And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, [here] I [am].
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Ouch! After all that waiting, and conniving, and promises, to have to give up Isaac as a burnt offering (`olah)? Given Abraham’s previous waffles, it is perhaps surprising that he responds so faithfully to this one:
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Then again, maybe not. In my own life, I know I often have an easier time being faithful in extreme but clear-cut dilemmas versus the fuzzy trials of everyday life. Perhaps that is one reason why God blesses us with such dilemmas.
It is also interesting to ponder how Abraham could be so certain he heard God. When I was a child, I probably envisioned something like a disembodied voice thundering out of an altar. As I’ve grown in my experience of hearing from God, I often wonder whether Abraham’s experience is closer to mine: of a still small voice speaking through times of prayer and meditation. To perform a sacrifice based on that subjective interpretation is a far scarier thing! Yet, I too have been seized by inexplicable, life-changing convictions that God wanted me to perform an irreversible act, so its not inconceivable.
And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
A very portentous saying. In light of my own experience, it gives me a glimmer of what might’ve gone through Abraham’s mind that night after he’d heard from God, but before he left. Somehow — despite realizing he must submit to God’s command — he clung to the promise that through Sarah his line would continue, and that Isaac was the child of that promise.
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid [it] upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
Ouch! Isaac’s carrying the wood (`ets) is a painful irony, as well as an interesting type of Christ. Though Abraham doesn’t shirk his burden of destruction and death, either. Then we come to what may be the most plaintive question this side of Gethsemene:
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here [am] I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where [is] the lamb for a burnt offering?
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
Fascinating. Abraham has apparently chosen to accept two irreconcilable truths: a) he must kill his son, and b) his son will live. We don’t know how. He probably doesn’t know how. But that is what faith is — accepting truths because they are true, not because they make sense or fit with how we would like reality to be. And in that faith, he can answer confidently and calmly, at least as far as we can see.
And Isaac can see: they went both together (yalak sh@nayim yachad). A seemingly innocuous phrase, which I overlooked when it first appeared two verses ago. But now it seems laden with meaning. They both went, in union and togetherness. Isaac is not holding back out of suspicion, nor Abraham from reluctance — they both move forward together, Isaac trusting his father and Abraham his God. And together — as if the shadow of what would happen did not make Abraham withdraw from his son, but they were able to enjoy the same easy communion they always had.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
It is impossible for me to imagine how Isaac reacted. Was he scared? Did he think it all a silly game? Did he resist — unlikely, somehow. Nevertheless, Abraham bound him, according to custom and perhaps need — for both their sakes. And he is faithful to the uttermost:
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the music crescendos, then suddenly cuts off and we hear:
And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here [am] I.
What emotion filled Abraham’s words? Dare he hope for a reprieve? Was he perhaps hoping that he himself might be struck down rather than be forced to do this deed? Whatever he felt, it wasn’t rebellion, and probably not even anger. He’d reached the point where he had nothing left to lose. Where his flesh, his culture, his righteousness — even logic and rationality — had probably deserted him. All he had was the word of God — and that seemingly contradictory — yet he chose to submit himself to that.
And he is rewarded for it:
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only [son] from me.
Even though I can’t imagine what it cost Abraham, God apparently did know (yada`). And thus accepts a substitute:
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind [him] a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
And seals it with another promise:
And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only [son]: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which [is] upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
As best I can tell, this is the first time that Abraham’s seed (zera`) is explicitly included in the promise of blessing (barak) the nations (gowy). Abraham also fulfills his own, MacArthur-ite promise:
So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
I find it mildly odd that Isaac isn’t mentioned explicitly, but perhaps that just reflects his role as object rather than subject in this passage. Regardless, what does it all mean?
The usual question is why would God ask such a sacrifice of Abraham; that actually doesn’t bother me. I’ve been raised on the parable of “giving my Isaacs back to God on the altar” long enough that I’ve made peace with that aspect of God’s character; I understand how and why it works and is necessary. What’s more interesting from a transformational perspective is Abraham’s feelings. What would he have had to felt in order to respond the way he did? And what must he have believed in order to carry those kinds of feelings all the way to the altar?
To me, the answer is very similar to Job’s: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. Abraham had to believe that the God who told him to kill Isaac was the same One who had promised him a child. And Abraham himself had to trust that he was hearing God as clearly now as he did then. In being one person, that is, integrity. As I say in my epistemology: “Belief is experience interpreted by a character.” Something in his character allowed him to accept his diverse experiences of God as being true and real, even though it appeared inconsistent. And that gave him the freedom not just to obey, but to obey quickly and calmly, and stay in relationship with his son along the way.
No wonder God credited it to him as righteousness.
God, grant me a character like Abraham — that is sensitive enough to hear your voice, courageous enough to obey it, and centered enough to maintain peace in the midst of extreme testing. Teach me to wrestle with you in the dark night of my soul, that I may be a source of strength and not conflict to those around me. Lord, take away the Isaacs which falsely promise security but really breed insecurity, that I may dwell safe and happy within your promises, even those I cannot understand. Grant me a vision of your Son, the Lamb you provided to take my sin, that I may know how much I am loved, valued, and protected. Amen.
I suppose I should apologize for the puns and cultural allusions in the subject headings, though it is not without precedent. But, apart from my being an spineless invertebrate punster, it is both a way to attract readers and a reflection of the fact that I refuse to take myself too seriously. I am quite aware that I am just a layman (however well-informed and sincere), and trying to practice my own hermeneutic could smack of arrogance — if not heresy! The only defense given my inadequacy in light of the seriousness of this activity is humility, as manifested in humor: I realize and acknowledge the absurdity of my quest, but am determined nonetheless to press on rather than passively accept the traditional forms. If nothing else, I suspect Kierkegaard would approve!