Abraham’s Faith – the Binding of Isaac
Often when God speaks in the Bible it is to set a test. God speaks to Abraham, but what is the test which God sets? God said:
“Abraham, Abraham!” . . . “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.”
God does set out to test Abraham. The ancient rabbis turned this encounter into a conversation. They add Abraham’s responses to God’s increasingly exasperated instructions:
“Take your son” says God
“Which son?” says Abraham, “I have two.”
“Your only son.” says God
“Both sons are the only sons of their mothers.” evades Abraham
“Whom you love” says God
“I love them both” replies Abraham sincerely
The test hinges on the sacrifice of Isaac, that is plain enough. What is not actually clear is how the test will be passed. The answer which is usually given is that Abraham’s unswerving and unquestioning obedience to God’s command was the right answer. Yet Abraham has not always between at all reluctant to challenge God’s decree. If anything, up to now, Abraham’s relationship with God has tended to be one in which Abraham argues back, one in which he pleads a case. At Sodom and Gomorrah he argued against God’s destruction of those notorious cities. Cities who had committed terrible crimes even against Abraham himself and against his family. He spoke up for people who we know were irredeemably violent. Yet Abraham argued against God slaying everyone, the innocent with the guilty. The question that arises at this point Abraham’s life, with God demanding the death of Isaac: should he speak up for his own innocent son? Abraham’s lack of resistance at this point is almost surprising.
But Abraham has other “form.” He has also proved himself willing to give up his family when his own safety appeared to depend upon it. He handed his first wife, Sarah, over to other men, not once but twice! He cut himself off from his second wife, Hagar, and cast her and her/his son, Ishmael off, sending them into the desert without apparent hope for survival. So what was God testing? What did God want to hear in reply?
“Take me God, I am old. I am the past, the future is my son not me”
“Far be it from you, O Lord, to treat the innocent as if they were guilty”
Or given Abraham’s previous performance was God seeking to find out just how far Abraham would go. Would he sacrifice even his own future and the promises that had been made concerning Isaac?
Calling is critical to the life of faith. We make that explicit in the way in which we test preachers and ministers. There has to be some sense of calling, that it is God who has asked and we have responded. But it is implicit in all of our lives of faith and our relationship with God. Discipleship consists in a sense of trying to do what God calls us to do. There is a sense in which we are all being tested. But how can we know the call is genuine? And how can we know our response is the right one? There is no check which is reliable:
Our willingness to respond and to do? Couldn’t that be just self-indulgence rather than calling?
Our unwillingness, the difficulty we find, to respond and to do? Isn’t that just contrariness and even masochism?
The experience of God may be clear, though perhaps seldom as clear and direct as it was for Abraham. The experience may be clear but what is almost never clear is how we should respond. The personal experience of God is, obviously, subjective. The problem is, how do we know when it is genuine, and even where it is, what should we do? What manner of response should our trust in God and our obedience take?
What is the faith which Abraham possesses? Abraham, of course, is taken to be the exemplary man of faith. He is the father of faith and of the faithful: for Jews, Christians and for Muslims. St. Paul in particular takes Abraham’s faith, far more than his obedience, to be the decisively important feature of his life story. But what does that faith consist of?
Abraham decides to respond. So he loads his donkey up early in the morning. But right away that seems suspect. The ancient rabbis smelled something fishy. They again observe in their commentary on the story: A man of great wealth, loading his own donkey?! And so early in the morning? Such a lack of dignity! There is clearly something not right here. There is some suggestion that even Abraham grasped that those around him wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t agree with what he felt called to do. Was he trying to avoid the fury of his wife Sarah:
“You heard what?”
“You are going where?”
“To do what?”
Isaac is as much a fulfilment of a promise to Sarah as he is to Abraham. Her future is Isaac as well. She surely would have something to say about this. And as Abraham approached the place that God had indicated to him, with his donkey, with his son and with two servants, he leaves the two servants behind. Again suggesting that Abraham doubts that others will see things as he does. He removes potential resistance and eventual witnesses to what he believes he is about to do. He reassures the servants with what from his perspective is surely an untruth:
“We will come back to you.”
But as they approach the place itself, chosen for the sacrifice, Isaac poses an entirely natural and innocent question:
“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice.”
