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September 17th, 2017

Let’s End This

Every temptation is an opportunity to pass a test. 

Genesis 22:1-18

 

Beautiful and horrible

Genesis 22 is both beautiful and horrible. For many, this is a narrative that points in the direction of total commitment to God – reverence, worship, obedience. For others, however, it is a repulsive story that creates a barrier to faith. God seems to demand capriciously the unthinkable – especially to the modern reader.

If you haven’t felt the horror of this story, you haven’t meditated on it sufficiently. On the other hand, if you have dismissed it without discovering its beauty, you have also been shallow and perhaps condescending in your reading of it.

The story seems at first to be a story about child sacrifice. Child sacrifice is the ritualistic killing of a human baby or child in order to appease a god who demands the highest display of commitment and obedience. In pre-Columbian America, the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans all left behind evidence that they sacrificed their children to appease the gods. Lest you should think this is only a practice of ancient cultures, there has been evidence of ritualistic child sacrifice in South Africa and Uganda in this century.

Our primary interest in this topic, however, is in the area of the world known as the Levant, the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, during the first and second millennia before Christ. In Jerusalem, a place called Tophet means “roasting place,” where children were burned alive in the worship of Moloch and Baal. It was commonly accepted in Abraham’s day that one of the ways one shows ultimate loyalty to the gods is by offering something of the highest value. What has higher value than your child?

You may have heard this passage preached with the question, “Would you be willing to kill your firstborn son if God told you to?” I’m not going to ask you that question, because I do not believe that is the point of Genesis 22. In fact, if you told me that you had heard God say to you that you should kill your child, I would answer, “No, you did not,” and report you immediately to the authorities.

I titled this sermon, “Let’s End This,” because I agree with a number of Jewish and Christian interpreters who believe that this story effectively stops in its tracks the ritual sacrifice of children in Abrahamic faith before it can ever get started. By the time we get to Moses we will have very clear prohibition against child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21, 20:3 and Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10). This is one of the “detestable practices” that caused God to displace the Canaanites from the land and give it to Abraham’s descendants. I can’t think of a more effective way for God to “end this” than this story.

There’s more that God wants to end than the abhorrent practice of burning children as an offering. So let’s turn to the story itself.

Abraham’s test

The chapter begins, Some time later God tested Abraham. The previous chapter had recorded the long-awaited and joyful birth of a baby named “Laughter” (Isaac). After he’s born, however, his mother Sarah makes sure that his half-brother Ishmael will not be a threat, so he sends Ishmael and Hagar away. Perhaps ten or twenty years pass as Isaac grows up, and this is now “some time later.”

We the readers know something Abraham doesn’t know until much later. What’s about to happen is a “test.”

God calls to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.” God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love.” You may wonder why God doesn’t acknowledge Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Ishmael was effectively disinherited in chapter 21. The old man has become completely attached to the boy born to Sarah. There is pride, intimacy, connection, even idolatry.

The voice of God continues, “Go to the region of Moriah.” Most interpreters believe this is the site where eventually Solomon’s temple will be built in Jerusalem. This is not going to be a father-son camping trip, though. Abraham is told, “Sacrifice (Isaac) there on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

We’re not told whether Abraham struggled with this command. We hear no argument, as we had heard in chapter 18 when Abraham bargained with God for mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah. He rises early the next day and prepares for the journey ahead. He brings along two servants for most of the trip.

Who knows what those first two and half days were like? Was there small talk? Tension? Confusion? Tears? What we do know is that on the third day Abraham “looked up and saw” the mountain. At that point, he leaves the servants behind, perhaps not wanting them to interfere with what he was about to do.

What Abraham says at that point is critical to his mindset. “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” If Abraham intends to sacrifice his son, why does he say “we”? The writer of Hebrews says Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).

As father and son walk on alone, Isaac voices his thoughts. “Father? We have fire and wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Again, it’s hard to know exactly what Abraham is thinking, but he’s thinking more about God than about himself.

The surprise of the next scene is, once again, the silence. No words are recorded between Abraham and Isaac. If there was struggle or objection from Isaac, it’s not mentioned. Methodically, Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood, ties up Isaac, and lays him on the wood. Abraham raises his knife to commit the horrible act.

