After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."He said, "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 that I shall show you."
“This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever read in the Bible,” said Becky, a brilliant 65-year-old classmate of mine in a course we took together called Education for Ministry (EFM). Our class mentor spent the rest of that evening letting us talk about the implications of this shocking drama.
Known by some as "the sacrifice of Isaac," this story is more accurately called "the binding of Isaac" (Hebrew, Akedah), since Isaac is not sacrificed in the end. But the issue is not what to call it; the issue, as Becky rightly understood, is what a story like this says about God, who would test his loyal follower, Abraham, in such a way. Elie Wiesel rightly calls it "the most fearful, intense and meaningful story in Scripture," while Walter Brueggemann labels it the theologically most demanding part of Genesis. Our EFM class agreed with both men.
Pray God, none of us will be tested as Abraham was (others speculate that Abraham may have been testing God). Of course, none of us would sacrifice our children, but the question still stands—what is a story like this doing in the Bible?
Perhaps it’s there to show in the most vivid way conceivable that the God who tests is also the God who provides. When Isaac asks his father, "Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham immediately answers, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."(22: 7b-8a). At the last minute, as Abraham raises his knife over Isaac’s bound body, God stays Abraham’s hand and a ram appears and is offered instead of the boy.
People like Becky have probing questions to ask about this story, and rightly so. Nothing about it can be dismissed lightly. I have taught or facilitated Bible studies for ten years. In class, we have time to talk through the doubts and fears raised by Genesis 22, among other texts, and the time is invaluable.
Are you part of a Bible study? If not, perhaps now is the time to begin. Whether you participate in a group at church or join an independent gathering, take it from Becky and me: there is no better way to open up to the deepest, most important questions we have than together with fellow seekers.
God, you have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Help us to honor that truth by entering wholeheartedly into the astonishing world of the Bible. Amen.
Copyright © 2010 Margaret Jones.