The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his young son Isaac at God’s command is proof positive that the Bible is not for children. Pretty much every adult takes offence at hearing it, too. Scarcely is the story told than the questions and objections pour forth: What kind of God is it that would even think of commanding such a thing? Are we supposed to follow every command of God, including child sacrifice? And even if God didn’t really intend Abraham to go through with this, as was evidently the case, if God were just testing Abraham, how cruel does that make God!
That is usually how the conversation goes upon hearing this story. But let me quickly cut it off, or at least the direction it is taking, by a couple of quick answers to these troubling questions. First: No, God does not generally command us to kill our children; in fact, as the old joke goes, grandchildren are God’s reward for not having killed your own children. Second: Yes, if you hear a voice telling you to do harm to anyone, especially your children, don’t listen to it. No two ways about it. God will back you on this one.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s then just concentrate on the story itself which is about Abraham and about Isaac and about God, and is not really about us, or about what God might command us to do, at least not in the first instance. It is only then, when we get the story itself down, that we may be able to see the larger picture, for there is indeed a larger picture to be seen here and that does have something to do with us.
I say this because understanding this story depends upon understanding Abraham’s relation to God. It is his relation, and it has its own history, and it is unique. None of us is Abraham; Abraham in this story is not meant to be everyman. Just listen to how the story goes to see how.
Abraham’s story starts back a-ways from this story about being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. It starts when Abraham is seventy years old and is told to leave his ancestral home, for God intended to make of Abram, as he was then called, a great nation, and God promised that all the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham. Abraham, although he had no history with this God before this, responds in faith; he takes God at his word and starts walking.
Now, fulfilling this promise ends up taking a long time. You might even say it is to this day still being fulfilled. For Abraham himself, it took a lot of turns. For example, to be the father of a great nation, one has to be a father of at least one child, and Abraham was seventy and his wife Sarah was certainly also beyond child-bearing years. She even thought the whole idea hilarious, when God’s plan was explicitly laid out to her later at age ninety. Yet, after a false start with a surrogate, God fulfills his promise and Isaac is born when Abraham is a hundred years old. Isaac is the beginning of the future God promised; Isaac is the promise.
Then comes the command to Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moresheth and sacrifice him. It is certainly a lot to ask. It is horrific to contemplate simply with respect to what Abraham is being asked to do to his own child. But, there is even more to it than that, because he is also being asked, in effect, to sacrifice the future that he had been promised. It is difficult to see how the promise to Abraham will be fulfilled if Isaac is lost. Isaac was already a miracle; it is hard to see how that could be repeated. He is being asked to have faith in God’s promise, and yet sacrifice the way to fulfill it. Yet, Abraham quietly packs Isaac up, and heads off to the Mount.
Why? As we ask this, I think we have to realize that there is nothing in our experience that can shed light on Abraham’s thinking. But, perhaps, that is the point. Our experience is not Abraham’s experience, just as the threat we see in the commandment is only half the threat Abraham has to bear. Let me, therefore, be clear about where our experience is not Abraham’s. Abraham had a lot of history with God that was unique to Abraham. Our faith journey, as we call it, is only vaguely analogous to what Abraham experienced after God’s original call to him. Abraham had trusted God’s seemingly-absurd promise, not once but several times, and every time God delivered, and delivered in some pretty surprising ways. So, if nothing else, and this doesn’t lessen the magnitude of the command, Abraham had a lot of reason to trust the God who was asking him to do this thing. He had history with God, and a pretty profound history it was.
This is seen particularly in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question: “There is wood and there is fire and there is the knife. But where, father, is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers simply, “God himself will provide the offering.” We really don’t know what is going on in Abraham’s mind when he says this. It would be wrong to concoct some chain of reasoning as we have never been in his place, and we really don’t know what it would be like to be him, either in his past or in his present choices. But what is clear is that he believes God and trusts God here as he has always done, whatever that might mean. He believes, really believes, that God will provide. Thus, whatever that means, he is willing to put Isaac and the future of God‘s promise in God’s hands. It surely is a lot to ask, but still Abraham, and perhaps Abraham only, is willing to do it. Perhaps, it is only Abraham who is being asked to do this in quite this way.
Now, none of us has had that history. I think for that reason alone God would never ask such a thing from us in quite that way. Without that history, we couldn’t understand what we were really being asked to do. None of us is even close to being the sort of person who could find this a meaningful test, and God really does not test us in meaningless ways.
