You know, I think it's a really good thing that the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac didn't fall in the lectionary last week. When I try to think of good examples of fatherhood for Father's day, this passage is not at the top of my list, unless I'm going for irony.
At times I have trouble with some of the passages in the Bible. This is one of those times. I have heard the story repeatedly, and each time I get stuck on the same question: why? Why in the world would God ask Abraham to do something like this? After all that God has promised him, after all that Abraham has sacrificed in order to follow God's call, why would God ask him to sacrifice more? And his own child, for goodness' sake!
Let's take a look back at Abraham's life. The first time God calls Abraham, he picks up his wife, nephew, and servants and travels until God tells him to stop. Back then, your family and your land was everything. So for him to leave his extended family for the unknown meant that he was losing his identity. With his support system gone, he was relying completely on God.
God then promised him that he would have as many heirs as there are stars in the sky. And yet Abraham waited childless for 10 years before Sarah convinced him to take her slave-girl, Hagar, so that they would have someone to carry on the family name so it wouldn't disappear forever. Only after Ishmael is born does God finally tell Sarah that she is going to have a child of her own in the next few years. As Isaac grows older, Sarah becomes increasingly worried that Ishmael is a threat to Isaac's inheritance. In the passage immediately before the one we read today, Sarah tells Abraham to make Hagar and Ishmael leave. God tells him to listen to his wife. So he sends them off into the desert, what he believes to be a death sentence.
Abraham is understandably upset--Ishmael was his first-born, regardless of who his mother was. And right on the heels of this loss God decides to test him, to make him lose a son yet again. And Abraham listens! At this point, I begin to wonder what in the world is going on with Abraham. Where is the man who bargained with God for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? If he could do that for complete strangers, for people who were corrupt and evil, why didn't he try to argue for the life of his own son? Why did he just blindly follow God's command?
We don't have answers to these questions. We just know that God called, and righteous man that he was, Abraham obeyed.
I wonder what the conversation is like between Abraham and his son as they leave the two servants behind on their way to make the sacrifice. Perhaps he is quiet, with a far-off gaze, nodding absent-mindedly as Isaac rambles on. Or maybe he is soaking up every last second with his precious son, absorbing their last bit of time together like a parched sponge. Or he could be trying to distract his son with tales of adventures from his journeys through foreign lands.
Whatever happens, Isaac is a smart kid, and, eventually noticing there isn't a lamb, he asks his father about it. Abraham answers him with the same response he gave God: "Here I am, my son."
And then, whether as a reply to pacify his son or a plea to God or an assertion of his faith, he tells his son in a voice cracking with emotion that "God himself will provide." As if to prove his point (to himself as well as his son), he begins to look around furtively, hoping against hope that there really is an animal somewhere out there.
With each step the place gets closer and his heart grows heavier with the knowledge of what he is prepared to do. When they arrive I imagine Abraham is very particular about how the altar is built and fusses with the wood, stacking and re-stacking until it's obvious even to Isaac that his father is procrastinating. Scanning the area for an animal for the hundredth time and still finding none, his shoulders droop and he asks his son to come to his side. At this point he has probably run out of words--how in the world do you explain to your child that you are supposed to kill them? He ties up Isaac, who is so shocked that he doesn't try to resist, but simply stares in confusion at his father. Abraham puts him on top of the wood and reaches for his knife. His blood pounds in his ears loudly and he feels nauseated. He is so focused that the angel has to call his name twice to get his attention. "Abraham. Abraham!" He freezes, too afraid to move. He whispers hesitantly, "Here I am." And the angel tells him his son is not to die after all. He hears rustling behind him and sees a ram caught in a thicket. His hands shaking and tears streaming down his cheeks he hurriedly unties his son and then gathers him into his arms before they go collect the ram.
Obviously this is all a romanticized version stemming purely from my imagination. Maybe Abraham was completely certain that God would come and save Isaac. Maybe he talked to his son and told him exactly what to expect. I don't know about you, but I have personally never met anyone without an ounce of doubt on some level, whether or not they'll admit it out loud. And so I think that if this were the case it would take away from his sacrifice and the lengths to which he would go to in order to obey God's command.
Perhaps we get caught up in the drama of the situation and are too quick to write off Abraham as a shoddy father. But maybe as a final lesson to his son he was demonstrating the very thing he did best--and what he did best was obey God. For Abraham, God came first--before family, before identity, before everything. And this obedience, this righteousness, was an essential quality for the future people of God to have if they were going to be in covenant with one another. Because for some crazy reason, God wants to have a relationship with us.
We can't understand the reasons behind God's actions and requests. We only have a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and we aren't able to see how they fit in with the rest of the pieces. We don't get to see the cover of the box, and that drives me absolutely crazy sometimes. So when I begin to get frustrated with God's request and how Abraham acts in this passage, I remind myself of a piece of the puzzle that is found way later in the Bible. Because the same God who makes this request of Abraham later ends up giving his own beloved Son as a sacrifice. And that's why we're here today: to join with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ--old and new, from near and from far away--in a service of worship, fellowship, and thanksgiving for a God who we will never understand but who we do know loves us unconditionally. Thanks be to God!
Carvaggio's "Sacrifice of Isaac"