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My friend James and I were on our way to the mall. Being that we were in 7th grade at the time, someone had to drive us. This time it was James’ dad. James was in the front seat. I was in the back and his dad was moving along at a pretty good clip. (He had what some would call a “lead-foot.”) We had to go over some railroad tracks on our route to the mall, and these particular tracks did not have crossing arms. He was in a bit of a “no-man’s zone” when the lights on the railroad crossing started flashing. He either had to slam on the brakes and risk getting rear-ended (which he did not choose) or punch the gas and fly over the tracks. I’m not sure how fast the train was moving, but it was close enough when we went over the tracks to scare our 12-year old selves. When we reached a stopping point, James’ dad looked at James and said simply, “Let’s not tell your mother about this, OK?” And he said to me, “your mom, either, alright?”
I only tell you that story because I imagine that a similar conversation happened several thousand years ago when Abraham and Isaac were on their way down from the mountain, both of them very relieved that God had provided a ram for sacrificing and not Isaac.
What do we do with this story about Abraham & Isaac? It is very troubling to me. Always has been. It has also been a source of great comfort in several very trying times in my own life. I’m not sure what it says about a God who has kept a promise to give Abraham the child of his very own that he has so long desired, only to then say, “Go and offer him as a burnt offering.” There are so many layers to it that to call it an onion wouldn’t even begin to describe it.
We have these layers of what we might call “blind-faith” on the part of both Abraham and Isaac. The only reaction we get from Isaac is a question about where the sacrificial lamb is going to come from. Other than that, Isaac, the potential victim in this story, is silent.
It may be helpful to go back and hear the reflection on this story by one of the great 20th Century American prophets, who wrote:
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".
~ Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan
Abraham’s trust in God is so deep, that while he cannot explain God’s motivation to issue this call, he follows it with great precision. He cuts the wood for the offering, he takes his servants, he takes his knife, and they walk for three days, not fully knowing where they are going except to the land of Moriah. Along the way, his eyes are opened to the mountain he and Isaac are to climb.
Here’s what we learn about Abraham’s faith in God:
- He goes. God said Go, and Abraham went.
- While the reader and God know this is a test for Abraham, he himself doesn’t know that much. Yet, his faith that both of them will come back down the mountain is evident when he says, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you."
- While he did not fully know where he was going, he kept his eyes and heart open and followed to “the place where God had shown him.” He didn’t try, at least not according to the tradition as we’ve received it, figure out on his own where to go.
- Isaac’s only question, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” is met with a certain response by Abraham: "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
While this very famous, very well-known story, sheds some serious light on Abraham and his relationship with God, it sheds even more light on God’s relationship with Abraham... and us.
This is a story about God’s desire for knowledge about humanity. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament professor (and genius) at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, said about this passage: “This is not a game with God; God genuinely does not know what is going to happen next. The flow of the narrative accomplishes something in the awareness of God. God didn’t know at the beginning, now He knows.” In other words, the test is as real for God as it is for Abraham.
This test isn’t designed to teach Abraham, or even Isaac, a lesson. It is designed to confirm a simple and deep truth: That Abraham trusts God and that God has Abraham’s best interests at heart so much that he will follow where God directs. The only one who is said to learn anything in this passage is God: “Now I know that you fear God…” (v. 12).
It’s a case of God needing the reassurance that Abraham’s commitment was unwaivering. Fidelity was not an option for either party in this. God has promised to make Abraham’s off-spring more numerous than that sands on the beach, and while God had been faithful, Abraham has had a few shaky knees here and there. So God could not use an unfaithful or disloyal Abraham to continue carrying out the divine plan. Which brings me to the next thing we learn about God in this story.
This story tells us a lot about God’s willingness to be vulnerable. We often talk about God's vulnerability around the Nativity and during Holy Week. But this is a great Old Testament story about God's willingness to be vulnerable. It presents a test not only of Abraham’s faith in God, but of God’s faith in Abraham, in the sense that Abraham’s response will have a direct effect on God’s next move. God is willing to lay the Almighty cards out on the table and see what Abraham does. God places the shape of God’s own future in Abraham’s hands. Eugene Roop commented that “God took the risk that Abraham would respond. Abraham took the risk that God would provide.”
So we’ve talked about God’s desire for human knowledge and God’s amazing willingness to be vulnerable. Both of those points lead us to talk about God’s trustworthiness. If God is willing to tell Abraham to offer his own son, whom he loves (and those words are used at least three times in the passage), the son that was promised to Abraham and Sarah by the three mysterious visitors we meet in chapter 18 of Genesis, it raises the question of whether or not God can be trusted. Yet, Abraham, without any recorded conversation with God, departs for the place of sacrifice, the place God will show him, because Abraham believes God can require Isaac of him; and yet, he trusts that God will find another route to fulfill the promises made to Abraham. Abraham shows his trust in God at verse 3 by getting up and going; and shows his trust in God growing with each step on the journey.
What we have in this story is a God who is far more willing to be vulnerable with us than we are with God. We have the story of a God who is far more willing to trust humanity with important decisions than we seem willing to trust God with our important decisions. And we have a God who desires nothing more than to know us better.
Wow. It started out as such a quaint little father and son road trip, didn’t it? But somewhere along that journey, whether it’s on Highway 61 with Bob Dylan or somewhere else, we learn a lot about ourselves and even more about the God who created us, redeemed us, sustains us, and loves us more than we can imagine.