No question about it, this story is a difficult one for modern readers. We find it hard to relate to a God who would test someone by asking them to kill their only son. We find it hard to relate to the father Abraham who was willing to do this dirty deed. The story even reeks of child abuse for us. And we wonder how Isaac could ever trust his father again after Abraham raised the knife to kill him. It is a hard story to read and to interpret.
It was a bit dismaying to google the binding of Isaac, as this passage is called, and find that the most prominent image to come up was a video game by the name of The Binding of Isaac. The game has a page on Wikipedia, so it is quite popular and well-known in some circles. The story behind the game, as presented at the beginning, shows a single mother who likes to watch Christian videos, and her only son, who likes to play with his toys in his room. A voice (supposedly God) tells the mother that her son is sinful and must be punished, so she takes away his toys. The voice tells the mother that is not enough, so she locks her son in his room. The voice says that is not good enough, he must be killed. So she heads to his room with a knife. The son sees her through a crack in the door, and disappears through a trapdoor in his bedroom. The game proceeds with a terrified boy figure fleeing from monsters and a knife-wielding mother through many bizarre rooms in the basement.
It is dismaying yet this probably reflects what many people gain from this story. And yet the story is a very important one in the message of the Bible.
The story in Genesis is well-framed, and well-organized. It starts with God testing Abraham, and ends with God providing. There are 3 conversations in the text that are called summons and response dialogues, and they follow the same pattern. (1) God summons Abraham, and he answers, "Here I am." God commands him to take his only son to sacrifice him. (2) Isaac summons Abraham, and he answers, "Here I am." Isaac asks where the lamb is for sacrifice. Abraham answers him, saying that God will provide the lamb. (3) An angel summons Abraham, and he says, "Here I am." The angel commands him not to touch Isaac, and the ram is provided for the sacrifice. The only variation from the pattern is the interchange between father and son, and it has 4 statements instead of the usual 3. This tells us that the 4th statement is very important, and that statement is: "God will provide."
If this is a test, Abraham aces the test, in God’s view. For God says, "now I know that you fear God." But we question why God would require such a test of anyone. Yet we also know as Christians, that God had the same test when Jesus ended up on the cross. And God gave up his only Son, sacrificed on the cross for us.
We are uncomfortable with a God who tests us. Yet testing is a prominent theme in the Old Testament, and a part of the New Testament too. God tested the loyalty of a people who were tempted by the gods of other religions. Often they failed the test. But, as Deuteronomy tells us, "the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul" (Deut. 13:3). Jesus taught us a prayer that asks God not to choose something that might risk our faith, or, to not test us. Testing, then, must be a part of a faithful life.
But, as we see in this passage, the same God who tests also provides. The Hebrew word translated as "provide" in our text can also be translated as "see," but more in the sense of seeing to, or seeing about. The Message Bible, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson, says: "Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering." And: "Abraham named the place God-Yireh (God sees to it). That’s where we get the saying, ‘On the mountain, God sees to it.’
So if God is testing, God is also seeing to us, watching over us, ready to provide. Yet, still, a God who tests with such a violent request is disturbing to the modern mind and soul. So maybe we need to think about how we interpret the biblical stories. We tend to read the Bible the same way we read other books – if we like history books, we may look to the Bible to tell us the history of humankind and our relationship with God. If we are scientific thinkers, we may analyze a lot of what we read to see if it conforms to scientific knowledge and thinking. If we like novels, we might see the various literature forms in the Bible books. But because we regard the Bible as sacred, we expect more from its words than from other books. We want to count every word as the Word of God. And we should, in a sense. Yet we also need to see the Bible’s whole message in order to interpret one small part of it. We need to understand that it was written long ago, at various times, actually, and this means that we need to understand the context in which the words were written in order to help us better understand them for today. And, as Christians, we always read and interpret the whole Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ.
