Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
Today’s reading the final, the tenth, and the greatest of the trials of Abraham. It is one of the most brilliantly told narratives in Genesis, and has generated much comment and many works of art. It’s a work of psychological sensitivity and stylistic skill in portraying Abraham’s distress. We have read eleven chapters of “fall” at the beginning of Genesis, and then Abraham has what might best be described as a mixed experience with his family and with God. It’s an appalling story, but I can see why God felt the need to test Abraham again.
No-one interpretation can capture all the aspects of this story. Perhaps there’s something about human firstborn sacrifice, but that was forbidden in Israel and rightly regarded with horror, so that seems unlikely. God had no intention that the killing of Isaac should ever be carried out, but Abraham had no way of knowing that. On a different level it reminds us that although God’s promise of an heir has been fulfilled, the fulfilment is fragile and endangered. Our story ends with Abraham on right terms with God, and his child is safe.
Abraham got a great many things wrong, but even when he was very old he was still able to make things right with God, and that was a blessing for him and his family. Perhaps that hope can be a blessing for us, too?
Loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your promises to us. May we journey through life gracefully, fruitfully, and strongly, always encouraged by your Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins, Minister of a group of Methodist and United Reformed Churches based around Farnham, Surrey, and Clerk of the URC General Assembly
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
How convenient for God’s chosen family, eh? Yes they treated Hagar badly. But it all worked out, right? Ishmael gets married and will get his own nation too. No worries!
This story serves the patriarchy really well and aches with the cries of the oppressed. This story teaches men that they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions that harm women. God will fix their messes.
The sins of patriarchy, racism, slavery and colonialism (which still plague our world today) infect the relationships of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah. Hagar had no power, but we have power to decide how we teach her story.
This story should not comfort relatively privileged folk like me. It should remind us that we cannot just do what we want to whomever we want and call it “God’s will”. Real people means real pain, real suffering. The pain of Christ on the cross was caused in part by people doing what they wanted to an innocent man and calling it “God’s will.” The Trail of Tears in America and Apartheid in South Africa were caused in part by people doing what they wanted and calling it “God’s will.” Political discourses today – in many nations around the world – centre on a dialogue of nationalism and oppressing people. Some leaders have the audacity to imprison asylum-seeking children, persecute people of different faith, and murder LGBT people and call it “God’s will.”
Teach the people that God sees Hagar! Teach that our just and righteous God sees the people who are oppressed by our unjust and unloving actions! Teach that God sees the oppressed and the oppressors! We’ve got to stop doing whatever we want, expecting God to clean up our messes. For Christ’s sake (and for the sake of all the Hagars).
God who sees the oppressed and the oppressors, We pray that your just ways of doing stuff be reality in our nations and in our communities. Help us to walk the Way that Jesus taught, together. Set us free. Amen.
The Rev’d Angela Rigby, Minister of Christ Church URC Tonbridge and St Johns Hill URC Sevenoaks
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