Sunday, 26 June 2011

Child Sacrifice? – the story of Isaac

Sunday 26 June 2011 – Trinity 1 – St Mary’s Mentmore

First Reading Genesis 22.1-14

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

Gospel Matthew 10.40-42

When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus said: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


How many flinched as they heard the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham? It’s told in chilling detail, building frame by frame like a TV reality drama unfolding to our horror before our very eyes.

The long journey to make a burnt offering. The wood laid on the back of a donkey. The servants left waiting as father and son journeyed on. Isaac’s question about where was the animal to be killed. The slow motion as Abraham reaches out his hand to grasp the knife.

We know it’s just a test. We are told at the outset that God tested Abraham. God knows, and we know, but Abraham doesn’t.

You probably are aware of the background, but I’ll just remind you of it. Back in Genesis 15, God made a contract with Abram. He was childless, yet God promised to make him the father of many nations, as countless as the stars in the heavens.

Abraham and his wife Sarah were well advanced in years and had given up any hope of starting a family. They had waited decades for the birth of Isaac. In this young man rested the hope of the promise given to Abraham by God, yet he seemed quite willing to take instructions from God and sacrifice his only son.

Isaac had no choice. He had no idea what was happening to him, until the point he was tied up and placed on a bonfire with his father about to plunge a dagger into his heart.

Is this the sort of God we can believe in? One who will test us to this degree of cruelty? Wouldn’t we say nowadays the whole event would leave both father and son scarred for life?

Over many years, the narrative has been preached as teaching us about Abraham’s great faith and obedience against all odds, and God’s response which is to reward him by his provision at the last moment.

Does the fact Isaac’s life is saved make the horror of the narrative any more palatable? What if Abraham’s obedience had been tested to the ultimate, and Isaac had died? What is Abraham had misunderstood what God was seemingly asking of him?

It’s a rhetorical question, because Isaac did not die, and one might say God would have stayed Abraham’s hand to save him anyway. Still we ask ourselves, must we accept the story as a lesson in ultimate obedience and faith, or do we have permission to find the whole thing troubling, because it portrays God as capricious at the very least in the way he goes about testing his creation?

One of the most pressing questions of any age – something that is constantly asked by those who have suffered a tragedy – is why did God allow this to happen to me? Why did he not prevent it? What have I done to deserve this suffering when others do not? Why do these things always seem to happen to the best of people?

There is no ready answer – none that I know anyway. All one can do is offer support and a ready ear. It doesn’t even help to say the world is the way it is, and we don’t always understand it. We just don’t have any satisfactory answers.

There’s a song by Bob Dylan about Genesis 22 that makes an connection between fathers sacrificing their children and the countless young sons who were sent to fight and to die in Vietnam by the leaders of the United States. The song illustrates the helplessness we sometimes feel but it’s not a very good comparison because Isaac did not die as God provided an alternative. But grieving parents will quite rightly ask why God did not do so to save their sons and daughters.

There is so much we don’t understand, but still our questioning faith inhabits a space framed by our underlying belief in the goodness of God who does provide and does not desire the suffering of us, his children.

This event, occurring maybe 2,500 years ago, nevertheless speaks to us of redemption. Life coming into what seemed certain death. Faith in the midst of the loss of all hope. God’s goodness breaking into near despair.

Abraham’s faith was not blind faith. He still had to recognise the alternative to what he believed he had to do. He had to lift up his eyes and not only see the ram caught in the thicket, but perceive the provision made by God as a satisfactory substitute for his son.

That same God, who is himself outside of time, was the God who could have provided an alternative to the death of his own son on the cross, but did not do so. This time the sacrificial lamb was not bound. This time there was choice, but Jesus chose not to take it. This time, once for all time, the sacrifice was a self-sacrifice for the atonement of the whole human race.

If we find the near sacrifice of Isaac troubling, how much more should we grieve over the events of Easter, whilst marvelling at the abundant grace of the God who entered our realm, became like us, and consented to die for our redemption.

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