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Genesis 22:1-19

June 23, 2014

This is probably the most famous, important, mysterious and troubling story in Genesis–or in the Bible. It is perhaps the most profound reflection on faith in God in the Old Testament. We tend to read into it ourselves: seeing what we want to see, and not seeing what we do not want to see.

What’s troubling in the story is easy to see: God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. What kind of despotic, warped God would make such a command–especially as a “test” of loyalty? This seems to be just one step removed from Jim Jones. And what kind of father would carry out such a command without so much as a question? Why would God congratulate such seemingly robotic obedience?

There are all kinds of ways of trying to get around these troubling questions. Two of them go like this: 1. God didn’t really command this; Abraham just thought God commanded this. It’s a story of Abraham coming to the realization that God–unlike the Canaanite gods–would never command such a thing. 2. This is not a story about morality (what’s ethically right or wrong) but about hope. Isaac is the promised child who makes possible the future blessing of the world; so God’s command is for Abraham to trust in God’s hope even if the promised child (who took so long to conceive!) dies. In other words, the “test” is whether Abraham will continue to hope and trust even in the face of the absurd and the seemingly impossible.

Both of these interpretations have merit–especially the second one. But neither is completely faithful to the story as it is told. The story gives no indication that the command is coming from Abraham’s misplaced theological conceptions, and the story is more than just about having hope in the face of the absurd. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice not only his son, and not only his only son, but the son “whom you love.” Will you sacrifice that which you love?

The God of Genesis is never a nice God. Full of grace, yes. Creative, yes. Promising, yes. Providential, yes. But nice? No. This is a God who can and will hurt us–but only for the sake of our healing. The ancient Israelites were under no illusions. Life is terrifying as well as gracious.

And so the question remains: despite the terror, despite losing that which we love, despite the absurdity, despite the impossiblity, will we ultimately trust that God will provide what is needed? There is no more basic question of existence.

For me the saddest part of this story is in verse 19–or what is not in verse 19. Isaac is missing. Abraham passes the test. Abraham trusts. God provides what is needed. But, though not killed, Isaac was still sacrificed.

I am reminded of the recent movie, “Noah.” Though some Christians have criticized it for not sticking strictly to the biblical story, it is actually a brilliant interpretation of the biblical story (and is careful never to contradict anything in the biblical story). In the movie, Noah comes to realize that he has just as much potential for evil within himself as anyone else. He and his family have no more right to survive than the rest of doomed humanity. God, therefore, must intend for him and his family to also die out. God is using Noah, not to restart humanity, but to save the innocent animal kingdom. This conclusion that Noah comes to is utterly reasonable, utterly faithful, and utterly terrifying–especially when twin girls are born on the ark. Noah must face an Abraham-type choice–and thinks he has failed. Only later does he realize he did as God intended and hoped he would.

Doing God’s will is never easy and never as clear as we think it is. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But we also do it with God’s grace. God will provide what we need.

[I will be taking a break from this weekly Bible study blog as I transition to another ministry. Hopefully I will be able to resume in the months ahead.]

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