It is Abraham’s answer to that question that is seen as the measure of his faith:
“God will provide”
Or literally: ‘God will see’. What did Abraham’s faith consist of? The answer usually given is: his complete trust in God even when God’s words seem contradictory. Usually Abraham’s faith is portrayed as an unshakeable belief in God’s goodness and in God’s fidelity to his promises even when God’s purposes and actions seem obscure. There is certainly some merit in that. God certain will always remain largely a mystery to us. His ways are not our ways. Faith consists of trusting in the goodness of God.
But is God really that obtuse and confusing. True, each time he has tried to sacrifice a member of his family Abraham has been met with the intervention of God. So twice Sarah was returned to him unharmed. And the lives of Hagar and Ishmael were protected after Abraham has cast them out. So does Abraham’s faith consist of him simply banking on his chosen status? Does Abraham simply rely on the thought that since God has chosen him, God will always intervene on his behalf? This is exactly something which Jesus much later warns Abraham’s descendants against doing! Or does God act to set things right each time Abraham goes wrong. God each time intervenes to increase Abraham’s family, through whom the world will be blessed, each time that Abraham has tried to decrease it? God again and again steps in the renew the call and the promise which he has given. Maybe the faith that is present in Abraham’s story is as much God’s keeping faith with Abraham as it is anything that Abraham himself has.
One of the things that it is almost impossible to know is whatever God accomplishes around us is because of what we do, or in spite of what we do? God does things and sometimes we are fortunate enough to find ourselves caught up in them. It might be easy to presume that we had a decisive instrumental role in what God did. But we can never be quite certain that it wasn’t God acting to go around us that was what actually happened! The truth perhaps is that God keeps faith with our stumbling and sometimes confused and even faulty steps in faith and obedience. We must always remember that God sent Christ into the world not reward those who were successful but to call and rescue those who are lost, defeated and even rebellious
But in the end, what is the outcome of the test which Abraham has been set? At the end of the story it is not altogether clear whether or not that test has in fact been passed! Abraham and Isaac come to the place. In the spiritual geography of the rabbis they identify this as the self same mountain upon which Solomon would later build the Temple. Isaac, the rabbis note, was not at this stage the curly haired child that some of us might remember from pictures in Sunday School books. They reckoned that Isaac was now a fully grown man. He was more capable of carrying firewood than the very old man who was his father. And he was certainly more than an old man could have tied up unless Isaac himself were a volunteer. Hidden inside the story of Abraham’s faith is Isaac’s faith in his father and in his father’s God. The sacrifice is prepared, the knife is raised in Abraham’s hand, ready for a swift and decisive stroke. Neither he nor Isaac may hesitate or struggle. When:
The Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham!”
“Stop!” Has Abraham passed the test? The usual answer is, yes, of course he did. He has shown his unfaltering confidence in the goodness of God. His willingness was sufficient to pass the test without having to carry through with the deed. So, is it the case that Abraham had believed all along that God would bail him out in the end? This is what God had done before. In which case, how much of a test was it? Or, did God step in to save Abraham from the disastrous consequences of what he thought God was calling him to do? And for whose benefit was the test in any case? Surely God already knows the content of Abraham’s heart as he knows the content of every heart. God doesn’t need a test to find that out. Perhaps God wanted Abraham to find out something about himself. At the end of the story God’s response is impossible to decipher:
Now I know that you fear God.
And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.
It turns out that Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question “God will provide” was accurate. The ram substitutes for Isaac in the sacrifice. Christians have always seen the connection between the ram caught in the thicket and the one whom we call the Lamb of God. The Cross is critical for our understanding of how God acts. The ram substitutes for Isaac, whose death would have been the destruction of Abraham’s future, but also more importantly the end of God’s promise of blessing for the whole world. At the cross God himself steps into our willingness to destroy our future, our hopes and our blessing. God stands in our place to prevent us from destroying ourselves. The story, Abraham’s story, our story, is not about us. The story is never just about us. The story is about God. Not what humans do but decisively about what God did, and does and will do. We don’t actually know whether Abraham passed the test. What we do know is that God chooses to bless him anyway. God has faith in Abraham and in humanity. God has provided. In Christ, his death and his resurrection, he keeps faith with his children. And gives them the means to pass beyond their many shortcomings
Abraham’s Faith – the Binding of Isaac by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0