Abraham and Isaac

June 26, 2005



Abraham and Isaac (6/26/05)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Many preachers follow a lectionary—a list of Bible passages their denomination thinks are important enough to be preached on repeatedly. Most mainline denominations use what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, which has a three year cycle. So the preacher ends up preaching on the same passage every third year.

I suppose this is handy for those ministers who like to change churches every few years. Once you write about 150 sermons—three years worth—you can pretty much go on a sermon-writing vacation for the rest of your career, and nobody would ever know.

The good thing about the lectionary is it gives a congregation good exposure to a wide variety of the Bible, and keeps the preacher from always picking passages that support his or her personal theology. The bad thing about the lectionary is it often becomes very restrictive. I remember after the September 11th tragedy many of my ministerial colleagues worried about how to fit that life-changing event into their sermons the following Sunday, which, according to the lectionary, had to be based on a passage from Matthew in which Jesus debates the Pharisees.

That seems a little ridiculous to me, but many preachers are that serious about following the lectionary. When I first came to this church I usually preached from the lectionary, because that’s what the seminary professors said good preachers did. Oddly, there was an amazing preacher at this church named Robert Meyers who never ever preached from the lectionary. Bob and I discussed this often during my first few years, and I was relatively certain that eventually he would see the error of his ways and start using the lectionary.

Well, I guess I taught him a thing or two! Okay, I think we all know who was the teacher and who was the student when it comes to preaching. Very few new preachers have the opportunity to spend a few years under the influence of a Dr. Meyers, and I have been blessed by his presence in my life, both as a role model for preaching, and as a dear friend.

So over time I came to preach less and less from the lectionary. But I still read the lectionary texts every week. When I read the Old Testament passage that the Revised Common Lectionary suggests for examination this week, I was at first thankful I had long ago given up my inclination to follow the lectionary. But then I started feeling a little guilty. This is a famous passage. Everybody has heard it. But it is a very challenging passage around which to craft a sermon. In fact, most people’s reaction to this text—mine included—is repulsion.
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I realized that was probably a good reason to dive into the text and see if we can find something there worthy of salvage. The fact I was relieved I did not have to preach from this passage made me decide it was a passage I should probably preach on. The passage I speak of is God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in the form of a burnt offering. I’m going to read the whole passage. Listen to the story, which comprises the bulk of the 22nd chapter of Genesis:

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham! 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! 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! 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.’

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’

What do we do with such a passage? There are lots of passages in the Bible that bother me—passages that portray God in ways that run contrary to my understanding and experience of God. Why does this one bother us so much? The reason is simple. Although we are typically repulsed by this story, three of the world’s greatest religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—consider it to be of pivotal importance to their faith. Not only that, all three religions believe Abraham is a hero for his willingness to kill his own son. No matter how much we would like to ignore this story, we can’t.

I recently read a book by Bruce Feiler called Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. He observes that many scholars believe Abraham is a fictional character, although they concede he may be based on a real person from ancient history. But the Abraham we find in the Bible lived a long time ago. Think back to the time of Jesus. That was 20 centuries ago. We must go back that far again—something approaching another 20 centuries—to get to the time of Abraham.

Abraham was not a Jew, or Christian, or Muslim. This was before any of those religions existed. But he is considered the father of all three faiths. He is not only the spiritual father, but many claim he is the biological father of 12 million Jews, one billion Muslims and two billion
Christians around the world.

Why is Abraham such a pivotal figure? Bruce Feiler argues his significance is due to that fact he is the first human being to understand that there is only one God. That is his great contribution to civilization. He is the father of monotheism. In Feiler’s book, he points out that each of the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have all re-created Abraham in its own image. Each religion claims Abraham as its own.

Pivotal to the story of Abraham is his relationship with his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. We all remember the story. God promises Abraham that a great nation will arise through his offspring. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, grow quite old—around 90—and there are still no children. So Sarah tells Abraham to take her slave, Hagar, and impregnate her. Then Abraham will have a son to carry on his name.

Hagar, the slave, gives birth to Ishmael. And things would be fine except for what happens next. Ninety year old Sarah gets pregnant. And she gives birth to Isaac. Sarah decides there is no room in this equation for Hagar and Ishmael, so Sarah convinces Abraham to send them off into the wilderness to die. While in the wilderness, God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael just as they are about to die, and rescues them. He tells Hagar that her son, Ishmael, will himself be the father of a great nation.

Arab Muslims believe they are descended from Ishmael, and Jews believe they are descended from Isaac. Arguments over which descendants are the true heirs to God’s promise to Abraham have led to four thousand years of fighting.