So, is there nothing to learn from this story since we are so different than Abraham? Not quite. For let us think about the situation a bit more to find out where we are like Abraham. Isaac is a gift from God. Now, as with all gifts from God, in order to use them well, we have to put them back into God’s hands. Unless we do, we will never really possess them in the way they were meant to be possessed; we can’t use them in the right way. For God does not give us gifts that we are to tuck away and hold tightly to our chests. God gives us gifts so that we might share in God’s life, and to share in God’s life we have to hold these gifts as God’s. If we hold them as ours alone, they will be of no use. That is why Kierkegaard once said, in commenting on this story, “He who takes the knife up gets Isaac.” Which is to say, the one who is willing to sacrifice to God what he has been given, gets to keep the gift. Which is even better put as, this is the one who actually understands the nature of the gift. God gave us existence as a gift; when we claim it as a right and as belonging to us alone, we lose its meaning.
That, too, may sound like a lot to ask. It may sound like God is giving just to take back, and the onus is all on us. But, it is well worth recalling something that the ancient church fathers saw in this story. As was their wont, beyond its historical sense, they also saw it as an allegory. As an allegory, it points to God’s giving up his Son. In this case, the Son, unlike Isaac, really died. If that is the case, then all the giving up we need to do is to give up our right to possess the gift for ourselves, just for ourselves. That is what we need to do to receive the gift of God’s own Son.
But even that is a lot to ask. It really is. Why? Because it means that whatever we have, we have to hold a little lightly, and we don’t do that easily. We like to hold on to what we have really tightly. What we are being asked is to be willing to hand it over in order to have it in the right way. So, whatever we have–talent, treasure, time, material possessions, intelligence, education and the like--we have to learn to possess as a gift, and as a gift that we know must be put back into God’s hands in order for us to hold it in the right way, and for us to enjoy it in the right way. We need to know that whatever we possess is not about us, for, ultimately, we ourselves are God’s, and that can never be changed. Thus, whatever we possess goes along with our belonging to God, and it needs to be held and used for God. To recognize that, to act like that, is a lot to ask; still, it is only in this willingness to give up, that we ever possess anything of lasting worth. That is why, I suppose, Jesus said that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They possess heaven because their spirit does not grasp the things of this world.
We may not be Abraham or Sarah. We may not have had the extraordinary call they had, nor the extraordinary history with God that they did. But, we can be the poor in spirit, and we can possess the kingdom of heaven if we are willing to give back to God whatever precious thing God has given us.
When our second daughter was born, it was with a congenital liver malfunction. Not many years before, this condition was, within a few months, unfailingly fatal. Nothing could be done about it. Fortunately, just a few years before, a very few years before, a surgical procedure had been developed that could correct the problem, if the problem were discovered promptly. In our case it was discovered promptly. By God’s grace, we had a pediatrician, who, although she had never seen this before and by all odds never would again, had the humility not to think she knew it all, and she was not lazy, saying “we’ll wait and see.” Thus, she actually took to her library and looked up the problem, quickly recognizing what it was. Thus, after testing and consultation, at three weeks old, Leidy became the youngest baby to undergo this new surgery at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. We had no idea how it would go. It was major surgery for anybody; for an infant, it was hard to conceive what it meant. The weeks surrounding the surgery, the ones leading up to it, and the ones as we waited to see if it had been successful were all a haze, and like walking in a dream, yet unforgettable, too. In the midst of this, the day before the surgery was scheduled, I called up the hospital chaplain and, with her assistance, I baptized our baby.
Now, emergency hospital baptisms are not a very Presbyterian thing to do. Some colleagues and students who have heard this story, have asked why I did it. Usually they have done so when I objected to an unthinking claim, made in my presence, that we don’t do baptisms this way. Well, I did. So, they asked: Did I think she was going to hell otherwise? Had I suddenly developed a Roman Catholic theology? Or, did I think I was going to avert the immediate physical disaster by this sacramental act? Had I acted superstitiously? Each time I have been asked these things and to each one of my respondents I have simply explained that what we meant, my wife and I, by that act was nothing more and nothing less than this: whatever was going to happen was now, as far as we were concerned, going to happen in the Lord.
That is a lot to ask, to be asked to make that sort of commitment. We would prefer to remain in charge. We would prefer to do this sort of thing, that is, baptism, as a way of bargaining, which is, of course, a way of trying to stay in control and manage the outcome. But, when you are given a gift from God, as it turns out, the only way that you can appreciate it and have it as God’s gift is to make the decision that whatever happens with it needs to happen in the Lord. You need to trust that God will provide whatever is needed for going forward. If you do that, then, in whatever happens, you will possess all that God promises. I believed that then, and I believed it more than ever three years ago when I walked her down the aisle and Fred Anderson pronounced the wedding vows. She was a gift to our lives, and now was a gift to someone else’s too. We were blessed by the ultimate outcome; yet, although we would have been immensely sad, even devastated, had it turned out otherwise than it has, she would have been no less a gift if it had.
The question then and even now was for us, as it is for all of us, only whether we could see and hold our gift rightly so that we might truly possess it for what it was. As we learned, to possess rightly is to be willing to give it into God’s hands.