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Greenwood Forest Baptist Church

Binding Isaac

Scripture: Genesis 22: 1-19

One day, Abraham was messing with his computer when his son, Isaac, wandered past. What are you doing dad?" he asked. “I'm trying to load the latest version of Windows onto my old laptop," Abraham said. “It'll never work," Isaac replied. "You don't have enough memory on that old thing." "Don't worry, my son," Abraham said with unwavering faith. "God will provide the RAM."

I felt the need to begin this sermon with a joke because, quite frankly, this story disturbs me. If Abraham were alive today, and decided to try something like this, he would be arrested and incarcerated for the rest of his life, and claiming “God told him to do it” would land him in a mental institution and on the cover of every tabloid in the country. Yet, in our story the angel of Lord tells Abraham that God will bless him for his actions and reaffirms the covenant with Abraham, and throughout the Bible Abraham is praised as father of us all, righteous, faithful (over 75 times in the NT as you heard Ben say last week). How can we reconcile this? This story offends our 21st century sensibilities. Taken at face value, it is an affront to our deeply held conviction that we worship a loving God, a God who abhors violence and commands us not to kill, a God who died for us without lifting a finger in retaliation. What kind of God would ask someone to sacrifice his son, even if it is just a “test” (as the passage indicates)? Do we worship a bully? A selfish, patriarchal, violent, abusive God who would condone such a terrifying and senseless action?

Oftentimes in modern civil religion we box God in to our polite expectations. We want the God of rainbows without the flood. The God of love without awe. We want Jesus our friend, our homeboy, without the Jesus who turns our tables over and tells us we must give our lives away to follow him. We would rather skip over the book of Job, the psalms of lament, the difficult sayings of Jesus and make God into someone like us, someone who blesses our way of life without challenging our complacency and our lack of faith. Thankfully, God will not be boxed in by us.

If you were expecting me to make this story make sense to you, make it feel more comfortable, I’m afraid I might disappoint you. However, I do believe that we must read this story despite the aversion we may have to it. We must sit in the discomfort and wrestle with what it might mean for us as a church, as a community, to affirm that God tests and God provides, and that we will follow, even when we cannot see what God is doing and we feel like the promises of God are in jeopardy.

There is one thing I can put your mind at ease about right from the start though: this story does not condone killing or harming or abusing one’s children in God’s name. In fact, God expressly forbids sacrificing children as burnt offerings several other times throughout scripture. In Deuteronomy 12 and 18, in Leviticus 20, in 2 Kings 3 and Psalm 106, child sacrifice is called abhorrent, unclean, and deserving of God’s wrath.  Jeremiah 7:30-31 says, “For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth…to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”

So this story is clearly not condoning child sacrifice. But what in the world does it mean for us? I think the first clue is in the way God names Isaac throughout the story. Instead of simply saying, “Take Isaac and go to the Land of Moriah,” or “Take your son and go to the Land of Moriah,” either of which would have been sufficient, God addresses Abraham and says, “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 I will show you.” This roundabout way to say “Isaac” leaps off the page. Why does God go into such detail just to say, “Isaac?”

There are four components to this naming of Isaac. “Take your son” is the first. Abraham and the reader are reminded of the familial relationship, of the love shared between father and son, and of the painstaking infertility Abraham and Sarah went through in order to get Isaac. “Your only son” intensifies the first phrase and reminds Abraham that he no longer has Ishmael, his back-up heir waiting in the wings. After banishing Hagar, everything is riding on Sarah’s miracle child. “Isaac” is the third piece of the naming, reminding Abraham of the laughter this child has brought to him and to Sarah. Finally, God finishes the naming with “whom you love.” This last bit seems innocuous enough at first. Isaac is Abraham’s son, the son he prayed for and was given at long last in old age. Of course Abraham loves him. But after everything else that has been said, it seems strange, and obvious; It is complete overkill! But what if that’s the point? What if God is trying to get Abraham’s attention and our attention, by including the excessive “whom you love?”

