Sunday 28 June 2020
The account of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac is surely one of the most puzzling incidents in the Bible.
How can we not be troubled by the thought of any father taking the life of one of his children? And in Abraham’s case, it is his only child that we are talking about. Shortly before this incident, Ishmael, his son by the slave woman, Hagar, has been sent away with his mother. It is very clear that the only son Abraham has left is Isaac.
When we read stories in the Bible, we often have an advantage over those about whom the story is told. We are given extra information that they do not have.
For example, the reading today began with us being told that what God was doing in what was to follow was testing Abraham. Abraham did not know that. All Abraham knew was that God had called him by name and that he, Abraham, had responded, “Here I am.”
The task that God set for Abraham must have cut him to the core. Can you think of anything that you have had to do in your life that could come anywhere near the horror of taking the life of a child? I am sure that none of us can.
Abraham understands that Isaac is to be sacrificed as a burnt offering. Now not all sacrifices in the ancient world had to be completely destroyed. For some sacrifices, a portion of the animal would go to the priests and the majority of it would be returned to the person who brought the sacrifice to take away and feast with family and friends.
But not so a burnt offering. The burnt offering was to be completely consumed by the fire. So the command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering was a total command. It could not be any more extreme.
As I said, we have been told as readers that this is a test. Abraham does not know that. How his heart must have ached on the three day journey to the appointed place.
As a way to coming to terms with the notion of human sacrifice, we probably have to put aside our 21st century western ways of thinking and attempt to consider the event from the perspective of its time as best we can.
Abraham lived at least 4,000 years ago. He was a nomad of the area that we now refer to as the Middle East. Is it likely that the notion of human sacrifice was something that would be in any way familiar to Abraham?
Well, even in the Old Testament, we have evidence from more than a thousand years later that some in Israel practised child sacrifice. Psalm 106 gives us a litany of Israel’s sins including:
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;
they poured innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
and the land was polluted with blood
Two kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, were denounced for having made their sons “pass through fire”, an expression that denotes the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings.
Armed with this knowledge, perhaps it is possible for us to understand how Abraham could even consider the sacrifice of his son. Abraham’s relationship with God is relatively young and, as the other gods of the region expect child sacrifices, Abraham can be forgiven for thinking that this new God, this one God, is the same.
It must have been puzzling to him though that, after Yahweh had promised him that he would be a great nation, he was here asking for the sacrifice of the means to fulfil that promise.
And despite all of Abraham’s misgivings, he trusts Yahweh. He trusts that Yahweh will still somehow be true to his promise. And that trust is what Abraham exemplifies for us in the most graphic way.
Abraham trusted Yahweh when he called him to travel south from Haran to the land of Canaan that would be given to him. Abraham trusted Yahweh when he promised him that he would be a great nation, even though he and his wife Sarah were very old and without a child to deliver the promise.
And again, in today’s reading, Abraham trusts Yahweh to be true to his promises to him, even as he seems to be asking him to sacrifice the son that appears to be the last hope for that promise.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul will valorise Abraham for his faith. But when we reflect upon the events in Abraham’s life, we come to realise very quickly that what Paul is praising in Abraham is not faith in the sense that Abraham believes in God, but faith in the sense that Abraham trusts in God. Abraham trusts God to deliver on his promises to him.
Today’s reading contains the incident in Abraham’s life which above all others indicates how great was his trust in God. His willingness to sacrifice Isaac, even though Isaac was the key to the delivery of God’s promise to Abraham, displays graphically the depth of Abraham’s trust.
And yet that trust had to be displayed in the face of enormous challenge. As I said earlier, how heavy must Abraham’s heart have been during the three-day journey to the place of sacrifice. Having endured the desolation of carrying out God’s command, Abraham is able to celebrate the deliverance of Isaac at the final moment. Abraham could join with the Psalmist who we heard pray today:
But I put my trust in your mercy:
My heart is joyful because of your saving help.
I will sing to the Lord:
For he has dealt with me richly.
And in a curious way, I think that last line of the Psalm offers us a little bit of a clue into Abraham’s trust in God. “Because he deals so bountifully with me.” Perhaps it is because Abraham has an abiding sense of how wonderfully God has dealt with him through the covenants and promises he has made with him that he is prepared to bear all in order to maintain his trust in God.
How often do we reflect upon the bounty that God has shown towards us in our lives? Do we appreciate fully the great gift that God has given us in that he has given us the gift of life and further, that he has gifted us in new life through Jesus in our Baptism? Do we fully appreciate the gift of the Holy Spirit whom God has sent to dwell in our hearts? If we truly realised how bountifully God has dealt with us, might we not start to respond more wholeheartedly to God, based on an unflinching trust that God will always be true to his promises, just as Abraham believed and trusted in the God who led him to a land of plenty and made him the first of a great nation.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen