After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you… And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.”
- Genesis 22:1-2, 6
Few stories in the Bible are more disturbing than God’s test of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. The whole account is offensive and off-putting. What kind of God requests a man sacrifice his son? As a test?
Human sacrifice – both adult and child – was not all that uncommon in religions at that time. In fact, even as recently as the Aztec Empire (c. 1350-1521), human sacrifice was a regular part of appeasement of the gods in pantheistic religions. Was Abraham’s God that kind of god? Abraham could not have been certain. He knew what God had promised, but Abraham was the first. He didn’t have the benefit of the Bible or of others who could tell him about God. The Ten Commandments weren’t even available to Abraham. All Abraham knew about God was based on what God told him and on how God treated him.
In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, God does not require anything more of Abraham than He requires of each of us. Scary thought, is it not?
Isaac was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, the promise that he and his wife, Sarah, would have a son. Their son wasn’t just any son. Isaac was the first link in the chain between Abraham and the promised great nation he would become, as promised by God when He called Abraham.
Additionally, Abraham and Sarah lived during a time in which sons were the only real means to attain life beyond death. There was not a widespread belief in resurrection among ancient peoples. Likewise, there was no Social Security or retirement plans for people as they aged. Only sons could guarantee the care of parents when they were no longer physically strong enough to provide for themselves and, worse, when they were unable to care for themselves.
Isaac was everything to Abraham and Sarah. He represented God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness in honoring His promises. Isaac guaranteed the Abraham and Sarah would live on after they died – in Isaac, yes, but also through Isaac’s children and his children’s children and on and on. Finally, Isaac was the assurance of care and provision as Abraham and Sarah aged. They would have a place to live safely, and they would have food and attention to their needs as aging or infirm parents.
Isaac was everything to Abraham and Sarah, and God asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to Him. Moreover, God asked Abraham to test him.
If we are put to the test, how much are we willing to sacrifice to God?
Probably more than any other place on earth, the United States inculcates a sense of autonomous strength and individual control and power over the future. We are a people who believe we can accomplish what we want for ourselves and can become whoever we wish to be. Today, many indicators are flashing warning signals that we’re losing that sort of personal control and strength, but embedded in our nation’s founding documents are the principles of self-determination and self-rule.
To be an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ, we need to recognize and to accept that self-determination and self-rule are not part of our faith. God formed us, and as flawed and broken as we are, God alone knows what we can become. Believing that we built and own our lives or trusting that we have control and power over our futures is not in keeping with Christian teaching. When we come across this sort of self-confidence in the Bible, it is in the context of sin and rebellion against God – beginning in Genesis 3.
All that we have and all that we are come from God. Yes, we may have made good use of the gifts He gave us, especially if we utilized those gifts and talents in service to the American dream. Yet, God’s dream for us is so much more than the American dream. God wants more for us than an (increasingly dubious) education, a house, and a good retirement plan. We are Christians living the dream of eternal life through crucified self and death, not characters in a Horatio Alger story. The thing is, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with success, but there is something fundamentally wrong with believing we are the sole source of our own success, or worse, believing success in this world is the highest good. When our ideas about God entail material success and public honor, we betray the Lord of Life Who hung on a Cross.
When we read that God was testing Abraham by asking that he sacrifice Isaac, we think God is cruel and harsh, but that is not so. God is asking Abraham to surrender to Him all that God gave him in the first place. God is asking Abraham to trust Him with his future and the meaning and purpose of his life by which Abraham will be remembered. That is a test we face every day. Every day we choose whether God will establish the value of our lives and the purpose for which we live or if we will seek to do so for ourselves. God is asking us to choose Him – to trust Him with our lives, our future, our care, and ultimately, our life beyond death. That is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to die to self and to be sold out to Christ completely, allowing Him to have the whole of our lives.
A powerful image in the story of Abraham and Isaac occurs as they walk toward the mountain where Isaac was to be sacrificed. In his hands, Abraham carries the fire and the knife. He held in his hands the means to destroy everything that mattered to him, everything but God. Within us, we also have the means to destroy ourselves. When we choose life apart from God, when we choose a life of autonomy and self-determination, we utilize the means of destruction for our own lives and the means for harming everyone around us. Human beings were created for communion with God and for fellowship within community. We are not autonomous, independent beings. We are needy and fearful creatures, arrogant and blind.
God does not desire misery for us, but the world does offer a great deal of misery without God. We are going to face all kinds of heartache, disappointment, and failure, but all of these hold the possibility of resurrection in Jesus Christ – the providence of God which brings good from evil and turns failure into blessing. But when we separate from God, heartache, disappointment, and failure sit like great weights on our souls, blocking the light we need to thrive, the Life that is Light for all people. God does allow us to sit in misery when we continue in rebellion and rejection.
Our God is trustworthy. We act as if He is over-reaching when He expects us to give back to Him the life He Himself gave to us. Keep this in mind: while God did not require Abraham to complete the sacrifice of his son, God chose to sacrifice His Son for our salvation and redemption. God will always outgive us – always. Whatever He asks us to give Him, He gives back to us thirty, sixty, or hundred-fold.
We can be sure that God is infinitely more trustworthy with our lives than we are. He will do a far better job of unfolding our lives, our meaning, our future – everything – than we will. Becoming a truly committed disciple of Jesus Christ is by far the best decision we can make. All we lose is an illusion of control and a misfit autonomy in which human beings were never meant to thrive.
What do you hold back from God? What do you think you will do better than God? Trusting in the goodness and provision of God feels scary, but He has shown us over and over again that He is trustworthy, even in death. God never fails. You can trust Him.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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