Most of us know today’s text from Genesis pretty well. God tests Abraham by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, now Abraham’s only son since Abraham sent Ishmael away. God asks Abraham to kill Isaac, the only son born to Sarah. God asks Abraham to murder Isaac, the child God promised Abraham’s line would be counted through.
In the story we all know, Abraham passes this test: he takes Isaac, and two slaves to set out to the appointed place. They have to travel, perhaps to give Abraham time to think about this, and so they set out and they walk for three days.
Abraham, Isaac, two slaves, and a donkey. I can’t help but wonder what it was they talked about. It seems clear Abraham didn’t tell any of them what they were going to do—he may have been unsure himself, or unable to face it. He certainly doesn’t want witnesses: while he was still far away he tells the slaves to stay behind, his parting words, according to the New Revised Standard Version are “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” His words, “we will come back to you” could be better translated as “and oh, let us both come back.” He is, at this moment, still uncertain of what will happen, still hoping he didn’t understand God’s request.
And so Abraham and Isaac continue alone, and Isaac finally starts to get suspicious, noting that they have everything they need for a sacrifice except the sacrifice and asks “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham says the Lord will provide…and proceeds to tie Isaac, place him on the wood, and raise a knife.
We know the story.
We know an angel appears to stop Abraham and says “I know that you fear God.”
We like to tell this story as if it was about trust, about faith, about Abraham’s confidence that God would not make him go through with it, or his submission to God, even if God did.
We assume Abraham passed the test.
What if he didn’t?
What if Abraham failed this test.
I don’t mean what if Abraham had followed through, and had killed Isaac, though there are scholars who think that Abraham might have killed Isaac in the oldest version of the text, but that’s…that’s for another day.
No, I mean, what if Abraham failed the test all the way back at the beginning of the passage.
Let’s back up a bit.
Let’s jump back to Genesis 18:23.
“Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’”
Abraham negotiated with God.
Abraham negotiated with God over the fate of strangers for the sake of his nephew, Lot who lived in Sodom.
Abraham stood up to God in Genesis 18, but when we get to Genesis 22, Abraham acquiesces.
What if that was the test? If Abraham could stand up to God? If Abraham could trust God enough to doubt, to question? If Abraham could recognize when God was doing something that wasn’t like God.
So much of Abraham’s story is rooted in the assurance that God keeps promises.
If God keeps promises, then Isaac can’t die like this.
If Abraham murders Isaac, that makes God a liar.
So then, why doesn’t Abraham ask God about this command to murder Isaac? Why doesn’t Abraham put the same effort into saving Isaac he did into protecting Lot?
What is it the angel said stopping Abraham?
The angel doesn’t stay Abraham’s hand and praise Abraham’s trust, or his faith, the angel says: “‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God,”
God never asked for Abraham’s fear. Look back to Genesis 15, to the story of God formalizing the covenant with Abraham. God has been speaking with Abraham, making promises to Abraham since Genesis 12, but in chapter 15, God and Abraham solemnize those promises…or really, God solemnizes those promises made to Abraham, in that moment, God makes promises: in Genesis 15:4 “One of your children will be your heir” in the next verse, “Your descendants will be as many as the stars” In verse 7, God promises the possession of the land, in verse 13 God promises that , while Abraham’s descendants will suffer in slavery, God will bring judgement on their enslavers and bring them back into the land.
Through all of these promises God makes to Abraham, God only asks Abraham to do one thing.
“Do not be afraid…I am your shield” (Gen 15:1).
Abraham has failed to understand God.
God does not want fear. God does not want child or human sacrifice.
Fear is a tool of abusers and bad leaders making promises in the name of false gods.
Human sacrifice is a tool used by those who make empty promises of prosperity, or security and when those promises come up empty, when they are called due, those leaders have nothing to show, and so must find fault somewhere else, must find fault in the people who have not yet given enough and must therefore give more.
The church is not immune to this. The German Catholic church put such a fear of hell into the people that they gladly paid money they didn’t have to the church for indulgences. Martin Luther, as a monk and professor of theology was terrified he could never do enough, never be good enough, never give enough to God and the church, until this fear forced him to a radical reassessment that launched the reformation.
Fear has it’s place and a purpose: fear lets us know when something isn’t right, when something isn’t safe. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid of ticks or spiders, of small spaces or of war, famine, drought and disease.
But when it comes to our relationship with God, remember that throughout scripture, God repeats those words to Abraham: The phrases “Do not be afraid,” “do not fear,” and “have no fear” occur 135 times in the NRSV.
God wanted to see if Abraham had been paying attention, had recognized the relationship God was trying to have, had recognized that God wanted trust and relationship, that God accepted Abraham’s feedback and pushback at Sodom and would do so again. God wanted Abraham’s trust and faith, yes, but that isn’t what Abraham gave. Abraham gave fear.
God never wanted Abraham’s fear. God doesn’t want our fear. There are plenty in our world who will try to capitalize on our fear, who will use our fear against us, who will use our fear to direct our attention. They are not God, they are not from God, and they are not pointing us to God.