NRSV GENESIS 22:1-14, THE TESTING OF ABRAHAM
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
This is a hard story, no doubt about it. In truth I have never much cared for the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. That he is spared in the end has never quite gotten me past the barbarity of the moment when the knife is raised above Isaac and Abraham is poised to murder his son.
A few years ago when I was studying this passage I had two interesting observations pointed out to me. The first is that after this day, if Isaac and Abraham speak to one another, scripture does not record it. Father and son appear to go their separate ways. The second is like the first - but even more stunning when you consider the closeness of Abraham to God. After this time when Abraham felt that God was demanding Isaac’s life, scripture does not record any further conversation between Abraham and God. It seems that I am not the only one who found this day deeply troubling.
As a father with two children of my own, it is unimaginable what the loss of one of them would mean. In the Genesis story, of course, another way is found. The ram is substituted for Isaac, and father and son both escape the disaster that seemed to be inevitable. They both escape with their lives but, no doubt, walk from the sacrificial scene emotionally and spiritually shaken.
Today is “Good Friday.” An odd name for such a day as this. The name derives from the Middle English words, “God’s Friday,” the day in Holy Week when we remember the crucifixion of our Lord.
There are certain parallels between the Genesis story and the events of Good Friday. Isaac is the only child of Abraham and Sarah: Jesus is God’s only son. Isaac carries the wood for his own altar: Jesus carries the cross on which he will hang. Isaac shows remarkable trust in his father as they approach the mountain with no sacrifice in hand: Jesus shows remarkable trust in the garden when he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”
The stories are not completely similar, however. On Good Friday there is no ram substitution — only the scapegoating of the Son of God. On Good Friday there is no last-minute stay of execution — but the full fury of our rejection of God is played out to its inevitable and violent conclusion. On Good Friday the father and son do not walk away shaken, but unscathed — the Son dies and the Father’s heart is so broken that the earth quakes and day becomes night (indicators that creation itself is returning to chaos).
It is a hard story, a wretched tale, and we must resist the urge to clean it up and soften its details. What is the task for people of faith today? I believe that it is to take in this story of Christ’s forsakenness in all of its sorry detail; to live with the harsh reality of the consequence of our refusal to love and claim God faithfully; to ponder our own culpability in the things which break the heart of God and bring premature death to God’s children; to join with the earth itself, shuddering and quaking in bereavement at the death of God’s beloved. Let us descend with Christ through this crucible into the very heart of God.
Prayer - Lord God, break our hearts. Let us be broken by all of the things which break your heart and when we raise our voices in lamentation, may we be in harmony with you. Strip us of all pretense, drive home a knowledge of sin which dispels the illusions of self-righteousness, and let us share in your suffering that we may also share in your glorification. Amen.