By Jo Wells
If I were to preach a sweet-and-tidy sermon today on the story of Genesis 22, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it might be about what it means that God provides. Here is a seminal Old Testament story: on the one hand because it explores the nature of trust. But for others it is seminal for its horror: it’s one of those parts of the Old Testament that makes people steer clear because it seems so completely unpalatable.
I’ll never forget a Jewish teacher trained in the practice of midrash interrogating this text for two hours: investigating the echo behind every line, the depth in every word of this text — and arguing with it, with all the emotion that would seem to be lacking from the account. I was on the edge of my seat as he sweated it out.
“Abraham, take your son, your only son Isaac, the one 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.” How dare God ask this of Abraham in just the same way that he first called him in Genesis 12? Hadn’t Abraham already shown his willingness to respond then, when he left his father’s house for the sake of God’s call to become a great nation? Why did he need testing again? Doesn’t God know everything, doesn’t God know Abraham’s faith?
And was it a test, or a trick? How could there be a great nation without descendants, without Isaac? Wasn’t Isaac God’s miracle child, so that he could be the descendant who carries the line in order to fulfil God’s promise? So why on earth would God negotiate for Isaac to die if it also means God’s great plan for the destiny of the world dies with him?
And what do you mean, “take your son, your only son Isaac”? What about Ismael? Abraham had two sons — was God encouraging Abraham to shun Ishmael, the child he bore with Hagar and sent away? And how could God underline Abraham’s love for his son Isaac and in the same sentence ask that he turn him into a burnt offering — a holocaust? And what does offering mean anyway when it’s a demand, an instruction. Isn’t that manipulation?
You get the gist. That’s just the opening couple of verses. If you feel horror at this reading, you are not the first, and you’re in good company with rabbis and sages down the ages. But don’t leave it there: get to work, get wrestling. Use your anger, your confusion, your horror, to get digging. If you want to get on with God, there’s no ignoring it, nor will folding your arms in a huff do any good. This is gloves-off time for exploring what it means to trust God, and what it means that God provides. Its circumstances are excruciating.
In the summer of 2015, at the age of 35, my friend and former colleague Kate was told she had stage four colon cancer. All she could think of to say was, “But I have a son.” He was 3, and she was heartbroken to think she’d never even get to see his first day of school. She’s a brilliant writer, and I quote here from an opinion piece she wrote in The New York Times where she describes all the counsel she received from the crowd of well-meaning friends, family, and complete strangers.
She divides them into three kinds: minimizers, teachers, and solvers. The minimizers insist it’s not so bad. Kate’s sister was on a plane and told her seatmate about the diagnosis. Her neighbor explained how Kate’s cancer was vastly preferable to life during the Iranian revolution — as if they were signed up to a competitive game of calamity Olympics. Then there are the “teachers” who focus on how the experience is supposed to be an education. One even wished it would be for her a “Job experience” — as if she needed any further suffering than she already had. Finally there are the “solvers,” who are disappointed that she’s not saving herself. As Kate put it, “There’s always a nutritional supplement, a Bible verse, or a mental process I have not adequately tried.”
The minimisers, teachers, and solvers among us want to get to work on the Abraham and Isaac story. But it’s no good. The horrors of the story remain.
And so we’re forced to dig beneath the layers of horror for clues to what’s really at the heart of it. We find the story has a structure that hangs on Abraham uttering the words “Here I am” at three key moments. Those are the same words of Isaiah 6, when he hears God calling; and of Mary when she hears Gabriel speaking to her in Luke 2. They’re a sort of no-holds-barred, all-defenses-down, gloves-off response of empty-handed trust. And there’s a pattern to these three “Here I am” moments. Each has the same shape.
- At the start God calls, “Abraham.” Abraham responds, “Here I am.” God commands: “Take.”
- At the end the angel calls, “Abraham.” Abraham responds, “Here I am.” The angel relaxes the command: “Do not lay your hand.”
- In between Isaac calls, “Father.” Abraham responds in the exact same words, “Here I am.” Isaac asks, “Where is the lamb?” But this time, at the center of the story, Abraham breaks the pattern of the other two interchanges, and answers the question: “God will provide.”
“God will provide” are the central words in the story. But at the point they are uttered, they seem flatly to contradict all evidence. Is this a statement of duplicity and cowardice, a refusal to tell Isaac the truth until the very last moment? Or are they the words of the greatest faith, that, even seconds before the terrible sacrifice, Abraham still believed God would find an alternative? The story is so bald, so terse: it doesn’t tell us.
