After these things God tested Abraham. God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” —Genesis 21:1-2
UGGHHHH! Last week I wrote of the hard-to-hear-story of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment being sandwiched between Isaac’s birth and near sacrifice story and here we are, one week later facing this awful text that Christians call “the sacrifice of Isaac” and Jewish folk call “the akedah” (the “binding” of Isaac). This text has engendered heated debate over the centuries—and most pastors either skip over it or face it with at minimum, trepidation if not outright fear and trembling. Is it a story of an abusive God, a misguided Abraham, religious violence at its worst? Or is it a story of faith and obedience?
Perhaps the easiest route (taken by many commentators) and a likely explanation—is to argue that it is simply an etiological tale about the shift from human sacrifice, which was practiced in some cultures of the time, to animal sacrifice. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible child sacrifice (e.g. Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7:30-34; Ezekiel 20:31) was expressly forbidden. As one commentator said, anytime one considers this text, one must say that God does not demand child sacrifice; indeed, that God abhors it (as evidenced by the prophets).
As awful as this story is (for a hundred reasons upon which I do not have time to reflect) there is a lot that can be mined from it’s depths. When I sat down to write this post, I was really moved by and drawn to the first verse of the story. “After these things God tested Abraham…and he said, ‘Here I am.’” Maybe I just did not want to go on reading the really hard parts of this story and identifying with the Pain of the parent Abraham, or the silence of the leader Abraham, or the confusion of the follower Abraham—who was asked to put his own stuff on the back burner as he followed God’s seemingly insane directions. “After these things God tested Abraham…and he said, ‘Here I am.’” What is it about Abraham’s simple response, ‘Here I am’ that captured my heart this morning? Perhaps it is because of the church’s vision and our sense of being called out. Perhaps it is because of a sense of having been through a testy time these last many months—as we have done the deep work of listening for God’s call on our community and on us as individuals to seek God’s will and not our own. ’Here I am.’ I find my heart-aching as I write, and my mind whispering that schmaltzy, but-favorite-of-so-many song, “Here I Am, Lord. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bryEXPELAyg (I must admit having now listened for a few moments I remember why it is not one of my favorites…)
But here is a really helpful theological observation—for anyone considering this story and for we who are boldly stepping out from our past into a future into which we believe God is calling us filled with fear and trembling. As Abraham picks up the knife to make the sacrifice of his beloved child, the LORD speaks, “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” (22:12). “Now I know.” Now I know, God says.
One commentator suggests that this story “does not subscribe to later notions of God’s perfect omniscience. This is a genuine test, and Abraham is free to decide what he will do. God neither knows nor pre-ordains how Abraham will respond. Reading this story with a hermeneutic of generosity, one could argue that God imposes this one-time test on Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man, and God needs to know if he is faithful” (Ellen Davis in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley, 2001) 50-64).
Abraham was not a perfect ‘faither’ as this part of his story would suggest—he blew it a few times before this moment—think the wife-sister-charade; and banishing Hagar and Ishmael because of Sarah’s jealousy. Yet, when push came to shove and it was about God’s call on his life, Abraham seems to be willing to give up the thing most precious to him in all the world for the sake of being faithful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place. And then, God provided—the sacrifice, the relief, the correction, the Lamb. And Abraham was able to breathe again, for there on that mountain ‘The Lord Provides.”
“Here I am”, he said throughout his life and throughout this story. “Here I am.” If we allow it, despite the horror with which we consider it, this ancient story of the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ makes a claim on us. Everything that we are, everything that we have, our lives and the lives of those most precious to us, belong to the very Creator who gave them to us. As well, this story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. Here I am, indeed.
Beloved, if we believe that God bet it all on Abraham and his descendants who were chosen to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3); then we can believe that God is betting it all on us as well, for we too are called and chosen to bless the world. May we face our future knowing that we and that for which we are called belong to God and that whether we are up on the mountaintops, down in the valleys, ensconced in our sanctuary, exposed in a flower shop or dancing in the streets—the Lord Provides.
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade