A friend of mine worked in North Africa and the Middle East for twenty years. When he was living in the West Bank of Palestine, his son, who was then three or four years old, was upset with him and said the meanest thing he could think of. He told his dad, “Youwa King Hewod!” He had heard the story of King Herod sending his soldiers to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem and thought that made him the worst person in the history of the world.
There are stories in the Bible not suitable for children. There are stories that should not be taught in Sunday School. King Herod sending his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem is not a story that an imaginative child will take to bed and have a good night’s sleep. Another story that should not be taught to children in Sunday School is today’s text: Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed to God. Children will hear that story and wonder what Isaac did that deserved him being treated that way. And they might wonder if God would ever tell their father to do that to them.
We can read the story for our morning devotional and not think about it the rest of the day. But if we sit and reflect, it becomes a very difficult story to understand. When we think of Abraham and Isaac as flesh and blood people, not just names on a page of the Bible, we wonder how this experience affected them.
I wrote in the RICEmail a dialog between Isaac and the counselor he went to see when he was forty years old.
Counselor: Tell me about your father?
Isaac: He was a wonderful man full of faith.
Counselor: Yes, but in your stories, I hear a lack of trust in your father. Why is it you were not able to trust him?
Isaac: I’m not sure. Maybe it had something to do with the time I went with my father for a hike in the mountains.
Counselor: That sounds like it was a good time to bond with your father. Tell me about it.
Isaac: Yes. We went to make a sacrifice. I carried the wood and my father carried the fire and knife.
Counselor: Who was leading the animal to be sacrificed?
Isaac: You know, I asked my father the same thing.
Counselor: So what happened that made this hike in the mountains so memorable?
Isaac: When we arrived, we built the altar, laid out the wood for the fire, and then my father began to tie my hands and feet with rope.
Isaac: Yes, my father intended me to be the sacrifice. He picked me up and laid me on the wood of the altar.
Counselor: What did you do?
Isaac: I laid there, too shocked and scared to move and watched him raise the knife.
Counselor: What happened next?
Isaac: Just at the last second my father saw a ram in a bush and went to get it. He untied me and then we sacrificed the ram.
Counselor: That was so horrible! What were you feeling?
Isaac: I have to say that when my father cut the throat of the ram I felt as if the knife slit my own throat. I had difficulty eating lamb for a long time after that.
Counselor: I don’t know what to say. What a terrible memory!
Isaac: Do you think this is why I had difficulty trusting my father?
I’m not saying Isaac had difficulty trusting his father. The Bible does not tell us about their relationship after this story. I am only imagining what I would feel like if I had been Isaac. I know from personal experience that the events of our childhood stay with us and affect us even in the last decades of our lives. Those early experiences are very powerful and affect our ability to relate in a healthy way to others, affect how we handle conflict, affect how we are able to relax, affect all aspects of our lives.
Adults who were sexually and physically abused as children have deep trauma that must be healed. In this story, from the perspective of our modern world, Isaac was abused by his father. If a father did this in today’s world, he would be arrested and put in jail. Certainly his son would be taken away from him.
There are lots of lessons preachers and teachers take from this story, but the difficulty is that many of the lessons that are taken deal in a superficial way with what happened with Abraham and Isaac. Anyone who takes a serious look at what happened in the relationship between Abraham and Isaac walks away with questions and reservations.
Frederick Buechner writes about this incident when talking about Isaac being tied up and seeing his father with the knife, ready to kill him.
It’s true that at the last minute God stepped in and said he’d only wanted to see if the old man’s money was where his mouth was, but from that day forward Abraham had a habit of breaking into tears at odd moments, and his relationship with his son Isaac was never close.
Is this what happened? We don’t know. After this incident we read about Abraham sending a servant to get a wife for Isaac and then Abraham dies. There are no clues about what the relationship between Abraham and Isaac was like in the years that followed this story.
When Abraham died, both of his sons buried him. Ishmael was there and Isaac was there. At funerals we talk about the person who died and share our memories of that person with each other. I can imagine Ishmael and Isaac talking about their father.
Ishmael: I know he loved me, but it was incredibly painful for me when you were born and he rejected me. Just like that I was sent away. He gave my mother some supplies and sent us off into the wilderness.
Isaac: Yes, that was hard, but at least he never tried to kill you.
If this story was a current story, if this story took place in 2016, we would be reading about it in the news. It would be one more bizarre story about a man who thought he heard God tell him to kill his son. This is why we have so much difficulty with this story.
But Abraham did not hear God tell him to sacrifice his son in 2016 AD. He heard God tell him to sacrifice his son much closer to 2016 BC, four thousand years ago.
As we have been learning in the sermons about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, if we are to understand what is happening, we have to know a little about the culture in which they lived. This was true when we talked about Sarah offering her slave Hagar to Abraham so he could have an heir and this is especially true in the text for today.
Let’s run through the story and then we will take three views of the story. 1) The story of Isaac and Abraham can only be understood if we view what happened through the cultural lens of Abraham. 2) The story of Isaac and Abraham is an introduction to the concept of God’s provision of a substitute for a sacrifice we are required to make. 3) The story of Isaac and Abraham is a story of the love of God who relentlessly pursues us.
