Sunday, 2 July 2017

Testing Abraham

God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning,
saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Abraham took the wood of the burntoffering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ The angel said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day,
‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’ (Genesis 22.1-14)
And so our natural tendencies can be applied to this passage. The one who sees God as an irrational projection of our minds - as a meme used to enforce a patriarchal, oppressive society - reads into the passage the ghastliness of an all-powerful, monotheistic deity. A God that demands total obedience. A God that, like Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, hands out life and death as he sees fit.

And then the one who sees God as the one to be followed sees this differently. In this, God is always infinitely just and right. God is by definition able to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham in his turn is right to fear God and do what he is told. As he marches, wet with sweat, full of apprehension, up Mount Moria, he must hate the thought of killing Isaac. He must wonder what the point is - God, after all, promised that through this son Abraham would bless all people. And God's intervention - once Abraham's faithfulness has been shown - is to save the son and provide an alternative.

There is a third, post-modern view on all this. In this reading, God's saying - OK, you've followed my call. You've kept accepting my promises. Now then, how far can I push you? At which point Abraham's like, "Sarah, hold my beer..." And it's only when God realizes that Abraham is only gonna go and do it, that he says - OK. This nonsense had better stop. I played chicken and turns out Abraham is better at it than me.

Whatever the motivation, Abraham didn't sacrifice Isaac. God did provide a substitute. And Abraham's children through Isaac went on to become a great nation and, through their worship of the true God, the Light to the Gentiles.

Much later, out of mythic time and into a historical world, on another morning, one of those descendants of Abraham came to a hill. He like Isaac was carrying the wood of his own sacrifice. He too climbed the mountain, and was readied for death.

But this time there was no substitute, no Doctor Who style get out of jail, no ram or even Barabbas to take his place. This son of Abraham went to a cross, shed human blood, broke down the walls of death and went on to live again. And in that man, God had come to live among us. To share our lives and deaths, become like us and make us like him. A second time, on a hill, God provided the sacrifice. But this time, it was God himself.


  1. There is another theory (mine only so disputable) that Abraham at 100 plus misheard and thought back to his younger days when child sacrifice was around in the middle-east and was re-enacting that. However, it was indeed God that rescued Isaac who had to grow up to be the father of the chosen people....if God tells you to kill your children or anyone else for that matter, talk to someone else because it isn't God who's talking!

    1. That's good, thanks. I take a "someone wrote down what they thought had happened and probably put some spin on it so as not to look quite so daft and since it reveals something important to us God let it go..." view of this story. I also find it interesting that Abe didn't seem to find it hard to do the killing Isaac thing but he SOOO struggled letting Ishmael go. And maybe it's easy to give up the God thing (He gives and takes away etc), but so much harder to give up *our* thing. And that can be a way to tell what is God's idea and what is ours...

  2. Thank goodness this God reversed his instructions to Abraham at the last minute. I hate to think of the copycat filicides that might otherwise have ensued.

  3. "Thank goodness *that earlier God*...."

  4. Another postmodern approach:that JHWH was challenging Abraham to use his personal judgement, to do the right thing and say NO to unquestioningly doing an obviously bad thing... and Abraham failed the test.


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