Getting back to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering to God, this story is so important to each of the three monotheistic faiths that they have all interpreted it in their own way. For Jews, the story goes as written in the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. But Muslims claim the Hebrew Bible is in error on this point. They say it was Ishmael who God was willing to sacrifice. They claim the Bible is right about one thing—the son Abraham was willing to sacrifice was indeed the son he dearly loved—but that son was Ishmael, not Isaac.

Christians accept the biblical version of the story, saying it was Isaac who was placed on the sacrificial altar. And Christians have historically praised Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son, because it forebodes the greatest sacrifice of all time—God’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Jesus Christ.

This all gets pretty messy, especially for those of us who do not resonate with the language of sacrifice. Many of us are devout Christians but do not believe God required a blood sacrifice of his son. In fact, I can accept Jesus’ walk to the cross as something Jesus did for me; but I cannot think of it as something God did to Jesus.

So what do we do with this story? Do we teach it to our children in Sunday School? Do we make Abraham out to be a great hero for his willingness to kill his own son? I can’t explain this story to adults. How could I explain it to a child? Karen Robu and I have agreed to sort of let this story slip through the cracks in our Sunday School curriculum.

Honestly, I don’t know how to redeem this story. I can honestly say that if any of you hear the voice of God telling you to kill somebody, that is probably not the voice of God. Get some psychiatric help—quick! But we have to try to find something positive in this twisted tale, so I will turn to the one person I’ve read who almost—almost—redeems this story: Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard wrote a book called Fear and Trembling that deals exclusively with this story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard claims that this story is what makes Abraham the father of faith. For Kierkegaard, life is all about faith. He wrote much of his work as a rebuttal to those who thought the Christian faith made sense. There were some philosophers and theologians, such as Hegel, who believed that Christianity is a rational religion—that it makes sense. They believed that if you thought things through carefully enough, reason would ultimately lead you to God.

Kierkegaard said this type of thinking was entirely wrong minded. He said that if you take reason to its limit, you will hit a wall and fall flat on your existential face. You will be left diddling your lips and asking, “Why does anything exist? Why not nothingness forever? Why? Why?”

And he said you then would have to make a leap of faith. Kierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith” meant that you would fall to your knees in your helplessness and make a commitment to a God you know couldn’t possibly be there. And in this completely irrational leap of faith you would find your answer. You would have traversed the greatest distance in the universe—the distance between your head and your heart—and God would touch you at the very core of your being. It’s important to understand that Kierkegaard insists you cannot make this trip from head to heart with your rational mind—you need some help from God, and that help comes only through faith.

Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, says that Abraham was the first to make this leap of faith. He asks us to imagine what Abraham was thinking when he took Isaac to the altar and prepared to cut his throat. According to Kierkegaard, we make a mistake if we think Abraham had it in the back of his mind that God was going to stop him before he killed his son. We miss the whole point if we envision Abraham saying to himself, “I know God will stop me before I slay my beloved son. Surely God will cry out before I do this terrible thing. God just wants to know whether I am obedient enough to do such a thing.”

No, according to Kierkegaard, Abraham had every intention of killing Isaac on that altar. But what about God’s promise? Hadn’t God promised Abraham that a great nation would arise though his offspring? How could a great nation arise through the offspring of Isaac if Abraham murdered him before Isaac ever had children?

And here’s the whole point, according to Kierkegaard. Abraham believed both things. Abraham believed that he was indeed going to kill his son on that altar. And Abraham believed that his son would still produce children that would grow into a great nation. But wait! That’s impossible! Abraham can’t have it both ways. If he kills his son there is no way that son would one day have children. But that is exactly what Abraham believed. God promised Abraham that he would have descendants through his son Isaac, and God ordered Isaac killed. It was irrational. It was unreasonable. It was impossible. And yet Abraham believed. Abraham trusted God to do the impossible. And that is why Abraham is the father of faith.

That’s a stretch, isn’t it! But Kierkegaard comes as close as anybody I’ve found to being able to redeem this strange and horrifying story of human sacrifice.

I do think there are times in life when the world just doesn’t make sense. Life unfolds in such a way that we are left with nothing but hard choices. We look for the rational way out, and it just isn’t there. And that’s when we hope to find the faith of Abraham somewhere deep inside. That’s when we hope to make that leap of faith. Because as tragic as life may be, and as hopeless as a situation may seem, God is always waiting for us at the other end of that leap of faith.