But the story sets in motion two strands in the Old Testament narrative. One is the theme of the lamb. The lamb represents God’s mercy. On the night before Israel escapes from slavery in Egypt, the blood of the lamb is smeared on the doorposts so the angel of the Lord knows to pass over the Israelites when it smites the Egyptians. The lamb of sacrifice and salvation. The other is the theme of the son. Israel is God’s son, his only son, the bearer of God’s blessing to the world from generation to generation. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God’s mercy in the form of the lamb intervenes to preserve God’s blessing in the form of the son.
And now let’s turn to the story of Jesus, which retains the same shape yet has a different outcome. Again it is set over three days. Again we have a son carrying the wood of sacrifice to a hill of execution. Again we have a son humbly proceeding in the face of horror while only partly comprehending what the father truly has in mind. But this time the lamb of mercy and the son of blessing converge into one. The words “God will provide” take on a new resonance.
Do you see how the story of Mount Calvary both repeats and develops the story of Mount Moriah? In the Mount Moriah story, God discovers something he didn’t already know: that Abraham, and therefore Israel, will, at the moment of truth, suspend all doubt, rationality, independence, and dearly held commitments, and place its destiny entirely in God’s hands. “Here I am.” When Jesus is in Gethsemane, the story is repeated: Jesus, and therefore Israel, at the moment of truth, suspends all doubt, rationality, independence, and dearly held commitments, and places its destiny entirely in God’s hands.
But that’s not the whole of what’s going on at Mount Calvary. There’s something more. Humanity discovers something it didn’t already know about God: that at the moment of truth, God’s sovereignty, dignity, majesty, and power will be suspended and God’s life will be placed entirely in human hands. “Here I am.” If Mount Moriah is where God tested humanity, Mount Calvary is where humanity tested God. And on Mount Calvary we see God’s true colors. God provided: and what did he provide? A lamb, yes, a son, yes. But in the end, God provided God.
After Mount Moriah, God knew humanity would in the end be faithful, whatever it cost. After Mount Calvary, humanity knew God would be faithful, whatever it cost. Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In Abraham and Jesus, humanity loses its life and finds it. In Jesus, the Holy Trinity loses its life for our sake and finds it.
But why is it necessary to go to such excruciating lengths to prove such things? Why is it essential to put one another to the test so drastically? What I believe happens on Mount Moriah is that God seeks to find out why Abraham has trusted and obeyed. God is saying, “Did you respond because of the promise of your descendants becoming a great nation? Did you follow because you wanted security and success and sons and celebrity? In other words, am I in the end a vehicle for you, a means to an end, a ladder you can kick away when I’ve provided the things you can’t get for yourself? Or will you be true to me even if all these things are snatched away?” By putting Isaac in jeopardy, God threatens to take away every promise made to Abraham. Abraham has to choose between life, love, longevity, lineage, land — and God. And Abraham chooses God.
In Jesus, God is asking the same question but in an even more cosmic way. “Are you following me because I offer you forgiveness for your past and freedom for your future? Are you believing because faith gives you confidence, reassurance, inspiration, companionship, wisdom and insight? Or will you be true to me even if I am hungry, naked, despised, powerless, cursed, alone?” But in Jesus the same question is turned around and directed to God. “Will you be with humanity if it is faithful, obedient, devoted, pious and adoring? Or will you be with humanity even if it denies, betrays, flees, despises, executes, derides, and tortures? Jesus is us choosing between God and his benefits, and choosing God. Jesus is also God choosing between ideal humanity and the real thing, and choosing the real thing.
In Abraham, humanity says to God, “There is nothing more important than you. Here I am. I will give up my whole world to be with you.” In Jesus, God says to humanity, “There is nothing more important than you. Here I am. I will give up everything to be with you.”
For all her scathing remarks about those who can’t see her condition truthfully, my friend Kate has found companions who recognize the horror. “Some people,” she says, “give you their heartbreak like a gift. One time my favourite nurse sat down next to me at the cancer clinic and said softly: ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you. I lost a baby.’”
Kate adds, “The way she said ‘baby,’ with the lightest touch, made me understand. She had nurtured a spark of life in her body and held that child in her arms, and somewhere along the way she had been forced to bury that piece of herself in the ground.”
The cross of Jesus isn’t something to be explained by the minimizers, the teachers, or the solvers. Like Kate’s condition, it’s all-consuming, bewildering, indescribable. But the story of Abraham and Isaac, like the nurse’s soft intervention, helps us understand. God says, “There is nothing more important than you.” I wonder if, with gloves-off open hands, we might say that too. “There is nothing more important than you. Here I am!”
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells is the Anglican Communion’s Bishop for Episcopal Ministry.
 Kate Bowler, “What To Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party?” op-ed at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/opinion/sunday/cancer-what-to-say.html
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 186-87.