Sunday’s sermon: “What Do You Want, God?”

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1966)

Text used – Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

  • Is it just me, or is anyone else feeling some Scriptural whiplash this morning?
    • Last week → started Narr. Lect. Yr. 4 with the beautiful, inspiring account of creation from Gen 1
      • Reminded us of God’s goodness
      • Reminded us that God took the time to call each individual element/phase of creation good and the whole of creation supremely good
      • Reminded us that we are an essential and incomparable part of that creation – text: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[1]
    • But then this week, we go from that steadfast, heartwarming passage … to today’s passage – one of the most challenging, uncomfortable, even disturbing passages in the First Testament: a passage that is most commonly referred to as “the binding of Isaac.”
      • Definitely not what I would call beautiful
      • Definitely not what I would call heartwarming
      • As I said, this turn is giving me some Scriptural whiplash! But here’s the thing: We’re following the Narrative Lectionary, the goal of which is to walk us through the Grand Story of our faith from the very beginning (hence Genesis 1 last week) all the way through the establishment of the early church in Acts within the course of a year. And today’s story of Abraham and Isaac – troubling though it may be – is a part of that story.
        • Ignoring the more difficult parts of a story and focusing only on the parts that make us feel good = no way to learn our history → That’s how critical elements and the voices of the marginalized end up getting lost. That’s how they end up getting intentionally silenced – by deciding that their portion of the story is too hard for us to look at, too hard for us to hear. If we’re going to investigate who we are as people of faith, we have to investigate all the stories that make up that history, not just the fun and happy stories.
  • So let’s dig into this passage this morning.
    • Actually begins with just a brief reminder of who Isaac is and the circumstances around his birth – text: The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son – the one Sarah bore him – Isaac.[2] → Okay, so let’s be real for a second. Abraham and Sarah both were more than just “old.” When Isaac was born. They were really old … unfathomably old in terms of childbirth.
      • Medical terminology today: any pregnancy that occurs when the mother is over the age of 35 is deemed “geriatric pregnancy” → Yeah … take that flattering and heartwarming term in for a second, folx! And then remember that, according to Scripture, Sarah was not in her 30s when Isaac was born. She wasn’t in her 40s. She wasn’t in her 50s. She wasn’t even in her 60s. According to Scripture, Sarah was in her 90s when Isaac was born! And Abraham was over 100!
    • So clearly Abraham and Sarah have waited a long time for this child – for Isaac.
      • Isaac is finally born as God promised (back in Gen 18)
      • Sarah is overjoyed by the birth of this child
  • And then we get to the bulk of today’s story – the binding of Isaac … the part of the story in which God convinces Abraham to sacrifice his own child and Abraham goes along with it.
    • Get a couple of clues right at the beginning of the story that the events to follow are going to be really important ones
      • First clue is really obvious – text: After these events, God tested Abraham.[3]Any time that God tests someone in Scripture, whatever follows is never easy … but is always important.
      • Other clue that today’s story is important = also hidden in the Heb. → Abraham’s response to God’s initial call – “I’m here” = particular Heb. word: hinneh
        • Often either goes untranslated (as we’ll see a couple times later in today’s passage) or gets translated as some sort of exclamation: “Lo! Behold! See!” … Or, as one of my Hebrew professor in seminary used to love to say, “Shazaam!”
        • Particular word which has the purpose of drawing the reader’s/listener’s attention → This word was used as a bit of a foreshadowing tool – as a way to say, “What’s coming next is really important, so pay close attention.” That’s the word that Abraham uses to answer God at the very beginning of our story.
    • Lots of indicators throughout the story that clue us in to just how hard and life-changing this journey is going to be for those involved
      • When God tells Abraham to take Isaac and “go” to the land of Moriah: Heb. “go” can mean walking with your feet but it has an added layer of meaning – can also refer to one’s “walk of life” → So clearly, this journey that God is laying before Abraham’s feet is more than just a simple physical trek up the mountain.
      • When text says Abraham “got up early” to set out on this journey with Isaac: Heb. “got up” = “lean your shoulder into a heavy load” → makes it clear that this journey will be no simple, carefree journey for Abraham
      • When text says they “set out” for the “place” that God had described to Abraham: both “set out” and “place” come from the same word – connotations of moving from one state of being to another → makes it clear that whatever is to come will be indeed leave Abraham and Isaac forever changed
        • See this also in the way Abraham speaks with the two servants that they bring with them – text: Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”[4]
          • Heb. “come back” = really interesting word choice → This is the basic word for “return,” but it’s also the word that often gets translated as “repent.” It carries connotations of coming back, yes, but coming back different – connotations of not necessarily returning to exactly where you’ve started from. And I have to wonder about those two servants – those two boys – who heard Abraham utter these words.
            • Words used throughout the text to describe both these servants and Isaac indicate that they were roughly the same age – they were young men, probably somewhere in their adolescence → What did they think when they heard Abraham tell them to stay put? What did they think when they heard him say those words? What did they think as they watched Abraham and Isaac walk away? Could they read the concern in Abraham’s eyes? The hesitancy in his step? Did they pick up on the heaviness, the severity of the moment?
    • Continue to find indicators of both Abraham’s dread and his devotion as we read further into the hardest part of this story
      • Gravity of the situation as well as Abraham’s part in it underlined again – text says Abraham “took the fire and the knife in his hand[5] → “in his hand” phrase that implies taking responsibility for something