The Hebrew word for love here is the word used for both love of people for one another and love of people for God. The text is ambiguous as to whether Abraham’s love for Isaac is appropriate or threatening to replace his love for God, which would make it idolatrous. In other words, Abraham might have been tempted to love Isaac and the promise of God given through him in place of God, to worship Isaac and by extension himself and his procreative powers, instead of God. We know that before Abraham was called by God to leave his father and go to the land God would show him, his family worshipped other gods. Some interpreters even suggest that Abraham’s father, Terah, was a maker and seller of idols. Idolatry ran in the family so to speak. God’s test for Abraham comes at the climax of Abraham’s story, an opportunity for Abraham to come full circle and reaffirm the commitment he made by leaving his homeland in chapter 12, to prove once and for all, that he will have no other gods before Yahweh. Every time child sacrifice is mentioned and condemned in those passages I mentioned earlier, it is described as a worship practice of idolators. Abraham’s test is to take the idolatry that tempts him to its conclusion, at which point Yahweh stays his hand and says, “That’s not who I am. I am the God of grace, the God who provides, the God of life. I am not like those other gods. Look up, see clearly, and put down your knife.”

As Walter Brueggemann notes, God truly does not know if Abraham will be faithful. The test is not some cruel game for God. God needs to know if Abraham loves and worships Yahweh alone, if he is willing to put it all on the line, everything that Isaac represents—his future, the continuation of his line, his and Sarah’s newfound fertility, the very promise that God gave him. “Now I know” says God. Before I was unsure, but “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” Notice that God no longer attaches “whom you love” to the end of this reference to Isaac. Abraham has proven that he worships Yahweh alone, and that Isaac is his son, but not his god. After God’s servant has proven his loyalty, God reaffirms the covenant given in chapter 12 that by Abraham’s numerous offspring shall all nations be blessed.

Isn’t it interesting that we are so quick to judge Abraham for being willing to sacrifice his son for God in this story? Our polite society views this story and the actions of God and Abraham described in it as primitive, and yet, we are quite willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters to far lesser gods than Yahweh. We send our children to die for idols we have created every day: the gods of nationalism and militarism, the gods of capitalism and consumerism, the gods of self-importance and greed. We even make gods of our own vision of the appropriate nuclear family, casting out those who don’t fit our mold. When we read the Ten Commandments we often skip over the first two (you shall have no gods before me, and you shall make no graven images) as if we don’t have to worry about them at all. But there is a reason they are first. God cares the most about them because they lead to all other sins and they leave us living an unfulfilled life, that lacks abundance, peace, and freedom, all because our love and worship is directed at things that cannot give us the freedom, peace, fulfillment, and abundance we all long for. When will we wake up and recognize what we have made into idols? In what do we place our trust? God or America? God or the free market? God or our investment portfolio? When we begin to believe that we have gotten where we are on our own, out of our own merits, we can be sure that there are some graven images to destroy in our lives. These things are idols because they cannot give us what we need, only God can.

God knows that only when our desires are rightly ordered, only when we are truly following with no reservations, only when we are open enough to say to God and those around us, “Here I am” as Abraham did, will we be whole and free from the idolatries and anxieties that often plague us. When we try to control everything, and dictate what God can and cannot do in our lives, we find ourselves overwhelmed, burned out, and feeling helpless. Why do we tire of trying to control everything, of trying to make it for ourselves? Because when we try to be our own source, our own provider, we are trying to take God’s place. It’s tiring work, trying to be God. We must resist the temptation to try to control everything, to need to know everything before it happens, to play God and to keep the true God closed up comfortably in the attic of our lives, at our beckoned call, but not threatening to make us change something or give up some aspect of the lives that we’ve grown accustomed to. One of the most important things a disciple of Jesus can learn is the ability to let go and allow God to be God, to do work in us and through us. We must learn to live in the tension of the testing and the promises of God, even when they are in contradiction, because we are not God.

One of the summer reading suggestions on the recently created GFBC ministerial staff blog (shameless plug!) is a little book on spirituality called “Discovering the Depths” by William Clemmons. At the end of a beautiful chapter called “Letting Go of My ‘Isaacs,’” Clemmons quotes a poem called “Everyone Has His Own Isaac” that stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. This poem powerfully expresses God’s desire for all of our love, our worship, and gives us a sense of the radical abandonment necessary to open oneself up to God’s purposes, especially when those purposes may threaten some part of the life with which we have grown comfortable. I’ll read it for you:


I want Abram for my friend, said God.

