in common. In fishing communities, would-be men embark on life-threatening expeditions into the water. In hunting cultures, they risk their lives in search of wild game. Among the !Kung of southwest Africa, for example, boys are considered men only after they single-handedly track and kill a large adult antelope. In several other cultures, boys are subjected to grotesque pain, typically at the hands of the older men of the community, and they must refrain from showing any sign of discomfort. Among the Sambia in New Guinea, boys are whipped, flailed, and beaten, and Pueblo Indian boys aged 12-15 are whipped mercilessly. Only after stoically and silently enduring such abuse may they rightly be considered men. Men, once again, are made, not born.

Fortunately, God doesn’t whip, beat and abuse his creation, but he does at times put us through moments of testing—even excruciating testing—to teach us and to see what we are made of. True disciples, after all, are not simply born, but made.

One of the clearest examples of testing in the Bible takes place on Mount Moriah, and we read about it in Genesis 22. Like Mount Horeb, Mount Moriah’s precise location has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate, but the importance of what took place there remains unquestioned. Abraham is instructed by God to go there and to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. The assignment is stunning—disgusting even—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Recall for a moment that Abraham had been called by God to leave his homeland and to go to a new and unfamiliar place. Abraham, according to God’s plan, was to become the father of many nations and the channel through which God worked to redeem the world. It was a call that Abraham responded to with complete compliance. In the years following, however, Abraham’s life sent God mixed signals, much like ours often do. He left his homeland and made his way to Palestine, but he lied about the identity of his wife when he feared for his own safety. He forfeited his own rights and gave his nephew, Lot, the best piece of real estate, but he took matters into his own hands and had a son through a slave-girl, Hagar, when it appeared as though his wife would be unable to bear a child of her own. He followed God into the unknown, but he laughed when promised a son in his old age. Abraham’s life is a mixed bag, a rather unsettling combination of faith and disbelief in the heart of one given so significant a role.

In this context, the story of Abraham and Isaac appears. The story is neat and tidy, framed by the phrase “After these things” in both verses 1 and 20. As the story begins, Abraham is told to journey to Moriah and to sacrifice Isaac there. The key word in the story is the word “son,” and it provides the clue for understanding what takes place. Already in 15:2, Abraham was concerned over the fact that he had no son. He understood, of course, that a son was necessary for the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. How, after all, could he become the father of many nations, and how in the world might his descendants ever be as numerous as the sands on the seashore if he himself remained childless? Things just don’t work that way, do they? The birth of Isaac, then, was crucial in resolving all of this tension. Isaac was Abraham and Sarah’s son, but he was more than that. Isaac became the heir who would make the fulfillment of God’s promises possible.

This same importance of Isaac is reinforced here in Genesis 22:1-19. Some ten times the word “son” appears in the story, and everyone who speaks—except Isaac himself—uses it. Further, the various pronouns used with reference to the word “son” point their scrawny fingers directly at Abraham and only heighten the sense of anxiety here. “Take your son,” God instructs Abraham. “So Abraham…took…his son,” the writer informs us. “Here I am, my son,” Abraham responds to Isaac. You can feel the tension, can’t you? Remove Isaac, and you lose a son. But more. Remove Isaac, and you lose everything that you have come to believe in.

And yet, Abraham does precisely what he was told to do. The writer in typical fashion simply gives us the bare bones. “So Abraham rose…saddled his donkey…took two young men, and his son Isaac…cut the wood…and went to the place that God had shown him.” Even when Isaac himself inquires as to the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, Abraham replies matter-of-factly: “God himself will provide.” You know, of course, that a great deal is going on in Abraham’s soul, even if the writer refuses to open those internal windows. What must he have been thinking as he left the two servants behind and walked on ahead with Isaac? What must he have felt? “Is serving God really worth all of this?” he surely wondered. “Why would God ask me to do such a bizarre thing anyway?”

Judith Wright, in her recent book entitled There Must be MORE Than This: Finding MORE Life, Love and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions, suggests that the key to experiencing a deepening spirituality and finding true meaning in life involves making one central, fundamental choice, a choice that will guide you through the myriad of secondary choices that everyday life always brings. For Wright, that choice requires a person to decide that he or she will choose to experience life fully and to not settle for all of the second-rate alternatives that present themselves. Choosing life, for example, involves facing our true feelings and nurturing our souls with life-giving experiences rather than drowning out our cares through such things as gossiping maliciously, playing video games endlessly, surfing the net mindlessly, watching T.V. constantly, shopping compulsively, exercising incessantly, or eating uncontrollably. Making the choice to live, Wright concludes, enables us to begin setting aside and saying “No” to those “soft addictions” that repeatedly stand in our way. When they call out to us—“eat, shop, watch, play”—we can respond, “No, I’ve made a fundamental choice to live life to the fullest, and that is what I am going to do.”

