Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
I can barely read that story out loud.
The terrible details.
The sharp knife,
The fire, blazing on its torch.
All the steps detailed with maddening slowness.
Abraham rises early in the morning.
For how could he have slept?
He has two men to help him.
He saddles the donkey.
Making sure he has everything he needs.
The fire. The wood. The rope. The knife.
They come to the mountain.
It stands tall, terrible before them,
Unmoving and impossible as God’s command.
And from here, Abraham and Isaac must go on alone.
He makes Isaac carry the wood.
Isaac turns to his father.
Did his voice shake?
Were his eyes filled with tears?
Did he know?
And his question that wrenches the heart, father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
The father answers, God will provide the lamb.
They reach the top of the mountain,
And Abraham took his son Isaac,
Bound him with rope to the rock,
Strapped him down and raised the knife over his baby boy.
Did he have to wrestle his child to the ground?
Was his son crying out in fear?
How can we read this?
How can we accept as Holy Scripture a text that I feel uncomfortable reading when children are in the sanctuary?
How can we just say, “The Word of the Lord,” to this?
Can you imagine your own child?
A child you love?
A child who has reached up to take your hand?
A child who has trustingly fallen asleep in your arms?
God says, Abraham, take your son, your only son, whom you love,
As though to torture this father.
Isaac is not just a child.
Isaac is the long-awaited promise of the future.
Isaac is the fulfillment of years of hope deferred.
Isaac is the hope of any couple who have experienced infertility: a miracle baby.
Abraham and Sarah have gone through years of trying and failing,
Have withstood the well-meaning questions and the snide whispers,
Have withstood the continual bleeding out of lost hopes,
Have withstood the pain of watching as everyone around them celebrates what they will never share,
And have been surprised by a miracle.
God has ordered Abraham to kill that miracle.
I wonder what would have happened if God had asked Sarah instead of Abraham.
How can we believe this of God?
Who are you, God of Genesis 22, and what have you done with the loving and gracious Father I believe in?
I was talking to a Jewish man who at the time only attends synagogue on the day of Atonement,
And he hates that annual duty because the reading is always the same: the sacrifice of Isaac.
He cannot believe God would force people to have that kind of faith.
He cannot imagine doing such a thing to his own children.
It is as though to my friend God is a terrible and abusive parent.
And theologians have had the same reactions.
Rabbi David Blumenthal was once asked by a psychiatrist, “Are you trying to say that God is an Abuser? If so, you should just come right out and say it.”
And so, Rabbi Blumenthal did.
Some people see in this text God as an abusive father.
Who hurts his own children, saying, it’s good for you.
Saying, you asked for it.
Is this the God we believe in?
A God who would ask this of a father?
What kind of faith does this God want us to have?
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something without any perceived moral good,
The kind of faith that would compel us to destroy someone young and defenseless,
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something almost physically impossible for a parent to do,
The kind of faith that would make me kill my daughter?
Is that what God wants?
A faith that would kill without reason because God ordered it?
Is Abraham’s faith the faith of Dan and Ron Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who in 1984 killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her infant daughter Erica?
Is the faith God wants the faith of Scott Roeder, pro-life activist who in 2009 shot and killed doctor George Tiller, while Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher in his church?
Does God want us to have the faith of Mohammed Atta, one of the September 2011 hijackers, who had in his checked luggage reassurances that he should feel complete tranquility, because the time between now and his marriage in heaven would be very short?
Mohammed had also reminded himself,
With the twisted, high-mindedness of the deranged, keep your knife sharp. You must not discomfort the animal during the slaughter.
Is this the kind of faith Abraham had?
Is this the kind of faith we are supposed to have?
That once God has given a directive it must be obeyed, no matter how much our moral compass, our hearts, our souls, find that directive reprehensible?
I do not believe it and I will not believe it.
I don’t like that this text is paired in the lectionary with Matthew 10, in which Jesus calls us to love God more than our children.
I do love God more than I love my child.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
When my daughter was born, I had never known such a visceral love.
I began to have irrational fears of all the things that could happen to her.
I could leave her carseat behind my car, forget and run her over.
What if she rolled over in the night and was smothered in her bed? Shouldn’t I watch her all night long?
I imagined my daughter’s death and I imagined how I would kill myself.
Because there seemed to me no other choice.
And when I heard myself have that thought, I prayed.
I prayed, God, do not let my daughter become an idol.
I prayed to love God more than I loved my daughter,
Knowing in that way I would be a better mother.
And in that moment my whole perspective changed.
And so, I am the mother whose daughter can be found climbing up a slide on the far end of the playground.
When she broke her foot last year, people asked if I was so scared.
And I did feel for her in her pain.
But I also thought it was just a little bit funny that she thought she would try to fly down the basement stairs.
I trust God with my child.
I love my daughter, but I love God more.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
My faith in God is faith in Good.
I believe Good and God are the same thing.
My faith is not just that God is mighty but that God is good.
That he would not order me to do something that is wrong.
And so my reading of this text is different from many preachers and theologians and biblical scholars I have heard and read.
I believe Abraham’s faith was not an unquestioning obeisance of whatever command he believed he heard from on high.
I believe Abraham’s faith was such that he trusted that God would show mercy.
I believe that when Abraham said to his two assistants that he would come back down the mountain with Isaac he was not lying. He believed that was what would happen.
And that when Abraham told Isaac God would provide the ram,
That is exactly and literally what he believed.
That Abraham held within him both the faith to take every step leading up to the altar,
And the faith that he would have a reprieve.
I believe this story is included in Scripture not to tell us to sacrifice to our children,
But the exact opposite: to teach God’s people not to kill children,
To not follow the popular religion of Molech at that time an in that area,
Which Scripture records had drawn away the Israelites from the worship of the one true God,
Or the many ancient religions that practiced child sacrifice.
In many places in Scripture God condemns child sacrifice, and God would not contradict God.
I believe God meant through this story to show us the cruelty of that sacrifice, and to point us to another way.
And I believe something else too.
I believe Isaac knew.
I do not believe Isaac fought.
I believe Isaac carried that wood up the hill knowing.
I believe Isaac laid himself upon the stone knowing, and accepting, and trusting.
And that as he felt the ropes cut into his arms,
As he saw the knife rise above him,
Isaac trusted in his (F)father.
I believe this because I am a Christian.
I believe this because I believe this story does not stand on its own.
Abraham finds a ram in the bushes, but in verse 8, Abraham does not say,
“God will provide a ram.”
“God himself will provide the lamb.”
This Hebrew word Seh is also the word used in Isaiah 53:7,
Which we read on Good Friday:
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”
I believe the lamb is Christ.
I believe this story points us to another son,
Who carried his tree up another hill,
Who let himself be bound,
Who gave himself as a sacrifice.
I believe this because the God I believe in is the God who will never let us be alone,
A God who chose himself to feel the fear of Isaac,
The heartbreak of Abraham,
To cry the scream of the lamb who is slain.
My God loves us with such a love that there is no place he will not go with you,
No pain he will not bear for you,
And no hilltop where he will let you suffer alone.
This is the God we worship, the God whose name is Goodness, whose way is mercy, whose power is called Love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.