When Heather led the Officer Training class on Tuesday night, she provided the new officers with a document that the Presbyterian Church developed in the 1980’s to talk about how Presbyterians understand and use Holy Scripture. The document says that the purpose of the Bible is to provide "the knowledge of what is necessary for the glory of God and for human faith, life, and salvation." The document says that Jesus Christ is central to interpretation of all Scripture. It also says we use two rules by which to interpret all Scripture – the Rule of Love and the Rule of Faith. The Rule of Love, of course, comes from the commandment, throughout the Bible, to love God and to love neighbor. The Rule of Faith tells us that Scripture is "to be interpreted in light of the past and present Christian community’s understanding of Scripture." So we interpret in light of our confessions and traditions, and we look to see what scholars have found. We are always open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret, and we know we are "reformed, yet always reforming," that we do not have all the answers. Also, the interpretation of the Bible should always be for the purpose of building up the people of God, the Church, not for tearing down or putting anyone else down. The Bible feeds our personal piety, but the ultimate purpose of faith in God is the welfare of the whole community, of all God’s creation.
So when we look at this passage with these guidelines, we realize that the story was written in a time when child sacrifice was common. Some think it was written to give an alternative to that practice, to show that God would not require such a sacrifice. God provided another sacrifice. When we put on our lens of Jesus Christ, we cannot help but see parallels to God’s sacrifice of allowing Jesus, also known as the Lamb of God, to be killed, to atone for our sins, to save us for all time. Perhaps the story is simply meant to foresee God’s sacrifice.
But if the Bible is all about human life and our relationship with God, we see here the truth that God tests and that God provides. As uncomfortable as the first may be for us, it is a part of human life as well. Life tests us perhaps as much as does God does. We are tested almost on a daily basis to choose something that might be harmful to us or to others. If we are grounded in a faith and knowledge of a loving God, we will probably choose the better path in most instances. And if we keep our focus on God as a loving God, and the God who provides, we can endure through many trials and tests.
Most of you know that my family and I recently went through a very hard time, quite a trial of having my husband fall sick on Easter, and dying after a month in the ICU. What you may not know, though, is the faith, the shared faith, that sustained us throughout that time. Your prayers, your notes and cards and visits and food, brought to us the love of God, and we were comforted, we were encouraged, we were filled with hope. The staff at the ICU were wonderful as well, and some of them, when they realized we were people of faith, prayed for and with us. We felt so supported at all times. I am not saying that I always have great faith, or all the answers, because I do not, but I can tell you that it is possible to experience the real presence of God upholding you even in the midst of awful experiences. Many of you have experienced it too, in trying times in your lives. There is no science to it, no historical precedent, no real sense in some ways, to such a trusting faith. And yet when it is lived out, it is an awesome thing, even in the midst of awful happenings.
Each time he was summoned, Abraham answered immediately, "Here I am." Abraham had such a trusting nature. Other biblical characters may be more like us, holding back – Moses, telling God he could not lead people because he did not know how to speak; Jonah running away from God; Thomas, doubting Christ’s resurrection until he touched the scars. Yet in Abraham we are given an example of such deep trust that it seems almost unnatural. If we take this story of Abraham and Isaac as a story of our relationship with God, we see how God wants us to trust God to provide, even in the darkest moments of our lives, even in the times that truly test us.
William Sloan Coffin, who was a chaplain at major universities like Yale and Williams, and also served as the senior minister of Riverside Church in New York, said: "What is faith? Faith is being grasped by the power of love. Faith is recognizing that what makes God is infinite mercy, not infinite control; not power, but love unending. Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so that we might become more like him." (Sloan, p.7). And for the deep thinkers among us, he also said: "There is nothing anti-intellectual in the leap of faith, for faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation. Faith is no substitute for thinking. On the contrary, it is what makes good thinking possible. It has what we call a limbering effect on the mind; by taking us beyond familiar ground, faith ends up giving us that much more to think about…" (Sloan, p. 8)
Our story today gives us so much more to think about in our never-ending quest to be in good relationship with God and with one another. "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me," said Jesus in Matthew. Our Bible tells us that God tests, that God provides, and most of all, that God loves, and wants us to love God and one another. What more could we ask?! With this God, we can make it through all of life’s ups and downs, and the in-betweens – because we do it together, as a community, a covenant people. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Glory be to God! Amen.