This is a terrifying story. And whoever wrote it meant it to be terrifying. As the climax approaches no detail is missed.
Abraham builds the altar, carefully laying out the kindling wood. He binds Isaac-once more we are reminded that this is his son. He lays his son on the altar over the wood. He stretches forth his hand. He takes the knife and is poised to strike.
We are spared nothing.
We must remember who Isaac is. Isaac is not simply Abraham’s beloved son. He is Abraham’s entire future. He is God’s promise. In this boy’s life is focussed every saving thing that God has promised to do. In radical obedience to God Abraham tore up his past-now he’s being asked to tear up his future as well.
Stories like this can give the Old Testament a bad name.
God has become a monster. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. For Abraham this is a terrible test. What is to be done? He is committed to radical obedience to God’s commands. But this?
Somewhere in the background to this story is the notion of child sacrifice, a not uncommon practice in the ancient world. This story seems to suggest that God does not really desire this-that he wills life not death-that such practices as human sacrifice can be relegated to the lumber room of the collective mind and that the life of humankind can now move forward onto broad sunlit upland-to coin a famous phrase.
That is a comforting thought. Too comforting!
In truth human sacrifice flourishes in our world. Human life is plentiful and cheap today. In our times millions of people have been judged unworthy of life by the ideologies that have sacrificed them in favour of racial purity, historical necessity, economic efficiency, Liberal Democracy and the honour of God. Christians are not innocent of involvement in these affairs. The dismal roll call continues.
Remember a sunny September morning-various passenger aircraft taking all manner of people to early meetings. The passengers sit back in their seats blissfully confident in the technology that is whisking them across the sky. Suddenly there’s a commotion on the flight deck and ferocious figures burst into the passenger cabin. All are to be sacrificed to appease the honour of God, which is said to be affronted by the culture of the west.
Here’s a similar interpretation. This time one of the victims to be sacrificed to the old gods of violence and national pride had time to write down his reflections in the form of a famous poem. You may know it.
So Abram rose and clave the wood and went
And took the fire with him and a knife,
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first born spake and said, My father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son
When lo an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad
Neither do anything to him thy son.
Behold! Caught in the thicket by its horns
A ram. Offer the ram of pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe one by one.
Many people have difficulty reading the Old Testament as Christians-this passage perhaps particularly. But we should always remember that as Christians we receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus himself. So when the risen Jesus meets the travelers on the Emmaus road we are told that he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. What then did Jesus have to say about this passage? We’d love to know just as we’d love to eavesdrop on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac on their trip to the mountaintop.
Where then is Jesus to be found in this passage? Is he the ram, caught in thicket-the sacrificial animal provided by God so that no other human sacrifices need be offered? That’s what I thought at first but the tradition is not encouraging. It sees Isaac as Jesus bearing on his shoulders the wood for his own sacrifice.
Listen to the Epistle to the Hebrews:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac: and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son. Of whom it was said, Through Isaac shall thy seed be called. Accounting that God was able to raise him even from the dead, and from the dead he did, in a sense, receive him back.
Isaac is offered up, as is Jesus. But Isaac is offered up to satisfy the savage destructive impulses of God whereas Jesus offers himself to satisfy and purify the savage and destructive impulses of humanity. Isaac is spared whereas Jesus is not spared but Jesus receives vindication and inaugurates in his own person a new humanity and a new mode of being. Some have said of the passion and resurrection stories that they are in a way a kind of reflection on the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.
An important aspect of the story emphasised by some but not all of the commentators and brought out by some but not all of the translations is that there are two gods involved here. There is the savage tribal god who demands human sacrifices and there is the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ and friend of Abraham who demands mercy not sacrifice. They can be distinguished by the names used.
What Abraham is about is sorting out which of these Gods is to claim his allegiance. This is almost as terrifying a matter as the story itself because one God seems to hide behind the other. The journey to the truth lies along the road of radical faith and obedience and through the experience of God as foresakenness. In a sense Abraham’s journey is one that has to be made by all people in all times. Always we are tempted to worship the tribal God who is just a projection of own selfishness, greed and competitive violence. True faith in the true God lies beyond that-beyond greed and violence to an embrace of justice and peace.
Are we doing what is needful to walk with the true God in faith and obedience? Are we making the trip to the mountaintop of the wild and windy mountain in order to encounter the angel of the Lord? I’d like to think we were but the evidence around us is not encouraging.