OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 5 – Genesis 22:1-18

This is an appalling story on so many levels. God demands a human sacrifice. That sacrifice is to be the longed-for son born miraculously to a barren woman of 90, as a direct result of his promise of a dynasty for Abraham. The way that the story is narrated slows down as we read through, building the tension until the dramatic climax when Abraham, knife in hand, is about to kill his own son, believing that God has told him to do so. What on earth is this all about? Is it a story of a cruel and heartless God, or Abraham’s misguided faith, or what?

On one level, this story (known in Jewish scholarship as the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac) is what is known as an aetiology, that is, a story told to explain a present reality. The OT is full of them, and they are easy to spot as they usually say something like ‘That is why that pile of stones is here to this day’. You can imagine a child asking a question, with the aetiology being told as the answer. This story became associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and the child might have asked ‘Why do we cut up animals?’ The answer is that people used to cut up each other, until God stepped in and prevented that form of worship, substituting animals instead. Our culture’s animal rights agenda notwithstanding, the story immediately becomes something of an improvement. But I think there is something deeper going on, and we will have to look elsewhere for the key which unlocks it. But first, as always, a bit of context.

22:1 begins ‘Some time later’ or, in the Hebrew ‘After these things’. After what things? For many chapters God has been at work on Abraham. He begins by changing his name, and then through a series of encounters he tests Abraham’s relationship with him. He makes the promise of a naturally born son and heir, and Abraham’s reaction is incredulous laughter. He invites Abraham to intercede for the doomed cities, and he allows Abraham to lie about his wife to king Abimelek, rescuing Sarah just in time. Abraham’s faith in God is, to say the very least, a bit shaky. But by the time God steps in and rescues Isaac from the knife, he knows now that Abraham ‘fears’ him – the first time this word has been used about Abraham and God, although we have seen Abraham fearing death at the hand of local rulers because of his beautiful wife (Chs 12 and 20), and we have seen him afraid that God’s promise of a son could not be fulfilled without his and Hagar’s help. Abraham is not so much being invited to kill off his son, but rather his lack of trust in God.

But there is something else going on here, and the key is to be found in Gen 18:17. God sends three angels (?) to Abraham to warn his about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his relative Lot was living. But God asks himself the poignant question ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ The immediate meaning of this is the destruction of the evil cities, but many centuries in the future God was going to do something else: he was going to offer his one and only son, whom he loved dearly, as a sacrifice. All those years earlier God wanted to share with his friend what was on his heart: that’s what friends do, and that may be why James was later to describe Abraham as God’s friend (2:23). Abraham gained a unique insight into God’s eternal purposes as his friend shared his heart with him.

When I was working as a diocesan discipleship officer there was, as you might imagine, much debate over what discipleship really means, how we might define it and whether or not it might in any way be measured. Surely there is no greater relationship with God than one of profound friendship, in which we gradually, and often painfully, get to understand his heart as he understands ours. Yes, Christian growth is to some extent about becoming more like Jesus, breaking the grip of addictive sins on us (whatever our particular poison might be), knowing our Bibles better and all that, but Abraham would tell us that the bottom line is how well we know God and understand his heart. This is still a very difficult story, but to read it as an insight into God’s heart and emotions can at least help us to find a way into it.

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