He then hears the sweetest sound he could have heard. The angel of the LORD calls out, “Abraham! Abraham!” Earlier his name was used only once. Perhaps the repetition indicates that Abraham was so focused on the act, he didn’t hear the first time. Earlier the text had said “God” spoke to him. Now it’s “the angel of the LORD.” Often in the Old Testament this designates God himself – perhaps the second person of the Trinity (you know him as Jesus). But he doesn’t appear. He just speaks.

Abraham stays his knife-gripping hand, answering as he did in verse 1:  “Here I am!”

“Don’t do it,” the voice continues. “Now I know that you fear God, because you did not withhold your son.”

For the second time we find the phrase, “Abraham looked up and saw.” Only this time he didn’t see a mountain. He saw a ram, one of the animals he had halved as part of the covenant ceremony in chapter 15. He runs over and grabs the ram (at which point I’m sure Isaac is saying, “Um, Dad, don’t forget to untie me!”) and sacrifices it in place of Isaac.

Of all the words Abraham could have spoken next, what he actually says reveals what captured him most:  God provided. He’s the first in the Bible to combine God’s name, Yahweh, with a verb. He calls that mountain “Yahweh Yireh” (or “Jehovah Jireh”) The LORD provides. Apparently in the time of Moses there remained a well-known proverb, “The LORD provides on the mountain.”

In the remainder of the passage, the LORD affirms the covenant he made earlier. He intensifies it several ways. First, God says, “I swear by myself.” That’s the strongest oath possible. Second, he uses a formula for the first time in the Bible that will be repeated in the book of Numbers and in the prophets:  “declares Yahweh.” Third, he repeats his promise to bless Abraham but adds the word “surely.” Finally, he expands the earlier analogy that Abraham’s descendants would outnumber the stars to the sand on the seashore. Although we know that both are innumerable, I would suggest that to Abraham, the grains of sand had to seem like an exponential increase over the stars in the sky.

What it means

God reaffirms and strengthens his covenant because Abraham did not withhold his son (16), and because he obeyed (18). That’s the story. What does it mean? Let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean.

First, and most critically, this story does not mean that God sometimes demands or ever delights in the killing of a child. It happens more often than you think – 500 children are killed by their parents in U.S. every year, according to a recent CNN report. Nor does this give any biblical or theological justification for harming a child or treating a child as a possession, using a child for pleasure or profit. The consistent biblical witness values human life, including and especially the lives of children.

Second, the primary point is not about listening to the voice in your head. In my view, Christians are often too subjective about their decisions and choices, coming too quickly to the conclusion that if I have a thought in my brain, God must have put it there. We need to look outside ourselves to Scripture and to the Body of Christ as we seek to confirm God’s will and desires.

A third and common approach to this text is that it’s in the Bible to point ahead to the sacrifice of Jesus, the Father’s only Son. This is not as damaging, of course, as the first two, but I see a couple of problems with that way of reading Genesis 22. First, Abraham didn’t actually sacrifice Isaac. He was willing to do so, but his son didn’t die. Second, there’s nothing in the story that suggests Isaac was supposed to die for anyone else’s sin. Third, the New Testament itself never makes that connection. Many threads tie together the Old Testament and the New, but in the two chapters where the New Testament refers to Genesis 22 (Hebrews 11 and James 2), the connection is not, “The Father gave his son just as Abraham did.” Sometimes Christians read the text that way to make it less horrible, but in my view, that’s not the primary point.[1]

As we read carefully, there is a key point made even more explicit in the text itself. We have another in a progression of lessons in Genesis about how God relates to human beings. With Adam, we learned that God creates and instructs. With Noah, he promises. Earlier in Abraham’s story, we learned that God calls.

There are two primary verbs in Genesis 22 connected with God:  God tests and God provides. Abraham is a great model for the life of faith that continues throughout the Old and New Testaments. The life of faith is never dependent on what we do. It’s about embracing who God is and what God does.