For the people of God, making such a fundamental choice is no less significant, although the choice itself should be couched in slightly different language. Making the fundamental decision to follow God with every ounce of energy we have, no matter what, will enable us to subsequently make the countless secondary decisions that we will inevitably face. When alternatives that would jeopardize that decision arise, we can say, “No, I’ve decided to follow Jesus, and that is what I am going to do.” When difficult responsibilities come our way that following Jesus requires us to do, we can likewise respond, “I’ve already made the decision to follow, so I’m prepared to take the next step.”

Abraham, our previous doubts and concerns notwithstanding, made that fundamental choice when he left his homeland. He stumbled occasionally, but we see here in chapter 22that he had made that choice with such sincerity and conviction that, when asked to do the unthinkable, he said, “O.K.” “Give me the resolve to do everything that you ask me to do,” John Wesley once prayed. Abraham here demonstrates such resolve.

As Mount Moriah stands before us, I can’t help but wonder what test awaits me there. As I carry the wood on my back and stumble to that isolated stone altar, what is God asking me to tie up and burn? What is he asking of you? What would I find virtually unthinkable—impossible—to sacrifice there? My spouse? My son? My daughter? My career? My reputation? My time? My money? Who or what do I cling to? Who or what serves as the center of my world? Who or what occupies a place of such importance in my life that even God might be left to play second fiddle? “Take it, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer it there as a burnt offering on the mountains that I shall show you.” Have you and I made the fundamental decision to follow God with such conviction and determination that we are willing to do even that? Abraham did, and he went.

As I continue to this very moment gazing up at Mount Moriah and reflecting on what transpired there, two thoughts refuse to let me rest. Abraham’s act of obedience, for one thing, reminds me that serving God involves far more than affirming a certain theological statement or creed, far more than merely giving lip service to a set of ideas or responding correctly to a doctrinal questionnaire. Serving God involves more than saying that we believe in Jesus or telling people that we accept the authority of the Bible. “Biblical Faith,” Nahum Sarna reminds us, “is not a posture of passivity.” Biblical Faith “finds its fullest expression in the realm of action. The ultimate test of our commitment to God is not so much in what we claim to believe, but in how we order our lives.

But in addition to that, I’ve wondered how the decision facing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac really differed from his earlier decision to leave his homeland and journey with God into the unknown. Why would God wonder about Abraham’s faithfulness if he had been willing earlier to leave everything he had and travel to some isolated place? Isn’t this a bit excessive, like giving an additional final exam to a straight-A student? Then, the difference between the two occurrences seemed so obvious to me that I wondered how I might have missed it. When God called Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia, he promised to give him innumerable descendants and a new homeland if he agreed. “Abraham,” God in fact announced, “if you follow me to this new place, all of the world will be yours.” When Deb and I and our two little boys moved to Kenya some years ago, we came back with a daughter!

The call to go Moriah is far different. This time, God calls Abraham, not to some noteworthy gain, but to a mind-numbing loss. “If you go to Moriah as I am instructing you, you will end up childless.” Abraham readily accepted the first of his callings. That was his version of Judith Wright’s decision to live life to the fullest. That was his foundational decision that would hopefully guide all of the subsequent decisions that he would surely face. Abraham made that first decision. But what about the second? What about the decision to sacrifice that which was most important to him? What about the decision to go to Mount Moriah? That’s the test. The ultimate test of a person’s commitment to God is not so much in what they gain in this life, but in what they are willing to give up. And Abraham journeyed to Mount Moriah, and there he was willing to offer Isaac, his only son.

In countless cultures around the world, various rituals exist that enable young boys to prove their manhood. These young boys have decided that they want to be men, so they explore the raging seas, hunt wild game, and silently endure excruciating pain. The Bible speaks of a rite of passage as well, the rite of total self-denial. Abraham, having previously decided to leave his homeland and follow God, journeyed to Mount Moriah and offered his son. And note God’s response in verse 12: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God….” Jesus, having previously decided to leave his homeland and follow his father, journeyed to Mount Calvary and offered his life. And note God’s response: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,…” A life-changing decision, unwavering commitment, and God’s approval.