The Old Testament reading continues the story of Abraham and his son Isaac in the Book of Genesis. It is probably one of the most dramatic and difficult stories in the whole of the Bible. The bones of it are that Abraham had been faithful to the one true God all his life, and obedient to his commands. But now God decides to put Abraham’s faith to the test. How faithful is he? God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering, a sacrifice of his only son. And as we ponder Abraham’s test of faith, we may call to mind the occasions when our faith has been put to the test, in the big things as well as in the smaller issues of life. Did we come through with flying colours?
But Abraham’s test is in a league of its own. God requires him to commit the terrible, horrific act of killing his much loved son and heir, the son whom God had given to him and to his wife Sarah after many years of barrenness. Child sacrifice was forbidden and abhorrent to the Israelites. Can you imagine explaining to someone today how it is that we believe in a God who demands the death, the sacrifice of a child? Sheer disbelief, deep offence, or ridicule might be the response. Believe in a God like that? You cannot be serious.
But the focus of this story is not on the horror of God’s command and Abraham’s willingness to obey it. It is a dramatic and challenging way of asking the reader “How strong is your faith in God? Do you trust him not at all, a little, quite a lot, or utterly?” Abraham is forced to choose between obedience to an incomprehensible and abhorrent command from the God whom he loved and trusted, and his love for his child. We know, of course that God did not intend that his command should be carried out, but Abraham had no way of knowing that.
The story is told with great skill to make the most of the drama of the situation and the principal players: God and Abraham. The story is told with great economy and without embellishment. For example, there is no mention of Sarah, the mother of her precious son. There is no description of the agonising doubt and pain which Abraham would have felt at the command. He hears a call he believes comes from God and, without a word and without delay – he sets off early in the morning – he obeys. He realises that the young men who accompany him and Isaac must not know his intention, so he misleads them by saying he and Isaac will come back to them. He also misleads Isaac when he asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice. He simply says “God will provide”. He didn’t know then that a ram would be found in a thicket. Isaac seems to have inherited his father’s trust and obedience so he offers no resistance and goes along with his father. And of course the slow pace of the story heightens the drama. The saddling of the donkey, the summoning of the young men, the cutting of the wood, which of them carried what items on the journey all these details slow down the pace and add to the tension. The dramatic conclusion comes when God says at the very moment when Abraham raises the knife to kill Isaac, “Abraham … Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Gen. 22:12). And he commands him not to do anything to Isaac, and a ram for sacrifice is found in the thicket.
As I said earlier, this story is a difficult one, partly because the means to convey its message is centred on child murder. But it is the message itself which is important, not the means of conveying it. The message is that the requirements or commandments we see as coming from God must be given an absolute priority over and above the requirements and demands of other human beings, even our own family. There are no half measures. We have to trust God which we may find very difficult to do. And here of course our thoughts will probably turn to the Christian story. The death of Jesus as part of God’s plan for the salvation of humankind provides some kind of parallel. God the Father offered the life of his only Son for our salvation, although Jesus’ death came about by human hands. He was the sinless sacrifice. I often think of God’s suffering particularly as the final days of his Son’s life unfolded, and especially as his Son hung, suffering and dying, on the Cross. But then came the new life of the Resurrection and the fulfilment of God’s promise to all his people. He has kept faith with us. We can do no less than try to keep faith with him.