Our reading from Genesis chapter 22 covers what may be the most difficult moment in the life of Abraham. Remember Abraham? When Abraham is 75 years old, God shows up and says, “Go! Leave your home, family, and friends. Go to the land which I will show you.”
In an act of faith, Abraham and his wife Sarah go. They settle in the land of Canaan. Abraham grows wealthy. When Abraham is 99, God shows up and says, “I will make you a father of many nations. I will give you a son by Sarah and the sign of this covenant will be circumcision.” In an act of great faith, Abraham cuts his own flesh to mark the promise.
In Genesis chapter 21, Abraham and Sarah welcome their son, Isaac. Then, in Genesis chapter 22, the Lord appears again. This appearance isn’t like the ones before. Instead of a promise, the Lord offers a test: “Take your son, Isaac!” God says. “Go to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as a whole burnt offering.”
God told Abraham to go to a new land. Abraham went. God told Abraham to cut his own flesh. Abraham did. God told Abraham to kill his own child. And in an act of extreme faith, Abraham packed the knife.
This story is remembered each year during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration. During that holiday, the traditional prayers call on God to remember the great faith of Abraham. Among Christians, Abraham is praised for his great faith, for his willingness to go wherever God calls him, however far that is - even when God calls him to do something truly appalling.
And what Abraham does is truly appalling. If you find it appalling, you are not alone. It’s not just an affront to modern sensibilities. Sages and scholars throughout the centuries have taken issue with this passage. There are pastors who will not preach on it, saying there is nothing edifying about this story.
But I believe that as Christians, we are called to look closely at the whole Word of God - even the difficult passages. And when we look closely, we notice that running alongside the story of Abraham’s relationship with God is a second story of Abraham’s relationship with his family.
Abraham is not just a patriarch of the faith, he’s the patriarch of a family. The patriarch’s job is to protect, provide for, and defend those in his care. How is Abraham doing with that?
Let’s look at the story again. When Abraham is 75, God says, “Go to the land which I will show you.” Abraham and Sarah go, but there’s a famine in the land. So, they keep going all the way to Egypt. In Egypt, the Pharaoh notices Sarah. Pharaoh is interested in Sarah. Why is he so interested? Because Abraham led him to believe she wasn’t married. Abraham hands over his wife to be a concubine in Pharaoh's house. And in return, he is showered with gifts: sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and slaves. When Pharaoh finds out that he’s been deceived, he is appalled! He kicks Abraham out of the country [Genesis 12:10-20]. But Abraham keeps the gifts.
When Abraham is 99, God says, “I will make you a father of many nations. I will give you a son by Sarah, and the sign of the covenant will be circumcision.” After the wounds heal, Abraham and Sarah journey west, to the land of the Philistines, where the King of the Philistines notices Sarah. He is also interested in Sarah. And we wonder: what will Abraham do this time? Will he protect his wife? No! He hands Sarah over to be a concubine in the King’s house.
When the King of the Philistines finds out, through a vision of God no less, he is appalled! For he is a righteous Philistine. Who knew there were righteous Philistines?! The king is one of them. He gives Sarah back, and he goes further. He gives Abraham salves, sheep, oxen, grazing rights, and a lot of money. He pays restitution to Abraham despite the fact that Abraham was in the wrong [Genesis 20]. Does Abraham admit that he lied? Sure. But he keeps the gifts.
Abraham exploits his wife for personal gain, but Sarah isn’t the only family member to be mistreated. During this time, Abraham has a son named Ishmael. He has this son with Hagar, one of Sarah’s Egyptian slaves - maybe one of the slaves they’d received from Pharaoh.
Sarah gets irritated with Hagar and Ishmael. She wants them kicked out of the house. Abraham feels guilty about this. But does the guilt move him to confront Sarah? Does he right the injustice under his own roof? No! He packs them a lunch box and sends them into the desert [Genesis 21:8-21].
Abraham’s unwavering devotion to God lies alongside his repeated neglect of his own family.
That brings us to Genesis chapter 22, where Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac to God. The sacrifice of children was not unheard of in Abraham’s day. It was usually a desperate bid for the attention of the gods. During a national crisis, the child of the King was sometimes sacrificed. Our Bible records this happening – even in ancient Israel.
2 Chronicles says that King Ahaz sacrificed his children [2 Chronicles 28:1-4. Verse 3: “(he) made his sons pass through fire” at the valley of the son of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is later known by the Greeks as “Gehenna.” Scholars understand “passing through fire” to be a reference to child sacrifice and possibly related to the cult of Molech]. King Manasseh sacrificed his children as well [2 Chronicles 33:1-9. Verse 6: “He made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom”]. Jeremiah chapter 7 says the people of Judah have sacrificed their children [Jeremiah 7:30-34. Verse 30: “And they go on building the high place of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command.”]. And in every one of these passages, we read that the people did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.
We know where God stands on child sacrifice. So, what is going on in Genesis 22? The events of Genesis 22 follow the events at Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? These are two cities near the shores of the Dead Sea, Abraham learns that God plans to destroy the cities because of the rampant abuse and violence in them.