First, the story.
We read that God tested Abraham. This whole story is framed as a test to see if Abraham really is a man who has faith in God. Abraham had passed the tests up to this point. God called him to go from Haran to Canaan and he went. God promised he would give him a son and make him a great nation. Abraham believed and persevered. When he had a son, Ishmael, God told him he should send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness and he would take care of them. Abraham believed what God told him and sent the son he had loved for fourteen years into the wilderness. Now he had a second son and God was testing him to see if he loved God more than this son.
2 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.”
The next morning Abraham got up, loaded up his donkey, and set out with Isaac and two servants. They traveled that day and the next. On the third day God showed Abraham the mountain where he was to make the sacrifice.
5 [Abraham] 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 put the wood on Isaac’s back. There is no indication how old Isaac was, but it seems likely that he was still young, perhaps eight or nine years old. Abraham was quite old and if Isaac had been a teenager, he would have been more powerful than his father.
They walked along, up the mountain. Isaac carried the wood. Abraham carried the fire and the knife. Isaac was not unfamiliar with sacrifices and asked,
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they arrived at the spot God led Abraham to, Abraham build an altar with stones, laid the wood on the stones, and then
He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
The story does not give human details. There is no indication what emotions were being experienced by Isaac and by Abraham. We don’t know what Isaac said, whether he struggled, cried, and pleaded for his life, whether Abraham was crying. Just the facts.
Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son and then, at the last second,
the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “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, saw a ram caught in some bushes, and then sacrificed the ram on the altar. God repeated his promise to Abraham that he would make him the father of a great nation.
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
1) The story of Isaac and Abraham can only be understood if we view what happened through the cultural lens of Abraham.
As I said, there is no way we can understand this story from the perspective of our modern day culture. So we have to go back to the culture of Abraham and see if we can understand the story better from the perspective of that culture.
John Walton, who is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in the US, has a brilliant commentary on Genesis. He reminds us that Abraham lived in a polytheistic culture. He lived in a culture where people worshiped many gods.
These are some of the main gods. Anat was the goddess of war and strife. Baal was god of fertility. El was the chief, the head of the gods. Kotharat was the goddess of marriage and pregnancy. Moloch was the god of fire.
Presumably, Abraham grew up with the worship of these or similar gods. Walton makes the point that God was trying to teach Abraham to be monotheistic, to worship only one god, the true God, not all these other gods.
God called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised him a son and land. God repeated this promise eight different times in Abraham’s life. Why did God continue to make this same promise over and over again?
As Abraham encountered life experiences he might have been tempted to attribute what happened to him to any of the many gods people worshiped. But God wanted Abraham to know that he was the one true God and there were no other gods.
In Genesis 12 God called Abraham to leave Haran and go to Canaan and he promised him, “I will make you into a great nation.”
Abraham arrived in Canaan and God renewed his promise. (Genesis 12:7)
“To your offspring I will give this land.”
Each nation had its own god. When God appeared to Abraham in Canaan, Abraham learned that the God who called him to go to Canaan was God of Canaan as well as God of Haran. God is God of all the nations. Repeating the promise was a way of helping Abraham know that this was the same God he had experienced earlier.
In Genesis 13 Abraham and Lot separated. Lot took the plains and Abraham took the hills. There were gods of the plains and gods of the hills. After Lot left, God appeared to Abraham and renewed his promise. God was God of the plains and of the hills.
In Genesis 14 Abraham defeated the kings who had carried away his nephew Lot. The mysterious priest, Melchizedek, blessed Abraham: (Genesis 14:19)
Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
Abraham learned that God was the God of war and strife. It was after this that God made his covenant with Abraham.
In Genesis 17 God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son and reveals he is the God of marriage and pregnancy.
In Genesis 18 Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed and God is revealed as the God of fire and destruction.
In today’s text God reveals himself as the fertility God. How was a fertility god like Baal worshiped? The fertility god gave crops and livestock and demanded a tithe in return. So you offered some of your crops, some of your livestock, and you offered a child. The sacrifice of a child was the means of ensuring continued fertility.
What Abraham was asked to do was not extraordinary. This was not unusual. Abraham was learning that God was the one true God. God was the God of fertility and in the culture of Abraham, asking for a child to be sacrificed was absolutely normal. Abraham set out in obedience to what God asked him to do because what God asked him to do was the appropriate worship of the god of fertility.
When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he might have been emotionally grieving. He might have been confused about how he was going to get an heir if God had him send his first son into the wilderness and was asking him to sacrifice his second son, but he did not view what he was being asked to do as unusual.
In the process of teaching Abraham that God was the one true God and there were no other gods, God spoke to Abraham from within his culture, taking on the role of the many gods and then reminding Abraham that he was the God of nations, the God of fertility, the God of fire and destruction, the God of the plains, the God of the hills, the God of all.
2) The story of Isaac and Abraham is an introduction to the concept of God’s provision of a substitute for a sacrifice we are required to make.
