I just cannot bear this passage. Dan knows if he is picking a movie on Netflix, it cannot be about kidnapping or violence against children –I cannot watch them. I was an on-call emergency room chaplain at a children’s hospital briefly when I first started to stay home with my children full-time, and it did not take me too long to figure out this was not my gift. Watching a 10-month old die from drowning in the bathtub. Standing over a small coffin, repeating my own son’s name at a funeral for someone else’s child. Standing by in support while the nurse cleaned and dressed a deceased infant.
I found the frequent injury, illness, and death of children in the hospital nearly unbearable. I find this passage of Scripture just as difficult. Why would God ask such a thing of Abraham—to sacrifice his son? There have been decades of promises of him becoming the father of a great nation, finally the birth of Isaac in his very old age, and then the sending away of Ishmael, his first son by the slave, Hagar. This leaves Isaac as the only heir of this long-standing, often-repeated promise, and now God wants to take it all away? Why would God ask this?
And why would Abraham comply without even a single protest? When God wanted to destroy Sodom in Genesis 18, Abraham made a bargain with God to spare the city if 50 righteous men could be found. Then Abraham argued God down from there to 40 men, then to 30 and finally he got God to agree to spare the city if 10 righteous men could be found. Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom, but here, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son and he does not put up a fight, not even a peep, before heading up Mt. Moriah?
In Hebrew this is even more poignant and painful: “Abraham,” which means father of nations, “take your son, your only son, whom you love and offer him there as a burnt offering….” How can Abraham be a father of nations if he gives his only son as a burnt offering for the Lord? The passage makes clear that God is testing Abraham. But testing him for what?
Perhaps the answer is in his name and the promise—"Abraham, father of many nations.” God has put all his eggs in the Abraham basket. Is he up to the task? Is Abraham finally ready for this kind of role and responsibility? Can God trust him with his ultimate plan? This theme of providing Abraham with an heir has been consistently complemented by Abraham’s wavering faith. He has not always proved to be a trustworthy partner for God.
If you know Abraham’s story well, you will remember that out of fear, Abraham twice tried to pass off Sarah as his sister, landing her in the bedroom of a foreign ruler. He did not trust God then. Abraham did not trust God when he went along with Sarah’s plan to create their own heir with Hagar. Abraham laughed in God’s face when the promise of an heir was repeated when he was older. Now that Isaac was born and Abraham experienced the fulfillment of God’s promises, did Abraham really trust God? Had he really changed his wavering ways? Was he a worthy partner for God’s vision of blessing the earth?
So, God asks Abraham to demonstrate his faith by trusting God with his hopes, his future, his deepest longings, his only son whom he loves. While the story is not clear why God commands Abraham to sacrifice the son that he loves, it is clear that God wants Abraham to face his own conflicted and divided loyalties, his own lack of trust.
Isn’t that what God wants from all of us? Our whole heart rather than a divided one? Full-bodied faith, and whole-soul trust that does not waver when we think we have a better idea or when we too easily forget who it is who made the foundations of the earth?
Right now, we may feel like Abraham does, standing on Mt. Moriah alone with everything and everyone precious to us hanging in the balance, ready to be sacrificed in a moment to a pandemic that is worsening around us. We want to ignore the reality and do what we please anyway, but that will put ourselves and those we love at risk. We want to create our own solutions, but we only have to see the news to be reminded that there is so much over which we have no control. COVID-19 has become a mountain of testing. Like Abraham, we must ask ourselves if we are going to rely on our own failed solutions one more time, or will we, in this crisis, cast our life and everything we love into God’s hands?
Maybe that’s why Abraham complied with God’s request without argument. He was finally old enough to see that his own solutions brought heartache, and fully trusting God with everything he held dear, was the only path to life and peace.
As it turns out, the test serves its purpose and changes the relationship for both Abraham and God. Abraham finally, fully trusts God—his words to Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice became true—God did provide the lamb. Not only that—God will provide everything he needs. Abraham now knows, in the profoundest of ways, that life with God is a gift, and God’s blessing is freely given as a gift of grace. Abraham does need to do anything except trust—God will provide—generously, bountifully, wondrously.
All Abraham does is look up and notice that God has been there all along, guiding his steps, directing his paths, and creating a future for him. Abraham now is free to give up his fears, his schemes, his lack of trust—God is the Lord of life and death—his, Sarah’s, Isaac’s, and everything he holds dear. The only way to abundant life is to put all that he treasures into God’s hands. God can be trusted with everything he loves most. That is why Jews call this story Akedah. God provides.
God is also changed that day: God learns that Abraham not only trusts him, but fears him—not in a paralyzing way, but in an “awesome, holy respect, you-are-the-Lord-of-life-and-death” way. Now God sees that Abraham has moved from simple obedience to an awe-filled, fearsome, deep trust, giving God a true human partner in fulfilling God’s dream for building a nation of faithful people through whom he will bless the whole earth.
God is still faithful to this promise made to Abraham to bring life-saving provision for God’s people. While Abraham’s son was spared, God sacrificed his own, only begotten Son, giving him up to death for love of the world, and all of its children, costing God dearly. Here too, Akedah: God provides. Today God fulfills what God started in Abraham—the blessing of the whole world in a sacrifice of love and forgiveness that makes all of us one with God for eternity.
And this Son, God’s only Son, whom God loved, who was sacrificed on our behalf, teaches us to pray a prayer that strengthens in us, the deep faith and trust that finally came to our ancestor Abraham—
• A deep faith and trust built on holy awe and respect—Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
• A deep faith that trusts God’s plan rather than our own schemes—thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
• A deep faith that trusts that God will provide—give us this day our daily bread.
• A deep faith and trust that is aware of its failures—forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
• A deep faith that trusts so much it does not need to be tested—lead us not into temptation.
• A deep faith that trusts the hand of the Lord will protect us—but deliver us from evil.
• A deep faith and trust that recognizes that God is sovereign and almighty—complete and holy, that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, our life and death, and all that is precious to us—so we are free to live at peace –for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.