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
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