      • Major emphasis on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac – text: Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.” Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?” Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.”[6]
        • Two instances of hinneh – of that “pay attention” word
          • FIRST = Abraham’s initial response to Isaac: “I’m here, my son.” (same as response to God at the beginning of the text) → indicates that Abraham is well and truly present with his son in that moment – a heartwarming (if fleeting) moment in the midst of probably the hardest part of this text (this conversation in which Abraham knows what’s happening … and we know what’s happening … but Isaac remains clueless and innocent)
          • SECOND = untranslated – comes at the beginning of Isaac’s fateful question: “Where is the lamb?” → draws our attention both to the expectation and the glaring absence of the traditional offering
        • Shining moment of Abraham’s devotion in the midst of this horrible scene – Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question about the lamb: “God will see to it.” → = “God will provide” → Of course, we cannot know what Abraham was thinking or feeling in that moment, but when he chose that word, I have to wonder if he was saying it just to allay Isaac’s curiosity or if he truly believed that, in the end, God would provide the lamb.
      • They arrive → Abraham builds the necessary altar and arranges the wood (Did he just throw the wood in a pile to get the horrible deed over with, or did he spend time meticulously arranging the wood in hopes that he could delay what he knew was coming?) → Abraham ties up Isaac and lays him on top of the wood on the altar – text: Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.[7]
        • Again, Heb. makes it clear just how conflicted Abraham must have been – just how much Abraham didn’t want to do what he was doing: Heb. “stretched out his hand” = “send out/away” or “forsake” → We can just see that moment stretching out before Abraham – that tragic, painful, horrific moment that he has been dreading for days. A moment that he does not want. A moment that he cannot fathom. A moment that he truly and viscerally fears. A moment that he would so much rather remove himself from – forsake himself from.
  • And then, at the last minute, God intervenes.
    • God’s messengers call out to Abraham to stay his hand → once again Abraham responds with the 3rd occurrence of “I’m here” (hinneh … “Pay attention, God, I’m in this moment exactly where you called me to be.”) → messengers direct Abraham not to stretch out his hand and harm his son
    • Through these messengers, God testifies to Abraham about the strength and steadfastness of Abraham’s own faith – text: “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”[8]
      • Heavy reverberations of this in the New Testament → Is anyone else hearing John 3:16 echo in their minds?: God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.[9]
    • Final instance of hinneh in this story – text: Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush.[10] → hinneh = untranslated just after the word “saw” → draws our attention to the way in which God truly does provide for the offering just as Abraham said God would in his conversation with Isaac
      • Offer the ram as an entirely burned offering
      • Abraham names the place “the Lord sees”
      • (Presumably) Abraham and Isaac head back down the mountain, reunite with the servants, and go back home
  • So what’s the deal with this story anyway?!
    • Many scholars focus on the idea/tradition of the entirely burned offering
      • Offering that was usually a lamb or a cow
      • Offering that was usually consumed by the priests and whoever brought the offering
      • Scholars suggest that this story is a lesson from God in appropriate sacrifice → Many of the pagan religions in the surrounding nations participated in human sacrifice at the time, and, more specifically, in child sacrifice. But this story makes it clear that a child sacrifice is not the sacrifice that God wants.
        • Hear this in the familiar words of the prophet Micah: Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, [love kindness], and walk humbly with your God.[11]
    • But on a more modern-day level, it’s a difficult text to wrestle with, not because Abraham finds himself in a morally difficult situation but because it’s a morally difficult situation created by God.
      • Plenty of times that we find ourselves in morally difficult situations – situations in which we are torn between various options
        • Times when we know what to do … but it’s hard
        • Times when it seems like none of the options are the “good” option, the “right” option
      • Spoiler alert, folx: I don’t have all the answers for you this morning. This is certainly a text that I wrestle with as well.
        • Hold it in tandem with what we pray every Sunday morning: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” → The ecumenical version of The Lord’s Prayer says, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” But the idea is the same. We want to avoid trials … temptations … tests … not be led into them like Abraham was. Not be led into them like Abraham was … by God.
    • As I said, I’m long on questions and short on answers this morning as I wrestle with this text alongside you. – leave you with the reflection from this week’s Spill the Beans resource (“Reflection” from Spill the Beans, iss. 24, p. 18, © 2017):

What was God thinking?
What was Abraham thinking?
What was Isaac thinking?
What was Sarah thinking?

So many hearts breaking at once.
A story of unfathomable pain.
A test greater than any test.
Unimaginable tension.
Life and death held in suspension
Moments apart.

God steps in.
Abraham passes the test.
Isaac lives.
A mother’s heart heals.

What was God doing that day?
A question without an answer, perhaps?
God was in the midst of it all.
In all things God is there.
In our tests and trials
God is there.
Trust in God.


[1] Gen 1:27.

[2] Gen 21:1-3.

[3] Gen 22:1a.

[4] Gen 22:5.

[5] Gen 22:6 (emphasis added).

[6] Gen 22:7-8a.

[7] Gen 22:10.

[8] Gen 22:12.

[9] Jn 3:16.

[10] Gen 22:13a.

[11] Mic 6:7b-8 (text slightly altered for familiarity’s sake).

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: “What Do You Want, God?”

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Perfect God, Imperfect Agent | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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