So I've been writing lesson commentary for a Bible study called Bible Studies For Life. Here is one for April 13, 2008. I really like it because it raises some hard questions about the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Study Theme: Pioneers in the Covenant
Date: Week of April 13, 2008
Title: Exploring Devotion – the Hard Work of Covenant
Background Passage(s): Genesis 22:1-19
Focal Passage(s): Genesis 22:1-14,17-18
The problem with devotion to God is not that it wanes to nothingness, but that our devotion usually shifts to something else. We humans were built for worship, so it’s not a matter of whether or not we worship – but a question of whom we will worship. Is it going to be self and the charms of this world? Or is it going to be the god who creates, renews, forgives, and restores us?
This is the central question faced by Abraham when asked by God to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. Recall the details of this boy’s miraculous birth. First, Sarah and Abraham were childless for many years so Abraham had relations with and conceived a child by Sarah’s slave Hagar. Then, at the age when women are well past child-bearing, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. This boy Isaac was Abraham’s pride and joy. “Whom you love” is how Genesis described Abraham’s affections.
Abraham was being tested by God to display where his loyalties lay.
It is a messy, uncomfortable text because we modern day readers have a hard time connecting to the idea of child sacrifice. We’re left with unsettling questions: Why would a loving God demand such a thing? What would Isaac’s version of this story sound like? Did Isaac resist? How does Isaac relate to his father Abraham after this event? And if we are willing to live this story and give our very best to God, can we expect God to stop us from sacrificing something precious at the last moment?
The tempting and easy answer is “it’s just part of the mystery of God.” However, we shouldn’t resort to that answer too soon, because we may miss some truth that will aid us in the struggle of living the life of faith. Too many times our Bible studies and sermons sanitize the stories of the Bible to make them palatable (and to fit in an hour long worship service!) when instead we should ponder and puzzle over the oddities of the text.
A Demanding God
Why would God demand the offering of a first born? The sacrifice of a child was a cultic practice common in Abraham’s day, but it reads as offensive in our context. This story demonstrates in a radical way the very nature of loyalty which God demands of those who would follow faithfully. It is possible to be a believer and devoted follower, but this idea that God would demand of Abraham the very most important thing in his life indicates to us that there must be nothing – truly nothing or no one – who comes between us and our devotion to following God’s will.
This is a hard truth for Christian, both new and old. The oft held view in the pew is that church participation on Sunday morning and maybe Wednesday night is a full expression of loyalty to God. But this story demands that we examine the ways in which we compartmentalize faith and bring into the light of day the demand that we integrate our beliefs into all we do. Our lives must somehow verify the fact that there is nothing between us and God on our priority scale. If God would demand Abraham’s very best and most precious, there is no reason to think God would expect less of us.
If Isaac could speak to us, what would his version of the story look like? As a boy who is old enough to take a three day trip, climb a mountain while loaded with firewood, and have the presence of mind to ask “where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” we can guess that Isaac has a sense of what is going on when he gets bound and laid down on the altar. He’d seen a sacrifice before and had most likely figured out that he, although precious to his father, was about to play second fiddle to the God of the cosmos.
A hard question to ask your learners is this: Is there ever a time when too much religion is bad for a family? Bad for a child? What is it like to be the child Isaac in the household of the faithful Abraham?
I remember the story told to me by a woman in the first church I served as a pastor. She was a few years older than me, in her mid-30’s at the time, and she and her husband were raising two teenagers and working hard. Our families were out one Sunday afternoon water-skiing and discussing life. I mentioned how thankful I was that her father had been so devoted to our church and that he was really a pillar of the church. Her response was polite, but direct. “As a little girl it was pretty hard to see him spend so much time serving the church, though. I’d rather him been more of a daddy than a deacon.”
Reading this story as a young boy terrorized me. It left me worried that God would demand that of my father. While this story is really about the testing of Abraham, there must be at least a passing thought as to what the implications of faith are on our children and spouses, not to mention friendships and employment. There is a degree to which we modern followers must be balanced in our approach to church participation. Isaac’s experience at least begs the question of how parents must work to balance out family and faith.
What if God Doesn’t Stop Me?
Genesis 22.15 says, “…because you have done this an have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…” The story is frequently used by preachers to encourage church folk to make sacrifices in a modern way by giving of their resources to support the ministry of the church. The logic is that if we are willing to sacrifice like Abraham was, then we will be blessed as well. While that may be a reasonable way to read this story in our world, it is important to note that God might not stop us at the last moment like God stopped Abraham. There are no guarantees that the result of testing by God will be prosperity like it was for Abraham.
We are guaranteed that God will test us, and we are guaranteed that God will use that testing to change us, shape us, and direct us. What matters, as a result, is that as we consider the reasons God might be testing us, we must also be determined to grow from testing and sacrifice.