God tests

If Abraham is truly going to be the father of all who believe (last week’s sermon in Genesis 15, cf. Romans 4), this chapter models for us something that is common to the life of faith as played out in Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Esther, Mary, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and so many others. You know this first hand yourself:  God tests.

It’s not necessary or even helpful to say that every situation we find ourselves in is something God planned as a test for us. But neither do I think we should say it isn’t. Let’s be content to let God be God and not decide whether in a given situation he’s actively testing us.

What we do see in Genesis 22 is that God tested Abraham. And remember, Abraham didn’t know it was a test. Nobody told him that. Nobody ever told Job that God and Satan had agreed together to test him either. So much goes on behind the scenes of what we can see that it’s downright arrogant of us to think we can know.

But it plays out throughout the Bible that God has the prerogative to test his servants. This at first may not be particularly comforting, but apparently, he has the prerogative to test us more the more we grow in faith. When things are going awry, we tend to ask, “What am doing wrong?” That may be the time to ask, “What am I doing right?” The simple analogy is of the tests we get in school. It would be ridiculous to take a test designed for a third grader when you’re in graduate school. The tests are harder precisely because you’ve learned more.

Abraham’s test is hard for us to understand because it was a test appropriate for his time and his culture. In his world, it actually made sense for God to test him the way he did. In the same way, God will test you in a way that fits your time and culture. We value money and financial stability, so God may well test us by stripping us of our security. We value health and longevity, so God may test us with a diagnosis of cancer or an injury. We value close families, so God may test us with family conflict, divorce, or the death of someone we love.

The question connected to the test is this:  Is this person or job or pleasure or status something I value more than I value God? Something I trust instead of God? In other words, in my test is God dealing with idolatry? Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods, has a chapter on Genesis 22 that makes precisely this point. Yes, children can become an idol, and it seems as if Abraham in his old age was turning Isaac into an idol. God says to him, “This is your son, your only son, whom you love. I know you cherish this boy, and I know you think my promises to you are tied up in him. Abraham, I need to know if you love me because I gave you a son or am I enough for you?”

The words “tempt” and “test” are the same in Greek and Hebrew. Some years ago, I preached a sermon in which I said, “Every temptation is an opportunity to pass a test.” When God puts a test in front of you, he wants you to pass it – and by passing it I mean choosing loyalty and obedience and trust even if it means releasing my grip on things and people I hold dear.

God provides

If Genesis 22 teaches that God tests, it teaches even more importantly that God provides. The Hebrew word “provide” is an interesting one. It actually means “to see.” Do you remember how twice in the story Abraham “looked up and saw”? That’s the same Hebrew word as when Abraham says, “God himself will see (provide) the lamb for the burnt offering.”

After Abraham sacrifices the ram he called that place “The LORD will see (provide).” The proverb was, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be seen (provided).” The word provide comes from the Latin pro + video – to “see before.”

In the middle of our tests, we are inclined to think God is not paying attention. The more we grow in faith (through our tests) the more we grow in our ability to trust that God sees before, and that in seeing, he provides. The word “providence” is related as well. God sees in advance what we need. Walter Brueggemann comments,

To assert that God provides requires a faith as intense as does the conviction that God tests. It affirms that God, only God and none other, is the source of life…. The God who set the test in sovereignty is the one who resolved the test in graciousness. In a world beset by humanism, scientism, and naturalism, the claim that God alone provides is as scandalous as the claim that he tests.

When I was a teenager, I memorized 1 Corinthians 10:13 in the King James Version:  “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man. But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

The lesson of faith Abraham is learning and passing on to us is that God can be trusted. Under the general heading of “Let’s end this,” how about this? Let’s end mistrusting the Lord. I may not understand my tests. I may not understand his ways. But I choose to trust who he is, trust his heart. On the mountain of the Lord, he sees and he provides all I need for every test. Amen.

 

[1] I don’t mean to diminish what Jesus says in Luke 24, that the witness of the entire Hebrew Scriptures points to him. All the Old Testament points forward to Christ in various ways, but I am suggesting that sometimes we simply need to focus on the primary message of a particular event in its context.

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