Let us pray. Holy God, we thank you for your presence in this time and place, and within each one of us. Help us now to open our minds, our hearts, our whole lives, to receive the gift of your living word for us this day. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Well you may be interested to know, that in this past week, as I was touching base, just informally, with various clergy, in Zoom meetings and in Facebook posts, the preachers were dreading this Sunday. Why? Because of the Old Testament reading – the reading with Abraham and Isaac – Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, or, as called in the Jewish Scriptures – “the binding of Isaac.”
So what can this possibly say in our 21st century culture, in our day of child abuse registries and checks. How do we deal with this? Well, unfortunately, I think it’s usually in one of two ways. Either we recoil in horror at the thought of this father slaying his son, and write it off as another example of what an archaic religion biblical Christianity really is; or we figuratively cut the story out of our Bible, and label it as unhelpful at best, and move on a couple of chapters in Genesis to a nice story – perhaps when Isaac meets and marries Rebekah. Well, neither of those two approaches does justice to the Word of God.
Instead, I want to invite you to suspend your judgement, temporarily, on the morality of this story, and instead to examine the narrative more closely. Because it is written in a very particular way for a very particular purpose. We have to remember that these stories come from oral tradition, and the version that our English would be based on would have been written a thousand years after this event occurred.
So in verse 1, the writer begins, “God tested Abraham.” Why – to be kind of mean? Never! God always tests to cause growth and to help us realize our faith more deeply. Remember that God has given Isaac to Abraham and Sarah as a special gift – the one through whom God’s covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled. And note how the writer has God approach Abraham. God said, “take your son – your ONLY son – 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.” Remember – all of these narratives began as oral tradition centuries before they were written down. So you can imagine the hearers’ response to that opening line – WHAT? Sacrifice the very gift that God has given them?
So the storyteller has our attention. And then he begins to relay the story with lots of detail. It’s very rich – lots of description. “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 of the burnt offering – and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.”, – lots of detail. And as they journey on, the narrator begins to focus the action – closes the lens down you might say – simply on Abraham and Isaac. He says, “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 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. Again, very, very careful description. Note the attention to detail. All of it builds suspense in the hearers’ minds. Think, in our modern day, of how a filmmaker of a murder/suspense movie intentionally shows you the weapon and the unlocked window ahead of time. It’s exactly what this writer is doing. And just so you can’t forget the love between father and son, he emphasizes that they walk together and they speak as father and son. 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.
And as the story reaches its climax, we’re told in detail about the laying out of the wood – the binding of Isaac – the raising of the knife and then – the angel of the Lord, in the last second, calls out to Abraham! And Abraham answers – as he does every time someone speaks to him – he says, “Here I am!” And Abraham passes the test. Love wins on all fronts – God’s love for Abraham and Isaac, and Abraham’s love for God and for Isaac. Abraham does not have to choose between God and his son because God honours Abraham’s love for his son. We read, “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.”
Now there are a couple of other cultural practices in the background of this reading. This story, as I said, is written down in this form about a thousand years after the event. But here’s two important pieces. Israel, the people of God, as part of their covenant with God, are told that the first-born male belongs to God in every family; and has to be redeemed in a sense – bought back. So even in Luke, with Jesus, and Joseph and Mary – Joseph and Mary have to redeem Jesus by offering a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons as a sacrifice in the temple – because he is the first-born male, as was Isaac.
And then secondly, child sacrifice to other gods in West Semitic cultures was a known practice – but not Israel’s God! And this story drives that point home.
So what is this saying to the disciples of Jesus Christ in the 1st century or the 21st century. I think it sits nicely alongside today’s 2nd reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Today’s passage begins with the word ‘Therefore’ – you might recall a week or two ago I reminded you that whenever you’re reading Paul and he uses the word ‘therefore’, you should ask what it’s there for – look back at what preceded it. And the verse immediately ahead says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” Because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we have a choice. We are free to love and serve God – to follow the way of Jesus Christ – and, just as Jesus did, we are to put the love of God first above anyone and anything else. Will that put us in impossible, irreconcilable situations? It might look like it could. But no! The story of Abraham and Isaac proves it – God will provide – the name that Abraham gave to the place where this event happened.
As St. Paul plainly concludes in today’s 2nd reading, he says, “The wages of sin is death.” He’s not talking about ‘sins’, as in misdeeds, but of ‘sin’ – a life lived separate from, and without, God. “But the free gift of God is eternal life – a life lived in God’s love – in this life, and the next.
God will provide the way that leads to life – always! The story of Abraham and Isaac proves it. Amen.