Here on the mountain, Abraham learned more about who God is. When Abraham picked up his knife to do what God had asked him to do, God stopped him and showed him a ram that was caught in the bushes.
This was not part of Abraham’s culture. There was not a tradition of substituting one sacrifice for another. But here God began planting the seed of one being sacrificed for another.
As Isaac was walking up the mountain with his father and asked where the sacrifice was, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” When Abraham left the two servants with the donkey, he told them, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” We will worship and we will come back.
I think a case can be made for Abraham believing that God would somehow spare Isaac. But still, at the altar, at the last moment, Abraham picked up the knife to sacrifice Isaac. Whatever Abraham was thinking and believing, God did provide a substitute.
This is why this story takes us to the death of Jesus on the cross. Isaac carried the wood up the mountain to the altar where he was to be sacrificed. Jesus carried the cross up the hill to where he was crucified. God provided a ram so Isaac could live. Jesus, God in the flesh, died on the cross so we can live. John the Baptist saw Jesus and cried out, (John 1:29)
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
From the beginning, here with Abraham and Isaac, God planted the idea that one person would die for another in the mind of Abraham and his descendants. God began here to prepare Israel for what Jesus would do two thousand years later.
At the exodus, God led the descendants of Abraham further along in this understanding. (Exodus 13:1–2)
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.”
Baal, as the fertility god, demanded a child as payment for fertility. In the exodus, God instructed Moses that the firstborn male child was to be given to God, but a substitute could be offered. If you had enough money you sacrificed a lamb to redeem your child. If you were poor, as Mary and Joseph were, you offered two pigeons, which they did when they brought Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated.
God wants us to offer ourselves and our children to him. In baptism we die to ourselves and rise to new life in Jesus. When infants are dedicated, the parents offer their child to God. But unlike Baal, God does not take the life from the child that is offered because the price for the life of that child has already been paid.
God told Abraham to offer his only son as a sacrifice. This is what God did for us. (John 3:16–17)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This is how I understand this story of Abraham and Isaac. I talked a couple weeks ago about how God speaks to us from within our culture, in the language of our culture. This is what happened in this story. God appeared to Abraham within the culture as the god of fertility and helped Abraham see that he is God of fertility. There is no other god to be worshiped, only the one true God who continued to appear to Abraham. As Abraham learned who God is, he also learned that God is a merciful God who will provide a substitute for a sacrifice that is to be made.
God is working with us, as he worked with Abraham. He speaks to us through our cultural understanding in order to lead us to faith in him. But there is a huge difference between Abraham’s experience with God and our experience with God.
When we sense God leading us to go somewhere or do something, we have something Abraham did not have. We have the Bible. We have the law given to Moses. We have the teaching of Jesus. We have the letters of Paul and others. So when we sense God leading us, we can check with the Scriptures to see if what we are being led to do is confirmed by the Scriptures God has given us.
So if you are attracted to someone you are not married to and believe God is leading you to have sexual relations with that person, check with the Bible to see if that is God who is speaking to you or if it is your own self-will, or the devil who is speaking to you.
God will not ask us to do something or lead us to do something that is in disagreement with the teaching of Scripture.
3) The story of Isaac and Abraham is a story of the love of God who relentlessly pursues us.
What I have been learning from these sermons about God appearing to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar is how far God will go to rescue us. We are loved far more than we can imagine.
Brennan Manning was an American author, a Franciscan lay priest, and public speaker. He is best known for his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. Rich Mullins who is best known for his song, “Our God Is an Awesome God,” was helped by Brennan Manning to deal with the difficult relationship he had with his father which was a turning point in Mullins’ life. In the movie about Rich Mullins titled Ragamuffin, there is this excerpt from a sermon of Brennan Manning.
In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question,
“Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”
The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”
But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.” And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.
No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love, but at the same time no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us. Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God.
Remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in His own image, and man returned the compliment.” We often make God in our own image and he winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow-minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, and unloving as we are.
In the past couple three years I’ve preached the Gospel… (throughout the US and all over the world) … and honest to God, the God of so many Christians I meet is a God who is too small for me, because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says, “I have a word for you. I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”
We are deeply loved by God. The God who relentlessly pursues us is the God who relentlessly pursued Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and all the characters in Biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation. God continues to relentlessly pursue us. Why does he pursue us? Why does he not give up on us? Because he loves us.
I get very quickly tired of singing the chorus of the song, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” but I never get tired of learning how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ. There have been exceptional experiences when I was caught up in a sense of the love and grandeur of God and thought I had reached the peak of experience with God, but then I keep being taken further into the mystery and wonder of the love of God for us.
This is what I want you to take with you from the sermon this morning. You are completely and totally loved by God this morning. Jesus loved you so much he was willing to suffer and die for you. Jesus was the sacrifice laid on the altar in your place. You have life because Jesus died your death. Regardless of what the world tells you, you are loved and wanted. You are not worthless, you are valued and loved. You are wanted in his kingdom. He is preparing a place for you in heaven and if you hold on to him, he will bring you safely into your eternal home.
In his great love, he has pursued you, he is pursuing you, and he will never stop pursuing you so you will know how much he loves you.