Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac must be one of the darkest of all Bible stories and it has left deep imprints in both Judaism and Christianity. Child sacrifice was as abhorrent to pre-Christian era Jews as it is to us. In the modern day context, it would be regarded as a safeguarding nightmare, and we would be sending in the police, social services and child protection officers to sort out the problems. And the likelihood is that Abraham would be forbidden to have any future access to his child for fear he would treat him in such a way again. On a straightforward, objective level, we feel a natural repulsion towards this event. Given the recent sorry accusations of children being put at risk, or worse, not least in religious institutions, with more revelations and charges in recent days, we are ultra-aware of the need for proper safeguarding for those who are most vulnerable.
But if we are going to begin to make any sense of the purpose of this story at all, context is everything, and Abraham and Isaac’s context was very far removed from ours. Its real significance lies in an appreciation of the history of the people of Israel, and specifically God’s covenant with them. This is a story of the salvation of a people, which began with God’s call to Abraham, and Abraham’s positive response. So this story, like others in the narratives of the patriarchs, is best read as part of the rich tapestry of the Jewish pilgrimage of faith and only then, by extension, given our common heritage, of our own Christian pilgrimage as well.
Let us look at the way it is told. Abraham asks no questions. Given the circumstances, doesn’t that strike you as odd? We come to this story with plenty of questions, not the least of which is: what sort of God is it who can make such a shocking demand? Abraham walked resolutely, without stumbling, on his way to Mount Moriah. But we walk hesitantly, tripping over the many theological scandals we encounter as we try to follow Abraham. Like: why doesn’t Abraham rail against God and ask him why this has to be? The language of the story is crisp and direct, but we cry out for escape clauses, or insertions into the text, that will explain God’s request and make the story more palatable for our delicate western constitutions.
Fortunately, the account does not give us much insight into what the characters were thinking at this point in time. Perhaps if it did we would find it even more difficult to deal with. The writer does, though, heighten the emotional aspects for us somewhat by God telling Abraham: Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…. To that extent, it is heartbreaking to read. Our natural response would be: does doing God’s will really mean giving up my own child? Is there no other way? But, while we struggle with the strangeness of an alien world in which God could ask such a thing, that is not really the central point of this account. In the end, Isaac is not sacrificed. But what we do find in this story is a great deal on the theme of obedience, and about a willingness to put God and his eternal purposes before the things and even the people that are most precious and valuable to us.
Sacrifice is word we don’t often use nowadays. It’s rather unfashionable and its more unpleasant overtones are perhaps due to the ways in which it has been understood and practised historically. Its associations with blood and gore have been enough to turn many people away from religion altogether. Certainly some of Israel’s neighbours practised child sacrifice, and later there was, of course, the common practice of animal sacrifice as well. However, like it or not, the language of sacrifice still runs through both scripture and worship, in some of the hymns we sing, for example, or at the end of the Eucharist when we pray that we may be sent out as living sacrifices to God’s glory. So, what are we to make of it?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the sacrifice is an offering to God, something which represents homage, loyalty, devotion, a demonstration of right relationship with God. And nothing is to come before that loyalty. In the New Testament, the sacrifice is more of the self, as a model of God’s sacrifice of his only Son – giving yourself to others as God gave his Son for us. Sacrifice is not quite the same as it was in Abraham’s time, even though some have suggested that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac may be a foreshadowing of the later story of Jesus. But sacrifice, thus understood, is not about keeping God sweet and on our side. Perhaps it never was.
Do you ever get exasperated by critics of religion who argue that it’s all just an easy escape from the realities of life – a cop out? Religion, seeking to work out of the will of God in our lives, far from being an easy option, makes big demands of us. Perhaps if we wanted an easier life, we would give it up altogether. But if we decide to stay with it, it seems, in the Christian understanding, at least, that we must expect it to demand from us an element of sacrifice.
From our present perspective, we are right to ask some difficult questions of this story. What type of fatherhood is Abraham modelling? What did his wife Sarah feel about it? What did this experience do to Isaac himself? But placed in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham and, through him, with the Hebrew people in general, was Abraham willing to put aside even his own son, ahead of God’s promise to him of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore, and the offer of God for the Hebrew people to be a blessing to all the world? It is about God’s bigger picture taking precedence over those things that might limit Abraham’s vision to his own domestic sphere and his own interests. That does involve sacrifice, and Abraham was sorely tested to see if he his vision was big enough.
The implication for the Christian seems clear, and it boils down to whether or not we are willing to answer God’s call to look beyond self-interest and even self-preservation. To use the scriptural imagery, are we willing to lay on the altar everything that belongs to the old life and discover what the New Testament calls ‘eternal life’? Eternal life, in these terms, consists precisely in the large-scale fulfilment of the promise to Abraham: the whole world will be blessed, set free to share the glory of God’s beloved people. Only we stand a chance of enabling it to happen, as we are called to sacrifice the ‘Kingdom of me’ for the ‘Kingdom of God’. Whoever said faith is a cop-out or any easy option….?