Up to this point, Abraham has gone along with God’s plans – no questions asked. But when it comes to wiping out an entire city? That is a step too far. At last, we see Abraham moved to action. He protests to God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing!”
Can you imagine talking to God like this? Far be it from you to do such a thing! [Genesis 18:16-33 gives the story of Abraham’s protest to God.] These are bold words. They’re words of protest.
And here’s the thing about protest. My children protest to me sometimes. They like to say, “It’s not fair!” They protest because they know I care about them. And I care about fairness! If they didn’t think I cared, they wouldn’t bother.
So, the protest tells us that Abraham believes God cares, that Abraham believes God is merciful and just. His protest tells us that the relationship between Abraham and God is strong. Abraham begs God to spare those cities, but despite his protest those cities burn to ash [Genesis 19:1-29].
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah changes Abraham, because when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham doesn’t protest. He doesn’t call on God’s mercy or justice. Abraham falls silent. Why? I think it’s because his relationship with God has changed.
The test at Mount Moriah is often described like it’s pass/fail test. But what if that’s not quite right? What if it’s a different kind of test?
Before I became a pastor, I was an engineer. To be an engineer, I took a lot of lab classes. Freshman year of college, I took chemistry. We’d walk into the lab and the professor would give us a sample and ask us to test it and figure out what it was. What temperature does it burn at? What color is the flame? What happens when you put it under pressure? What happens if you mix it into a solution? At the end of the lab, we’d hand in a report that detailed the properties that we had observed in our testing.
I wonder if Abraham’s testing is like the testing that happens in a Chemistry lab. What if the test is not a measure of obedience. What if it’s a test to determine the nature of Abraham’s relationship with God?
If this test is about relationship, it reaches a stunning conclusion. At the end of the test, the angel of the Lord says to Abraham, “Now I know you fear God.” “Now I know you fear God.” Is fear what God was after? Is fear why God kept showing up to talk with Abraham, to sit at table with him, to make a covenant with him… just so Abraham could fear him?
This Hebrew word for “fear” is used throughout the book of Genesis. [Hebrew verb is _yareh and is found throughout Genesis with the connotation of “being afraid” – even when it’s applied to God.] It’s used overwhelmingly to describe “being afraid.” You know who else feared God in the book of Genesis? Adam and Eve. At first, they walked and talked with God, but then they ate the forbidden fruit. And when God showed up for their evening stroll, we read that Adam and Eve feared him. They feared God so much that they ran away and hid.
Abraham fears God. Isaac fears God, too. Remember Isaac? He’s the one tied up on the altar by the person who’s supposed to love and protect him. Isaac has a special name for God. When you pray, you might have a special name for God. Well, Isaac has a special name. He calls God THE FEAR. Isaac hasn’t learned to love God. He hasn’t learned to walk with God. He’s learned to be afraid of God.
Abraham’s relationship with his family is never the same. After this, Sarah dies in a city 26 miles from where Abraham lives. He has to travel to pay his respects [Genesis 23]. After this, Isaac and Abraham never speak again. The next time we meet Isaac, he’s living 50 miles away in the desert [Genesis 24:62-67]. Abraham may not have technically sacrificed his son on that mountain, but he lost him anyway.
It makes me wonder, who have we lost in our pursuit of righteousness? It makes me wonder, when have I held so tightly to my “values” that I failed to value the person in front of me? Who have we sacrificed in an effort to prove our devotion to God?
For years, I was the parent of a small dog, a terrier. Our dog liked to run around the back yard, barking at the birds. One day – miracle of miracles – he caught a bird, and he killed it. He brought the dead bird into the house and laid his sacrifice at our feet, and he was so proud! Every muscle in his body screamed: “Look what I did for you!” I think he expected us to praise him for his zeal, to thank him for defending our house against the birds. But I never asked him to defend my house against the birds. I didn’t have any use for a dead bird. That’s not what I was after.
When we hurt people in an effort to please God, we hand over a dead bird. When we hurt people and call it God’s will, that’s not what God is after.
What is God after? When Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12:29-31]. And Jesus loved his neighbor. He puts people before policies, before religious observance, before social convention. He puts people first. He puts people first so often that he’s criticized for it.
Can you imagine if our congregations were criticized for putting people first? What an honor it would be to bear the same criticism as Christ. In our faith, loving God and loving others is connected.
Abraham wants to prove he loves God so badly that he’s willing to sacrifice his own son for it. But Jesus says – not so fast! Because loving others is the second half of the command.
If in our zeal for God, we hurt other people, we have failed to live by this teaching. And we have failed to understand what true righteousness is.
Why do we come back to the story of Genesis 22? Because it speaks to our own struggles with righteousness. It speaks to our own questions about what faith requires and what God requires of us.
Micah chapter 6 verse 8 says it plainly. “What does the Lord require but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?” This is the fullest and highest expression of our faith.
May we do so today. May we do so every day.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you teach that to love others is to love you, that what we do for others we do for you. But we confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have treated those made in your image as though they were expendable. We have inflicted hurt and called it holiness. Forgive us, we pray. Create in us clean hearts and renew our commitment to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Amen.