I would make him a people great,

more than the sea-sands, a people

and a new land

            and a blessing.

I will give him Isaac, said God.


And Abram, looking up, loved back.

I will build altars in the land you gave me, friend.

            an altar at Sichem

            an altar at Valley of Clear Seeing

                        Move on.

            an altar east of Bethel, west of Hai

So Abram built the altars.


And Abram moved his tent by Mamre

            at Hebron built an altar to the Lord.


Then God took Abram out of doors,

My childless friend, said God,

            look up at the countless stars.

And God said,

            Abram, I am going to pluck a son from you,

            a son to give you sons.

            You’ll have more sons than stars, said God,

            before we’re through.


So Abram put his faith in God

and it was reckoned virtue.


But God left Abram waiting,

gave him time

time almost to count the stars.


But one day God called Abram, remembering the

stars, and said,

Abram you shall have a new name.

And God called him, “Father of Many Nations”

God, taunting, called him Abraham.


And friends have covenants, said God

and we will have one, too, he said.

I am your God and you are my own Abraham.

The sign is in your flesh.


Later God thought:

            I cannot leave him counting stars forever.

            Already Sara laughs at me.

It is time.

It is time I gave him Isaac, said God.


And Abraham became the father of a son, Isaac.

A hundred years of unspent fatherhood

he poured all out on Isaac.

And laughing Sara’s breasts grew warm and full.

Themselves they gave to Isaac.


There was no more counting stars for God’s poor


He had the seed for all the flowers of earth.

God had given Abraham his Isaac.


And God watched Abraham with love.

Watched him as he played with sheep and land.

And later on, He spoke:


I am the Pack-Rat God, said God.

And now, Abraham,

I want Isaac.


But we are friends and you gave Isaac, Abr’am said,


I know we are, said God.

But I want Isaac.


Till Abr’am cried,

The stars so countless and the many sands

and would you take my one son Isaac?


And God would only answer back:

I want Isaac.


And Abraham, because he was a friend of God’s

said, God,

            Take Isaac.


The binding of Isaac paints us a picture of radical openness to God’s will, a picture of true discipleship. The perfect model of who Abraham (imperfectly) strived to be was Jesus, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the word of God made flesh. Jesus was called out of his homeland, left his father’s house in heaven to travel through the wilderness as a man and bless all people by showing us the way of salvation. Throughout his ministry, Jesus modeled the kind of radical openness to God’s activity that is required if we truly want to be disciples. The prayer he taught us puts all the emphasis on God’s action: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us, lead us not into temptation, deliver us. Jesus allows God room to act and offers himself as a vessel through which God’s kingdom work can be done. In the garden of Gethsemane, he makes a similar statement of openness to God’s purposes: “Not my will, but yours be done.”  

But Jesus not only modeled radical abandonment, he exhorted his disciples to the same way of life. He called them to drop their nets, leave their fathers in their boats, and follow him. He taught that anyone who doesn’t hate his father and his mother cannot be his disciple, anyone who loves father and mother more than him is not worthy of him, that anyone who wishes to find one’s life will lose it, and anyone who loses one’s life, will find it. He told us to “let the dead bury the dead and go” and that “no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” Jesus’s call to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 echoes our story about Abraham in many ways. The ruler comes to Jesus, and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. He has kept all the commandments, he says. And Jesus replies, you are still lacking in one department: sell all you own and give it to the poor, then come and follow me. And the ruler goes away sad because he loves his money more than he loves Jesus and he cannot imagine giving it all away.

What is holding us back from following Jesus with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength? Are we people who confess “God will provide” for us or do we draw our source and our life from other means? The most profound quote I have ever heard about surrendering all to God came from a Catholic nun on the day she spoke her vows and entered the convent. She said, “I would be sad if God did not love me enough to ask me to give him everything.” God wants all of us. All our hopes and dreams for the future, all our successes and failures, all our love and trust. And if we can bring ourselves to the point of radical abandonment, God promises to give us back a life more abundant than we can ever imagine.