This is one of my least favorite stories in the Bible.
Any conversation about this text must begin with an honest statement of that reality. We have set it aside, shoved it under the rug, with all of the others that confound us, that make us wary. I had a conversation about this story with a group of members during my seminary internship at the First Presbyterian Church of Decatur, Alabama. I visited a woman the following week, and toward the end of our visit she walked to the closet and pulled out the children’s Bible she had been given many decades before. She showed me the pages of this story that she, as a young child, had scribbled over and over and through, tearing the pages with the point of her pencil, because she couldn’t bear it. She seethed with rage talking about her initial response to this story so many years before.
God has been with Abram and Sarai for ten chapters now, promised them a home and land and offspring as numerous as grains of sand. This God has walked with them through infertility, been constant when the two God has entrusted with the promise tried to mess it up, manipulate and lie, offer Hagar and Ishmael because they weren’t sure God could be trusted. But after these ten chapters, as God and Abraham’s particular relationship grows, the bottom drops out. The first verse tells us what is going to happen: After these things, after all they had gone through, God tested Abraham. “Abraham!” “Here I am.” “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.”
Before the shock settles in of what has actually been asked, we learn he got right up, Abraham did, early in the morning, saddled his donkey, gathered helpers, his son, the wood, and started the journey. I am first filled with fury toward Abraham. How could he be so passive, so pitiful? Come on, IT’S YOUR SON!! How could he nod in approval, get up early, set out on a journey that he believes will end in the death of his son? Abraham is no longer the paragon of faith he has been held up to be in much of our tradition. This Abraham feels weak, easily swayed. Just before this he negotiated with God to try to save the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). He can’t raise one objection when this same God demands his son?
But we should worry less about Abraham and his failings, because the implications for God are worse. The God I know is a God of love, and this God seems to be nothing but demanding and manipulative, swooping in at the last minute to grab the glory. My God loves us all no matter what, takes care of us through storms, working for good in a terrifying world. My God doesn’t demand irrational things that God knows will cause nearly unbearable pain. My God is there with open arms to forgive me when I fail, fall short, or compromise. I can’t blame that woman in Decatur, Alabama, for tearing through this story in her Bible; I want to do it, too. It doesn’t make sense. We struggle with a tension Walter Brueggemann helps us articulate: “the contradiction between the testing of God and the providing of God; between the sovereign freedom which requires complete obedience and the gracious faithfulness which gives good gifts; between the command and the promise; and between the word of death which takes away and the word of life which gives.” He continues: “The call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us. Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it.”
This tension gripped Abraham. Can you imagine how long those days felt, his legs heavy as lead? He tells the young men to stay behind. We will worship, then we’ll be back. He takes a moment to note that he has no idea what he will say to them when only he returns. In a tragic bit of irony, he hands Isaac the wood on which he would soon lay, holds himself the fire, knife in his belt. Isaac picks up on something – “Ummm…Dad?” “Here I am, my son,” he says in quite a different way, heavy with emotion. “Dad, where is the lamb we are to sacrifice? I don’t see one.” Abraham grits his teeth as he answers, speaking more to God than to Isaac. “God himself will provide, my son.” As they come to the place, there in verse nine, I wonder if Abraham’s heart is bursting as he stacks the wood. I bet he wants to scream words like those of the Psalmist, read a moment ago: “How long O, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” I bet he felt that way as he laid the pyre, saw the confused look on Isaac’s face when he began to bind his son’s hands, when he backs him down onto the wood. As he takes a deep breath, as his hand grasps the handle, wondering where in the world God is as he raises the knife in the air…
We are far more comfortable when we can control God’s promises ourselves. We (I include myself) tend to want a predictable God, who will keep us comfortable, who would never call us into uncertainty, who would never ask us to give up anything we cherish. We keep this God at arm’s length, content to come to church when convenient, sing the songs and pray the prayers, wanting to feel good, wanting comfort. With as much pain and complexity in the world part of me can’t blame us. But I wonder, when it really gets down to it, are we really interested in being deeply transformed, in encountering this God who is wild and complex and infinitely free?
I was fighting with this text again this week, and reflecting on the history helped me. We look back on this text through the lens of the church, through the lens of Jesus, through all of the many stories we have heard and know and love. Of Jesus welcoming children, healing the leper, washing his disciples’ feet. But even before, we build our understanding of these early stories through the lens of the whole. Through the magnificence of the Psalms. Through the command to love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your soul, with all your heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Through the call of the prophets to, in Micah’s words that shape us, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. But before all of the ways we wrestle with how to live our faith comes something even more foundational. Before Joseph is sent to Egypt, before the Israelites are a people, and certainly, long before the Exodus and the exile, before any hint of Jesus and the church, comes a core question: Are we willing to trust this God?
We must be clear trust doesn’t come without a fight. I don’t think the trust to which we are called is a blithe, naïve trust that shrugs its shoulders when something happens and says, “Well, it must be God’s will,” when we don’t have any way of knowing that. But this text demands of us a faithfulness that looks to God on days filled with joy, and on our toughest. When the job falls apart, when your child gets hurt, when the person to whom we have been married for so many years tells us it’s over. We someone we love dies. Can we look to God even then? And we are challenged by this story and this story’s God into a faith that is uneasy and complex, which leads us to painful and complicated places, places where we might be tempted to yell and scream or to give up, or both. To confront a God that demands every fiber of our being. Every bit of us.
My suspicion is Abraham didn’t learn that lesson that day. But he did get a glimpse of a God that calls us to the very edge. A God that loves us deeply, but is also beyond anything we can understand. This God is bigger and more powerful and risky, more mysterious and free than the small, controllable gods we create for ourselves. It was this God Abraham met on the mountain. Abraham is tired, Isaac sleeps beside him. He had visions of being the leader of the greatest nation – the people of God. It had sounded so good at the time. And Isaac. The son I have yearned for all my life, the key to this promise. And now my God says he must die. But then, a slow rain begins to fall, and the drops of rain mix with the tears running down his cheeks. And in this moment of despair and helplessness he surrenders the promise. God, take this back. I have been trying to make my life in my own image all along; I have been trying to claim the promise for myself. But it belongs to you, O Lord my God. I have been my trying to control my own future when it is yours. I surrender it to YOU.
Might we offer all of ourselves to this God, who is faithful still. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986), 192